Double Fine, BioWare, Silicon Knights, Bungie on storytelling

PAX 2009: Tim Schafer, Greg Zeschuk, Denis Dyack, Joseph Staten weigh in on the power of interactive narrative and the ways it can be delivered successfully.

Who Was There: The "Medium Is the Massage: Story Matters" panel at the 2009 Penny Arcade Expo featured a few names that might sound familiar, as well as a somewhat ambiguous intentional typo in its title. On hand were Double Fine's Tim Schafer, BioWare's Greg Zeschuk, Silicon Knights' Denis Dyack, and Bungie's Joseph Staten.

Tim Schafer

What They Talked About: Storytelling and the gaming industry have a love-hate relationship. On the one hand, the medium offers near-endless possibilities on the types and ways in which a story can be told. On the other, most players just want to get into the action and kill stuff. This and other topics were discussed in a story-driven panel lorded over by some of the biggest names in the gaming industry.

Leading off the proceedings, the moderator elicited opinions on what, exactly, interactive storytelling is. For BioWare cofounder Zeschuk, interactive storytelling entails in-game narrative, such as dialogue, choices, and environmental tells, as well as out-of-game experiences. He then gave the example of sharing "watercooler" stories, where players recount their experiences about what they did with others, outside the game.

Staten offered similar sentiments, saying that interactive storytelling involves giving players a sandbox so that they can tell their own stories that originate from the game. He gave the example of two brothers in a multiplayer match, one of whom sneaks up on the other and shoots him with a shotgun in the back. That's an experience that can be recounted, and will be recounted, for a long time to come, he said.

Denis Dyack

Dyack and Schafer offered similar opinions on interactive storytelling, saying that it involves all aspects of a game, from audio to art to technology to gameplay. Schafer went on to note that his studio's ultimate goal is to give players an experience where they become completely absorbed in the world they've created.

As for how story comes about, Zeschuk said that BioWare "spends an inordinate amount of time building the world." He said the writing team fleshes out the entire universe in which a game takes place, spending a year or so working on everything from political structure to the world's history.

The moderator then asked Schafer how the story for Double Fine's Brutal Legend came about. According to Schafer, the idea was an amalgam of wanting to create a game where a warrior leads a massive army into the field of battle and a "rip off" of Mark Twain's classic A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," where a man from the future travels back in time wielding advanced technology.

The same question was asked of Silicon Knights' Too Human, to which Dyack responded that he wanted to comment on the effects of technology on society. He then offered a brief recounting on the history of black glass, saying that it can be formed, as far as anyone can tell, only by the intense heat generated by a nuclear explosion. Oddly, black glass was found in the tombs of ancient Egyptians. This gave him the idea of positing Norse mythology as fact, and the abuse of technology brought civilization to its knees.

Greg Zeschuk

With the Halo universe now spanning several games, books, and comics, Staten was asked if Bungie initially set out to create such a massive universe. Staten's response echoed Zeschuk's, in that he said the team from the beginning gave themselves head room by plotting out a reaching scope for the Halo universe that would allow the franchise to grow.

Schafer then discussed how much story is dictated by gameplay, and vice versa. For Brutal Legend, he said, the game involves a biker, so there obviously needed to be some kind of action. The story and the gameplay are woven together as a game is being developed, he said, and both often change to accommodate the other.

The next question was directed back at Dyack and involved the multiple characters that were interwoven into Silicon Knights' Eternal Darkness. According to Dyack, crafting that story was challenging on multiple fronts, not the least of which was selling Nintendo on the GameCube exclusive. "To say to Nintendo, we want to do a game with multiple characters, and then say we're going to kill most of them, was not easy," he said.

The discussion then turned to cutscenes and whether or not they play a detrimental role in telling an interactive story. Staten quite bluntly noted, "I think the main thing is just don't make the cutscenes suck." Immersion, he continued, can be broken by any number of things, including cutscenes. What cutscenes do well, he said, was anchor the pacing of the game by giving players a bit of a breather after an intense action sequence, a point which Zeschuk and Dyack both concurred.

Joe Staten

Schafer noted that cutscenes can be problematic during dramatic moments, because, for example, players want to be the ones who deliver the final blow. Players do not want to watch the event unfold during a cutscene, he said.

The formal component of the panel closed with Zeschuk talking about how BioWare keeps all of the story elements and mythology built into the studio's games in order. "We use the power of technology," was Zeschuk's reply.

Quote: "Can you have a World War II tank, a mastodon, and Satan all together in the same place? The answer is yes!"--Tim Schafer, talking about...something.

Takeaway: While the role of storytelling within games is cause for debate throughout the industry, the fact remains that the potential to tell meaningful and impactful tales exists. As the industry continues to mature, the panel concurred that intricate and diverse stories will begin to thrive.

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Discussion

108 comments
hector530
hector530

halo doesnt have good dialogue or story telling. i love it when ppl say "halo has a GREAT story..... but you have to read the books first." im sorry but saying that is like saying "that Toyota is very fast... you just have put a bigger engine in it."

CloudY2J
CloudY2J

That Schafer comment... "Can you have a World War II tank, a mastodon, and Satan all together in the same place? The answer is yes!" - he's talking about Scribblenauts.

jeffv541
jeffv541

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

cainetao11
cainetao11

Yeah, tajirinere, dialouge is what story is about. That's why Wall E, the animated film was praised. because he had so much to say. That's why Holly Hunter won the Oscar for the PIano, even though she never spoke a word in it.

midnight8toker
midnight8toker

not even a mention on silicon knights and the legacy of kain series? that game had story

SpiritOfFire117
SpiritOfFire117

tajirnere, you obviously didn't even bother to read the Bungie portion.

joeborg14
joeborg14

I didn't really gather much from this article. All it said to me was, "Storytelling is important." And I'm pretty sure I already knew that.

tajirinere
tajirinere

the last person you want to talk to on story telling is bungie, especially when their main character utters about 20 lines in halo 3.

gr81matt
gr81matt

The title isn't a typo, it's a reference to the book by Marshall McLuhan which has to do with the impact that Media, Communication and Technology has on society and vice verse.

Joesocwork
Joesocwork

I enjoyed reading the panel and the ensuing conversation on the board. Story telling really does have the potential of a special relationship with gaming b/c, when done right, gaming, is the one media where the audience can potentially interact and affect the story, or at least give the illusion to doing so. And that plays a strong factor in leading to the magic of immersion that many of us hardcore/avid gamers crave.

lamprey263
lamprey263

OMG, who cares about Silicon Knights, their games are terrible, they haven't made a good one since Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, like 13 years ago

Cwagmire21
Cwagmire21

@gamespotjulius I agree, I loved Eternal Darkness - Silicon Knights use to bring out the good stuff - haven't seen much from them in awhile though :(

Kentr_Wrolfsong
Kentr_Wrolfsong

Too bad Black Isle isn't around anymore. They could have said a thing or two about story in games (coughPlanscapeTormentcough).

drgrady
drgrady

I'm sure someone's already mentioned this, but talking about sneaking up on another player in versus mode does not constitute a story! And while I liked all three Halo games (not counting Halo Wars) and loved the story in Halo CE, the Halo universe as a whole is a mess of inconsistency and logic that is flawed at best. Don't get me wrong, Bungie does a great job of including lots of details, symbolism, and hidden messages, but the overall story developed by Staten (as well as the books by Eric Nylund) is a bit lacking for someone considered one of the best in the industry.

gamespotjulius
gamespotjulius

Eternal Darkness is an oldie now, but has the best storytelling i've ever seen in a game. By comparison many of the recent RPGs such as Mass Effect and Oblivion should hang their heads in shame. It's the interlacing of multiple events that makes a good story in a game just as in a book

lathan94
lathan94

Silicon Knights isnt much of a developer anymore. Too Human took like 7 years to make and was bad. I have seen games made in 6 months that were 10 times better.

dashizy666
dashizy666

As a game, mass effect was good. It could have been much longer. any RPG that took 10 hours to beat is a major flaw.

chadchurchill
chadchurchill

@xts 3 "Mass effect was a nice ride but the story was hardly anything to write home about compared to what you would find on TV in the past 20 years." Are you high? The best thing about Mass Effect was the story. The gameplay (especially the driving) were the flawed parts. Have you watch the crap that's on TV lately. Mass Effect's story was an original and captivating science fiction tale. One of the best ever. You can find similarities with Star Trek but that's just because it was about Humans exploring space. Mass Effect was definitely flawed but the story was not the issue. If Mass Effect 2 can improve on some of the gameplay flaws, not repeat level designs and keep the same level of story telling then it's going to be one of the best RPG's to come out in awhile.

Intrakitt
Intrakitt

Why are people upset that David Cage isn't on this panel, even though he's only written what, two published titles thus far? One of them (Indigo Prophecy) was boring beyond belief. Sheesh...From what I've seen, Heavy Rain is going to be another snooze fest, though it will of course garner critical acclaim because there aren't many other games like it. Is different always better, when different equals boring?

Emraldo
Emraldo

Why is Silicon Knights on a panel with real developers?

dyurth
dyurth

Nice article about an important issue, some interesting views by some great developers but overall way too shallow. This is a deep subject that can be talked about for days and days...

Da_Mini
Da_Mini

@burn6 I wouldnt call mass effect a clone and u may not mean to but im an opinionated prick if anything srry cant help it. Mass effect kinda used great ideas polished them up a bit and took them in a slightly new. Dont get me wrong I bow to the series that is KOTOR but with mass effect and from what id expect from the sequel bioware is starting to leave a much bigger imprint on the gaming community

abosh1
abosh1

mass effect was the best...

burn6
burn6

mass effect was great, but to a KOTOR1-2 fan like me its a bit redundant. Mass Effect is a clone of KOTOR without the jedi or the sith. the shooting experience change the game and welcome new crowd namely first-person and third-person shooter fanatics and the sexy romance sequences added a spice to the mature audience a good hype. Bioware is a no doubt a great contributor in the game industry, but when it comes to intricate story-telling they are only second to the Elder Scrolls Developer, Bethesda Softworks. i'm sorry but i loved the ES to me they are the pioneer of story-telling in RPG.

xts3
xts3

@bunyipbrown "The animation in mass effect wasnt amazing." I also said "All aspects of a game matter" which you apparrently missed... Once a game reaches a certain level of good in a certain department... any more is gravy, if you replaced all the graphics in mass effect with 2D crappy looking sprites the game wouldn't be the same, even with the same dialogue and voice overs and those who disagree are incapable of understanding what it is that makes a game. Everything in mass effect was cliche to the max, and they even ripped off star trek characters and themes directly, the blue alien girls especially. The whole game was on rails (to keep the game flowing), because open ended games don't lend themselves well to making a game more like a movie. I still hated how cliche all the characters were, your main guy was a complete tool, and so were most of your crew. Mass effect played more like an FPS then anything else and that's part of the reason it got a lot of rave reviews. The better parts of the game were the action sequences and the driving/roving on worlds, stop to listen to characters speak their pre-scripted responses got old fast, and character interaction was just simple minded and banal. Mass effect was a nice ride but the story was hardly anything to write home about compared to what you would find on TV in the past 20 years.

bunyipbrown
bunyipbrown

The animation in mass effect wasnt amazing. It was the story line, graphics, voice over and the never ending choices that made that game. They managed to make you feel tiny and almost insignificant in the universe, even though there wasnt any free roaming in that game. They managed to do this by introducing multiple alien specials, all the cridible background stories on how they were created, the years they came to the Citadel ect. Also, using a political structure, and that having a back story, made the game feel very fresh and polished. Plenty of detail went into the story line, including how individual galactic companies were made. From gun manufacturers, to mining companies on outer planets. It was very well done. And yes the art design was very good.

xts3
xts3

All aspects of a game matter but you could mute all the characters in mass effect and have them all speak text and not take anything away from the game, mass effect experience comes more from the art and animation then it does the story, the story in mass effect is pretty bland, and only gets interesting once you find out about the big robot species who live in the void. I dislike almost all the characters in mass effect, as they feel like generic action movie characters. The story is told by and large by the art, a game like deadspace for instance could sit on it's own without any kind of narrative. that atmosphere in the game from the artists, level and sound designers were very good. I think developers tend to over-estimate a games need for a deep story. Story only matters if you're game isn't that fun to play single player. Anyone who is a story whore needs to play all the very first old games in a series: Final fantasy 1 had almost no in depth story what so ever and it is the game that launched the entire franchise, check out ff origins for the PS1 to see that a game doesn't "need" in depth story it just needs enough of a simple story to tie the other pieces of the game together and programmers, art, graphics and level designers do most of the story telling, by fitting all the pieces together correctly

aboghannam
aboghannam

Silicon Knights is the most uderrated developer in the world.

raiding_kvatch
raiding_kvatch

To me story-telling is one of the most important aspects of games, it's definitely true that who well the player is integrated into the story and the level of control they have over it have hugely affect a story's impact. As for this article, I feel like it didn't go deep enough, would've been interesting to see the panel and hear what else was said.

mdboomer
mdboomer

Why was Dyack included here? He really needs to start answering questions about Too Human. Are there sequels? Will they each take 10 years to make?

eyenoawl
eyenoawl

I enjoyed Jade Empire, but I'd take quality cutscenes over mechanical dialogue from Bioware any day. "Why don't I just kill you and take your coins!"

supercrazyhorse
supercrazyhorse

I, for one, like Halo's story. Sure, Halo 2 may have been a bit of a let down, and Halo 3 may have been too convulated for some, but I will always enjoy the stories of Halo. If you haven't read any of the Halo novels (specifically "The Fall of Reach") then I suggest you do because they provide a ton of backstory to the game's world and characters, while providing some important and interesting side-stories to boot.

okassar
okassar

Tim Schafer is the man.

zeniftan
zeniftan

@stevkh5: The first Halo game was given tonnes of appluase when it was released for having an excellent story. (the other 2 not so much.) And with all the book's and comic's coming out I can see where they're coming from in choosing this company story creation team. (Although, I've never read either so, I can't really say anything of a factual nature about this...) I HAVE read the, Bioware's endorsed, story teller: Drew Karphyshyn, now his book's are excellent as he's done 2 Mass Effect book's, the prequel and sequel to Mass Effect 1. Plus his Darth Bane star war's series. Which is telling based on these book's of JUST how good Star wars TOR may be. (Hopefully, which is big for me to hope for since I have a general rule to never touch MMORPG's. I may break it considering my nerddom of star wars.)

zeniftan
zeniftan

with what denis dyack has been stupidly saying recently on certain forum's. I believe it was hard for anyone to take him seriously. lol.

Tilian1
Tilian1

What a lousy panel. Superficial discussion of a very important issue by some of the worst possible devs -- Silicon Knights and Bungie? Bioware I understand. But this is a really panel for the likes of Jenova Chen and David Cage.

samswet
samswet

Not one single mention of the Legacy of Kain series and storytelling for Silicon Nights...hhmmph!

pilouuuu2004
pilouuuu2004

I consider Valve the masters of storytelling, because in their games they don't take control from the player to include cutscenes, but the cutscenes are an integral part of the game. Bioware choices are too black and white for my liking.

Hekynn
Hekynn

Bioware has awsome story telling man! Way more better than Bungie and MS!

newb16
newb16

boooo silicon knights sucks.

stevkh5
stevkh5

Can someone explain to me why everyone thinks Halo has a good story? I personally like the game for its multiplayer component and have logged on more than 200 hours, but the single player is absolute garbage. Uninteresting characters and a story that rips off much better sci-fi universes is not good in my book.

Ryguy4738
Ryguy4738

To me, story telling is important in a game or movie. I made a blog entry for that.

mikeyvp87
mikeyvp87

I think some developers should be ashamed of themselves for the stories they try to tell. I mean Gears, RE5, and Killzone had some stomach churning stories. I don't even wanna hear the excuse that gameplay over rides story. How come MGS4, Halo, and Uncharted can tell stories and have good to great stories. Look at Batman. The story telling in that game was a notch below dark knight and that was the best movie to release last year. I don't like giving developers a pass on story telling especially when there is so much potential to deliver tales better than some movies out there.

Intrakitt
Intrakitt

That's just his opinion Mankar, and I for one believe he has a right to express it. You may not agree with him, like he doesn't agree with the Final Fantasy series, but that doesn't mean you have to belittle him for having a different point of view. I also think the Final Fantasy series is entirely too overrated. I've never been as attached to a Final Fantasy as I was with VII. It is the only one I have played all the way through, even though I have played every FF game after that. It's just got all the components to make it a memorable and enjoyable game. Likeable characters, a good story (even though it did try to be a little too obviously environmentalist at times), and a devious villian to battle at the end...three separate times...Maybe I just felt like I had already devoted enough hours of my life to the Final Fantasy universe, but I just had no intention of completing any other Fantasy title besides the 7th. I'm not saying they're bad games but after a while they all just boil down to the same conflict at the end. End of the world, evil genius, you must defeat him...

kretyn
kretyn

it doesn't matter how amazing the story or plot of the game is if the gameplay is crap. if the gameplay and "fun" aspect of the game is lacking, then the game will suck. period.

Mankar_Camoran
Mankar_Camoran

@Janpieterzun You are an idiot and you fail at life. Seriously, just because you hate a series does not mean it's bad. Try to differentiate, and try to judge things objectively. Oh, and you are obviously too shallow to talk about storylines. Calling a hero a homo because of his looks (which are not homo in the first place), and dismissing the storyline takes ALL your "credibility" away. Come back in 10 years, and then talk to me about good stories.

bruno_fmenedes
bruno_fmenedes

Fairly interesting to read. But like in the movie industry, great storytelling will continue to be a sporadic event. Game or movie sales are seldom related to the quality of the story in them. And, in oposition to movies, the gameplay is always more important than the story (at least for me). No matter how great the story is, if the gameplay is poorly designed than the game isn't worth playing. There are even certain types of games that don't and never will need an intricate, diverse and/or emotional story to be high-quality, for example: sports games, racing games, puzzle games, fighting games and other pure action/platform games.