AGDC '07: Dyack on media, massage

Too Human director channels Marshall McLuhan with a lecture in the writing track of the Austin Game Developers Convention.

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AUSTIN, Texas--With the first day of the Austin Game Developers Conference drawing to a close, Silicon Knights president Denis Dyack delivered a presentation titled "The Medium Is the Massage" to a sparse group of attendees. The turnout would no doubt have been larger had the session not been a last-minute addition, communicated to attendees through a conference schedule addendum included with attendees' registration packets.

Dyack faced short notice on the talk himself, having just been invited to deliver a presentation as part of AGDC's writing track while at the Leipzig Games Convention in Germany last month. He said he debated what to discuss, because when people ask him where the ideas for his stories come from, he just doesn't know. This talk, he said, would be aimed at exploring how technology affects content and what messages we are sending. The title was pulled straight from a Marshall McLuhan book about changing media that explored much the same topic 40 years ago.

The title of McLuhan's book was originally intended to be The Medium Is the Message, but the first printing came back with a typo in the name. McLuhan thought the typo fit the theme of his book, so he opted to keep it as it was. Dyack said McLuhan's message has resonated with him and helped direct the way Silicon Knights makes games, from efforts like Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen on the original PlayStation, to the company's current project, Too Human, for the Xbox 360.

In one sense, Dyack said, the medium in which an idea is communicated overpowers any message intended by the original communicator. Relaying a D.H. Lawrence quote, Dyack said, "Always trust the tale, not the teller." The typo in the book's title is simply indicative of the way communications can be altered from their source on their way to an audience.

Another running theme of Dyack's talk was that of games as art. He said he thinks of games as the eighth art form. When films first came out, theorist Ricciotto Canudo called cinema the "seventh art." Describing it as the convergence of spatial arts like architecture, sculpture, and painting with temporal arts like music, poetry, and dance, Canudo said film combined aspects of all of them to form a seventh art. Dyack said that by mashing all of that together and adding interactivity on top of that, gaming should be considered the eighth art. However, Dyack said that one problem keeping games from being recognized as an art is that, "We just aren't very good at it yet."

Dyack moved on to his universal theory of creating games, something he calls the engagement theory. According to Dyack, engagement is greater than or equal to the sum of story, art, gameplay, technology, and audio. He referred back to his time developing Legacy of Kain, when he constantly heard that "gameplay is everything." Dyack rejected the motion, saying it's the biggest myth in the industry. He pointed to Myst and The 7th Guest as examples of that.

Given those exceptions, Dyack concluded that it's not gameplay that's everything, but engagement. He even created a metric by which one can measure engagement. Dyack said to have people play the game, then ask them how long they've been playing it. The more wrong they are, the more engaging the game is.

To guarantee engaging games, Dyack said he has built Silicon Knights around a "guild philosophy." Dyack brought up the idea that Shakespeare was not a single author but a troupe of actors that created genius through many iterations, and then compared that with how Silicon Knights approaches game development. And the same way that Shakespeare would include bawdy humor for the drunken masses and more intelligent metaphors for classier audiences, Silicon Knights seeks to appeal to the widest audience possible. That guild philosophy also means that Silicon Knights doesn't outsource. If they work with someone they like once, they want to continue working with them again and again.

"Every time Silicon Knights creates a game, we always try to focus on the medium and where it's at," Dyack said. When they first started thinking about Legacy of Kain, the team insisted on taking advantage of the medium at hand, specifically the original PlayStation's CD-ROM drive. Silicon Knights crafted the game around the idea of making an action-adventure game with no text, where the entire story was conveyed through voice-overs and first-person narrative. Originally the team wanted to make Eternal Darkness a textless game as well, but Nintendo nixed the idea, saying gamers in Japan would prefer to read instead of listen.

For Too Human, Silicon Knights is attempting to tie all it has learned together. Dyack said that the game features its biggest script to date, and has been written with some adherence to scriptwriting rules that the company was once been chided for ignoring. He talked about the script working on three levels, as a simple man-versus-machine story, as a faithful retelling of Norse mythology in a technology-driven time, and as a collection of individual dialog exchanges.

"It's a very, very content-heavy game," Dyack said. "We're trying to saturate content because I think when people are playing games with stories, that's what they really want."

He drew another parallel to film, saying that when the flashy special effects of early films (trains running into the camera, and so on) wore thin, it was the people who mastered and created the language of film who succeeded. One such way Too Human will work with the language of gaming is in interactive cinema and an intelligent camera system. The developers aren't going to allow players to control the camera. As Dyack said, you never had to worry about the camera in 2D games, but 3D games broke that. He mentioned Super Mario 64 as a game that had a pretty good camera, but also made the player worry about all the camera issues that a director would care about, taking them out of the moment and lowering the engagement.

Turning to the topic of the presentation again, Dyack pulled out examples where the medium has overpowered the message. He mentioned Half-Life, and how many people talk to him and say the story was great. Dyack said he loved Half-Life, but it's a terrible story. The reason it worked is because the developers understood the medium well enough to give people an experience they'd never had before in order to compensate for what he referred to as a rather poor story.

BioShock is another example Dyack brought up. He said he's only halfway through the game, so he can't say if it's a good story yet, but said it's an "unparalleled" use of the medium, and an homage to radio dramas of the 1950s in the way everything is communicated to the player.

Turning to movies, Dyack brought up Armageddon, which had a story he called "utter s***." Despite the vapid message, the film's production values and use of the medium led it to tremendous box office success.

He also brought up Se7en, which he called good across the board, except for one area where it absolutely failed. According to Dyack, the director went out of his way to make sure the serial killer was not the hero. He didn't have a name or any qualities that would make people identify with him. He focused on the killer's actions, and not why he was doing it.

"I think the serial killer's the coolest guy in the movie, bar none," Dyack said, adding that the overwhelming message was that serial killers are cool. "I often bring up the whole idea of the Nuremburg films of the rallies in Nazi Germany. They were fantastically edited, and you look at them, and you have to wonder if despite all the production values, if the message was really in there inciting genocide."

Dyack said Se7en is especially illustrative of the adage about trusting the tale and not the teller. Sometimes there's just no way to control the message that people receive.

At Silicon Knights, Dyack said the company's first rule is to imagine that the technology is infinite and just create the content and the concept that you'd like to see. That's one of the reasons why Too Human has been kicking around since the original PlayStation.

"A good concept, whether it be on a DS or a Wii, should stand on its own," Dyack said. "But you also have to understand that the medium is the message, and it's going to alter what you're saying."

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