Soaking gamers in immersive worlds

QuakeCon 2010: Designers from Bethesda, Human Head, and Arkane talk about drawing players into games, the joys of Red Dead Redemption and Modern Warfare, and how 3D glasses suck.

Who was there: Human Head's Chris Rhinehart, Bethesda Game Studios' Emil Pagliarulo, and Arkane Studios' Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio.

What they didn't talk about: Their current projects, because none of the panelists' next games have been announced yet.

Fallout 3 immersed players in life after the bomb.

What they talked about: Although the name of the panel was "Building Immersive Worlds and Stories," the first topic of discussion was whether or not the designers on the panel even want players to be sucked into the game completely. Pagliarulo said that as a developer, part of him wants players to lose themselves in the worlds he creates. On the other hand, he knows that developers can get away with the crazy, violent things they put into their games because they know players are always aware that they are just playing games. If players actually did believe the game had become reality, that would give game-legislation advocates some ammunition.

Smith said every player experiences every part of a game differently because they bring part of themselves into the gameworld. He talked about the horse in Red Dead Redemption and how it helps make the game more compelling. He had one particular horse for a good chunk of the game, camping in the rain, saving it from cougars, panicking as it nearly got hit by a train. When it died, he said it was a genuinely emotional experience because it played on the death of his dog. Just having a range of interactions with the horse over a period of time drew him deeper into the game.

Pagliarulo talked about the "No Russian" level in Modern Warfare 2 and how it totally drew him in. Although he loves creating "evil gameplay," he said he didn't shoot any of the civilians. But at the part where the cops enter the picture and he had to defend himself, he opened fire, but felt awful about it and wanted to send their families letters of condolences.

Rhinehart talked about Prey and how the developers tried to make players care about the protagonist's girlfriend so that a moment late in the game would have added meaning. However, he said it's hard to get people to care about a character in a game. It's easier to get players to care about something like the weighted companion cube in Portal or the horse in Red Dead Redemption than another person, because everything the character does or says is another chance to do something weird that will take the player out of the game.

Pagliarulo talked about the father from Fallout 3 and how they tried to make him meaningful. There was one version of the game where his fate was similar to the girlfriend in Prey, but after playing that game, it was back to the drawing board. He said games are finally to the point where developers can try to have characters that players care about, and entire games can even be based on that idea, like Heavy Rain was.

Smith talked about his team connecting player actions with character reactions in Deus Ex as one example of trying to make things meaningful to the player. For example, after going through one mission stealthily without killing anyone, players could receive extra money from a character because they were relieved with the approach he took. Smith said it wasn't the most elegant solution given that the money would be used to buy ammunition for the next level, but it helped bring players into the game regardless.

One of the key tenets Smith and Colantonio hold is to not impose attitudes on the player, as putting words in the player's mouth is one way to turn them off. He cited Red Dead Redemption's John Marston as one good example of that, as the gunslinger has strong feelings about issues but usually gives a response that's just neutral enough. Despite that, Pagliarulo pointed out that the character had some boundaries. For example, Marston is married, so players couldn't engage with the game's prostitutes. When Marston told the prostitutes he was married, Pagliarulo accepted it and saw it as an example of Rockstar maturing to the point where they didn't feel the need to include something like that in the game.

Moving on to the broader topic of great stories in games, Rhinehart said he was impressed with Uncharted 2. He said every developer faces the question of whether or not players should feel like they are the main character or just playing the protagonist as a role. For Prey, Human Head decided to make the main character talk, but only after watching focus testers universally react to one specific moment with an "Oh, s***!" So the developers recorded a line of Tommy yelling, "Oh s***!" for that moment, and found players enjoyed sharing that reaction with the character.

Colantonio lauded Pagliarulo's Fallout 3 for its storytelling and the way it evolves and progresses with no cutscenes or cinematics. Pagliarulo also talked about the original Modern Warfare and how the most powerful level was the one in which a player witnesses a nuclear explosion from a first-person perspective. Smith also expressed his admiration for that moment, saying it hit all the right beats.

While many of the most meaningful story elements the panelists talked about don't involve action, Pagliarulo said the action is still necessary for the purposes of pacing. The story moments that people remember are heightened because they aren't happening in a nonstop barrage. Instead, they get doled out after 15 minutes of sneaking through an enemy base or other standard gameplay bits.

The shooting isn't just to separate the story parts, Smith said. He explained there's a "visceral power" to stimulating players' fight-or-flight instinct, and doing that can help draw them in further. Playing Fallout 3, Smith said he pulled the trigger an untold number of times, but the single most meaningful moment of the game was when he shot the leader of a group of slavers because the environment had numerous cues to suggest exactly how detestable the character was.

Pagliarulo said that text is actually a crutch for role-playing game developers. Instead of dropping "lore bombs" (telling the story in a virtual book the player finds on a table) everywhere, the challenge with Fallout 3 was to focus on environmental storytelling, from items scattered around locations to graffiti on walls. It was actually the graffiti on the walls of Left 4 Dead that told the story for Pagliarulo.

"'No survivors here.' I get it," Pagliarulo said.

The panel talked about the power of text in games. Smith said that in Deus Ex the developers left a note to a guard that the player had likely just gunned down. The note gave the location of a key to unlock the path ahead, but it also referenced the guard's fiancee, which Smith said hopefully gave some players pause. The same thing happened to Smith when he was playing Fallout 3, as he talked about being floored upon finding a letter in a mailbox denying a family entrance into The Vault.

Pagliarulo said he's a solo, single-player gamer and likes to experience worlds at his own pace. There are more players like that than people think, he insisted. Smith suggested that sometimes multiplayer can work against storytelling, saying that playing System Shock 2 with a friend completely undermined his appreciation of the game and his suspension of disbelief.

In the audience Q&A session, the panel was asked about immersion and the use of 3D. "I f****** hate 3D," Pagliarulo said. "I think it's a gimmick and I hope it dies." The sentiment was met with tremendous applause and no dissenting views from the panel. Pagliarulo then amended his statement slightly, saying it's only idiotic when it involves glasses; he was still optimistic about the Nintendo 3DS. Even if it does take off, Pagliarulo said he doesn't believe it would change his thought process as a designer; the game would just look like it was being seen through a ViewMaster.

When asked about how important it is to be controversial, Smith said playing games is a form of expression. It's important to give players a choice with consequences and not make everything with plastic safeguards on it. He also said that the developers want players to miss some of their storytelling cues. When players get the sense that they're not getting every bit of visual storytelling in the game, they start trying to interpret things even where the developers may not have intended any meaning. Smith talked about the New Year's Party scene in BioShock, and a teddy bear on a table, positioned to be looking out into the ocean. He said he didn't know if the placement of the teddy bear was specifically intended, but he found it profoundly sad nonetheless.

Quote: "Before the panel, I joked with Harvey that it was all on him, because we stole everything from Deus Ex anyway."--Pagliarulo

Takeaway: There's no end of ways to tell stories in games, and the people behind some of the biggest and best game stories yet still enjoy getting wrapped up in the work of their peers.

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Discussion

52 comments
DaTa9192
DaTa9192

solution? "3D ON/OFF button"

Uthar_Wynn
Uthar_Wynn

Ugh. Why all this ugly 3D backlash? If you don't like it, don't use it. No need to hope for ruining other people's fun. 3D is the future of ultimate immersion - you don't see real life as a cyclops so why should virtual worlds be any different? The products currently out on the market have big drawbacks, sure. That's why I don't use 3D yet. But they're a stepping stone to better 3D implementations. He should say "I hope 3D gets a lot better than it is now". Not "I hope it dies". That's just being childish.

wondernova
wondernova

hahaha, 3D does suck. its a gimmick. as if people are gonna sit down, grab a controller then put on the 3D glasses. Oh wait, where are my glasses? i cant find them? damn have to buy new ones. there goes $200 bucks! "I f****** hate 3D," Pagliarulo said. "I think it's a gimmick and I hope it dies." Brilliant

gbrading
gbrading moderator

Fascinating. A really immersive world can certainly be a make or break point when it comes to games these days.

minion715
minion715

talking about immersive world if any one remmeber sony had a commercial back when PS2 came out and it talked about Playstation 9 and what was sick was that these little nano machiens went into your brain and put u literaly inside the game im sure if u search for it u might find it the commercial is almost 10 years old

Dan21278
Dan21278

if you wanna talk about soaking me in an immerisive world don't talk about doing it just DO IT. Talk is cheap. At lest they acknowledge it though unlike some devs

maybock3000
maybock3000

We wont be totally immersed in video games until we can get brain implants that actually put our mind totally in a game world. Probably not in my lifetime either...... ( sad face).

demonkillerx
demonkillerx

3D is very gimmicky, almost every movie these days is in 3d, but the effects are terrible.

CamRaiD
CamRaiD

I agree with Andysonofbob... The naysayers won't have even tried gaming in s3d. I have used s3d for about a year, and STILL it blows my mind. It is truly like being there

CamRaiD
CamRaiD

I sure hope 3D grows more! Oblivion is off the charts in 3D !!! And Metro2033 is like being there!!!

minion715
minion715

3D or 2D i dont care as long as i play a great game. but just like when people said that blu ray was not going to last when the ps3 came out and Sony pumps in over $1billion so that ever movie prducer would support blu ray and now you are starting to see more blu ray then there are dvd's. The same thing is going to happen with the 3D TV's already nearly every company that makes TV's already make 3D TV's too. im not saying that 3D games will last but 3D TV's probably will last and even satelite and cable companies are starting to provide 3D sevices

Sameo
Sameo

modern warfare 2 is about as immersive as macaroni cooking

it009x9281
it009x9281

I hope 3D doesnt become the norm cos i suffer UGD (to do with the eyes) and im not going pay for a device thats going cos pain so rather that i would like a choice no 3D

gamingfrendly
gamingfrendly

Zloth2 in where you live it meght be a 300$ monitor and a 200$ glasses but in where i live its twoice as that price and the ps3 slim here is 429$ and no it dosent come with an extra controler or any game and ps3 games are from 70$ to 84$ and they are not a colectors nor golden edation evrey thing is dubled here when cars got cheap in other countres they got more expinsev here not all of us can aford what the market offers even if its price is nice in some countrys its not as nice here no offense man and sorry for my broking engles i hope you under stand my point

bulletsword
bulletsword

3D does suck. I'm not making myself look like an MTV reality show douchebag by wearing big glasses for one of the most unneccessary "advances" in gaming technology. If my experiences with 3D movies as a kid, when at the time my standards were so mind-numbingly low I'd find Paris Hilton moderately not piss-ugly, were mediocre, I'd find little promise in any 3D media as a late teen/early adult. Even if 3D gaming works well in the future, one thing's for sure: it will be as significant to gaming as graphics are, and we all know how bad that pales in comparison to everything else that's actually supposed to make a game great... except with graphics, you're not forced to pay extra and wear something you don't want.

The-Longshot
The-Longshot

another good article, its nice to hear the dev's talk so passionately about the games, something sorely missing from e3.

andysonofbob
andysonofbob

With respect, to say a game looks like 2D images layered with depths suggests you have never played a game in motion. The only time I have seen something that ressembles layered 2D images is when viewing a screenshot taken from a game. You get the same effect when you observe 3D photos of crowds. I am sure I will be flamed for saying this but having played in 3D for some time, I doubt the naysayers here have ever properly gamed in 3D.

_MEDUSA_
_MEDUSA_

"I f****** hate 3D," Pagliarulo said. "I think it's a gimmick and I hope it dies." LOVE IT!!! So agree with Pagliarulo, it irritating and imo spoils some aspects, games are getting more and more realistic every day, and to be honest, reality doesnt look like 3D currently looks, 3D with the glases and stuff look more like a bunch of 2D images layered in depth, Also agree completely with emergence IN GAME, red dead really got to me, so did bioshock, and I would go as far as saying thet GoW in co-op actually pulled me in even deeper than the regular sp camp.

lindallison
lindallison

Good to see some guys from Arkane ... I wasn't aware until today that they'd been purchased by Zenimax and that they contributed to Bioshock 2 - I hope their corporate overlords let them develop an Arx Fatalis ...

pidow
pidow

2D/3D, I do not care, if the game is good, I'll playing it....do get me wrong, looks are very important, however, cost for 3D is expensive compared to 2D.

Jackc8
Jackc8

The best characters I ever experienced in a game were in Final Fantasy XII. Some were very mature, with complex world views - none of this simpleton stuff for little kids like so many games have. Others were young and genuine, and I really cared about all of them. It's a real shame that so many developers place no importance on this stuff, which is obvious when you look at the extremely low quality of voice acting in some games.

Fajonkel
Fajonkel

Honestly, I agree with him, I don't like the idea of 3D in gaming. At least for consoles. In movies or PC games, I think it's a good idea, but won't be enjoyable on a console.

hahnasty
hahnasty

I love that the developers really think about how we'll identify characters throughout their games. I also like how they test out different stories for each character (like the dad from Fallout 3) in order to provide us gamers with the most compelling story for our game.

andysonofbob
andysonofbob

Another 3D gamer on PC here. It works. I know this sounds elitist but I cant go back to playing in 2D now everything looks flat and quite frankly rubbish. Unlike the cinema, you can increase depth in games to infinity. Looking to the distance in Fallout feels like your looking into the distance. Forgive the cheese but your monitor becomes a window. Everyone I have have shown it to have said 'I didnt think it would be this good'. I have gamed across formats since 84 and this is by far the most significant leap I have witnessed. Bought my 3D Vision kit in March and I am still gushing in August!

Zloth2
Zloth2

@gamingfrendly, not with PC gaming. The developers don't have to do much at all (which is why it works with old games pretty well). You don't need a $2000 TV, either, just a $300 monitor and $200 glasses. Oh, and I *do* play for 3 hours plus and it does NOT hurt my eyes at all. What's more, you can toggle the 3D effect on and off with a quick hotkey.

Terkio
Terkio

What about 3D without glasses, like the 3DS? Cause I know I can't be bothered wearing glasses when I play.

gamingfrendly
gamingfrendly

3d is going to ruin games if you dont have a 3d glasses or 3d tv you cant play some games in the future and its going to destract devs from foxing on the game play and waste time on 3d also it realy hurts the eyes tray a 3 hours of 3d and you will see play 10 hours in a week and there you go your blind sir im afrid you wil need somone to guide you to were you want to go from now on. lol so think about it seriosly

wormins
wormins

@gameripe im with ya bud!

gamerpipe
gamerpipe

some of them I think takes their games too seriously. when I played no Russian, I targeted every civilian.Nothing against Russian. I just don't care. same thing with GTA. it is just a game. and I love to do things I don't want to do in real life.

isshiah
isshiah

good single player story based games are my favs too. the scene in bioshock that affected me was the two splicers dancing.

reeree746
reeree746

I'm not much of a multi player kinda guy...

Paul2004
Paul2004

Gotta admit i agree with him :). I too am a single player gamer (I really dont care about live, never connected to it) and i also dont see the big deal with 3D. Most of the time i do what i want in games however i usually end up being the good guy unless someone screws me (Monty learned that in Fallout 3, doubled him price so i doubled his lead dose...they dont like me in that pub anymore XD). Some actions do grip you in games. Nukes going off, leaving someone to almost certain death after so much and even some choices. things like that really get you interested in whats gonna happen next :D

Zloth2
Zloth2

I don't know what's going on with the movies or on consoles, but on the PC, 3D kicks tail. Glasses are no problem at all, even if you already wear glasses. It's a pity Pagliarulo isn't getting it, but I'm already playing Fallout 3 in 3D so it's hard to care much.

blackace
blackace

I like 3D, but only in certain movies. The 3D is The Last Airbender and Clash of the Titans, sucked, but it was great in movies like Avatar, Toy Story, Up and Shrek. I'm going to see how it is for the new movie Pirahna 3D. lol!! I'm curious as to how good games will look in 3D and 3D movies on your HDTV. I'll have to test it out at Best Buy or Fry's Electronics some time this year. As for stories in games, it has to be done right. Games like Uncharted 2, Fallout 3, Red Dead Redemption and Bioshock all draw you into their world and make you want to explore it. Not all games can do this though.

xinoeph
xinoeph

The metroid worlds always suck me in. Even though you are alone.

MarcJL31
MarcJL31

I would say the original Mass Effect (and 2 for that matter) drew me in a lot. Especially the scene whee (SPOILER) you have to make the choice of who lives or dies. I mean I did everything in that mission to take the pressure off the other team giving me hope that I would be able to save them. And in the end, the result really got to me. I geniuinely felt bad that I had to choose. That was a unique moment for me to feel attached to a game like that.

nintendoman562
nintendoman562

I absolutely hate 3D movies (except Toy Story 3) because of the glasses and I always get cross-eyed with things popping out at me. I'm interested in how the 3DS will fix these problems.

thrashmaster
thrashmaster

@Decessus True, that the 3D isn't good enough that is out there yet, but over time it will be. And the more we consumers go see 3D movies and eventually buy 3D games the technology will get better, faster.

Decessus
Decessus

@Johmmy2394 True, 360 degree 3D would be awesome. But yeah, the 3D that is available now doesn't really do much for me.

Decessus
Decessus

Perhaps I'm in the minority, but I never really get "immersed" in video games. There are just too many things that work against being drawn into them like I would a really good book or a really good piece of music.When I think about it, I think some of the reasons are that things happen that are just completely unrealistic and remind me that I'm only playing a video game. Ammo and health indicators all over the screen, being able to get shot fifteen times without dying, characters acting in ways that just don't seem natural. All of these things remind me that I'm just playing a video game.

Johmmy2394
Johmmy2394

3D SUCKS!!!! Thumbs up if you agree!!

SicklySunStorm
SicklySunStorm

3D with glasses blows. It just does. Particularly at the moment if you spend £1800+ on a TV that is capable of 3D, only to find you either get just one or no pairs of compatible glasses with it so you have to spend another £30 - £50 on each extra pair you need if you have a large family that want to use it. It's a rip and it's just plain uncomfortable and annoying.

Humorguy_basic
Humorguy_basic

"There's no end of ways to tell stories in games," - so why do we get so few then? There has still, after 25 years of gaming, been no Wild West, Film Noir or 18th century RPG! Three mainstays of movies, books and TV over the same time period! And I could name many more!

hotdiddykong
hotdiddykong

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

ebookerd1
ebookerd1

@Grovillis Agreed I won't be buying in on something that offers nothing but dumb glasses. 3d without glasses maybe, but it should not be a strong selling point.

TechnologoDoom
TechnologoDoom

I mostly wanted to hear about what the didn't talk about, though an interesting discussion nonetheless

green_dominator
green_dominator

Maybe I'm weird but I've always connected with characters in games and film, Every film or game that I love there is something there that I connect with, Deus Ex is a good example. When I played DX I beat the game in a week but at the end a character that I liked died and I wondered if I could change his fate so I played the game again from scratch and I changed the fates of a few characters including my target. MGS4 was another kinda emotional game for me, all of the characters that I liked returned and some I got to fight next to again, that felt good......

poppen695
poppen695

3D will continue to suck until the developers can build a technology that does not require gimmiky or irritating glasses be worn while using it. Having to trick my eyes into 3D is not something I'm interested in and I won't ever be buying into.