Veteran developer Ron Gilbert was the driving force behind perennial favorites Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, and other titles using the versatile SCUMM engine.
Currently shopping around a new project, Ron took some time to speak with Gamasutra on the ins and outs of storytelling, the struggle of small developers, and the state of the game industry today.
Gamasutra: so you're the driving force behind the SCUMM engine, Humongous Entertainment, Cavedog... are you rich yet?
Ron Gilbert: No, definitely not yet.
GS: Is it true that you've been working out of DoubleFine?
RG: I was working at Tim's office... I guess it was last summer, but not anymore.
GS: So you're working independently now?
RG: Yeah, I do work out my house.
GS: So, I've been talking to a lot of people about interactive storytelling lately. As a veteran of interactive storytelling, how do you feel the current industry is embracing or defying the concept of telling a story in a game?
RG: I think generally they're not doing a very good job of it. I think that story in games is really way down on the list of people's priorities. It seems like most games that claim to have story really have scenarios. It's the scenario of, you know “aliens try to take over the world and you have to shoot everybody to win.” That's not a story, that's a scenario. Most games are just scenarios. They have opening cut scenes which kind of set everything up and maybe there's some kind of intermittent cut scenes that happen in the middle, but real interactive storytelling is more about the flow. It's the flow of the game around the story or the story flowing around the game. There's such a rigid structure right now in gaming, and I don't think anybody is really exploring what that can mean. It's a little bit disappointing to me.
GS: Is there anyone in particular that you would single out as doing the right things?
RG: Honestly, I have not played anything in a long time that I thought was doing a particularly good job at telling a story.
GS: From the development side, how would you say crafting a story for a game is different than writing a traditional story? Is this disparity possibly one of the reasons why games are getting it wrong?
RG: You can go about it in a couple ways, and this leads to a lot of argument between developers. Some of them are on one side and some are on the other. I'm a very firm believer that a story is something that is told by an author and other people think that story has to be something that… these organic things that are created by the player. You know, “you can play Grand Theft Auto and you're making your own story.” And I don't necessarily agree with that. I think, you certainly can play Grand Theft Auto and come away from it with a story. But I think most of the time people play games they come away with a really bad, boring story.
You know, a good analogy is something like watching a baseball game. There are baseball games that are just amazing stories, you know, a duel between the pitcher and the batters and the way that the game ebbs and flows and you walk away from watching that baseball game, and you're going “wow, that was a great baseball game. The story worked and it had all the drama, everything was great.” But the fact is, 92% of all baseball games are pretty boring. And I think a lot of this kind of sandbox-style gameplay like Grand Theft Auto and others... I think that's what they're like, they're like baseball games. Yes, you do come away with this incredible story occasionally, but most of the time it's just boring, and I'm more of the belief that the correct way is to really sit down and tell a story.
It doesn't mean that the player can't modify the story and interact with the story or kind of push the story around, but you know, a story is a story. The reason stories are so important to us is that they are a description of the human condition, and it's important for us to have it put together by a person. When I go to a great movie, one of the reasons I'm going to pay money to see a great movie is because it has a great storyteller behind it, telling me his story. They know how to pace their story and they know all these great things about it and I'm going to have a good time.
And if I'm playing a game that is built around a story, (and it's not like games have to have story by any means,) but if I'm playing a game that is about the story, I have to know that story was crafted by somebody. I want to know that story means something. And I think one of the problems that a lot of developers get into is that… I think people don't have a really good understanding of how to pace an interactive story. So you get into these situations where you've got a series of events that make up the story, but they're not paced very well. Things don't flow correctly through them, and you see these weird kinds of jerky starts and stops in the drama. I think that's what can makes interactive storytelling really not appeal to a lot of people. If you kind of unravel it all, it's just bad storytelling.
GS: Is that something you think could be handled by developer? Or is it a trend in the gaming audience, that they're just not willing to accept this kind of game?
RG: No, I think this is definitely a developer issue. I think the developers are just not doing a good job at it. I think if they did a good job at it I think you'd find a lot more popularity in story games. But you look at story games and now they're just not very good, they're not paced very well and frankly, they're not that interesting of a story. So of course people are not interested in story games.
GS: Do you think there is validity to the statement that perhaps audiences want something that an interactive story can't deliver? Things like action, or fast-paced, frenetic gameplay?
RG: I think there are certain types of games that certain people play for certain reasons. There are definitely times when I sit down in the game and I just want to blow stuff up. I don't really care about the story. Give me a good pretext, give me a big gun and let me blow things up, that's what I'm interested in. There are other times when I'm way more interested in the story, and I think that's one of the times… I think you could do a really good story game, you know, have a really good adventure type game. I think you could appeal to a much broader audience. I think there are a lot of people out there who are just not willing to play games that involve a lot of twitching and a lot of action. But if there was more of a slower-paced game like an adventure game, or a kind of light role-playing game, I think these people would be a lot more interested and I think one of the things that would really attract these people who are not hardcore gamers are really engaging stories. I think that's what adventure games had, and I think that's what they did to attract a different audience, a different type of person, then you're getting playing games today.
GS: When you personally create a character or a storyline, what kind of elements do you take into account? What would you say is the number one thing you need to have in creating an engaging story?
RG: All stories have to have conflict. Without conflict, there's no drama. And the conflict doesn't necessarily have to be violent conflict. When you're building a really good story, I think what you're looking for is “what's the conflict here?” And hopefully you're not just dropping in some stereotype of some “evil wizard taking over the land.” But you can have the conflict be just a little more intricate or a little more sophisticated, and the question with the lead characters is “what is their role in that conflict?” The character should be different at the end of the story than they were at the beginning of the story. And that transformation should matter somehow to the conflict that's going on and so the things I think about are: “what is the conflict, who is this character and what is the transformation they're going to go through throughout the course of the story?”
GS: When you take into account the early success back in the day of adventure games, do you think that could be recaptured in today's industry? Do you feel that the industry is ready to accept an adventure game with a character-driven story if someone could produce a good one?
RG: I think it could, but, you know, it's not going to be successful on the Xbox 360. I think there could be a very good market for adventure games on the PC, or maybe handheld machines like the Nintendo DS or the PSP. Certainly on the PC. I think you've got to figure out how you're selling them to people. I don't think you can necessarily put them on the shelves at CompUSA or EB. I think there's probably a pretty good market for that stuff through online distribution. And then those are the areas where you might be able to capture an audience with a storytelling style. I think if you can build the games for a reasonable amount of money, yes, I think there's a good market there.
GS: In that vein, do you personally have any new projects you're working on? You mentioned in some other interviews that you had a new project in the works.
RG: I do have a kind of very story-heavy, story-based kind of RPG game that I'm currently designing, but I'm still looking for a publisher willing to publish it. So I continue to work on it until I find somebody, but there's a lot of what you talk about here, you know, very heavily story-based, a lot of sensibilities of adventure games mixed with some of the action fun RPG elements.
GS: What are some of the hardships you face as someone with an idea shopping around a story? The things that you imagine would be faced by independent developers or anyone who wants to get their word out.
RG: It's actually kind of frightening, you know. You sit down with a publisher and the minute you mention anything like an adventure game or something story-based or adventure-game-like in any way, the meeting's basically over. So the publishers do have a huge resistance to this. And I think a lot of it is that they cannot point to anything like this that is successful in the market today. So it's very difficult for them to put anything behind it. It's a very difficult process.