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Spector: Games need to borrow from film less
Spector: Games need to borrow from film less Exclusive
March 25, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

March 25, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Indie, Programming, Art, Design, Exclusive, GDC

Games often look to other media for lessons on structure and narrative, but imitation needs to be considered -- we talk often about what we should take from other media, but not often about what we should not, argues Warren Spector.

"There are things that are sort of seductive and obvious that I think will hold us back as we become the medium we're cpable of becoming," Spector says. "Imitating other media seems to be a natural, maybe even necessary stage in every medium's development. Building on a foundation provided by other media is pretty normal and natural."

Movies themselves were born from attempts to emulate theater. Video games offer more of the "building blocks of storytelling" that any other medium has ever offered. "So how can we not tell stories? I often get confused when people say 'games shouldn't tell stories' -- I find that silly and amusing," Spector says.

Yet games are more than "movies with interactivity," of course. "If we're nothing but an amalgam of conventions from other media, we're in a world of trouble," he says. There are yet more strides to be made in game storytelling even beyond games like Heavy Rain in which it's a primary focus.

The similarities between games and movies -- moving images on a screen, both with synchronous sound, creating a synchronous illusion of life -- are so apparent they're almost not worth mentioning, in his view.

"Culturally speaking, we share a lot with movies; movies were the medium of the 20th century that changed everything. It was the first time that everybody in the world could experience the same... cultural messages."

"I think everyone can agree that games have overtaken those media," Spector suggests. We ignore the "significant differences" between film and games at our peril, he continues. The editing techniques that dictate the experience of a film and how audiences are privy to information that the characters aren't, for example, create a structure that doesn't work in games.

"We need to jettison some of those," Spector says. "It breaks the illusion; it wrests the experience away from players who want to be directors of their own experience. In most games the action is continuous... we either take control of the camera ourselves, or we leave control of the camera to the player."

Players aren't just watching, they're actually engaged in real time with an experience, repeatedly. "In a weird way movies are not linear, and games are linear, in the way they treat time and space."

The way games are paced is quite different from films, too. Clearly the runtime of a movie is only a fraction of the potentially-infinite time players can expect to play. Audiences are accustomed to the convention of film, but game developers sometimes have less than a minute to get players engaged.

"If you don't get to your verbs quickly, and make them really action-y, or at least make them compelling in some way, your player's going away," he says. Approach to dialogue is also necessarily different, since dialogue is often designed to be reusable. A player may remain in the same area of the game for quite some time: "You have to find a hundred ways to say, 'I thought I heard something,'" he notes, while a screenwriter can convey the necessary experience within a moment.

Game moments, too, must be designed to be reusable: The first time doves fly in front of a camera in a film, it looks cool -- but if that happens every time a gun goes off, it becomes silly. It's more valuable to let players make their own "magic moments," rather than recuse that responsibility to visual editing.

Games are still beholden to their own tropes, too, burnened by Dungeons and Dragons conventions ("who wants to play a [video game] about rolling dice?") The effusive Spector, who frequently joked at his own expense about the challenges of talking only for twenty minutes, stresses he doesn't want to be "that guy who hates cinematic games."

But he believes there's more we can do without using established conventions from other media -- like exploring plausible AI for applications other than combat, or by looking at the call and response in pen-and-paper games between the game master and the players-- and by better understanding why techniques that work in film are often unique to it.

"There's a point where we have to start looking at what makes us unique... we can transport players to worlds they can only imagine... We're the only medium in history that responds to what players do. No one's ever been able to do that," he says. "...Except maybe LARPers, and they don't count."

"We've made progress, and we can get partway to where we're capable of going by borrowing from other media... but we can only go so far. We need some original ideas," Spector adds. "30 years after the creation of this medium, you have the opportunity to determine what it can become. It's not too late."

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Mark Slabinski
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I like Warren Spector, even if I don't always agree with everything he says. I do agree that games sometimes borrow perhaps too much from film to the detriment of the games, but I feel that there's still a lot to be gained from at the very least keeping movies in mind. I don't know how you could create a linear story in a game without thinking of some kind of technique pulled from a traditional media structure. I also feel like he sells a lot of developers short by telling us that we need more original ideas. There are lots of developers out there trying new and experimental things, they just don't get the mass exposure of more commercially viable properties (Blendo Games and Paradox Studios are two examples that spring to mind).

I do think he's spot on the money for things like the use of AIs outside of combat (actually populated worlds by AIs with lives is the most interesting). That is really going to be a fascinating development simply because of how much it would force us to think of new ways to take advantage of them and would probably lead to the kinds of hyper personal stories that we've been promised but never really given.

Stefan Maton
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I was at the Warren Spector speech. While I agree with some of his criticism, I disagree with his view that a) cut scenes shouldn't be in games (due to the cut of immersion) and b) that game developers fail to create a believable environment in which NPCs react in a believable way to external stimuli.

For a) one of the first Games that had real time 3D cut scenes was "Incubation". The cut scenes were realised with the game engine to prevent that hard cut. So basically, the technology was available since 1998. It has taken a long time for the main stream to pick up that technique to increase the player immersion. What's still problematic is the fact, that it's not "as simple as that" to push the game story without using cut scenes.

For b) in Sacred 2 we worked on a technology called "Real World Simulation". Aside simulating the day to day work of all NPCs, the tech was planned to enable the player to actually observe and interact in a more realistic way with the NPCs. Unfortunately the tech became a victim if budget cuts. So, the tech is possible... but creating a believable world and believable behaviors costs big money.

Andy Mussell
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regarding a): Do you mean in-engine tableaus, such as was used in "Half-Life 2"? (eg. when you get the gravity gun) I'm not sure if those should even count as cut scenes, since the player still retains agency. Or do you mean pre-recorded cut scenes that simply use the game's engine, or were done in the style of the engine?

Cinematic cut scenes are something I expect will eventually disappear as games mature as an expressive medium. Right now there is still just too much potential emotional impact that can be easily gained from using cinematic techniques, just like cinema greatly relied on theatrical techniques in its early days, before Eisenstein and "Citizen Kane" and such.

As designers develop more techniques to express meaning and convey ideas, the cut scene - which personally I am no fan of, since it forces the player to become a passive spectator - will no longer be seen as necessary. But it will take work by the design community to discover and adopt methods to replace it (perhaps they already exist!), and time for these to become widely-adopted.

Luis Guimaraes
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Bioshock has five cut scenes the entire game: the intro, then ending, the two ways to harvest little sisters (which lasts about 3 seconds each and do you many times), and the section you lose control because you're mind controlled. If you disconsider the 3 seconds harvest scenes, it's only one cut scene in the middle of the game.

And it's one of the best events of storytelling in video games in history.

Ramon Carroll
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Dark Souls barely has any cutscenes, and uses minimalism as its storytelling technique. I happen to believe that it's one of the best stories I've come across in games.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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I find this sort of discussion frankly dumb.

Games should use whatever resource is required to transmit the idea in the best possible way.
For that matter, any medium should use any resource it sees fit in order to accomplish its communicational purpose.
Do all games need cutscenes? no. Can some games be overly reliable on cutscenes? sure.
But a lot of games today seem to think that because they allow you to jump around while they expose the plot, it is not a cutscene and it is "more interactive". Which is meaningless.

Fact is, that a certain way of framing an event is important when generating a particular feeling, a good director can make a particular event especially significant, even when it is implausible for the player to experience through direct gameplay. We should not limit our options to -the particular gameplay experience of the player-, nor should we hamfist the story into fitting the "coherent player narrative space" because it results into frankly ridiculous and unnatural exposition segments... games like skyrim suffer terribly because of this, they have amazing events happening, but the direction is always lacking, there is no punctuation or emphasis on almost anything, which eventually makes the amazingly inticate game details lose any meaning or importance. There is no subtlety, no communicative effort, just a huge load of apparently equivalent options dumped on the player seemingly without purpose.

On the other side, although it might be not realistic immediate to the gameplay, a well presented event of any given size can enhance atmosphere, story and emotional impact of the whole experience. Often Cutscenes can validly present situations that are not occurring to the player. If used properly it can even enhance the immersion since the player effectively feels that he or she cannot do anything to change a situation because its narratively and technically out of his or her control.

I find it is actually the oposite to be honest, we should ADD STEAL AND ADAPT LANGUAGES FREELY, videogames are not a stale exercise of structure, but an expressive medium.
There are no checklists... But if there were, we could take this to the ridiculous extent: -it should not have written text, it should not have "non interactive exposition" it should have no pre-recorded audio, or pre-rendered images (why not, we technically could make all procedural interactive audio and video, and not rely on recordings, since they belong to other mediums)-....

Thing is, instead of putting this creative/expressive barriers, we should learn to use what we find in any medium intelligently to enhance the experience.

Alexander Symington
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In Half-Life's story sequences, the player retains control, but not, I would argue, agency: the player has no ability to influence the outcome, or to perform any other action with consequences more meaningful than wasting ammunition. In a sense, this is just a more generalised form of the kind of cutscene that allows the player limited control over camera pans and zooms.

More problematically, during these sequences the player can perform actions that seem as if they should be consequential, but aren't. For instance, you might lob a brick at a friendly NPC, only to watch him continue to chatter, entirely unperturbed, as it bounces harmlessly off his face. I actually find this kind of situation to be more counter-immersive than a standard cutscene, which may be disruptive in terms of pacing but doesn't compromise the basic credibility of in-game objects and characters. Further, HL is a linear experience that is very incompatible in both plot and general game design with handling the open-ended outcomes that its story sequences suggest ought to possible.

In many cases like this, I think traditional cutscenes are fundamentally and timelessly one of the least worst options, and regardless of whether they become more or less prominent under certain trends, I strongly doubt that they will be abandoned entirely.

Andy Mussell
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Combining a few responses into a single post here...

@Brion Foulke and Bernardo Del Castillo

I think that the fundamental appeal of games - and their defining feature - lies in their interactivity, and so anything that reduces interactivity fundamentally weakens them as games, although I agree that it might result in a better overall least, for now. I doubt they will ever disappear entirely, but if they did I would not mourn them, assuming better techniques were developed to replace them.

And I agree that games should use the best techniques available to achieve their goals, but my hope is that techniques are developed that express a game's story in ways that are more effective than using cinematics, since I see them as having drawbacks when used in games. (Maybe I should write, "than using stand-alone cinematics" - "Fallout" for instance had a lot of them during conversations, and I thought they were used well.) But we are not there yet.

And I am in favor of anything that reduces banality, from Hollywood or otherwise. (:

@Luis Grimares

This is maybe your point, I couldn't tell, but I think a large part of the reason the "Will you kindly" cut scene has such impact is because it is one of very few cut scenes in the game - the other significant part, to me, is because it is done in-engine (though if I'd been in the room at the time, I'd have suggested that the player be able to move the view aperture). The impact of the dialogue derives from these two features, thus recasting the player's activities in the game up to that point. If every five minutes there had been a cut scene that you sat back and watched...well, it wouldn't really be such a big deal, would it? In a sense, it is an anti-cut-scene cut scene.

(All that said, I think that there are a few other areas that could be considered cut scenes...the fight between the Splicer and the Big Daddy near the beginning, for example, since the player can't really do anything but watch.)

And since you bring them up, I'll mention I have no opposition to beginning and ending cinematics, as they are useful tools to communicate all sorts of things. It's only the ones that force an interrupt in game activity that I object to.

@Alexander Symington

I was using agency in a weak sense, in line with what you mean by control, and if I used a (philosophically) inappropriate term I apologize. However, in your usage, wouldn't players of "Half-Life 2" (or any game with high-level linear structure) be without agency during the game? Either you play through the game until the end, or you stop playing.

Regardless, I agree that the tableau scenes (again, apologies if I am using the wrong term) in "Half-Life 2" could have been better constructed - in the example you give, perhaps projectiles should have been batted away (or back at you!) by the robot - but I do think that how the player is able to play with their shiny new grav gun during the exposition is a signpost pointing toward where (narrative-heavy) games should go. Also, I do not see a tension between the smaller narrative events and the overall linear structure of the game, any more than I see tension between a player's ability to fire their avatar's weapon as they wish and this structure.

Luis Guimaraes
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@Andy Mussell

Yes, that's part of the point too. The "would you kindly" scene is more effective because it's a unique point of loss of control in a game with so many few, short and far between scenes were you lose control.

Now that you mention, the first plasmid you collect (Electro Bolt) triggers a cutscene too. Everything else are scripted events more than cutscenes, IMO they're better tools for the job of exposing events most of the time, but there are some more rare situations where actual cutscenes work better, like emotional scenes (some friendly NPC dies, you want to cutscene the PC reaction), specially intended NPCs first time presentations (Borderlands is full of them), etc.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Andy... no, I disagree.
I find that thinking that the appeal of games is in their interactivity is a bit of a fallacy; Interactivity is a very abstract concept and it can be found in any form of comunication, no matter how static it may seem, everything is arguably interactive if you examine to the root of external stimuli and perception.

Even if you did consider that Interactivity is unique to the medium (which it is absolutely not), it is still just a mechanic requirement and a condition but it shouldn't ever become the PURPOSE, in the case of a creative communicative expression such as games, I would actually consider engagement as the most vital component (in my opinion, engagement is the real value that all creative endeavours should strive for). If something is trully engaging, the inmersion deepens, overcoming the mechanical limitations that might exist in the medium, likewise the sense of "interaction" and agency heighten.

This is why for example today rarely paintings emulate absolute realism, since there is an understanding that the language is unimportant when an emotional connection to a spectator is established. It doesn't even matter if the spectator is technically "interacting" in the literal sense, since if he feels that the world and the experience presented are real, the feeling of interaction is undeniable.

Luis Guimaraes
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I find the appeal of games to be a lot about the "What would you do if it was you?" question you ask yourself when you watch a movie, read a novel or comics, watch an event on TV, watch a professional sport or game being played. The difference in video-games is that you get to do it. In a video-game, it *is* you, there isn't just a "what if" scenario.

If you can't do it and your char does it instead, or the worst offender, you get multiple choices that are all bad choices while you can think of a good one, then what's the point of it be a game instead of something else just as non-interactive?

Andy Mussell
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@Luis Guimaraes (apologies for spelling your name wrong before, very embarrassing!)

Haha (: Thank you for the opportunity to belabor your point, then! It is quite a good one and one I hadn't fully realized before you made it, which is probably why I felt the need to go on about it.

@Bernardo Del Castillo

Perhaps this is because I am coming at the question from a different perspective than I am reading you as coming from (assuming I am reading you right, I think you may be involved in the art side of things, perhaps even as a designer of cinematics - if so, I mean no offense to your livelihood!), but to me interactivity is the answer to the question, "What do games do different from other media?" And yes, I did not mean to say that interactivity is unique to games, but rather that without interaction - internal state changes in the work in response to player input - there is no game. (I did read your blog post of last year on the subject, and I wonder if you did not use 'interactivity' in contexts where I would have found the word 'interpretation' more appropriate.)

Since there is still perhaps some confusion: "Moby-Dick" stays the same every time you read it (though your perception of it certainly might change, and your tattered copy will match mine), but for a game to be played absolutely requires the player to modify it.*

That said, I agree with you that engagement is a, or perhaps even the, primary goal of any creative work - meaning is perhaps its equal in my opinion, although some amount of engagement is crucial - but my view is that interaction is how games create engagement. Since passivity is the opposite of interactivity, thus my opinion that designers would do well to develop techniques to replace cut scenes in games.

And I think this will happen. But until then, they're still the best we've got for some tasks.

* Of course, there is some plasticity in any work of art, and especially in performed pieces, but the degree of interaction found in playing a game is like going to a performance of "Hamlet" only for the audience to demand enough changes (and during the performance!) so that by the last act it has changed to "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead". The only medium that even comes close in my experience to this is live jazz, and even in its most extreme variants I do not think it comes close.

Stefan Maton
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@Andy: In this case (remember this was '98) I speak of pre-recorded cut scenes using the engine to render those. In '98 this wasn't used at all (Example of cut scene here:
2&index=4 ).

So, what would be a "valid" way to push the story forward without using cut scenes? Multiple-choice dialog? Action based story branching? When I take a look at the Mass Effect series, even those multiple choice based story development is based on cut-scenes. In a way any dialog based presentation which is based on punctual player interaction counts as a cut scene to me.

L.A. Noir did a fairly good mix between cut scenes, multiple choice stories and action sequences and I currently fail to see a way to tell a story without taking control momentarily off the player.

Perhaps it's just a question of definition? Where begins the "cut scene"? To me, no cut-scene means the player has 100% control of his character at any time.

jin choung
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@brion "There's nothing wrong with forcing the player to be a passive spectator, just like there's nothing wrong with it when we sit down to watch a movie or read a book."

I disagree. A game is by definition active. Whether it's turn based or real time, one of its intrinsic properties is interaction. The further you go from that, the less the thing you've made is a game.

There's nothing wrong with text either but there's something hugely wrong with a game that forced you to read 25 pages of text before letting you continue play.

The key to any art is the complete and proper exploitation of its unique properties. You could film a great play while it's being performed on stage and while viewers of the resulting movie may become engaged with the story of dialog, that would never be considered a great film because it does not express in a FILMIC way.

Currently a lot of games tend to be hybrids with the guiltiest parties those who place the greatest emphasis on story. But if we're ever to strive for art with a capital A, we're going to have to start thinking about the very nature of game as distinct from movies and cut scenes.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Luis Guimaraes...
Again I feel that as Brion has explained, that is only focusing in a very technical "accident" of the medium. I feel that the medium is slightly trapped in the rather juvenile concept that games -must be- your experience, which is terribly lacking in a vital component that seems more and more missing today, which is Empathy.

Throughout my history of playing games, there have been many very important landmarks... Many games which enable and encourage different types of play. But for me there has always been a profound attraction to well thought out stories that are not necessarily my own. I empathise with characters profoundly different to me who have to make decisions that I normally wouldn't but do so under particular circumstances. These are NOT MY decisions, but I feel like I am a friend giving advise to the characters.
I feel inmersed in the world not necessarily by having a projection of myself in the world. It does not break my fourth wall to see these worlds and characters behave as they would... (this connects to the "remember me" debacle where male gamers can't see a woman protagonist kiss another male because.. Ew! gross! the character -is- me!).

However, ignoring this rather immature perspective, I actually look for the opposite in games, situations when the protagonist is NOT me, where the decisions are CRAZY, where I get blown away by things I did not plan.

The purposeful "you are the character" scenario that you are describing, which I find to be the purpose (or catch phrase) of many big games today, more often than not fails profoundly. Beginning by considering that games are abstractions of mechanics in reality, and interpretations of certain situations, we understand that they are finite. NEVER have I come across a game where I am given options and I can't think of a viable possibly better solution that is not available.

Prompting the illusion of choice to me directly or going out of the way to explose a mechanic / plot point / story shift can break my immersion more than just taking the control away from me to explain what has happened in a precise and well directed way.
Sure, under certain circumstances it can be successful, but in my experience it must be done sparingly when only very succinct information will be transmitted, but should never be considered a requirement.

In addition, in these "player action driven sans-cutscene" games, actions have a way of happening in your prescence, in a very deus ex machina way. This doesn't make me feel like the inhabitant of a world, but like the protagonist of a badly written fictional novel.

There would be nothing wrong with showing events that you couldn't see from your character's experience. And even if a certain event is possible in the player's narrative space, it can still potentially kill the dramatic impact of a scene to let them to their own narrative devices ( I know I have fully spoiled myself some impressive sections, because I've been looking at some textures in the corner, or trying to shoot the passerbys). So, there's nothing wrong with designing that exposition for it to be impactful and meaningful for the player, even when the players themselves might not mechanically be involved (because they still aren't, technically).

In the end, part of the point of narrative fiction is giving us experiences that are not limited by our human frame of reference. Suscribing to these limitations for a game might make an interesting experience as well, but it shouldn't be considered a norm or a requirement (Halflife 2 does the "no cutscene, always your perspective" thing effectively, but it runs into a plethora of pacing and direction issues because of this).

And, Andy..
no, actually.. not at all from the art side, I'm a programmer. Well im actually writer and concept artist too (in our indie dev studio), but I'd say my biggest concern is actually narrative, not necessarily exposition, but visual narrative.
Anyhow, yes you were saying interpretation is akin to the term of interactivity when related to personal experience of a certain input, it is the axiom of the subjectivity of experience. And this is probably true. However acknowledging that this mechanic exists naturally in all communication, and can be considered as a form of interactivity, it is important to make the distiction between content that intends to play upon this mechanic, and the natural occurrence of it.

A "choose your own adventure" book, is a -book- and it's a blunt example, I believe they also predate computer games, but they were purposely created to give the impression of a less linear experience. Yes, the material in the book does not change (nor do the content of a game disk -mostly-) but your experience of it does. Many books use this mechanics without presenting them so bluntly, segmented narratives, abstracted and ommited information, unreliable narration, they prompt diverging interpretation, and that is interaction at its core. In the end neither of the mediums is really changing beyond it's established structure, but both still require an observer to process the stimuli, in different ways, and progress through the message.

In the same way, as I quoted in that article you mention, A David lynch movie ( I'm not a huge fan but he does this well) is purposely designed to make the viewer a participant of the action, a decisive force in the conveyance of meaning of the experience itself.
Mulholland drive is practically a non annotated, surrealist version of a chose your own adventure book.

Similarly, there are more current plays, ( No, Shakespeare wasn't much concearned with involving the viewer as more than a spectator ) art productions and installations that prompt the viewer to role play and become a performer, an integral part of the "art". This is the "new art", it is not just expectating beauty, It is involving meaning.

Pressing a button and seeing the change in an output of a system is only the most superficial of interactions. Microsoft word is profoundly interactive, but not really in any unexpected ways. Interaction is as mentioned, the prevalent condition of the medium, but just because it's prevalent other attributes should not be ignored.

It is silly that we seem to think that some sort of mechanic button prompt is needed for interaction to exist.
Videogames and computers in general are probably one of the current non "phisical" mediums that can do this "interactivity", with most ease, but by no means are they the only ones, in fact they have a few weaknesses simply because we have very limited and discreet interfaces of interaction with them ( at least for now ).

In any case, this condition is just that, a condition, It would be silly to declare something like: "books are more informative than movies because, they can have many words and images in them, and you can touch them". The tools of a particular medium which are rarely exclusive to that medium shouldn't define the experience. The message conveyed by those tools in that particular way should.
Believing that interaction is some sort of goal in itself is a mistake, it is crippling to the expressive potential of the medium.

In fact , we should stop focusing in mechanics to define how the experience should be altogether. The mechanics and structures we decide to use should be -in service of the expression- and not the other way around.

Andy Mussell
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First off, a thanks to everyone who continues to discuss this with me! Really enjoying the conversation, which I certainly had no expectation of sparking with my questions.

@Stefan Maton

Thank you for the link; "Incubation" certainly seems like it was groundbreaking at the time, but, since the "Civilization" series is about as far as I get into TBS, and also at that time I was stuck in the Mac gaming ghetto, it was never on my radar, so I will certainly pick up the series the next time it goes on sale on GOG.

And thank you for asking for my suggestions on how to improve or replace cut scenes - there are a couple of things that I can suggest. Likely many of these have been tried and failed, but perhaps not. First of all, though, I do realize that there are some situations in games where the absence of cut scenes would be bizarre - for example, if in a game the player avatar watches a short film that is relevant to the game, it would be necessary to include the film as a cut scene in the game. Cut scenes also make good act breaks, which are as important in games as in any other narrative-heavy medium (although see below for a discussion of this). Finally, some game genres, like graphic adventure games, are historically so dependent on narrative that I can't see how they could avoid using them, though that doesn't mean I think it isn't possible, just that I don't see a way at this time.

But there are many genres where this is not the case. The first, and simplest, way to make improvements to cut scenes would be to add some basic video controls to them - if we are going to make players watch television, why not give them DVR controls? The ability to pause, rewind, and fast-forward cut scenes seems like an obvious way to benefit the player, and cut scenes that are rendered real-time in-engine could also give the player control over the camera, if applicable to the game. I think that my definition of cut scene is perhaps the opposite of yours, as I would say that a cut scene only happens when the player has no ability to interact with the game beyond possibly skipping the scene altogether. A situation where a linear conversation happens, for instance, may require the player to not move their avatar, but as long as there is some degree of interaction (even as simple as letting the player click through the conversation as they read it, or if they have already heard it) I would not call this situation a cut scene.

Moving further afield, I think linear narrative games can learn (and have been) a lot from the increasing popularity of wide-open sandbox games, and in fact I think this trend represents a shift away from narrative-heavy games in favor of games where the burden of telling a narrative is on the player, who is able to tell as much or as little of a story as they wish.

@Brion Foulke

And this comes to part of my response to you, as I would say that part or perhaps most of the reason that games tend toward such banal narratives is because I think these are the narratives that are most appropriate to games. (And this is also why most movies based on games are so insipid - game plots are either not easily adapted to a medium like film, or are easily adapted because any depth they may have comes from the act of playing them.) In my opinion, this means that the best way to tell stories in games is by lessening the narrative load. I think that the most involving stories that games tell are found in the games that allow the player to tell the story that they wish, or perhaps more accurately, that give their player the tools they need to tell the story that they wish to be a part of.

So, I am suggesting the same thing that Mr. Spector did; to make better games, we should not be telling stories like the ones found in cinema, or theater, or literature. We should make games that tell game stories. And these are probably barely stories in a strong narrative sense, as Aristotle might have recognized. (Speaking of which, I disagree with your analogy involving interactivity and art; rather I see interactivity in gaming as being more like color in painting, or language in literature, or music theory in music.)

Why do we almost never see movies where people are reading books, or working at their desk, unless it is for about two seconds, or as part of a montage? Well, because the appeal of narrative cinema stems from spectacle, and watching someone read a book is almost the definition of non-spectacular. In the same way, the stories that are told in games should fit the strengths of games, and avoid their weaknesses. A game story that requires cut scenes to be told indicates to me that the game could be telling a different, better, more gamelike story, even if as a narrative plot it sucks. Are there some worthwhile stories that thus should not be told in games? Of course, just as there are some stories that should not be told in film, or literature, or theater, and trying is misguided at best.

@Bernardo Del Castillo

Well, that last paragraph might get to the heart of the disagreement we are having. I personally don't have a problem with the fact that amazing things just happen to occur when my avatar walks into the room while I'm playing a game. I mean, I'm the one playing it, so in a sense I am the most important person in its world. Why wouldn't important things be happening in my presence? If a person wants to have the feeling of being an obscure cog in an unimaginably vast machine - well, all they have to do is take a walk or for some people go to work to get that feeling. Yes, it is immersive - but why pay for a box that makes you feel that way? Why promise it to someone on a bullet list of features? Can't immersion be created in other ways, and more meaningfully?

I'm sorry that I'm not going to respond to all the points - some of them very good, and that I might enjoy discussing further with you some day - that you made, but this is getting long enough already, is in danger of going far afield from the topic raised by the article, and since this discussion has gone on a few days now I am wondering if everyone is still as engaged in it as they once were. But if I gave offense at my misreading of your background, I apologize - you are quite culturally literate, and I salute you for it! I'm not sure I would categorize CYOA books as literature, but rather as game/book hybrids, just like the books that were really little RPGs that I was fond of when I was a kid. It's a bit difficult with this example, because reading actually is interactive in a way that video is not, but that is also different from (or weaker than?) how games are interactive, and in a way that I regret how the paragraph book that came with "Wasteland" is now technologically obsolete. My introduction of Shakespeare was not meant as an example of anything other than a well-known work that has a related, temporally co-incident, (somewhat-less-)well-known work. Lynch's films are wonderful examples of the power of interpretation, but that is not the same as interactivity. The conversation going on between the viewer and the work is one-sided: the work changes but is not changed by the viewer, while in a CYOA book, the work does change in that there are multiple paths through the book, only one of which can be experienced on a given read, and none of which involve starting at the first page and continuing sequentially to the last.

Also, games don't exclusively rely on interactivity, of course, nor, again, was that my argument. Greg Costikyan discusses MS Word in his recent book on uncertainty, as you may already know, and uses that concept in a humorous discussion of how it is not a game, and shouldn't be one. But anything claiming to be a game that is not interactive, that at its core does not embrace interactivity, is not a game, but rather something else instead. It might be a very, very good whatever-it-is, and I might be first in line to hand over money for it, but it won't be a game.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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All's good, I take no offense.
sorry for taking so long to respond, you'll probably never read this.
Anyhow, I suppose we agree in some points... I do think that if a communication encourages diverging interpretations (because they happen anyway) it is at its core an interactive experience (as it purposely intends to be changed with interpretation, and its perception itself varies) But I suppose this may be an opinion.

Thing is .. one is not obligated to follow an object's instructions, but the meaning changes, in the end this is the important aspect, not the source material but the meaning conferred, everything else is mechanical noise. The dialogue remains.

As far as games go though, I'm of the idea that Videogames should stop being called videogames, because of how loaded the term is. Partly with the aspect of being made for "fun" and "recreation", and partly because of the many structural and mechanic "responsibilities" that a game must fulfill (being these various interpretations of "interaction" one of them)....
However I know a name change is unlikely and rather pointless, the meaning will likely shift as it has with or without the distinction.

Anyhow, I'll see you around.

Jeremy Reaban
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Assuming that was a typo for burdened, I think the whole point of dice (and things like levels) in either D&D or video games is that you aren't doing a 1:1 simulation of whatever you are simulating. You're playing characters who are skilled at doing something, something you personally aren't skilled it.

Part of the reason I play video games as opposed to doing real thing like sword fighting and such is that I'm not exactly gifted physically. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

That's the funny thing about gaming - it was originally meant for well, nerds. By now it seems like it's trying to drive them out, making them more and more reflex and skill orientated (rather than requiring thinking) and more and more social, forcing multiplayer into game genres that don't need it, social integration, and of course, always online. If I had friends, I'd be out doing stuff with them, not playing online games.

Frankly, all this is forcing me to find another hobby.

Kujel Selsuru
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I myself feel gaming should have stayed the domain of us nerds, and have been very annoyed with the suits for driving things in a more mainstream direction because more users == more money. I'd be happy with the industry if it remained the same size as it was in the 80's, expansion is not always a good thin :(

Andy Mussell
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I am all in favor of a bigger game industry, more people playing games means more money available to make games means more people making games. Including nerds.

There are and always will be nerdy computer games made by and for nerds. I can't speak to consoles, but Steam and are full of them, or "Dwarf Fortress", anyone? Or, interactive fiction is having a minor renaissance right now too, and there is even an indie NES emulation movement going on. It can take some effort to find them, but nerdy games are out there, and if you are going to take on a hipster attitude you might as well get used to looking for obscure stuff.

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Darren Tomlyn
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The direct problem everything here is a symptom of - is perceiving such games as works of art, first, games second.

The label of 'video game' is based upon just such a perception.

This is why games are then seen as a 'medium', (for art), even though they're not.

Games are an EFFECT of the use of art, in such a manner, as a condition of a medium, itself - (in this case, a computer, though the same can be said for any other type of game using different media, (boards and playing cards using pictures etc.)).

The end goal of everything should be a game, all the art and the medium itself should only exist and be used to enable such a function. That the behaviour of creating it makes such a thing a work of art means little objectively if it's defined as and by another function. That other works and forms of art can be used to enable this functionality also means nothing, since such functionality exists independently of all.

Games therefore exist independently of any and all such media and any forms and works of art they use to enable them to exist, (e.g. a picture on a board for a board game, video/sound/music etc. for a computer game).

However, the act and process of creating something, (anything) is what the word art truly represents, because everything we create tells a story of such a process. If telling (such) a story is it's function, then it can be described (and defined) as a work of art.

But nearly everything we create is defined and labelled by a completely different function, in ADDITION to being a work of art. Games, puzzles, competitions, tools and toys, are no exception.

That we can use works of art to enable (or promote) a completely different function, does not mean that function is then DEFINED as art itself.

We don't define furniture as works of art, or doors, or microwaves, or cars, or houses etc., even though they can be perceived as such, because all these words represent pieces of information that describe a particular function that is different from art itself, even though they are compatible.

Game, puzzle, competitions, work and play are no exception.

That people do not understand the function they represent, both in relation to each other, what the word art represents, and also in isolation, is a problem that is not currently understood, and so people continue to talk about similar symptoms, without knowing and understanding what they're symptoms of.

As such, this a problem affecting many people's perceptions and understanding of games. Since it IS a symptom of a far deeper and more fundamental problem with our perception and understanding of (at least) language itself, however, merely discussing the symptoms without understanding the cause has generally only made things worse (and is one the reasons how and why we got into this situation in the first place).

As to knowing, understanding and describing the cause of such problems - well, I'm working on it.

Babak Kaveh
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“If we're nothing but an amalgam of conventions from other media, we're in a world of trouble,”
With all due respect, I think games can never be ONLY an amalgam of other media. For one, we use technologies that no other media uses, e.g. real-time input from users. Also, we are the only interactive media to date in the sense that the timing of events is driven by the audience (other than some attempts by theatrical groups to include some feedback from the audience)

I agree that it would be an improvement, if not only timing, but also the entire content of a game were driven interactively, but we are dealing with a spectrum here. On one end, we have movies, where the director is “god” and on the other end we have “child-play” where a toddler determines the rules, contexts, content and timing of their own play. In the middle we have games, where the game designer provides rules, context and some content, and the player provides the missing parts and timing – I would not like to see game devolve into child-play!

The idea that we should distance ourselves from movies, is only true in the sense that we should shy away from making the game designer set timing and pace, as movie directors do – otherwise there is a ton about narrative structure, and especially the ubiquitous “Hollywood screenplay structure” e.g. that game designers can and should adopt, see a two-part article I wrote a while back for an example of what was done successfully in Team Fortress 2 and how it can be adapted to level design:

For all I know, many of us have been lunching on leftovers from Hollywood, and ignoring the true structure and story gems that are hidden in movies, and while leaving behind the lazy cutscene approach to driving a plot is necessary, simply ignoring the need for a fun/good plot in a game, won’t do, and here, Warren is right in proposing non-combat AI, as a solution. NPC’s and a “living” world, can and will serve as plot drivers eventually – right now the problem is the large presumed risk associated with generating decisions by complex AI that is keeping the industry away though (as Stefan and Brian's cases show), and I don’t think we will move forward in that area anytime soon if the financial risk of a failed game keeps rising as it is.

jin choung
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i don't like the fact that he's confused about the notion that games "shouldn't tell stories". either he's being modest or he has a suspect amount of processing power under the hood.

"shouldn't" is a strong word... a better one would be "needn't"... but the premise is basically valid.

stories are not INTRINSIC to games. and they needn't be. some of the best games in the world are not narrative driven.

one could successfully argue that literature, film and theater needn't be driven by story as well but you'd be hard pressed to cite a popular movie that isn't.

there are literally dozens of popular videogames that aren't story driven or dependent - minecraft, tetris, simcity, civilization, flight simulator, bejeweled, online play for every shooter....

games have a long and popular history with non-narrative forms.


imo, one of the richest functions of games is as a simulation - in illuminating how complex systems work.

part of the sims' brilliance is in how cogently it articulates the facts of life - you have limited time and resources and the choices that you make have lasting consequences - without saying a single english word.

that's the power of games - in being able to convey something in a way that no other medium can.

i've longed to see a really good game based on the american political system. something that can really illuminate just how much money, lobbyists, campaign finance and special interests affects the process.

it's that kind of ability - to illuminate the complex that gets ignored when we focus too much on movie-like narrative.

jin choung
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Oh I dunno, every time some body gets shot, people seem to look right to games as a reflex.

Even that kind of knee jerk controversy can be harnessed by smart game makers to make a point without narrative.

Something that pops to mind immediately is a game where you play a mass murderer and your goal is to kill as many people at once as you can before the cops come... But it's played in two rounds - one in a world like ours then in a world where there is no such thing as a gun.

That might be offensive as hell to a lot of people but it makes a point without heavy story telling.

For the politics game, you could demonstrate some really offensive result like the prison industrial lobbying against law enforcement bills so that more people will go to jail or Pentagon contractors lobbying to wage a war against Canada because they need the money.

If people don't listen to a harmless game, make it offensive and let the news pick it up.

Adam Steele
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Some of it common sense others remarks just odd to me.

Unless he was being sarcastic? No one ever want to play Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights? I mean seriously the foundation of ever rpg ever created was D&D. It's the story people create with it. The only thing that could prelude D&D would be fairy tails in general.

If you want a more recent example Dragon Age screens D&D. Just uses a different die and skill system.

Adam Steele
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If you mean the cliches then sure. There's plenty of characters out there that break the mold of expectations.

If your just talking races then maybe. But your just breaking it up a little like the Mass Effect Trilogy did. In the end its similar to a Spelljammer campaign.

If your talking about classes; not much better in that state. We identify classes with characters because it makes it easier to understand what they should be able to do realistically. There are many more classes or combination skill than in the old days.

If your talking about the story telling. Then it would probably be impossible to remove that element from today's games. Even if it is just a 5 second dump like (Defeat the evil tyrant rampaging the land.) or (Shoot down the enemy soldiers that are invading.) Videos games aren't the rare creatures they used to be.

Sports and competition games about the only ones I can think that can get away. Pong, Maden, Basketball, and Soccer titles fight there. I'm sure there are more. But even they want to incorporate something to draw the audience in. All the special moves or over the top effects could easily be compared to feats or unique abilities.

If you want a new inspiration then Anime is gonna be your best best. Since animation seems to be far cheaper to produce and purchase. They are able to test all sort of boundaries. Truth a lot of them just fail miserably. Yet there are many great titles out there.

If I had to recommend one that fits your theme, then look up Baccano. They bring so many different personalities to play.

Alvaro Gonzalez
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... and that's why Tomb Raider sucks... "It's more valuable to let players make their own "magic moments," rather than recuse that responsibility to visual editing".

Joshua Darlington
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Dunno if that's an accurate encapsulation of Spector's POV.

It seems obvious that one should try to adapt/synthesize/balance the best qualities of all appropriate disciplines, mediums and art forms.

Chad Wagner
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One issue with playing stories as the main protagonist exclusively is that the full context of the hero's actions in a story is often what makes them so special - things the hero doesn't directly know. This is part of the problem someone mentioned earlier with Skrim.

The context and full cause and effect chain is not so clear to us in real life - part of the power of story telling is exposing a larger meaning behind it all. If we are stuck as the protagonist, we will have the same lack of clarity and drama that exists in our own lives. We often construct that meaning after the fact, as we recall, interpret and contextualize events (often when we tell them to other people as stories!).

Another major issue I see is that heroes are amazing in that they often perform startling feats that we marvel at - if we are called upon to be James can we do what he does the first time? It will often require endless repetition on a situation for us to come to a workable solution (even if there were infinite ways to succeed). Even actors rehearse and have multiple takes! It seems the only way to enable to player to be "super" is to remove agency in degrees (ala Prince of Persia, etc).

Last issue for discussion: the player is probably not an excellent performer. The kind of game Mr. Spector is hinting at is a game were we are playing as a performer in a situation. We are definately going to be awkward - intentional or unintentional. We won't know how to create tension and release in a scene - our interactive experiences will lack direction and tightness because these things are authored, arranged and executed in a film by people focused on that level. It would require on the fly writing and performing by the player. I haven't seen a way to do that yet (short of Choose-your-own-Adventure). Even D&D requires practice to "perform" - and understanding of the rules and some of the actor/performer mind. Truth be told, I think most players would struggle to reach the level of a Keanu Reeves performance - which would limit out interactive experiences to "every man/clueless protagonist" type stories.

Matt Cratty
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I am in complete agreement.

Look at Bioware, its taught an entire generation of gamers that games are almost passive entertainment experiences.

There's nothing wrong with selling entertainment that works, and Bioware games (post-baldurs gate) clearly sell and are massively popular. And you can make an argument that that's all that matters in the long run.

But, the downside is we've seen a nearly complete evaporation of games with depth as a result (some notable exceptions, but not many).

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