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GDC Online: Bissell, Auten Talk Narrative Antagonism, Evolving Storytelling

GDC Online: Bissell, Auten Talk Narrative Antagonism, Evolving Storytelling

October 10, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

Game writer and Extra Lives author Tom Bissell and his colleague, fellow writer and creative consultant Rob Auten, have a good deal of experience with the unspoken disdain most writers receive when working in the games industry.

But they passionately believe in the contribution writing can make to design, and at a panel at GDC Online's Game Narrative Summit they offered commandments that they hope will help ease the path to advancing writing in games and easing its integration with development.

"It seems clear that often in the development process writers don't often get to sit at the adults table," says Bissell. Most writers working with studios have experienced a moment of revelation when they realize they'd be the first team member that would be sent from the table.

"I do confess that one thing that kind of gets my back up about game development is this notion that a writer is this humanities person, and thus a writer is a trembling baby chick," says Bissell.

This breed of prejudice could explain why those who care about storytelling in media yet feel free to dismiss games out of hand. "Many engineers can make a functional bridge, and obviously functionality... is not what the writer brings to the development process," Bissell says.

"But I think a recognition of what [writers] can and can't do should never be rooted in antagonism."

Says Auten, "We'll happily concede that writers are far from the most important part of the development process... games aren't really a writerly medium."

Yet that doesn't mean writers are the least important part of process, either, or that all their thoughts should be mercilessly beholden to technical limitations. "It's the nature of writers to want impossible things; we want to do the impossible," says Bissell. Development teams should know when to balance when it's best to indulge those goals and when it's time to "strangle them gently" -- and writers should be prepared to seek that balance.

"Games, if they are to be allowed what they alone can do, cease to be a storytelling medium and really become an experiential medium in which stories can occur," says Auten.

Another commandment for writers liberates them from preconceived notions about how a game's story needs to go. While Auten says "cinematics are as evil as they are necessary," it's not the best way to convey information. "I've worked on a couple titles where literally every single playable aspect of the game is finished before the story really starts," he concedes -- and yet that doesn't make them good.

The traditional three-act concept for storytelling is based on the necessity of commercial breaks on television; the limitations of a medium determines the storytelling. Breaking storylines into acts only works when the consumer is passive, and it's not relevant to the medium of games.

And giving players control over the flow of information doesn't equate to "making cut scenes skippable." For example, in games like Call of Duty, a character might ask the player to follow him -- and as he walks, an arrow blaring FOLLOW hovers over his head. Redundant, dialogue-diminishing information "comes from the game designer's real worry that the [player] will be not very bright, or very stoned," says Bissell, and as such is understandable.

"But I wonder sometimes if this iteration creeps into the way we think about narrative, sometimes," he reflects.

It's important to know when a focus on narrative is appropriate and when it's not. Bissell spent some time with indie designer Jon Blow on his The Witness -- the pair developed three different versions of a story until they realized that a "light sci-fi" narrative would never help the game achieve its designer's intent.

"He started out wanting to make a game that for him had a lot of resonance and feeling... anything less than that, however ingenious our light sci-fi story was, I think he saw as a betrayal of that vision," says Bissell. "Jonathan Blow taught me that a fun game isn't necessarily something to shoot for, and that a meaningful game is. Getting fired by him was one of the most inspiring experiences I've ever had."

Auten was not fond of Heavy Rain's story, finding it full of holes. Yet he found meaning in some of the basic behaviors that the game's lead character performs in his house. Those step by step moments were intended to be welcoming to nongamers versus the hardcore, and that focus helped players have some unexpected discoveries. Thinking about nongamers can help games create unexpected moments "that don't feel like what we think game experiences are supposed to feel like."

Games are happy to make geek culture references, but literary references that respect the player's intellect and maturity are rarer. Writers in games will benefit by exploring other influences and other media, say the pair.

"The well of geek culture is perilously becoming close to being empty," Bissell warns.

And most of all, games have a ways to go in exploring the storytelling potential they hold that other media shares, say the pair. "Interactive storytelling gets all of its power from the sense that you're inside a story you can affect," says Bissell. Otherwise, the "play a while, watch a movie" style of narrative design will be as far as games get.

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