AGDC '07: Dyack on media, massage

Too Human director channels Marshall McLuhan with a lecture in the writing track of the Austin Game Developers Convention.

AUSTIN, Texas--With the first day of the Austin Game Developers Conference drawing to a close, Silicon Knights president Denis Dyack delivered a presentation titled "The Medium Is the Massage" to a sparse group of attendees. The turnout would no doubt have been larger had the session not been a last-minute addition, communicated to attendees through a conference schedule addendum included with attendees' registration packets.

Dyack faced short notice on the talk himself, having just been invited to deliver a presentation as part of AGDC's writing track while at the Leipzig Games Convention in Germany last month. He said he debated what to discuss, because when people ask him where the ideas for his stories come from, he just doesn't know. This talk, he said, would be aimed at exploring how technology affects content and what messages we are sending. The title was pulled straight from a Marshall McLuhan book about changing media that explored much the same topic 40 years ago.

The title of McLuhan's book was originally intended to be The Medium Is the Message, but the first printing came back with a typo in the name. McLuhan thought the typo fit the theme of his book, so he opted to keep it as it was. Dyack said McLuhan's message has resonated with him and helped direct the way Silicon Knights makes games, from efforts like Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen on the original PlayStation, to the company's current project, Too Human, for the Xbox 360.

In one sense, Dyack said, the medium in which an idea is communicated overpowers any message intended by the original communicator. Relaying a D.H. Lawrence quote, Dyack said, "Always trust the tale, not the teller." The typo in the book's title is simply indicative of the way communications can be altered from their source on their way to an audience.

Another running theme of Dyack's talk was that of games as art. He said he thinks of games as the eighth art form. When films first came out, theorist Ricciotto Canudo called cinema the "seventh art." Describing it as the convergence of spatial arts like architecture, sculpture, and painting with temporal arts like music, poetry, and dance, Canudo said film combined aspects of all of them to form a seventh art. Dyack said that by mashing all of that together and adding interactivity on top of that, gaming should be considered the eighth art. However, Dyack said that one problem keeping games from being recognized as an art is that, "We just aren't very good at it yet."

Dyack moved on to his universal theory of creating games, something he calls the engagement theory. According to Dyack, engagement is greater than or equal to the sum of story, art, gameplay, technology, and audio. He referred back to his time developing Legacy of Kain, when he constantly heard that "gameplay is everything." Dyack rejected the motion, saying it's the biggest myth in the industry. He pointed to Myst and The 7th Guest as examples of that.

Given those exceptions, Dyack concluded that it's not gameplay that's everything, but engagement. He even created a metric by which one can measure engagement. Dyack said to have people play the game, then ask them how long they've been playing it. The more wrong they are, the more engaging the game is.

To guarantee engaging games, Dyack said he has built Silicon Knights around a "guild philosophy." Dyack brought up the idea that Shakespeare was not a single author but a troupe of actors that created genius through many iterations, and then compared that with how Silicon Knights approaches game development. And the same way that Shakespeare would include bawdy humor for the drunken masses and more intelligent metaphors for classier audiences, Silicon Knights seeks to appeal to the widest audience possible. That guild philosophy also means that Silicon Knights doesn't outsource. If they work with someone they like once, they want to continue working with them again and again.

"Every time Silicon Knights creates a game, we always try to focus on the medium and where it's at," Dyack said. When they first started thinking about Legacy of Kain, the team insisted on taking advantage of the medium at hand, specifically the original PlayStation's CD-ROM drive. Silicon Knights crafted the game around the idea of making an action-adventure game with no text, where the entire story was conveyed through voice-overs and first-person narrative. Originally the team wanted to make Eternal Darkness a textless game as well, but Nintendo nixed the idea, saying gamers in Japan would prefer to read instead of listen.

For Too Human, Silicon Knights is attempting to tie all it has learned together. Dyack said that the game features its biggest script to date, and has been written with some adherence to scriptwriting rules that the company was once been chided for ignoring. He talked about the script working on three levels, as a simple man-versus-machine story, as a faithful retelling of Norse mythology in a technology-driven time, and as a collection of individual dialog exchanges.

"It's a very, very content-heavy game," Dyack said. "We're trying to saturate content because I think when people are playing games with stories, that's what they really want."

He drew another parallel to film, saying that when the flashy special effects of early films (trains running into the camera, and so on) wore thin, it was the people who mastered and created the language of film who succeeded. One such way Too Human will work with the language of gaming is in interactive cinema and an intelligent camera system. The developers aren't going to allow players to control the camera. As Dyack said, you never had to worry about the camera in 2D games, but 3D games broke that. He mentioned Super Mario 64 as a game that had a pretty good camera, but also made the player worry about all the camera issues that a director would care about, taking them out of the moment and lowering the engagement.

Turning to the topic of the presentation again, Dyack pulled out examples where the medium has overpowered the message. He mentioned Half-Life, and how many people talk to him and say the story was great. Dyack said he loved Half-Life, but it's a terrible story. The reason it worked is because the developers understood the medium well enough to give people an experience they'd never had before in order to compensate for what he referred to as a rather poor story.

BioShock is another example Dyack brought up. He said he's only halfway through the game, so he can't say if it's a good story yet, but said it's an "unparalleled" use of the medium, and an homage to radio dramas of the 1950s in the way everything is communicated to the player.

Turning to movies, Dyack brought up Armageddon, which had a story he called "utter s***." Despite the vapid message, the film's production values and use of the medium led it to tremendous box office success.

He also brought up Se7en, which he called good across the board, except for one area where it absolutely failed. According to Dyack, the director went out of his way to make sure the serial killer was not the hero. He didn't have a name or any qualities that would make people identify with him. He focused on the killer's actions, and not why he was doing it.

"I think the serial killer's the coolest guy in the movie, bar none," Dyack said, adding that the overwhelming message was that serial killers are cool. "I often bring up the whole idea of the Nuremburg films of the rallies in Nazi Germany. They were fantastically edited, and you look at them, and you have to wonder if despite all the production values, if the message was really in there inciting genocide."

Dyack said Se7en is especially illustrative of the adage about trusting the tale and not the teller. Sometimes there's just no way to control the message that people receive.

At Silicon Knights, Dyack said the company's first rule is to imagine that the technology is infinite and just create the content and the concept that you'd like to see. That's one of the reasons why Too Human has been kicking around since the original PlayStation.

"A good concept, whether it be on a DS or a Wii, should stand on its own," Dyack said. "But you also have to understand that the medium is the message, and it's going to alter what you're saying."

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Discussion

31 comments
holyman376
holyman376

i think too human will be sweet because its wow without being turn based which is very cool

Valen_Ca
Valen_Ca

jackboi Dyack knows how to deliver a speech but, can he make exceptional games is what I really want to know. The answer to that is simple, yes SK does know how to make a good game Eternal Darkness is proof of that. Oh and Dolacide, I think that you are thinking about Gabe Newell at Valve who banned the game until they could get Orange Box finished.

jackboi
jackboi

Dyack knows how to deliver a speech but, can he make exceptional games is what I really want to know. I agree with his engagement theory; I've played Half-Life and not realize how much time had actually passed. Hope Too Human can do the same...

Pete5506
Pete5506

too human dose look some what good

Dolacide
Dolacide

So too human must be done, because in a previous interview he said noone on his team will play bioshock until too humans completion.

comthitnuong
comthitnuong

He seems like a different guy in the lecture. I remember he was on a podcast complaining to a site on how they gave Too Human a bad preview, and that they shouldn't have previewed it even though it was playable at E3 06...Ah well, I'm sure Too Human will be good and thats all that matters.

cashplaya_2009
cashplaya_2009

maybe but like redgarl said the track record on hyped up gamez for 360 has been horrible without Gears what would us 360 owners brag on

Redgarl
Redgarl

I always said it, THIS GUY KNOW HOW TO MAKE GAMES THAT WE NEVER SAW... I have faith in Too Human and 360 fans should be ashame to slap it. Well, from what I saw from the hype of Blue Dragon and Lost Planet, xbox users don't know what end up being good. Look at the damn track record of the devs.

Ghostin-Dashell
Ghostin-Dashell

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

davahsa
davahsa

8th art indeed. By making something engaging enough to draw in the likes of Ebert, the acknowlagement of games as art will cease. Film went through these same paces and it is interesting to see it worded so understandably from Dyack. Since Eternal Darkness was incredibly engaging to myself..... poor Silicon Knights has set that bar firmly in the realm of art (to me at least.....no matter what anyone else's opinion on the medium is...) and has caused me to have very high expectations for this game. Very good luck to you....I can't wait for the delivery!

silver26
silver26

All I can say is that I hope Too Human turns out good.

Roman_Slayer
Roman_Slayer

"Massage" is the typo in the book's title.

AKGermany
AKGermany

Shouldn't Dyack be busy finishing up his troubled game if it's going to be released soon instead of visiting one conference after another?!?

pimperjones
pimperjones

I'm been saying this for years now, philosophy and depth is what games lack to truely be considered art. I even wrote an thread based on this very topic. P.S Where' s the Massage portion of this article?

Foolz3h
Foolz3h

""Every time Silicon Knights creates a game, we always try to focus on the medium and where it's at," Dyack said. When they first started thinking about Legacy of Kain, the team insisted on taking advantage of the medium at hand, specifically the original PlayStation's CD-ROM drive. Silicon Knights crafted the game around the idea of making an action-adventure game with no text, where all the story was conveyed through voice-overs and first-person narrative. Originally the team wanted to make Eternal Darkness a text-less game as well, but Nintendo nixed the idea, saying gamers in Japan would prefer to read instead of listen. " Thank god for that the voice acting was one of the worst parts of Eternal Darkness and if you had to put up with it every time you examined a table it would have completely ruined the atmosphere. Still the writting wasn't that well written but at least it added to the atmosphere not detract from it. Fantastic speech though.

jim0n
jim0n

That was a very interesting talk.

RaiKageRyu
RaiKageRyu

Great speech. But given their track record, I don't expect all to much from them.

drogaz
drogaz

I agree with him all the way. If games want to be a respected art form they are going to need what all other art has: a message. Video games should transcend mere entertainment like good movies and books. Few games do this and even fewer get it right. I wish to be a game developer when I grow up and I wish my games to have a message within there storyline. Too Human is still a highly anticipated game for me and I really hope it turns out well.

jobeesh
jobeesh

It's very refreshing to see a designer out there reading McLuhan, who I've written a few papers using his thoughts as launching points, and trying to apply it to game making. What he's talking about is not about a game but about GAMES. All games. Not even all games, he's really talking about all media and what you can say with an artistic medium. In order for game design to be a respected art form it needs to mature a lot in terms of sending a message. His speech is awesome to me because of contemplated so many of his points before. Silcon Knights is going to be one of the first places I apply to when I graduate college.

jc_tkml
jc_tkml

I know it's an ugly game for now but NORSE mythology better than greek IMO bring it on although I don't have high hopes for this game :D

1valiantknight
1valiantknight

I played this game at E3 06 and yes it was terrible but even after that bad first impression I still have high hopes. I see now what they are aiming for and if they reach it it will be amazing. Not to mention the fact that the story in this game is one of the best to ever grace the video game medium, why? Cause it's NORSE mythology in a crazy futuristic setting.

Darth_Tigris
Darth_Tigris

RE: YukoAsho Only if by 'odd' you mean 'impressive'. As pres of SK, I'm sure its not a huge deal for him to go away for a day or two for these conventions. They do have a huge staff working on the game. And the lawsuit is being handled by the lawyers. Not really much work for him. As for this story, this was a very interesting read. Dyack has some wonderful analytical abilities even if it does rub people the wrong way once or twice. Too Human could be his Apocalypse Now easily ...

dlind70
dlind70

*claps* I sense some fine wisdom in that presentation. I believe it was a great talk because the "medium" of Gamespot News got it across to me very well. :) Bring on Too Human!

demollyon
demollyon

Too Human will be GOTY 2008. Mark my words.

lamprey263
lamprey263

I don't know why people have such a boner for Too Human. The gameplay videos look bad, the E307 cinematic looks bad; am I missing something?

Awinagainov
Awinagainov

stop these conferences, and make the game already! i cant wait.

YukoAsho
YukoAsho

You know, it's amazing how this guy is at every convention, handling a lawsuit against Epic, AND getting a game made? Am I the only person who thinks that's odd?

jc_tkml
jc_tkml

less talk more work I say since I'd like to see a futuristic Norse mythology based game

Bansheesdie
Bansheesdie

Even knowing everything Silicon Knights has had to go through to make Too Human, I still think it is going to be a good game, nay a great game!