AUSTIN, Texas--Legendary game designer Will Wright looks at the world as somewhat of a simulation, where many things cascade into the next, creating a causal chain of events.
"Story, really, is following one causal chain and presenting that to the viewer," said Wright, designer of games like The Sims, SimCity, and Electronic Arts' forthcoming Spore, in his keynote speech at South by Southwest Interactive on Tuesday. In his hour onstage, Wright spelled out--in a coffee-fueled frenzy--his personal view of interactive storytelling.
Wright led the crowd through his usual demonstration of the Spore creature editor, which allows players to quickly build fantastical little animals in mere moments. He is particularly fond of how fast players can color their new creations.
"We've taken something that would take a texture artist a couple days," Wright said as he automatically filled in the colors on a new Spore creature, "and reduced it to a couple hundred milliseconds."
Wright also explained that for him and his Spore colleagues, the game--which is expected sometime in the second half of 2007--is akin to a very elaborate Montessori toy. He said that because of the scientific theories it is based on and because the game is designed, to some extent, to predict what would make the game world more interesting, it is in fact an elaborate philosophy tool.
"You walk away thinking about the meaning of life," he said. "How did we get here?"
He also showed how artificial societies in Spore can be quickly turned into representations of human behavior. For example, by dropping a monolith into a populated area, he created a religious icon, and local creatures quickly began worshipping the monolith.
Wright used the rest of the demo to showcase Spore's additional features, some of which had not been seen before. Those included the ability to change climates, such as quickly raising the temperature of an area on a planet so seas recede or even disappear altogether. He then joked that Spore could be a sequel to the Al Gore documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, as he melted a planet with his cloud ray. Essentially, he argued, Spore can give players a toy version of evolution.
For about half an hour, Wright led the audience on a whirlwind tour of his philosophy of interactive storytelling and how it differs from that of movies. He said that the most important property of storytelling for him is empathy, which is something movies do a good job of establishing.
"So if we know the player has failed at the same miserable level three times, why not just let him skip the level?"
But he also said video games can instill a sense of pride and guilt in ways movies cannot.
"I've played (the video game) Black and White and beat up my characters to see what would happen," Wright said. "I've never felt guilty watching a movie."
The point, he said, is that games provide more proactive agency: "I am causing what is going on on the screen." Still, he also said that any kind of story can open up the "possibility space" for those watching or reading.
For example, he pointed to the famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones is running away from a giant rolling stone.
"What if he trips there or falls down the hole?" he asked. We're "imagining all these little possibilities that don't happen in the film."
And what some interactive storytellers struggle with, Wright suggested, is offering a causal chain of events, presumably one that leads viewers to experience the richest possible palette of emotions.
Wright then turned to what he said was one of his favorite types of stories, the kind where the storyline is "going along and going along and then all of a sudden it takes a (major, unexpected) turn." He used several films as examples, including Memento, which he said had an interactive method of playing with the causal chain.
"At some point," Wright explained, "each future point in the (film's) chain caused you to re-evaluate what you'd seen before. It was kind of an interactive puzzle game."
Another one of his favorite stories, he said, is Groundhog Day. "It's an interactive sequence (the Bill Murray character is) going through," Wright said. "All of a sudden, it's 6 a.m. again. Basically, it was a game (and) he had to restart."
Every succeeding day in the film, Wright said, the audience sees the Murray character skipping over more and more of what he spent his time on because they already know most of what he does.
"And that's something that we really should be doing, over and over again," he said.
After the Spore demo, Wright talked about how computers can expand our imaginations and become powerful tools for self-expression. He also talked about how every once in awhile, the world goes through major paradigm shifts. That's happening more frequently than in the past, in part because of political issues, in part environmental issues.
Games, he said, are sometimes perceived as meaningless toys, but they can be much more important and allow storytellers to build much more elaborate models of the world.
"These things will allow us to change the world," Wright said, "and (people's) awareness of these models, for the rest of their lives, hopefully."