D.I.C.E. '08: BioShock, Mass Effect, Rock Band devs dissect storytelling

Ken Levine, Ray Muzkya, and Greg LoPiccolo discuss the evolution of narrative in games and why it is important to stay focused on what amazes players.

LAS VEGAS--Last night, the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences held its 11th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards during the D.I.C.E. Summit at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas. Unsurprising to near all of the 7 million-plus gamers who own it, Activision and Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare walked away with top honors at the event, grabbing overall game of the year, console game of the year, action game of the year, and outstanding achievement in online gameplay.

While Infinity Ward spent its fair share of the awards ceremony hoisting its four-pack of trophies, the developer shared the spotlight with a number of other studios throughout the course of the evening. Three other big winners for the night were 2K Boston, Harmonix, and BioWare, garnering a combined total of eight accolades. 2K Boston's BioShock won for outstanding achievement in sound design, original music composition, story development, and art direction, while Rock Band took home outstanding innovation in gaming, outstanding achievement in soundtrack, and family game of the year and Mass Effect nabbing role-playing game of the year.

Three of the major players from those studios joined GameSpot's own Ricardo Torres in a session today to discuss the role of narrative in games. On the hot seat were Ken Levine, founder and creative director of 2K Boston--nee Irrational Games; Greg LoPiccolo, vice president of product development at Harmonix; and Dr. Ray Muzyka, chairman, CEO, and founder of BioWare.

Sitting three abreast, Levine began the session by noting the apt seating placement, with he in the middle and LoPiccolo and Muzkya flanking him on the left and right, respectively. The significance here was that Mass Effect, BioShock, and Rock Band each have narratives that coincided with the seating order, in that Mass Effect was the most grandiose while Rock Band had the most subtle. The difference in the three games, he noted, was embodied by the different ways in which each approaches its narrative.

Agreeing, Muzyka noted the evolution of what narrative encompasses. As he sees it, a game like Bethesda Softworks' The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is the most free-form, emergent narrative, where players in a way define their own narrative by the paths they choose to travel. BioWare, he feels, is in the middle of the narrative spectrum, where players still have a wide variety of choices, but an overlaying linear storyline still drives the game. The tightest form of narrative is found in games like BioShock and Call of Duty 4, said Muzyka. While these games still offer some freeplay with choice, they are far more directed and linear.

Muzyka then expounded on the way in which narrative emerges. Far more than just a storyline, narrative can be expressed in a number of different ways, according to Muzkya. The BioWare cofounder sees narrative emerging from multiplayer interaction, communities outside of the game, and pacing within the game. The narrative can often be a very personal experience as well, he noted, with players customizing their progression and characters, effectively having their identity embodied in the game's avatar.

Picking up on this concept, Levine says this broader scope of narrative can be seen in a game like Civilization, which has no spoken dialogue. He says the narrative emerges from the player's interaction with the game, giving the example of the story that emerges from the player's internal conflict over having to feud with the Scots, who keep retaking a territory. The narrative in this sense becomes very personal and very powerful, he said.

After self-deprecating remarks, LoPiccolo chimed in, saying that Rock Band's narrative is designed to capture the emotion of playing in an actual band with others. Harmonix's goal was to create a bond between players, and the developer attempted to do this with the role-playing game elements of traveling the country, playing gigs.

The conversation then shifted to paring down the narrative to fit into the game. Levine noted that the original design documents were out of control, with the game initially supposed to take place from 1946 to modern day. People couldn't keep 50 years off events in their heads, he said, so it became a matter of taking five characters and turning them into one, or taking a bunch of notions or ideas and either combining them or dropping them outright. His focus shifted from throwing in everything to limiting and really selling the ideas that they wanted to focus on, rather than telling 50 million stories. He wanted people to listen to the audio dialogues without having to use Cliff Notes or have a pen by their side.

BioWare didn't have as much of a problem with this, Muzkya commented, saying that the development cycle is a very collaborative process and people tend to easily agree on what should stay and what should go. He did say that BioWare's games often resemble an iceberg, where players only see 10 percent of the actual work done in the game. The dedicated writing team at BioWare often spends six months to one year building a body of knowledge and creating the universe that the game emerges from. The hard part then becomes where to fit all of this content in, whether that be in the game itself or through a prequel novel or a sequel. However, he noted the importance of the 90 percent of the work that isn't often seen, because it is what lays the foundation for the story.

When asked whether more RPG aspects are planned for the Rock Band series, the Harmonix VP said that the company worries about incorporating too many, since the game is, at its heart, a performance simulator. Riffing on this concept, Muzyka claims that all games are RPGs because players are able to do things that they can't do in real life easily. Adding to this, Levine said games are about a core fantasy, whether they give the player a chance to be an interstellar space hero or a rock star. However, the core fantasy was a problem with BioShock. "Who wants to be a tool in an objectivist failed Utopia?" he joked.

Returning to the idea of chipping away the narrative to get at the final product of the game, Torres queried the trio on how much of the paring down is influenced by marketing the game. According to Muzkya, there are three parties that need to be accommodated in that equation. First, the employees who are making the game have to stay true to themselves to maintain their level of passion to create a great product. Second, the customer needs to be catered to, in the sense of providing a product that people want to buy. Lastly, there is the business end of making a profit and appeasing shareholders.

Agreeing with Muzkya, LoPiccolo says that constraint is a good thing, since making a game about anything can be paralyzing. Constraint adds focus, he claims, and it takes a long time to figure that out. Likewise, Levine said that he takes his fiduciary responsibilities quite seriously. He says that if someone hands him $20 million to make a game, he feels a responsibility to make their money back. He conceded that such financial-mindedness can lead to design choices that may rub some players the wrong way.

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61 comments
Doctor-Really
Doctor-Really

There seem to be a lot of people talking about getting better narrative structures into their games, but there's not a lot of understanding in the industry about how the process of writing works. At best, companies might hire in a script writer, but usually that person won't have worked on games design so doesn't understand the needs of the media. I believe that one of the issues with writing in games is that the narrative is often decided by committee. This is in some ways part of the process: designers will always need to give feedback to show where they need gameplay opportunities, but it does negate a lot of the chances of an individual's vision being carried into the game. Modern games are frequently quite single-note experiences. They are mostly of a reasonable quality, but the committee-style decisions about the stories often flatten out the quirks that make novels and films so interesting. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is a rare case where a great script with bags of charm has managed to survive the creation process, and this is primarily because Naughty Dog said 'we are making a narrative led game' right at the beginning. The result is a great adventure that I played through a couple of times very quickly because I enjoyed the story. I know I'll go back to it again in the future for the same reason. Heavenly Sword is an example of how conflicting visions and a lack of understanding of the media can spoil a story. The heroes are all a serious bunch but the nemesis and his cohorts seem like they have stepped out of a pantomime. Torn between the two, all sense of emotional engagement is lost. Both of these games have decent but fairly repetitive gameplay, yet Uncharted made me want to play it again because the story-telling was so good, whereas Heavenly Sword is destined for eBay. That kind of impression has direct financial effects on the companies that make the games: good story writing means I'll buy the next Uncharted on release, the poor writing in Heavenly Sword means that I probably won't. This is a business. Yes, there is an art to making games, but these are companies with staff to pay. They need to make money somehow. Unfortunately the industry talks big words about narrative but it doesn't seem to understand how to use it yet, partly because it's still seen as being utterly subordinate to the gameplay. The biggest selling genre at the moment is third person action where it is crucial that a healthy balance of both great story-telling and gameplay is needed. Without this they will fail to fulfil their potential, either creatively or financially.

Captain-Ichigo
Captain-Ichigo

whoever said assassin's creed should of been up there dont hurt yourself that game is way boring

GrimBee
GrimBee

Crysis had a pretty good story, heck - Phoenix Wright has the best story out of all these ;) lol MGS4 would of probably of topped every game on this if it was out before... but the thing about games is creating that perfect blend of both story and gameplay. Assasins creed had a bit too many cut-away story moments for me. Great engine and graphics, but the cut-scenes were boring and the whole future bit was a complete waste of time. It was like scraping the barrel for an excuse as to why we were playing a game based in the past... They should of called it "assasins creed" and just had you playing as the character in the past. No future story-telling.. I mean, the gameplay in the future parts were "walk to bed, walk back to lab". When story makes you smash the heck out of the start button... no award should even be mentioned near it imo.

Treesong
Treesong

I thought Bioshock was a typical boring, linear shooter and the Story sure did not take me in at all. I stopped playing after an hour or so. Also the worst intro cinematics ever. Was that planecrash supposed to bring me into the story? Biggest waste of money on a single player game ever.

Pfilosophy
Pfilosophy

Assassin's Creed definitely should've been up there. Especially if storytelling is being discussed.

okassar
okassar

First of all,where the hell is Halo 3.Lolz,I think I know the reason but whatever.Halo 3 was a great game and I still think it has the best multiplayer out there. Anyway,COD4 has multiplayer that comes really close to match that in a unique way and different gameplay and with a much better storyline. COD4 definitely deserved Game of the Year.Bioshock deserved its awards too,OMG,best story ever,definitely great and eery sounds,alot of surprised and holy crap moments.Mass Effect also deserved its RPG game of the year,and it definitely had an innovative storyline,a grand universe and all that.But first of all there weren't many good RPG's to go against that anyway...and,ofcourse,I think the battles are pretty average,maybe even stupid.Now Assassin's Creed is great,I think it should've been up there too,but that,again,has substandard battles.

Ravi_1900
Ravi_1900

The real thing that is attractive abt half life 2 is that it gives a gameplay feel like that of 2d games due to its perfect level design with immerssive experience of 3D world and this is one of the thing that no other studio has done succesfully with so much freedom given during the gameplay.

dual_barrel
dual_barrel

Half-Life 2's episodic contents marred the outstanding image of Half-Life 2.

_Piranha_
_Piranha_

The great best game " BioShock " and " Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare ". is wait BioShock 2...

Malcom90k
Malcom90k

^In fairness, Episode 2 was in the middle of the road in terms of story progression. Many of the things revealed in the game intentionally go unanswered because they want to build suspense for Episode 3. This is due in part to the nature of a planned trilogy. Episode 3 will mark the end of this story arc, and while undoubtedly some things will still be left up to interpretation (as is the nature of Half-Life), from what I've read, there will be some pretty gratifying answers. The story in Half-Life is actually quite rich, you do just need to read between the lines a bit. Try reading about Half-Life on wikipedia, you can find a great deal of information about the backstory. I do agree though, Half-Life is my favorite FPS series. It should've gotten more love at these awards, and they should've had someone from Valve instead of Rock Band show up to this discussion.

HellaStoned
HellaStoned

Although the half-life series is my number 1 in video games, it actually feels to me like it has a huge lack of a story, or just a tiny insignificant fraction of one. I just don't like the "figure it out yourself" storytelling method i think. Maybe when (if) the story gets closed, temporarily at least, I can step back and see it's coolness. But if you ask me, the need to wrap it up, b. Hurry up and get those secrets out before I die, please. This episodic, "nobody knows the truth, gotta play the next one to find out but then still you don't find out" style is destroying me.

matrixx29
matrixx29

TO MARBING. storylines are the reason i buy certain games like i watch certain movies. i love being part of the story as if i'm the characte. Mass Effect has been the greatest game for me. i love the story! when the game was over, i cheered "YEAH SHEPARD!" but racing games should NOT have a story line. just racing. to each their own. you don't have to subject yourself to such great games. you can continue to purchase non-storyline games.

gamecubepad
gamecubepad

He says that if someone hands him $20 million to make a game, he feels a responsibility to make their money back. He conceded that such financial-mindedness can lead to design choices that may rub some players the wrong way.

This what it sounds like to me, "We make the same game 5 times over because the first one made money. We aren't sure of what makes a game good, but we can't take that risk. This is a business, not an art."

Forget the idea that a few guys with heart can pump out Doom, Counter-Strike, or Earl Weaver. We need $20 million, 5yrs, and 200 people. First they become over-infatuated with money, then they stop appreciating the fans, in turn violating the art form. Then they bloat and die. Noobs.

dragonwarlock77
dragonwarlock77

I pity you, marbing, I really do. It's just rather sad you think that way.

Fake_Sketch
Fake_Sketch

I have to be honest, I quit reading after the first line of thus article, its too long. Anyway Id like to say tht the best games in existence such as bioshock are good because iof plot and storieline, thos games are the future.

marbing
marbing

Personally, I HATE games that have a storyline. It is one of the major things that will make me put a game back on the shelf in the store or cross it off my list when I'm reading reviews. If people go on and on about the story, voice acting, cut scenes...I have no interest. For me, all a story does is get in the way of game play. It forces you into the designer's narrow, linear view of how the game should be played...they eliminate any creativity on the player's part since all that is allowed is what has been scripted. If anyone has any doubt about where I stand... I think The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion is too linear. I want to eliminate ALL the narrative elements that are imposed on us by the designers and make my own. Besides, who said that a story was even necessary for a great game. Chess has no storyline but I expect it will still be played long after these pathetic attempts at scripting have long since crumbled to silicon. So guys (designers) give it up! You'll never be Spielberg, or Lucas so stop trying to pretend that you are filmmakers and just give us playable games without all of the superfluous nonsense. Forget the lame storylines, the laughable dialogue, the useless cut scenes and the annoying sountracks...put your energies to creating a great game and not a wannabe movie. I don't want a part in your vision...give me my own vision and YOU stay out of it!

drangel_jam
drangel_jam

this article is poorly written, but thx to for the blog.

mumblesh
mumblesh

Did you people actually read the article? Rock Band didn't win anything to do with story, a discussion is all that took place, and just so happened to be about narrative. The developers got to discuss where narrative comes into play, and refers to their own products. To suggest it has no part to play in Rock Band shows a lot of ignorance of the game. Rock Band has a narative, the 'most subtle' but the discussion is about how story is important and in all variety of games. Some games tell a story, some games allow you to create a story of your own as you play. I'd like to see more free-form story telling, and bit like that of Rock Band in a sense, in more products, say a racing game. I hope someone tries to add more random variety to games and allows a story to be told as you play. More 'incident' and analysis of your actions and incidents that happen due to your performance. I'm sure it's the next evolution in gaming, ask Peter Molyneux!

SavoyPrime
SavoyPrime

Why would somebody from Harmonix be included in this? :?

athenian29
athenian29

I've never played Bioshock, so I'll just keep my mouth shut.

sancezz
sancezz

For me, BioSHock will be one of the few games I will remember as a true shining beacon within current times. Halo? Pales in comparison. Call of Duty 4? Again, great but can't touch it. Ok...gameplay wise, both of thos egames destroy BioShock, but the gameplay isn't what makes BioSHock incredible...it's the atmosphere, it was so perfectly realised. Never before had I had such a sense of place...not even in a movie.

solidsnake2050
solidsnake2050

This is a joke, right? Mass Effect and Bioshock are certainly worthy of mention here, but Rock Band?! The hype over Rock Band has become sickening, it doesn't even compare to Mass Effect or Bioshock. Even more so, Halo 3 should have been included here rather than Rock Band, any sane person will tell you that Halo 3 has more of a story than Rock Band.

Nerevarine-
Nerevarine-

How can Half-Life be the King of in-game storytelling for First Person Shooters when the Person Shooting cannot tell his story? One of the greatest FPS, to be sure, but Gordon Freeman is one of the worst characters, as well. : /

LoganFerguson
LoganFerguson

Halo 3 had no story? Hah! Halo 3 was the culmination of one of the more original FPS storylines ever created. Not as great as Half-Life, obviously, who is still the king of in-game storytelling for First Person Shooters, but the original Halo had a compelling storyline. It's one reason why it was so popular (along with it's realistic, yet arcadey multiplayer gameplay). No FPS involving aliens ever got more excited to fight a horde of aliens more so than Halo. It really felt like you were fighting against extinction. The problem with Halo is though, the story was so great, so popular, that not even Bungie anticipated the fan following to it. Like Pirates of the Carribean and the Matrix, the original was a great creative piece. And the developers tried to capitilize on that support by turning the original into a trilogy. Hence why Halo 2 ended in a cliffhanger, setting up Halo 3 (just like PotC2 and Matrix 2). However, I believe Bungie killed the most appealing part of the story, mankind versus the galaxy, by forcing us to play as our hated archrivals, the elites. Halo rocked in Legendary mode when fighting Elites, because you literally felt at times like you were fighting another human being. The elites were your doppleganger. But by taking them out of the equation and making the Brutes your new main advisary, you've dropped out the strategic aspect of the game, and forced us to fight damage sponges. Halo 3 may have not had a great overall storyline, but you have to realize, it was part of a trilogy, not a stand alone story in itself.

nate1222
nate1222

This insider industry BS is getting old, fast! The guys from Harmonix shouldn't have been there.

YukoAsho
YukoAsho

Yeah, the guy from Harmonix had no business there. Why they couldn't get a guy from Infinity Ward or something, the world may never know.

CMakaCreative
CMakaCreative

I have no idea what type of story Rock Band possess but I highly doubt it is on par with the other two games (Bioshock & Mass Effects). By the way, you might get away with sticking Ladanian Tomlinson in a interview with Elite NFL passers....it would be very questionable why he would be in the discussion panel but he has thrown a few TD's in his NFL career. So he has some kind of input. Rock Band, what input do they really have in storytelling?

peeweeshift
peeweeshift

i thought mass effect had best story, followed in order by bioshock, halo3, and cod4. (this is for 360). mass effect weaved everything nicely, bioshock had nice atmospehere that helped build the story. you would walk a corner and hear something, or see something that added to the story. halo 3 had lots of these types of things too but more of it was visual. However many stupid gamers don't pay attention to the details and expect everything to be told to them explicitly and presented in a basic form. Cod4 had a pretty bare bones story, but the vids before the missions helped set it up nicely. it was a mixed bag which made me put it at the end of the list.

Krunkcity3000
Krunkcity3000

ROCKBAND!!!??? Are they serious. If changing the background from bars to arenas between playing songs is story telling then Streetfighter 2 had better story telling than Rockband. You don't even have a set group of main characters. Everytime you log into your profile everyother person in the band is chosen randomly. This would be like an interview of Elite NFL passers and then squeezing in Ladanian Tomlinson because he runs good. This is laughable.

Tsuchikage
Tsuchikage

Okay, so we have the people responsible for two of the greatest stories in modern gaming, Mr. Levine (BioShock) and Dr. Muzyka (Mass Effect), and a representative from Harmonix, creators of Rock Band? Does Rock Band even have a story? I haven't played it, so maybe I'm just ignorant of the game's story, but it can't be a story-focused game. Why not interview the creator of Metal Gear Solid (Mr. Kojima) or Mr. Sakaguchi (creator of Final Fantasy)?

Pete5506
Pete5506

Story in Rock Band????? Now the story in Mass Effect, so good

hazelnutman
hazelnutman

This guy should start talking about story after he's played some Metal Gear Solid

nate1222
nate1222

@SS2Dante Good point, man. I used to love the FF games, all the way back to the SNES. I still think FF7 and FFX had the best stories, though. Next year they should have some writers from SquareEnix drop by.

pakurtz123
pakurtz123

I just dont get how Rock Band's dev is considered an expert on "storytelling."

avibat
avibat

Muzyka is not referring to the quality of the narrative in COD4. "Tightest" refers to the constrained nature of the storytelling, in that the player is guided through the game without much choice regarding the path the narrative takes. The player must complete A, before moving on to B, then to C, etc.

goallie
goallie

What was so great about COD's storyline?

doomsoth
doomsoth

"The tightest form of narrative is found in games like BioShock and Call of Duty 4, said Muzyka." Wow, if Muzyka considers CoD4 to have that great of a narrative, he obviously hasn't played many games or has no clue what he is talking about.

RockaWuzHur
RockaWuzHur

@Farhansalimm The reason Halo 3 did not make it into this awards show is because it wasn't innovative, at all. Maybe it had some decent gameplay, but the story sucked compared to Bioshock and Mass Effect. Halo 3 was really overated. I also believe that COD4 shouldn't have walked away with that award. It is a great game don't get me wrong but it's story decent, not great.

ChuckNorris82
ChuckNorris82

AnimeNewtype, Lol hahahahahah thats good!! But yeah, Rock Band with a story........................What....The.....He11........................... O and Bioware and ME Kicks @*$!!!

frag_1
frag_1

Yup I did.. and dont see the point in writing about something this pointless

AnimeNewtype
AnimeNewtype

I like the name LoPiccolo. I wonder if there's a guy with the name McGinyu. XD

nrCooldude
nrCooldude

did anybody read the whole article??

football_legend
football_legend

I just hope Mass Effect 2 would contain a fraction of the bugs in the 1st one. The game was great, the bugs dragged it way down.

vonkronz
vonkronz

I dont put much stock in awards, they seem more a popularity contest than anything but Rock Band, Mass Effect, and CoD4 all deserved their awards...and to all you naysayers, go back to playing Halo3 and Mario Galaxy, followed by Guitar Hero.

SentientGames
SentientGames

Sheesh godson... God forbid anyone have an opinion. I think you're the one who needs to grow up and stop jumping for saying how they feel. I think all the games got what they deserved. Mass Effect is a great role-playing game, but it's definitely got too many issues to be GOTY. COD4 wasn't my top pick, but I can understand why it landed so many awards. BioShock was pretty sick, too, even if it didn't live up to the standards of its predecessors.

nappan
nappan

I can't believe how underappreciated Mass Effect has been compared with a very fun, but hardly innovative, FPS like COD4. Yeah, COD4 is an amazing game, but Mass effect is the first 360 game that made me stop and think "ok, maybe MS can manage to buy a good RPG". I'm tired of "RPG elements", and would rather see "shooter elements" in RPGs (as in Mass Effect, KOTOR). Lets face it, RPGs are the masters of telling stories and getting a game to last longer than 6 hours, and with new generation tech making them glossy and multifaceted is right here! I hate the trend in the other direction to just shove some "leveling up" into a vanilla shooter and pretend you gave it a storyline. A great shooter makes a fun mechanic (running and gunning) better, but an RPG can make even cooking or farming an engrossing experience. 'nuff said.

untitledcause
untitledcause

I agree completely with Malcom90k on this on. Why did they have LoPiccolo from Harmonix come and talk when his game is not even story driven? Valve's guys would have more than sufficed. Heck, even Joe Staten or Frank O'Conner would have been welcome... (although the Bungie guy's store telling is not the greatest). I would have liked to seen Masahiro Sakurai :)