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Warren Spector: Use the storytelling tools that work for games
Warren Spector: Use the storytelling tools that work for games
May 10, 2013 | By Christian Nutt

May 10, 2013 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Design

Warren Spector is well known for focusing on creating games where players can make meaningful choices. At a talk at the UC Santa Cruz's Inventing the Future of Gaming symposium, he set out to ask an important question, even perhaps the ventral question that defines his work: Can we level up game stories without compromising gameplay?

But first, a caveat: "The games we're making you play now obviously aren't bad, they're tons of fun. I'm not saying any kind of game should go away, not be played, not be made, not be liked. All I'm saying is there's more we can do and that refining what we already do, while nice, will get us a whole lot further."

He also made this stark observation: While there is plenty of "terrific" work being done in the indie space, and with games made specifically as art, "they're not changing the mainstream of gaming and I'm not sure they will."

So he urged game creators who make mainstream games to "level up" their storytelling, and he had some concrete suggestions on how to approach that.

"All other media are made up of that single moment, the non-repeated moment. We are different."

The first important thing to keep in mind, he said, is that unlike in other media, "your story is exposed through the exploration of space."

He noted four key things games can do:

  1. We have the power to transport players to other worlds. "In Half-Life, we all become Gordon Freeman." And as far as Zelda goes, he said, "I've personally saved Hyrule many, many times."

  2. We immerse players in those worlds. "We are at our best when we remove obstacles to the belief that you are experiencing what you are experiencing in the world that we create."

  3. "We are the only medium that demands user participation and the only medium that can respond to that input."

  4. Games feature repetition at their core. "All other media are made up of that single moment, the non-repeated moment. We are different. We offer players game systems that they can exploit over and over again. Repetition is kind of what we do."

And unlike other media, games must give each player a unique experience, he argued. Period. He would tell his designers: "If, at the end of this game, every player has the same experiences, go back and think."

Importantly, he said, "this does not mean [players are] telling their own story soup-to-nuts. Players are exceptionally good at 'I did this, and then this, and that happened,' but they're not real good at narrative arc: Here's why this and this are important."

His key piece of advice when constructing a story that allows room for the player is this: "In the dialogue between creators and audiences, you need to know what parts you are going to own and what part you need players to own."

"We need to build worlds, not sets."

He also railed against games that build movie sets -- with doors that don't work and empty rooms, facades. "We need to build worlds, not sets."

If games are "grounded in exploration, how can you build a movie set?" he asked. "Sets are really easy to build. They limit player interaction. They're much more predictable than an open-ended world would be -- worlds are hard, worlds are tough. They're unpredictable." However, he said, "unpredictability is better for player-driven stories."

He also argued for the development of the "virtual dungeon master" -- along the line of Left 4 Dead's AI Director, but even more advanced. "Good stories are constructed, not found," he said. "We need someone to create a story, but then we need systems, or some way for the game to respond to player input, to dynamically modify things and accommodate those unexpected choices we want players to make."

And there is one more secret to unlocking the potential to game stories: "Every other every medium answers questions," he argued -- "here is what the director thinks about torture," for example. "There is room for interpretation, but they have to answer questions or they're unsatisfying."

On the other hand, Spector suggested, "games ask questions, and players can answer them. I think that's key to the future of video game stories."

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Michael Joseph
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"they're not changing the mainstream of gaming and I'm not sure they will."

I think indies have (at least in small incremental ways) and will continue to do so. Have they supplanted mainstream games? Will indie games sell more than corporate produced games? Probably not... corporations will adapt and they have more resources. They know how to embrace/coopt good ideas from innovative individuals. If they ever refused to change then sure, they would disappear, but that's not reality... they are dynamic entities too.

Indie game releases have undoubtedly had an impact on game design. They always have and they always will.

Keith Nemitz
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Minecraft has changed the mainstream of gaming.

Felix Dahlke
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@Keith: Minecraft has certainly received an enormous amount of attention, but I fail to see how it changed mainstream games. Can you give an example?

Bob Johnson
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Here's another guy (synonymous with well known designer ) that gets games and the power of the medium.

Darren Tomlyn
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Not quite - certainly not all of it.

For one, games are not a medium, they're an activity, as are competitions, and even art and puzzles - all of which can use the same medium - a computer - to exist and be taken part in. Games, (and puzzles/competitions) are the END RESULT of the use of any media themselves - what the medium exists to enable - and so to call them a medium is to define and label an effect as and by its cause, even though the two, in this case, are defined and labelled completely separately and independently of each other - (for good reason).

All activities need a setting (time and place) to take place within, and games are no exception. The problem is that there's nothing specific about any setting that defines the behaviour within. That COMPUTERS allow us to create extremely complex and 'immersive' settings, does not, in itself, define the application of games specifically - anymore than puzzles or competitions.

""All other media are made up of that single moment, the non-repeated moment. We are different."

"We are the only medium that demands user participation and the only medium that can respond to that input.""

Is wrong. Competitions can also function in such a manner - they're just defined by additional behaviour/things that happen.

"Games feature repetition at their core. All other media are made up of that single moment, the non-repeated moment. We are different. We offer players game systems that they can exploit over and over again. Repetition is kind of what we do."

Is also wrong, but it's obvious he doesn't quite understand why, and therefore how it's truly related to his next quote:

"games must give each player a unique experience"

How can something be unique if it's repetitive?

Of course - it's obvious what he's trying to say, but what matters is being lost - the only reason games are repetitive, and not unique for the player(s), is because of how they are applied and created, not defined - but it's the definition that's not being understood in the first place.

Is it possible to create a completely unique game that will never happen again - and therefore repeat, or even involve any repetition? Yes it is. Is it easy? No - but computers make it far easier that it could be.

Computers and games have far more potential than we currently seem sure, but the root of everything lies with a consistent understanding of what games are, first, both in isolation, and in relation to everything else.

There's a bigger picture that needs to be fully recognised and understood for everything Mr Spector wants to talk about to make sense, within - which we don't currently have, and I don't think he has, either.

The problem with people who design and create games, is that they (naturally) view games as things they create (works of art) to enable something else to happen, and then they tend to go overboard on the 'enabling' - involving lots of narrative etc. - which then completely overwhelms the things that happen for the player(s) that the word game actually represents, and so whether or not the player wins or loses then depends on what the game does for and to the player, rather than what the player/s has/have done for themselves.

Unfortunately, at the root of all this, is a very big problem for people designing and creating software of this kind - which both AcitivisionBlizzard, Zenga and many other companies have realised, (or appear to):

In the long run, competitions tend to make more consistent money/profit than games do (which is why the gambling/'gaming' industry is what it is, today). (Games can make a lot of money, obviously, but rarely as consistently over such a long period of time, all by themselves - a lot of companies involved in games for sport, for example, require additional sponsorship etc. to survive or make such profits/any profit at all.)

This is why the line between games and competitions, assuming it's even recognised in the first place (which it doesn't appear to be), has become blurred if not rubbed out completely, recently, because many companies are going for money/profit, first, a good game, second.

If games, competitions, (and puzzles and art), were all fully recognised and understood, then described in a fully consistent manner in relation to each other, this wouldn't be as much of a problem - (though the amount of actual games being produced, would drop considerably, as the number of puzzles and competitions would rise) - but this is a symptom of a far bigger problem with our understanding of (at least the English) language itself.

Bob Johnson
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What's your point? Might want to condense that down to one good paragraph and one good point for us mere mortals.

Darren Tomlyn
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More info:

Although these are obviously parts of a larger speech, what matters is that everything needs to be based upon a consistent definition of the word game in order to exist in a consistent manner - what he's described, in isolation, does not - which is something we do not currently have (for much more fundamental reasons).

The biggest symptom we have at this time - which is causing tangible harm and effects - is the lack of recognition and understanding of an activity we sometimes (and should in general, for consistency) call a competition, instead of a game.

The two types of behaviour (things that happen) that defines these two activities CANNOT ever be described as the same thing, which is why getting confused between them, by calling them the same thing (games) is so problematic, and is causing such big problems for people.

We are literally talking about the difference between things people do, and things that happen to people:

Game n. A structured activity in which people compete by doing something for themselves.

Competition (3) n. An activity in which people compete to be told whether they have won or lost - (usually by a random draw or judge's opinion).

Both games and competitions can use the same setting and ingredients - even most of the same rules etc.. What matters is the end result of the behaviour and process such an activity contains and enables - which can vary depending on a particular occurrence taking place - (boxing, for example, is a game if won by knock-out, but a competition if it requires a judge's opinion).

Calling everything a 'game' even though what it enables is more consistent with something else - (and may even be called something else, outside of a computer) - is a problem, just like calling the colours blue and red 'yellow' instead would cause problems.

The main reasons we have problems are:

1) The word game has changed its definition over time, which hasn't been fully recognised and understood.

2) There is a large (and influential) industry, for whom confusion between such different pieces of information is advantageous.

3) What such words represent in relation to each other is not being fully recognised due to problems with our understanding of language, itself.

Bradley Johnson
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Articles, like this one, that suggest ideas for improving games are much better than ones that bash them (Lollipop Chainsaw, Wolfenstein).

Joel Bennett
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It's always more difficult to create than it is to destroy.

I totally agree with Warren about creating worlds and not movie sets - especially doors that don't open, or another one that really gets me - crates inside rooms where there is no physical way they could have been put in there! It breaks immersion. I have to hand it to Bethesda in the Elder Scrolls series - they do seem to do quite a job of creating a world and not just a movie set (at least for town-scapes. There's still not much of a logical reason why one might find a fresh apple inside a barrel in a spider infested cave, though).

Benjamin Quintero
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"games ask questions, and players can answer them." This assumes that the player is not simply going to run around like an ass, bashing clay pots and putting buckets on the heads of all the AI.

Bart Stewart
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Why is "Hey, what happens if I put buckets on the head of everyone in this town?" not a valid question?

True, it doesn't demand that players think about liberty versus security or similarly deep matters. I like that some games aspire to pose such questions for players to think about.

But worlds need to be *worlds*. Worlds are places that are big enough and dynamic enough to let players explore questions big and small and everything in between. Shakespeare didn't just write tragedies!

I believe the kinds of games that Warren is suggesting are worlds that encourage collaboration between the author and the player. The world itself provides both a place for players to create their own stories as well as one or more high-level story for players to explore at their own pace. It respects players enough to let them do what *they* find entertaining.

This notion that games are just a vehicle for the creator to frogmarch players through "their" chosen message fails to fully leverage the interactive possibilities offered only by computer-mediated entertainment. Please note that I'm not saying such games should not be made. It's fine if there are games that provide highly directed experiences. Computer games are entirely capable of supporting author-driven entertainment similar to books and movies.

But it's better if there are also games that aim to tell stories *with* players, not just *to* them. Games expressed through computers can be more than just books and movies.

To do that, designers need to build worlds that are dynamic enough to support both high drama and low, bucket-headed comedy.

Benjamin Quintero
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Agreed. My response was more directly to the matter of trying to tell that high story that only seems to work when you force the players hand into a narrow view or take away controls. Its not the final answer but its the tool we use right now. But yes bucket humor is just as welcome even if it kind of breaks the fiction I guess.

Bart Stewart
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Jay Anne, I've never thought or suggested that all games have to be big. What I'm saying is that there are some kinds of play experiences that require bigness in some form. I think this supports Warren's comments that "worlds" are needed for a stage that's capable of enablng cooperative storytelling between a game's creators and players.

In particular, exploration play needs bigness. That might be bigness in breadth as in Bethesda's open-world games. Or it might be bigness in depth as in Gone Home -- a small spatial area packed with meaning. Or it might be a large puzzle space as in SpaceChem. Or it can mean offering a wide array of problem-solving verbs, giving players more opportunities to express their individual creative styles, as in Deus Ex.

The point is that exploration requires a space to explore, and that space must be "big" enough (in some form) to be interesting.

Absolutely not every game needs that to be enjoyable by a lot of people. But for those who do enjoy exploring possibility spaces, who are delighted when computer games are made interactive enough to let them create their own stories, there is no substitute for the expressive power of worldiness.

Zack Wood
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It is true that people need to focus on making worlds, but that doesn't necessarily mean huge open worlds to explore. Those kind of worlds are a slim fraction of all potential fun worlds out there.

We need to focus on world-building- thinking about what kind of world is created by each design decision. The game world doesn't have to be huge or open-ended, but it needs to be cohesive, interesting, and to work on its own terms, tied together by an over-arching vision.

Joshua Darlington
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Narrative built on top of simulation and adding a role of virtual GM are both strong approaches.

He is missing a big opportunity space by concentrating on virtual worlds. Layered worlds built on top of social graph and using semantic mashup is another emerging opportunity.

Austin Wiggin
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Behind Mr. Spector's pulpit delivering lessons on the purity of 'world-building', there lies a large closet full of your most beloved game characters being put away like toys for a yard sale. Character and story are best served on a dish well worn, where stock figures and archetypical symbology work together to inform a player of the story before them. Before Warren throws his match into the pyre of 'other mediums' and begins the purge for the most pure, benign, gaming experience, he should take a note on the power of Set-building to create a more pragmatic, immersive, and enjoyable experience.
briefly. . .
Between Set and World, there is the argument of immersion, which medium best explains to a player their circumstances and suspends their disbelief of meta-reality. From the open World experience, the advantage is clear. Big worlds mean more stuff and longer playability. It also means more interaction and fulfills Warrens desire toward 'repetitive playability'. But, we suffer from undesirable variables and massive coding expenses that tax a designers ability to create a seamless, effective, world experience. (a higher % of uselessness will appear). A game like Skyrim would be a perfect example of world building, where the endlessness of interaction created an infinite experience opportunity, that unfortunately floundered in its ability to tell a cohesive, engaging story. Like a vast endless ocean, 2 feet deep. (as TotalBiscuit had somewhat explained).
With a Stage (Set) experience, a designers variables are more pragmatically chosen and thus, create a tighter more directed engagement. What Warren Spector seems to be missing out on, is the power of the Stage (Set), to create a storyline players want to be a part of, because it is well told through action and reaction in-game. Certainly, there are weaknesses on this side as well. A players may not be interested in the script, or the game might suffer because it is not interactive enough. Also, not utilizing the 'World' capabilities of video game medium would be a drawback, because it is such a valuable and distinct element that video art brings to experience. However, Even though this experience is not the gamers own, there are plenty of past examples of stellar games that tell highly scripted stories successfully. A game like Zone of the Enders, or Condemned.
I'd say, Players are totally willing to be a part of stories that are not necessarily their own to begin with, but rather, become their own through great story (immersion).
There's way more to say here, in support and subtract from both arguments, but this is a good start to explain why Mr. Spector should be careful before he burns his Shakespeare Theatre.

Also, To Darren Tomlyn, I would say your point is quite interesting and fundamental, but yes, somewhat hard to understand. The difference is game as competition vs game as genre. But I would argue, and i think you'd agree, that 'game' in the 21st century has a different principle than it's original understanding as 'competition', in the past. There are some games now who do not offer competition, because they are scripts rather than contests.

Joshua Darlington
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I think the "virtual dungeon master" should be another player. It would drive social collision - and allow for powerful human intelligence to facilitate the dynamic Stage (Set).

Richard Kanee
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Some great discussion here and true to my heart hence the effort to register so I can share some random thoughts that are informing my own work.

1) games are games and stories are stories. The role of story in game is to inform game play but one should be careful to respect the fact that game play is the hero.

2) the nature of storytelling conflicts with the nature of games play. Agency vs. control. How can I tell you a compelling story if you decide to put a bucket on the main characters head? How can I have a compelling game play experience if you don't let me make choices I presume I have the right to make?

3) I would argue that Walking Dead is a more successful story than a game. I found the game play intrusive to the story and added little value to the experience. Getting stuck in the game stopped the story.

4) I believe that at the heart of what is being explored here is less about the nature of games as a medium and more about digital as a medium. The fundamental property that informs digital story forms is the ability for for depth and breadth. This is different from how we are used to experiencing rich media stories which are restricted to "broadcast" distribution models. As a creator, I'm no longer limited to 90 minutes or 44 minutes. House of Cards was a 13 hour movie in a way that could only be delivered in the digital medium.

5) Efforts to advance digital story have been overly encumbered by the form of game. This creates complicated and niche experiences, too gamey for viewers, too linear for gamers, satisfying neither and missing the mass market.

6) The desire for broader and deeper game worlds that push our the rules of the game into the back corners essentially become social spaces and cease to be games. Games are about rules and how the user leverages the rules to achieve goals. Rules explain the limits of a game. If your goal is to hide the limits and create a blank canvas for the gamer, you essentially lose the game. Second Life seems to ultimately fulfill this vision.

These are thoughts and opinions but far from facts. Would love some additional perspective.

Bart Stewart
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A quote from Warren in his interview with Rock Paper Shotgun (published today) sheds a little more light on what he's thinking when he talks about "worlds" to explore:

"When people think about worlds, virtual worlds, they think about enormous, fully explorable, Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim, that stuff. I've never done that. I never wanted to do it. Well, that's not true. Back in the Ultima days, that's kind of what we did.

"But around the time of Underworld and System Shock and Deus Ex, I got a lot more interested in really deeply simulated smaller spaces. I'd rather do something that's an inch wide and a mile deep than something that's a mile wide and an inch deep.

"I want to create worlds, but by 'worlds' I mean someplace where every object is interactable. The NPCs actually have something to do other than kill you. Every door can be opened and there's a reason to open them. That's what I mean by creating world. It's not about size and scope, it's about depth and interactivity."