[The chief creative officer of independent triple-A developer Ninja Theory (Enslaved, DmC) discusses how he believes storytelling is an integral part of the medium and how it should evolve, and what changes in the market bring to the games business.]
There's a lot of discussion about whether or not storytelling is a valid part of the medium. But accept, for a moment, that it's a big part of triple-A games. How should it evolve?
Having tackled cinematic projects like Heavenly Sword, Enslaved -- with 28 Days Later writer Alex Garland -- and now the Devil May Cry reboot DmC for Capcom, Tameem Antoniades is in a position to know. As chief creative officer at UK-based game developer Ninja Theory, he has been working to evolve his cinematic skills -- to understand how a story can fuse with gameplay to create a holistic experience.
In this extensive interview, Antoniades discusses this from both a philosophical and practical perspective, diving into process as well as headier questions. And he also discusses what it means to be an independent studio making triple-A games, why Enslaved may not have sold as well as it could have, and how digital distribution will break open the creativity of all games, from small to giant.
You got a lot of acclaim for Enslaved. But I guess it sort of kept coming up again and again as a game that didn't sell as well as [publisher] Namco Bandai had been hoping. What do you think?
Tameem Antoniades: I think it's always a difficult equation, isn't it? It's like it's not enough to just make a game. All the ducks have to be lined up, and those ducks include the creative ducks, like the theme and the content. I wonder whether Enslaved was a bit too fantasy, or off the mainstream fantasy, on one hand.
But it needed support, it needed a drive, a big push, and I don't think it necessarily got that. I really kind of hate it when people make, say, "Oh, marketing didn't support it," but a new IP needs to be visible, and I didn't feel like it was. A lot of people still even haven't heard of the game.
I've been seeing that a lot lately. Some publishers are not seemingly totally comfortable; they don't seem to be pushing these new IPs. The publishers get these made and then -- to a greater or lesser extent -- they don't seem to really move the needle.
TA: From our point of view as a developer, I'm always puzzled by it. Why bet on triple-A if you're not going to spend for triple-A? You can't have it both ways. But, you know, I think we're proud as a team that we've got the game done, we got it on time. We thought that we did our job.
It sounds like you're really influenced by working with [28 Days Later writer] Alex Garland, over the course of that project, in terms of how you moved into your creative decisions moving forward.
TA: Yeah, that's absolutely true. Alex is a gamer, a big gamer, always has been, and he's very curious as to whether his skills as a filmmaker would translate into games. And he was looking for an opportunity for years to work in games, and hadn't really found one until I begged him to go on board and gave him the keys to the kingdom.
He spent the best part of two years in the office working with our designers and with me, so he got stuck in. And he used his dramatic eye when reviewing not just cutscenes, but the levels. And as game developers, we don't always have that dramatic eye. We're not used to the language of film, which is cameras, body language, lighting; those things tell stories more than the dialogue in film.
So watching him, observing him, how he does that, it's something I took on board, and I'm a bit of an evangelist for that now. Like storytelling visually, creating drama visually in games.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Well, it's a very visual medium, and now we've reached this point with the fidelity that we can achieve in this current generation. If you look at some of the more creatively successful games, they really embrace that visual storytelling.
TA: Yes, I agree. Things like Ico and those stable of games do it purely visually, to an extent. And BioShock.
BioShock's a good example. You've mentioned that sometimes story is not really seen as an important component of games. But I think when you say that, you mean linear narrative, not necessarily story, right? Because there's more to storytelling.
TA: Like any medium, I think there is actually elitism. There's an elite few that do actually believe that stories have no place in games. That it wasn't about that at the beginning, and it shouldn't be about that now. But I don't think they're wrong. I think the games platforms are evolving, and the fidelity's allowing for stories, and those stories can be linear and they can be branching. They're different types of storytelling, and I think there's room for all of it.
You've definitely got a cinematic bent, right? Starting with Heavenly Sword and moving forward it seems like you've embraced cinematic storytelling.
But I get the sense that you want to try and integrate these techniques more fully into the games, and not do the typical cutscene/gameplay/cutscene/gameplay.
TA: I think I would love to explore the possibility of branching stories. I mean, it's not so much branching stories that I think is the key to interactive narrative as it is characters that change. So it's the characters that define it; the plot is much less important than the character journey.
And having characters that can change throughout an experience, and actions that you do against someone, or in the presence of someone, will change how they think of you later, and how they behave around you later, I think, is ripe for exploration.
The difficulty is that it's not just about narrative. Storytelling is about the camera, the lighting, the body language. So when you're trying to tell a branching story, you have to consider all those elements. I can make the viewer feel uncomfortable by moving the camera, putting it in a slightly awkward angle, focusing on details that make you feel uncomfortable. This language needs to somehow be integrated into interactive storytelling.
When you're talking about characters evolving the story, have you given a thought to doing that interactively? Or are you speaking of purely in terms of writing and a character arc in a more traditional way?
TA: I don't know, I mean, to be honest, I haven't been deep into that. It's something I've been talking to Alex a lot about, but we haven't embarked that project, to encompass that yet. It's something I'd love to do.