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E3 Report: Developing Better Characters, Better Stories

May 26, 2005

The power may have been out in many of the conference rooms on the first day of the E3 Expo in Los Angeles, but just shy of 9:30 in the morning in room 404, the projector glowed strong and the faint sounds of a Red Hot Chili Peppers "Greatest Hits" disc eased its way across the floor, the opening act for an assembly of industry rock stars. The panel was called "Developing better characters, better stories: How a game character's emotion, passion, and intelligence makes the game experience real." Moderator Ian Davis, CEO of Mad Doc Software, responsible for Empire Earth II and Dungeon Siege: Legends of Aranna, chatted casually with his fellow panel members before starting the show.

Among the cast were Toby Gard, Game Designer for Crystal Dynamics and creator of Lara Croft; John Milius, the Hollywood screenwriter responsible for Apocalypse Now and Conan the Barbarian, who just had his first experience in games with the script for EA's Medal of Honor: European Assault; Joe Staten, Bungie Studios' Cinematics Director for both Halo and Halo 2, and Tim Schafer, founder of Double Fine, creator of Psychonauts and former LucasArts designer, who graced us with Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle, and a good portion of the script for the original two Monkey Island games.

Lara Croft, one of the most famous video game characters around.

The subject of the panel was character design, and with Lara Croft, one of the most famous video game characters around, Gard started by explaining his reasoning. "I had the idea of trying to make a cinematic game," said Gard early on, referring to his Tomb Raider creation. "Lara didn't have much of a personality," Gard continued, stating that she was left empty in order to allow the player to project his or her image into the character.

"I think Lara does have a personality," argued Schafer, "in that she solves challenges differently than, say, James Bond." "In some ways," he continued, "all games are like Mechwarrior in that you're strapping on a suit that lets you do things you normally can't."

In creating the most appealing character for a player, Schafer says he likes to create a game's world, and then "find the coolest character in it." Full Throttle, he said, as an example, was a world full of bikers, so it seemed obvious that the player should be at the helm of the leader of a biker game.

Staten agreed with this concept, while explaining the creation of Halo. Early on, he says, the team weren't necessarily considering how to make people want to play in the world they were creating. "Master Chief is really what kicked off the creativity," he said, "in terms of how people react to him. He's a space marine in really cool green armor."

In turn, while discussing how he came to work with Electronic Arts, Milius, coming from an outside-the-industry perspective, praised the storytelling potentials of even the first-person shooter genre.

"What's interesting," he said, "is that there's only so much you can do with a first-person shooter, but we're just peeking around the corner," he said. "Eventually you'll have this epic month-long experience where maybe you're not always shooting, and that's coming."

"A lot of players think that the story is unimportant," said Schafer. "If more care went into the stories, I think people will come to accept them more. So rather than beating the level to get all 100 coconuts, you're actually immersed in the story and want to see it progress. You actually have a burning passion for the coconut that turns out to be your father."

"Our main regret with Halo 2 is that we didn't let our players breathe," said Staten, explaining that the original Halo had moments where the player might calmly look at the serene atmosphere, with no action, whereas in the sequel, such moments didn't exist.

An audience member brought up the issue of so-called cutscenes, non-interactive portions of a game used to advance the story, stating that if a game's cutscenes were cinematically on par with movies, players would be drawn to them more."I think that's inevitable," said Milius, "that's where it should go."

Schafer seemed to disagree. "I have a secret goal of someday making a game without cutscenes," he said. "It's not that I don't want that cinematic experience, I'd just rather the interactive parts be on par with movies."

"I've seen [movie-licensed] games with cutscenes from the actual movie," said Gard, "and they really don't have the same impact without the movie's framework."

"There are situations in an MMO where you come away and feel like you have a story to tell, from the actions and dialects," Gard continued, in discussion about experimenting with living interactive characters. He hopes to one day see a comparable AI experience.

As the panel looped its way round to discussing the development of characters, Milius stressed the importance of giving them quirky, idiosyncratic behavior. "I always like to write to the point where I don't know what my characters are going to say," he says. "Drama is no different, in games or movies or whatever. You have to make your characters compelling and unpredictable."

"Making your own characters is a different sort of research, that happens in your own mind," said Schafer, who prefers figuring out the backstories for each of his characters, so that when he sits down to write the actual dialogue, the characters are well-known to him.

"It's like acting," he says, "you have to know your characters."

Davis then asked the panel how to make game NPCs seem more real. Staten again relates this to the first-person shooter, stating that games in this genre "often turn into a shooting gallery."

"Mood is the most powerful tool you have as a dramatist," he said, "and I don't think games are focusing on that. Publishers are going to continue pushing games with nothing but action, but someday someone's going to do it differently, and people will notice."

Finally, in response to Ernest Adams' ideal theory of an "AI dungeon master," which he says would strike the perfect balance between giving the player a sense of free will while maintaining a sense of drama, Schafer related his philosophy of making a game like a specialized amusement park made just for the player.

"Imagine if you were on the Pirates of the Caribbean," he said, referring to the Disneyland ride, "and you walked off the rail?" Schafer says, as an example, that rather than forcing the player to walk upstairs and see a murder, perhaps the game itself should just kind of encourage the player to see what's up there, in a roundabout way.

"Someday we will have that holodeck," said Davis , obviously familiar with Adams' work.



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