Gamasutra: To your point about player insertion as compared to reality, I was talking to Mark Jacobs of EA Mythic a while ago and he was saying that sci-fi rpgs are harder to make meaningful for larger groups of people. In fantasy RPGs, people can say “hey that's a wolf or a dragon” and there's no real confusion, but people's idea of an alien is so amorphous and different. But you've managed to create things in more sci-fi arenas that people can find compelling. How does one make that work for people?
WS: Well, I've got a rule that drives the teams crazy. Everything in the games that we do, whether we're working in a real world or science fiction universe, everything in the game has to be justified. You have to show me the book, website or scientific journal or something where somebody believes this or you have to convince me that it's something people in the mainstream of culture already have internalized and believe. I have very little interest in trying to convince people to care about things. I want to plug into things that people already care about.
Right now, if I had what my wife calls “a hair on my ass,” I would probably be making a game about spirituality and the afterlife. I just see this resurgence of, not specific denominations, but of spiritual and religious things. That's something people already care about and have ideas and beliefs about. You can reinforce those beliefs or challenge those beliefs. You name it. Deus Ex was driven, in part, by the statement of “what happens when you drop James Bond into a world that's shades of gray?” James Bond is a character who knows what's right and wrong. What happens when you drop that character in a world in which it's not clear what's right and wrong? That's one of the lynchpins, and I think that's an issue that people should be thinking about more because so many people think they know what's right and wrong now. So, that's something I thought people would already find interesting. Beyond that, on the more specific level, I looked around before the millennium, and people were thinking the millennium was going to be the end of the world. There were so many conspiracy theories coming in at that point. I thought “lets play with that, challenge their beliefs or reinforce them.” I also saw the coming surge of interest in nano-technology. You put that “we know what's right and wrong,” with every conspiracy theory you ever thought of to be true with a backdrop of artificial intelligence and nano-technology, and you have 4 or 5 things that people already care about. I think in every game you need that grounding. If you think about science fiction like “look at all the aliens you get to kill” or “look at the bizarre world you get to explore.” Who cares about that? Stories have to be about things that people care about. Finding a way to ground your science fiction, your world and your aliens in things people are already interested in is the key.
Again, I can't talk too much about the game we're doing now, but it's bringing a mythical, fantastic thing into the real world so our challenge is finding a way to make people believe that this mythical, fantastic thing could exist in the real world and what would happen if that mythical, fantastic thing started interacting with real world stuff. That's the interesting place to be for me. It works in science fiction, fantasy or real world. The problem is that we seem to get stuck in “oh look, you can mug an old lady” and “look at the blood spatters.” So it doesn't matter who your character is and doesn't make for an interesting story.
Gamasutra: Speaking of making players care about things, do you feel there's an ability to make players feel entitled to better games and experiences?
WS: There are two questions in there. The straight answer is... maybe. The reality is that it's not our job as publishers, developers and business people to educate our consumers. Some of us can try to challenge our consumers’ expectations and hope we sell enough copies so that people want to fund our next game. That's kind of the approach I've taken. I've never done a game that sold as well as Half-Life 2 or The Sims. I have a big enough ego to think that I could, but I'm after something different. So, there are some of us that can do it from the inside, but what really needs to happen is that the universities, the writers, and the critics have to pick up that ball and say “look, games can be more than they are now. Here's how games work. Here's how games can be more, better, or different now.” I think 10, 15, or 20 years from now you'll see people graduating from game development, analysis and study programs all around the world with an understanding of what games can be and they'll start demanding things from the industry that it had better provide.
A related question that you didn't quite ask but I find really fascinating is “can we make players feel anything?” Movies, books and even radio drama to some extent are mature enough media that they have very sophisticated tools for creating empathy and emotion. They can create feelings of fear and tension. We're such an immature media that we don't have those tools. We're still making stuff up. That's why the games that currently elicit the most emotions are the roller coaster rides, because every player does exactly the same thing at exactly the same time to exactly the same effect that the developers know exactly what's going on at every second. They can use those same linear methods, even if you get to choose what weapons you use or how you get there, which games that put the player in charge don't. One of the frustrations to me as a developer and one of the challenges we have to step up to at Junction Point is “what tools do we have that are unique to gaming that will allow us to create emotional experiences that are as compelling as the roller coaster rides?” That's a real tough challenge.
Gamasutra: My personal opinion is that it's the journalist that has to educate people about why you should care about games.
WS: You're a big part of the equation, no doubt.
Gamasutra: The difficulty there is the disconnect between the game journalists, if there is such a thing, and those who need to be contacted. To the other point, I really like this one thing that Cliffy B. said once when I interviewed him, which was “never underestimate the ability of the player to undermine the narrative you're trying to tell.”
WS: (laughs) Go Cliffy!
Gamasutra: It's totally true, even me who really cares about these games, I played Silent Hill 2, a rather psychologically complex game, and it starts you off in a bathroom and the first thing I did was make him squat at the toilet because it's funny, but it kicks you out of the tension.
WS: It’s true.
Gamasutra: I want to ask one last question as an aside, but why do you often insert yourself into games? David Cage also does this in a more direct way when he shows up at the beginning of a game and says “hi, this is my game.” Why do you enjoy doing that?
WS: You know, I don't, and I've never done it consciously. It's the teams who do it.
Gamasutra: It's the teams?
WS: I really end up in games all the time and I have no idea why. I can't say “no, don't put me in the game” because it's fun and funny, but the weirder thing to me is something I didn't notice until someone pointed this out to me a couple of years ago. They were absolutely right, and now it's a conscious thing to me. There's a basketball court in almost every game I've done. I love basketball, so maybe that's something I've been doing subconsciously. There's also an altered state of consciousness in every game I've worked. You can eat the mushrooms, go to sleep and dream, go into cyberspace or something. There's an altered state in every game. If you go back and look at the thematic content of the games that I've worked on, they almost all boil down to a dysfunctional family, and that really disturbed me. An academic pointed that out to me and they're kind of right. So I've started thinking about that now and it's something that I don't fight. Everybody has stories they like to tell and mine revolve around basketball, altered states of consciousness and family conflict. I don't know why it is, but it's kind of cool.
Gamasutra: Game development as self-psychology?
WS: There you go, it's not only players that get to exhibit behavior that you don't want them to in the real world, the developers do too.