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Exclusive: Will Wright - Video Games Close To 'Cambrian Explosion' Of Possibilities
Exclusive: Will Wright - Video Games Close To 'Cambrian Explosion' Of Possibilities Exclusive
June 9, 2008 | By James Huck, Chris Remo

June 9, 2008 | By James Huck, Chris Remo
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

"Spore is anticipated as much as James Joyce's Ulysses was in the 1900's."

With that introduction, quoting The New Yorker, Gerry Sinclair of Vancouver's Emily Carr University of Art and Design introduced Maxis founder and The Sims creator Will Wright before the designer's recent address at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The talk was part of the gallery's exhibition "Krazy! The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art" - for which Wright serves as a co-curator alongside comics luminaries such as Art Spiegelman and Seth.

That Old Question

When Wright took the podium, he spoke on his involvement with Krazy! and the Vancouver Art Gallery, and noted that, surprisingly, it was the first time he had seen video games presented in an art show alongside other more established art mediums.

That observation inevitably led to the question that, as Wright pointed out, has been considered at least once by all gamers, designers, critics, and fans: "Are video games an art form?"

Apparently, one unnamed fellow co-curator had his mind made up on that matter. Recalled Wright, "When comic book people are looking down on you as cultural refuse, you know you're at the bottom of the barrel."

For his part, Wright is more optimistic. "I do believe that games can be a form of artistic expression," he said, "a co-collaboration between player and designer. We have yet to prove we can do meaningful things with this form of expression, but I believe we are at the cusp of a Cambrian explosion of possibilities [referencing the geological era in which complex life flourished]. We are a couple years away from being respected as a form of expression, but it's not a battle we need to fight. We'll win anyway."

Humble Beginnings

As Wright pointed out, gaming is a new medium relative to comics, but both came from humble beginnings. A medium's newness tends to impart upon it derision -- those engaged in the medium are seen not as artists in their own right, but rather as "drug dealers" peddling toxic forms of corrupting entertainment.

The designer described a scene of a person totally and completely engaged by a new form of media, so completely drawn in that the witness expressed concern for the man's sanity and self-control. Though reminiscent of any number of mainstream press articles on video games, Wright's anecdote in fact describes the reaction of a man who saw a monk reading a book in a monastery a millennium ago.

The Spore creator then spoke about the humble beginnings of numerous forms of expression and communication, whose eventual potential far outweighed their original intent. For example, Alexander Graham Bell excitedly speculated that every town in the United States might one day have a phone. Early television enthusiasts spoke about the possibility of having three channels to choose from. Writing was pioneered for the quotidian purpose of keeping inventory records.

All mediums begin with "relatively specific, functional purposes", explained Wright, but through consumption of output comes deeper understanding of production, and a medium evolves away from its functional beginnings to a more abstracted role - with "myriad applications of communication and expression."

The Abstraction Of Gaming

Wright discussed gaming as a new innovation on the longstanding and essential tools of story and play, tools that we use to explore our "possibility space, build models of experiences, and collect reference knowledge called 'schema' that better enable us to successfully navigate through our reality." Wright often touches on schema during discussions of game design.

Returning to the idea of emerging media forms, he made reference to early ideas about television, that it would "completely revolutionize education."

"Art forms started to solve specific, very narrow problems, but they slowly evolved into entertainment forms and then spiraled upwards as artistic expression," he said. "My industry -- my art form -- is in the early stages of this process." Video games are clearly entertainment, he said, and on the verge of breaking the barrier into artistic expression.

"As a game designer, our senses allow us to build models," he said. "With our imagination we run little simulations," allowing players to gain experiences without the associated risk those actions would carry in real life -- play and storytelling enable our imaginations to build experiences relevant to coping with our realities.

"Evolution has allowed us to form more elaborate requirements for our imaginations," he continued. "Social structures did a large part to spark the development of our imaginations, to build a model of our realities."

"We are amazingly good at finding patterns," noted the designer, defining schema as "expectations built upon the pattern and casualnes of repeated experiences," or "toy experiences."

"Toy worlds -- games -- are a model, an abstraction of reality," Wright went on. "The way something is presented can elicit a human response different from what they usually would." For example, he noted, the television show Gilligan's Island represents the seven deadly sins.

Film Envy

"Game designers suffer from film envy," postulated Wright, "and many of them want to be film directors." (More than a few prominent designers have explicitly indicated as such.)

The designer pointed out that the film director knows the future, and can show a relevant causal chain. Games do not tell linear stories in the same way films can, because of the player's involvement.

"Groundhog Day is one of the most game-like movies I've seen," he said. "It features a glimpse of infinity, and the ability to restart reality." Drawing a contrast to games, he pointed to an example of how schema can be manipulated in movies: "For example, all the gunfire in the new Indiana Jones movie, but no one was hit."

Expectations of schema can have surprising implications; Wright recounted the thought process of a Pentagon strategist attempting to track Osama bin Laden. The team assumed the terrorist leader was hunkered down in a secret cave complex, "because he was a supervillain," and the schema surrounding the image of a supervillain demanded that he be living in a massive lair.

"The Best Stories Are Player Stories"

Moving more explicitly to game design topics, Wright noted how linear game design evolved to branching systems, which were essentially gated and still limited player possibilities.

"The trend [now] is to go into open-ended worlds, gameplay landscapes," he said. "Possibility is a metric that we can now measure." He emphasized the importance of possibility spaces in open world or sandbox designs, discussing the ability to now measure and quantify the generative aspect of such designs.

"Games have a language that we learn through playing. We develop a literacy that for many remains subconscious," he said. "In game design we conceive of rules we can develop that emerge into the widest variety of experience." This is in contrast to other forms of media in which we create rules for the opposite reason, to limit and force an outcome.

"Players tell stories," Wright summarized. "We, designers, provide a platform for player expression." As examples of player expression layered over game platforms, he mentioned machinima such as "My Trip to Liberty City" and players using The Sims' album feature to create their own narratives.

Alluding to the conflict between player experiences and designer-scripted experience, he described his own reactions in Grand Theft Auto IV to killing civilians. "I do feel a bit of remorse if it's my choice," he said, "but if it's to progress the story, then 'God told me to do it.'"

He raised the importance on the part of the designer of compelling the player to explore the depths of broad experiences like The Sims or GTA4, saying such games need "clear alternate goal structures that motivate the player to achieve in a variety of ways. Make players aware of the possibility space."

Gaming's perceived emotional weaknesses relative to film are "misguided", he said. Games do not have an inferior emotional palate, but "rather a different one" - feelings such as pride, guilt, and accomplishment, which are commonly felt when playing games, are not felt in the viewers of films whose characters might experience those feelings.

"The best experiences are generative experiences," argued Wright, concluding his well-received lecture at Krazy! "The best stories are player stories."

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Chris Crowell
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It's always great to hear Will's thoughts, it embiggens my ideas about games.

And additional thought that I dare to append is for those who feel that designer authorship is essential to the player experience. I think that you can use Will's point about player stories to, at the very least, ensure that players will feel that when they have played through YOUR story, they recall it as being THEIR story. For myself, I tend to stop playing a game where I am simply unscrolling someone elses story with no chance to put my own twists on it, but I recognize that this is not a universal opinion.

Stephen Dinehart
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The "Krazy" exhibit has been wonderful. Having the show in conjunction with VIDfest and VIGS has proven really valuable. I would argue that the exhibit design for the game "art" was poor. TV screens grouped on the floor playing looped non-interactive video segments isn't exactly a great way to showcase an interactive art form. I'd rather see games be exhibited in an interactive format, like an installation piece. Put a non-interactive Mario on a TV screen next to a projected clip from Akira, and quickly one can realize they don't stand up quite the same. Interaction is key to our form.

On another note, it's great to see Mr. Wright swing clear of evangelizing "Spore", despite being continually hounded on the subject. I imagine it's old news for him too. After years of hype, we still haven't seen a game, it's caught up somewhere in EA/Maxis land. Sure we saw Robin Williams toy with a Spore build, at a rather nice E3 event, but it still wasn't a finished product. With all due respect, the critics can decide if it is another "Holy Will Grail" when it's released, until then Will's idea's from the interactive frontiers will do this spectator just fine.

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"feelings such as pride, guilt, and accomplishment,"

Well, lets hope they don't just stop there. Good article.

William Armstrong
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In terms of evoking emotion, games actually have a tremendous advantage over other forms of expression, based entirely on the unique nature of the gaming medium itself and the expectations that are already established by the audience.

Moviegoers expect, on average, about 90-120 minutes of entertainment; any more and the film is considered too long or drawn out. Kill Bill, for example, was divided into two parts because the total viewing time (247 mins., or just over 4 hours) of the whole was considered too long for audiences to sit through. Anything more than two hours is considered a risk.

Game content, on the other hand, is measured in days, not hours, with some of the larger RPGs boasting 75-90 hours of playtime. Game reviews, in sharp contrast to film reviews, often criticize games that aren't long enough. Thus, in terms of storyline and character development, games have a significant advantage in the amount of time that the audience is willing to invest, and thus, be exposed to the game world. This gives the player more time to bond with the characters and setting, to say nothing of the fact that the player themselves are personally resolving the conflicts and forming bonds with the characters, rather than watching the antagonist on screen.

Stephen Chin
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William Armstrong: A thought to feed on - while games do have the opportunity for longer development, that does not always mean that long games take advantage of that. Max Payne (and Portal) did better to develop characters and a story in a shorter time than many much longer games. Perhaps the issue is not a matter of time, but of how the story is presented. Due to the way games have developed, most are written in the same way TV shows are written - dialogue and action is short, snappy, and carries very little in way of mundaneness. Films, on the other hand, with their length, offer the chance to add in that 'normal' dialogue. Though some games recently have started to add in this 'during commercial break' talk to games, very few have actually done it. Even most of those that do make use of this non-critical dialogue or action, rarely use it with any real weight. For all the technical prowess of the Battlefield Bad Company demo, what struck me the most is the fact that someone thought to make the non-player non-leader character do something during cutscenes - in this case, they're playing Rock-Paper-Scissors. I was more engrossed in watching them than I was in listening to the actual dialogue - perhaps because that dialogue was throw away and so short, it may as well just skipped it and given me an object screen and because it added to the sort of tone they were trying to make for those two characters. Similarly, was there any reason for me, a non-officer, to hear the radio chatter between the officer and HQ? No, not really - but it was given that way to again, be short, snappy, and very TV like.

As well, games also have a disadvantage to them with their length. They can be dropped at any moment and picked up any amount of time later with little control over when this happens (barring save limitations). This can make it harder to generate tension or drama if the player forgets between sessions or if they stop before the Big Scare... and come back without the benefit of the build up before hand.

As for player stories (to address Stone), I think the idea that player stories are better is a poor statement, true. But I think that because when people talk about player stories, they don't mean epic dramas, weepying romance, and explosive actions. When they talk about stories, they don't mean any of that really - they instead mean the smaller, bit sized experiences. The moment to moment snapshots that players later tell to their friends ALONG SIDE the story of the game itself. Better? No. Different? Absolutely.

William Armstrong
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Stephen Chin: An excellent point, especially in reference to Portal (one of my personal favorites); with a cast of two (one of whom is barely tangible for 90% of the game), it managed to entertain and engross despite having a play time of only a few hours.

Another example would be Ico; there's no spoken communication between the main characters (they speak different languages), and yet they have a very emotional relationship. Most of this is conveyed by the beautifully rendered animation, an often under-looked element that can have surprising impact.

I agree that length does not always equate character development, but the opportunity still exists given the right degree of storytelling. A moviegoer as two hours to get attached to a character, while gamers have much more time to learn the nuances and personality (again, if such nuances and personality are implemented). I liken it to soldiers forming brotherhood on the field of combat; the conflict and triumphs are personal, and shared. Rather than watching an actor and his sidekicks win on screen, you and your non-player companions are in the trenches. Seeing "Soldier 12" get killed off in a war film doesn't have the impact of watching a character you've had in your party from the start of the game die at the hands of the villain. That sort of emotional bond CAN occur in a film, or in a short period of time, but with the added length a game offers, the potential to improve those kind of emotional attachments has more room to stretch and grow.

Ashley Blacquiere
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Just a note: Dr. Gerri Sinclair is the Executive Director of the Masters of Digital Media program ( at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver, BC - not the 'Emily Carr University of Art and Design'.