Warren Spector on drawing inspiration from other media

GDC Europe 2010: Deus Ex, Epic Mickey developer talks about the dos and don'ts of borrowing from the world outside of games.

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Who was there: Warren Spector, creative director at Junction Point Studios. Spector owns an impressive resume of past games including Deus Ex, Thief, and System Shock. He's currently working on Epic Mickey for the Wii.

Warren Spector, complete with Mickey Mouse stickers on his laptop.

What he talked about: Spector was there to talk about the influence of other art forms on games in a panel dubbed, "What Video Games Can Learn From Other Media… What We Can't… And What We Shouldn't." He kicked it off by arguing that video games are more than just the sum of their component parts--the audio of radio, the camera angles of movies, and the like. This means that developers can't simply pull techniques wholesale from other media. It's true that every new art form has drawn inspiration from the ones before it, and games are no exception in what they can learn by looking outward, but game makers have to be cautious with what they borrow from other media, Spector said.

Spector started his "Don'ts" list with a discussion of what games shouldn’t take from movies. One of the basic filmmaking techniques Spector hates to see games emulate is the quick camera cut from one shot or location to the next in rapid succession. Games, he feels, are best when they immerse players by letting them control what happens onscreen. Using quick cuts breaks that immersion and destroys any sense that the player is a part of the experience.

Another area where Spector doesn't want to see games mimic films is the slow, methodic pacing that movies can open with when they have the luxury of a captive audience in a dark theater. Games don't have that luxury, according to Spector, so they need to pull in the player as quickly as possible. This led into his next point about the need for economic storytelling, where he gave an anecdote about a game writer he once worked with who came up with a 10-page script for one single character monologue. So while a movie can open with a long, subdued camera shots, the screenplay writing itself tends to be brief and to the point. This, says Spector, is one area of movie making where games can really take heed.

Oddly enough, Spector was much more positive about what games can learn from the radio. He played a number of old serialized radio shows in which sound was used to build atmosphere and mood without even any dialogue. He feels these sorts of radio shows really mastered the fine art of painting a scene with sounds and that games should take a few lessons from the early-20th century shows before looking toward anything more recent.

Spector had a lot to say about other media.

On the subject of comics, Spector suggested that games should try to avoid the pitfalls of the uncanny valley in favor of the stylized representations of the human form found in comics. To Spector, this boils down to a fundamental preference in comics of iconic content over representational content, which is something that games should pay attention to as the allure of photorealistic graphics continues to grow. But he offered a cautionary parallel between comics and games when it comes to their respective content. Spector feels comics have become marginalized over time due to a failure to break away from superhero tropes, and games run the same risk if they don't move away from the space marines and muscular fantasy figures that are so popular today.

Spector argued a similar point about table-top role-playing games. He polled the audience to see how many people in the room had ever played a table-top RPG before, and virtually everyone raised their hands. There's a reason for that, Spector said: The two media are very similar to one another when you consider how much something like Dungeons and Dragons has influenced video games. But he feels we've reached the point where games need to break from that lineage. In an era where video games allow for so much creativity and technology, there's no reason to continue offering the same worn-out fantasy archetypes when you can create more vivid characters or have your combat rely on hidden dice rolls when advanced physics simulations are available.

Spector saved his favorite source of inspiration for last, with a discussion on the age-old medium of oral storytelling. He offered quote after quote from historians on the power of oral storytelling and made sure to point out that so much of what makes a great spoken-word story would also make a compelling video game. The key for Spector is flexibility: In oral storytelling tradition, the person telling the story will adapt the tale based on the listener's reactions. The end result is a story where speaker and listener can claim equal ownership. Because to Spector, it's not just about game developers having a story to tell and letting the player sit through it; it's about having a subject matter to discuss with the player and making the story a dialogue between game and player.

Quote: "Other media can create feelings. Movies can evoke emotions. But what we do is we can offer the reality of choice."

Takeaway Spector is a connoisseur of many different media: a game designer, a published author, an avid comic book fan, and an armchair oral-storytelling historian. But he feels that video games are unique among those in the power they're capable of, and he wants developers to keep those unique qualities in mind when looking toward the outside world for inspiration.

Discussion

10 comments
plainelmo
plainelmo

Had immense respect for this guy since he worked on the Ultima titles. Respect.

wahyudil
wahyudil

"....games run the same risk if they don't move away from the space marines and muscular fantasy figures that are so popular today" Wow, Spector, you are a Mahaguru ...

linkyshinks
linkyshinks

I have so much faith in this game, solely because he's making it.

Roger_Dog
Roger_Dog

Epic Mickey is in legendary hands.

sonic-boom
sonic-boom

I read EGM's interview with him too: smart guy, I like his ideas and I am looking forward to his future contributions and influence to video games.

gbrading
gbrading moderator

Warren Spector knows what he's doing. A really excellent quote about the importance of choice.

6h05tly
6h05tly

In these times, developers need to be more liberal in terms of game quality. And Warren Spector is living proof that videogames can be a work of art rather than the cliche'd "form of entertainment." Which is why I'm very excited for his upcoming Wii title, Epic Mickey.

Smarty12
Smarty12

Spector is my gaming idol. He has some extremely good points.