Noted game developer Will Wright keynoted the South by Southwest Interactive conference on Tuesday. The 2800-seat auditorium was filled by technorati and web experts, many seeing Spore for the first time. They were predominately stunned by the on-stage demonstration, and excitement rippled through the slacker 2.0 audience.
Music filled the time before the keynote, Wright’s mix ranged from Brian Eno-style procedural electronica, to Major Tom. As the music concluded, blogger Justin Hall took the stage to introduce the speaker, concluding “So now Will Wright is building a simulation of the universe. Wow. Will Wright!”
Wright took the stage in a muscle shirt, and with one arm in a sling. “I broke my arm skiing, because everyone keeps asking,” he began. He said he’d planned on giving a talk on storytelling, because he viewed South by Southwest as a film festival thing, turning into “an interactive thing.”
But after reading the website’s description, which said he’d be showing Spore, “I decided to mash two together.” Wright then spoke extensively on the topological difference between games and media, saying, “games are inherently a branching tree.”
The two mediums have different dramatic arcs. A film, Wright said, is based on empathy. “Movies have these wonderful things called actors, [or] emotional avatars.”
“Games tend to be more appealing to the reptilian brain,” Wright told the audience, adding that, “There are things I’ve felt in games that I’ve never once felt in movies.” He told the story of playing Black and White, and completely abusing his creature, to the point where it was sobbing pitifully. “I’ve never once felt guilty watching a movie.”
Whilst films offer empathy, Wright said that games offer agency. He then charted empathy building models on the film side, agency building models on the game side, and used an Arthur C Clarke quote: “The best way to prevent the future is to predict it.”
“In linear storytelling, the director knows the future,” Wright stressed. “In interactive storytelling, we don’t know that.”
He cited films such as Groundhog Day, and how they told the same story over and over, but didn’t retell the same parts. Applying it to games he asked the audience, “Why don’t we just let the player skip the level?” - instead of making forcing them to replay the same part.
Returning to his them of story, Wright talked about playing his favorite game, Grand Theft Auto. He didn’t care for the violence, but created a character that was basically a homeless person wandering around the world. Wright became more interested in the story he was tell himself than the linear arcs and missions, and “would go tell my friends what happened to Moe every day.”
“I think if we can teach the computer to listen to the story that players are telling,” Wright said, a game could detect patterns of what the player wants, and adjust music, lighting, and other immersive elements to reflect the story that a player wants to play. He thinks this modeling would best be accomplished by networks that constantly mine and refine player information.
After an extensive demo of Spore, Wright mentioned his Montessori education through fifth grade (adding that everything after that was downhill). That system, he believes, gives an intuitive sense of the world.
And that is how Will Wright concluded is talk, saying with games “you can give someone a very long-term sense within a very short term.” He noted that humans have trouble with long-term thinking, but through modeling the future with games, “we can recalibrate our instincts.”
“Computers function as an amplifier of our imagination,” Wright said. He spoke of the world’s previous paradigm shifts, through technology or culture, or both. Now, he said, we’re experiencing them “more and more often.”
Wright took on the view that some people have of video games as “simple, meaningless, mindless toys that we waste our time on. But they can be much, much more than that.”
“Potentially,” Wright stated, “We can navigate the future with a little more intelligence.”