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Can you point to just any examples of recent games you've found to be meaningful?
JB: Well, there are the art games that I talk about all the time, like Passage, The Marriage, and Gravitation. In terms of bigger games, it is kind of rare. I think Everyday Shooter was definitely a very expressive game, in a very different way from Braid. I talk about that one all the time, too.
The reason I talk about these games all the time is because it's just not often that I see new examples of that. I played a bunch of games from this wave of Christmas games. I haven't played them all.
But I played Fable II, Fallout 3, stuff like that. And in Fallout 3, there's one section of the game that people comment on that feels kind of personal and emotional, and it's not the stuff that's supposed to feel that way. It's not the stuff with your dad at the beginning, or trying to find him. That all feels generic.
It's when you find this abandoned camp that's now got monsters in it, but there are these stories of this nurse trying to hold it together right after the bombing.
And you think, "That was really a touching story that I just found out there." And it wasn't actually the game. [laughs] It was just this little pre-authored story.
BioShock had a fair amount of that outside of the critical path.
JB: In the little dialogs, yeah. I can't really count that as an example, though. It's a neat thing that they did, but it's not the game.
The gameplay in Fallout 3 is shooting a guy in the head and watching his blood fly everywhere, right? Or the dialogue paths, of which it seemed there weren't that many.
As you suggested, it still isn't clear what even the basic framework for expressing meaning through a game actually is. At this point, if you're trying to deliver a story or message through a game, most are still doing it in a filmic way. You have the gameplay, and then you have the presentation layer, but they usually aren't intrinsically tied.
JB: We have a model that's somewhat successful now, right? We have these story-based games, like Fallout 3 or Gears 2.
And we know how to put a story in the game in waypoints, and you play between pieces of the story. And there's a certain kind of structural way in which that works well.
You want to know what's next. The stories act as a reward for playing through certain areas. So that's your reward structure.
But it's a problem, because there are things about the fact that it's a game at all that interfere with the kind of story that you can tell and what you can do.
Stories in games are typically not good, right? We just know that. I think part of that is because we don't try very hard, or we don't really have people that competent doing it.
But part of it is that even if we did -- even if we had really, really good writers doing this stuff -- it's still really hard to do a good story in a game, because of the game part.
To give a really simple example: almost every game we make now is challenge-based in some way, right? Unless you're talking about Wii Music, there's some goal that you have to meet. The player is here, and wants to go this way. The game's challenge pushes back on him, adding some friction. You want the player to get through the game eventually, but that challenge slows them down or makes them go in a circuitous path.
That's half our game, this challenge element. In story-based games, the other half is the story. And the problem is that story needs to go [the opposite direction challenge does]. Because stories have pacing. They have an order of events that happen.
So the challenge part is trying to hold the player back and keep him from getting to the next segment. But the story part wants you to get to the next part in order to keep going. This structure doesn't actually work, because these two fight each other. You try to balance them, but usually one of these is going to be more strong than the other, and that's the direction you'll feel more of.
Often in games, the designer says, "Oh, we don't necessarily need challenge. We need the feeling of challenge, without actual challenge." So then, if there are puzzles, we make them really easy, or if there's combat, we make it really easy. So then the strength of the challenge force gets smaller and smaller.
Those lead to experiences that don't feel that worthwhile to me. God of War, for example, is a game a lot of people like. I don't really like it, because I just feel like I just started mashing buttons and all the enemies die.
Fable II is the same way. Fable II's combat is not actual challenge. It's just there to feel like combat. But I don't feel like there's a reason to do it, because I know that I just hit these guys with the sword a few times and they'll just die.
I think this is a problem because, in terms of what games have to offer us, we're not giving people the greatest stories ever told. What we can give them is experiences that challenge them or invite them to do something that they haven't done or whatever.
But we're decreasing this challenge element more and more -- challenge being the new thing that we have to offer over other media -- in order to try and increase this story element. And I think that that might be the wrong trade-off.
If we eventually become no interaction and all story, then we're just a bad movie, right?