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.
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.
Speaking of making players care about things, do you feel there's an
ability to make players feel entitled to better games and experiences?
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
Valve's Half-Life 2
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
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.