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"Everything is Possible": Inside the Minds of Gaming's Master Storytellers

Five of gaming's greatest storytellers share their thoughts on their industry, their work, and their medium of choice.


If you were trapped on a desert island and could bring only one game with you, which one would you bring?

It doesn't matter.

You don't need games. As much as they may seem like an integral part of your everyday life or even your thought process at this point, you could give them up if you really had to. And no matter how addicted you may be to the games you play, you'd have to admit that games are intended to be entertainment. They're just for fun.

Here's the real question: For a medium that's unnecessary and therefore all about excess, why is it that so many games seem to aim only for the bare minimum--to meet your expectations and call it a day? Shouldn't more of them aim to move you or otherwise surprise you?

I share the theory that the game industry is like a private eye who's so busy following the wrong lead that he lets his real target slip right through his fingers. Look at what games are doing: They're pushing more polygons and piling on more features. It's the equivalent of adding more explosions to an action movie; at some point, you start to get diminishing returns for your crazy budget even as the whole thing just turns dumb.

I think game designers should be pursuing a much more elusive objective: tapping into the true potential of this medium, using it to give the game player an eye-opening, virtually life-changing experience and turning the game player's world completely upside-down. And I believe the only way to accomplish this is through storytelling--using a game to tell a good story. This does not mean tacking a best-selling author onto a game as an afterthought; this means fundamentally constructing a game out of a story.

"What I do is create games and not create stories. I merely include story elements that are necessary for the game to work." -- Hideo Kojima

Of all the games I've played, nearly all the ones that gave me an eye-opening, virtually life-changing experience did so through their stories, and other game players I've heard from or spoken to suggest to me that I'm not alone in this. The games I'm referring to have stories to rival all the greatest stories I've ever seen or read. The chance of experiencing such stories is probably the main reason I love games.

It's a slim chance. Of the hundreds of games released each year, very few evidently bother to make storytelling a priority. And for certain genres of games--sports games, driving games, strategy games--it's expected that their games will be largely devoid of stories. While I think all this is unfortunate, I don't find it surprising. After all, games without any real plot development must be easier to make--the developers set up a situation and then run with it. It's you against them. Here are your abilities. Here are the levels. You'll find new weapons and health pickups as you go.

However, the key to a great story is that things happen. The situation changes, dramatically if not drastically. In development terms, I'm sure this means having to write a lot more code, design many more features, and so forth. It's extra work. So it's extra difficult to do and extra difficult to justify.

Some game developers are clearly willing to put in that extra work and take the necessary risk. I wanted to find out why. So here we are: I got in touch with five of gaming's most legendary storytellers--people responsible for some of the greatest games of all time, not to mention some of my personal favorites--to bring you their perspectives. What do these individuals know that other game designers don't? What drives them? You're about to find out.

Can you remember one of the first times a story in a game really struck you?

Chris Avellone: Well, there were two moments (spoiler alert, although I doubt anyone would mind now)--one was in Ultima Underworld I: The Stygian Abyss, and the other was Wasteland (no subtitle, thank god--I am so sick of subtitles for games, and no marketing person can convince me they're necessary).

Anyway, in Ultima Underworld the moment occurred when I got to the end, resurrected Garamons in the hopes of getting him to tell me what I need to do to save my ass and the rest of the world, and when I ask him the question he says--get this--"he has no idea." Then he asks you if you have any ideas. I stared at the screen for five minutes in disbelief--this game was asking me how to solve it, which I thought was brilliant. It also scared the hell out of me.

The other moment was in Wasteland, when I went inside Finster's android brain and was facing my childhood fears and enemies. I thought the presentation was amazing, and the way you used your intelligence and skills to fight back against your opponents--it was just evidence that even "low-tech" games could pull off some cool ideas without much resources at their disposal.

Again, these games are pretty old-school, which should give you a clue as to how old I'm getting to be. Also, I didn't get started into Japanese RPG console games yet, otherwise there's a ton of those that have excellent story moments, if I'd only been playing them at the time (Final Fantasy III comes to mind). Also, some of the early Infocom games also scared me (The Lurking Horror), made me feel loss for a buddy (Planetfall), and creeped me out with a doomed ending (Infidel).

"I really have never been blown away or struck by a story in any game that I can remember." -- Tim Schafer

Ken Levine: Let me say this: With few exceptions, I've always hated cutscenes. I hate sitting through them. I hate the generally terrible writing. I hate the notion that most game developers want nothing more than to make public the dramatic machinations of their D&D characters from high school.

I'm a big fan of emergent storyline. I remember growing my squad of beloved characters (who never had a single line of dialogue) in X-COM and watching with bated breath as they entered the treacherous corridors of the final boss with only a single blaster launcher missile left. Why? Because it was a scenario conceived by a partnership between myself and the game. It was a moment that existed uniquely in my gaming experience and not shared the same way by any other soul on earth.

But as a designer, it's hard to give up that control. We want to craft moments of gameplay. I've done it myself---hey, I've written my share of cutscenes. But what we conceive as designers is never going to be as good as what the partnership of gamer and game creates.

Again, for me it's rarely story per se, but the unique moments of gameplay storytelling. I loved the beginning of Beyond Good and Evil and how they defined Jade's character. You meet her by seeing her environment. She's living under an alien dictatorship, and she's built her home into a makeshift orphanage. As you walk around her house you see why she's a hero, how much the kids love her and why her life is important. By the time any real gameplay happens, you want to protect her, you want to help her succeed.

And the whole thing is done with almost no actual dialogue.

Hideo Kojima: It was when I played Portopia Murder Case (Famicom) by Yuji Horii (Dragon Quest). Along with my encountering Super Mario Bros., experiencing this game led to my working in this industry. The player is a detective and tries to solve this murder case with his colleague called Yasu. There's mystery, a 3D dungeon, humor, and a proper background and explanation of why the murderer committed the crime. That is why there was drama in this game. My encountering this game expanded the potential of video games in my mind.

Tim Schafer: Not really. I really have never been blown away or struck by a story in any game that I can remember.

Ragnar Tørnquist: Pong! Good God, the festering bitterness between the left paddle and the right paddle tore my heart in two. Where was the love?

It's an obvious answer, perhaps, but the ones that have really stuck with me are the old-school adventure games: Loom, Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island, the first Gabriel Knight. There were stories before that--good ones, too--but they didn't have the emotional resonance of those early-'90s graphic adventures. They weren't just great game stories; they were great stories, period.

Why do you think stories are important in gaming? You've probably played plenty of great games that had little or no story to them.

Chris Avellone: I think stories are secondary to making the gameplay fun, but a good story is like icing--it just enhances the experience (Half-Life, as an obvious example, and just about any RPG you ever want to play). It provides context for the fun, gives you a reason to keep going, can piss you off and inspire you at the right points, and it can hit all the emotional points that adrenaline-stress-based gameplay elements can't.

We tend to focus on stories a lot more in RPGs for obvious reasons (and there are times at Black Isle when we made story the driving force, like in Planescape: Torment, and we try to give it as much importance as gameplay at Obsidian on Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords and Neverwinter Nights 2)--players are expecting an engaging story when playing a role-playing game. When you encounter deep characters, interesting plot elements (and twists), and NPCs in the game-world that seem to have agendas of their own, I think it just challenges the player to think at a higher level when playing the game--suddenly an NPC you meet isn't just someone who gives you a quest; you have to figure out how and why he wants you to do it and what the consequences might be, especially morally, reputation-wise, and financially, for your character.

Hideo Kojima: There are two types of games. The first type is games as toys (play things)--the Nintendo way of thinking. The second type is games in which you assume the role of a character who is not you and experience the life of that character virtually. When trying to assume the role of a character, you need a setting. It does not necessarily have to be a storyline. You need a minimum setting to become that character.

However, being given a simple "container" (i.e. the role) is not enough to share the life of that character. Even if you are assigned the container of a police officer, if you are given 100 percent freedom, you are no longer a cop. In order to simulate the life of a cop, one must provide the player the sequences of a cop, the people he/she should be meeting, and the drama of a cop. Virtually experiencing all of these elements interactively allows you to experience someone else's life, just like when watching a movie.

In addition, a game will be monotone if the player is simply required to accomplish the assigned goal.

By adding the element of "infiltrate enemy territory without being discovered and save the world" to the simple rules of "hide and seek" (i.e. "do not get found"), you get to experience much more thrill.

Unlike film and novels in which you experience the story, in games I simply add the "story element" so that the player can enjoy the virtual experience.

"The narrative is finding its way into every nook and cranny of this medium." -- Ragnar Tørnquist

Ken Levine: As I said, as a guy known for writing stories in games, I'm not a huge fan of them. I think the reason people have dug some of the stuff I've done is because I've tried to integrate the storytelling into the gameplay as much as possible. When we were doing Thief, I always thought people were much more interested in story elements that related to gameplay elements than ones that only exist in the cutscene space. For instance, I'd be much more inclined to write some dialogue about the moss arrow than some off-screen character that only showed up in cinemas.

In Shock 2, I always made an effort to tie together things that were going on with the logs and e-mails to things that you saw in front of you in the world. You'd come around a corner and find a guy leaning dead up against the wall, with a corona of blood splattered behind him and an empty shotgun next to him. On his body you'd find a log that dramatized his final moments and let the player know that it was either take the coward's way out or face the monster who has made a nest 50 yards away....

And after the player read the log, we'd introduce him to that that monster...

The story should serve to unify the game experience and the narrative, not to exist on a separate track.

Tim Schafer: I put story in my games just because I like making up stories. I think it makes the world real and makes the experience more immersive and engaging for the player. Also, the desire to see the story unfold provides a motivation for the player.

Ragnar Tørnquist: There are racing and sports games that have no need for story, of course, because they exist within a cultural framework that we automatically relate to. We don't need to know why two teams are competing for the trophy or why we have to be first across the finish line. We're bred to understand and appreciate competition. Games that are purely about mechanics--Tetris, WarioWare, Soul Calibur, multiplayer Halo 2--work exceedingly well on a basic human level. It's about personal accomplishment, getting ahead of the competition, the adrenaline rush--not narrative drive.

So no, all games don't need stories.

But the fact is, once you're dealing with quests, characters, worlds, role-playing--and more complex human (or, hey, alien) emotions--then you need to tie everything together with some sort of narrative.

Context and motive are the operative words. Context places you in the world and gives you a sense of belonging; motive gives you a reason--an emotional incentive--for playing. In games that don't solely rely on our competitive instincts, we need both context and motive, and that's what a story provides.

Back in the heady days of 2D, it was enough to drop us into an abstract world and tell us to run to the right. That was fine. Today, we want to know where we are, why we are there, what those other guys are doing shooting at us, and why we need to shoot back. We want to feel something--an emotional connection to the characters and the world--and we want a strong narrative to pull us along to a satisfying conclusion. We want a pay-off.

"I think the reason people have dug some of the stuff I've done is because I've tried to integrate the storytelling into the gameplay as much as possible." -- Ken Levine

Gamers have become more demanding. Early moviegoers were happy to see flickering black-and-white images of a train heading straight towards them or a crowd of people leaving a factory, but they soon wanted more. They wanted characters they could relate to, stories that resonated with them.

The mechanics were no longer enough. The same thing's happened with games. Once upon a time, two paddles and a white ball was enough. Then, later, running and jumping from the left to the right gave us our kicks. Now, we want it all: a realistic world, recognizable characters, an interesting story.

Of course, with games--unlike movies--mechanics can be enough, if the framework is interesting and the gameplay unique. Take Katamari Damacy, one of last year's best games: It's all about the gameplay, and it's hard to relate on any level to the story, although you could argue that it serves to establish context and motive. We understand why we're rolling stuff up. We might not care, because the very act of rolling is interesting in itself, but if we look for context and motive, it's there.

The narrative is finding its way into every nook and cranny of this medium, and while sports and racing games will, for the most part, remain narrative-free (you could argue that Need for Speed Underground has a narrative structure to it, but let's not, because it would be silly), other genres are certainly benefiting from the inclusion of stories.

What specifically about games makes them interesting to you as a storytelling medium? That is, why are you writing stories for games instead of for movies or books?

Chris Avellone: Because video game developers will actually give you a chance. The ability to get your foot in the door as far as story in video games is a lot higher than movies or games, since it's actually harder to find a decent writer who wants to work in video games--a lot harder than finding programmers and artists, in my opinion, since being a writer seems to require an odd aesthetic sense that doesn't always translate well into developing games. It requires heavy attention to details, math, logic trees, and a whole mess of other elements.

I find writing for games interesting because I think games are the next untapped ground for storytelling. It's an interactive entertainment experience, so instead of passively watching a movie or reading a novel, you are actually interacting with the story, which I think is the next stage of entertainment evolution. There's been a trend of games becoming more like movies and delivering a cinematic experience and drama, and I think that trend will continue. When working on Knights of the Old Republic II, I felt as if we were scripting a movie more than a game at points, and the sheer amount of cinematic direction we (and LucasArts) had for our cutscenes, blocking out character movements and scenery, and then directing the voice actors was staggering.

Hideo Kojima: If you want to simply tell a story, you can create a film or write a novel. In a game, you can move around in the provided world freely and experience what goes on, within the limits set in that game. It is active involvement as opposed to bystanding. Even if what is provided to you is a temporary personality (of a cop or someone else), you get to "move" interactively based on your own will. What you see, hear, and feel are of a much greater impact than in film or novels. It is like your being able to do as you wish as an actor in a film. With film, all you can do is watch someone else acting. What I do is create games and not create stories. I merely include story elements that are necessary for the game to work.

Ken Levine: The only reason they're interesting is because they are interactive, and they can change. Let's face it...nobody has to create great visuals in a movie. You can find thousands of unemployed great visuals working in restaurants and coffee houses all over Los Angeles. But we don't have great faces and scenery just sitting there. We have to make everything we have. And that's a hell of a lot of work.

But on the plus side, movies are always the same start to finish. Movies never provide unique experiences for each user the way a game does.

Games allow me to bring more of my talents to bear. And they're a lot more challenging to do well. Writing good game story takes a very detailed knowledge of what your technology can and can't do.

I'll never forget the first story I wrote in gaming. It was for a (eventually canceled) Star Trek: Voyager game. I wrote the opening cutscene, which included this gem:


The lead programmer pretty much laughed in my face. First of all, our characters were low-resolution bitmaps, with one fixed expression on their face. Their eyes were maybe 4x4 pixels each. The camera zooming in on that wouldn't have shown a performance; they would have shown a scattered mess of random pixels.

It's been a learning process since then.

"Being a writer seems to require an odd aesthetic sense that doesn't always translate well into developing games." -- Chris Avellone

Tim Schafer: It's hard to break into those industries, or at least it seemed that way when I was coming out of college. Back then I planned to eventually write short stories. But I kind of stumbled upon a games job accidentally. And there was just a great need there, in games, I felt, for writing. There still is.

Ragnar Tørnquist: Every medium has its strengths. Games, I think, combine the best of all worlds: movies, music, literature, performance arts, theater. And it's still a medium in flux, which makes it malleable in a way that other media aren't.

I'm not saying movies or literature are stagnant, but the formats are established. A movie has to conform to certain established parameters.

Games, on the other hand, are still at a stage where everything is possible.

It's a shame, then, that costs are rising as quickly as they are, because huge budgets demand a more conservative approach. Even then, on the narrative side of things, there's room for experimentation. With Dreamfall, for example, we're playing with structure and pacing in a way that just hasn't been done in this medium before, and that's incredibly fascinating. And there's so much left to accomplish with interactive narratives, I don't think I'll ever grow bored with it. I really feel lucky to be working on the front lines of this medium, at a time when we're able to mold the future of games for generations to come.

How do you think technology facilitates storytelling in games? How do you think technology gets in the way of the storytelling?

Chris Avellone: Absolutely technology facilitates storytelling. It adds the wonder and the action to the story, and it's the means by which the player perceives and controls his in-game personality. There are all sorts of events and wonders you can describe solely with a text story, but without the technology, animation, and a powerfully presented world, it's just going to be a bunch of text. You can only describe your encounter with a giant dragon, flying across the world in a giant airship, or using a gravity gun to fire saw blades at your enemies in so many words without the technology to back it up.

I don't think technology has ever gotten in the way of storytelling, and I think Infocom games are the proof of that. Even as simple as they seemed to be, as long as text could be presented on the screen, you could bring across a powerful story experience even without graphics or a 3D engine. I guess in the end, I think technology can only enhance the story experience (facial animations, voice acting, animations, fully realized world, scripted reactive elements, physics-based engines, etc.).

Hideo Kojima: I don't think storytelling and technology are related in any way. Detailed expressions (including facial expressions) and gestures make it easier to show subtle emotions, but this has nothing to do with storytelling.

"Technology can get in the way of storytelling by giving us really cool digital actors to work with, and suddenly (and I'm guilty of this) we think we're Spielberg." -- Ken Levine

Ken Levine: More technology equals more simulation. More simulation equals more emergence. Emergent experiences are the key to gameplay storytelling. Check out Grand Theft Auto III. What's great about that game? The cutscenes? Sure, they're well written, but is that what you remember? Or are they really the context for the unique action that each player experiences? Like the time you were being pursued by the Haitian gang and took your motorcycle off a ramp, crossing the river and watching the other bangers crash into the river behind you? That moment was never specifically scripted, but it was enabled by the story, which set it up and gave it context.

Technology can get in the way of storytelling by giving us really cool digital actors to work with, and suddenly (and I'm guilty of this) we think we're Spielberg. Face it, no game developer has the chops of a great film director, and no game character is going to emote like Brando. We've got different strengths and weaknesses.

Tim Schafer: Well, technology helps make the experience more and more immersive to more people. Previously you would have to have quite a good imagination to turn, say, the words of Zork into a real world in your head. But now people who don't have that much imagination can still fall into fantasy worlds because of the increased "realism" of the presentation. But as that gets closer and closer to real, the parts where it's missing (facial expressions, etc) become more and more glaring.

Ragnar Tørnquist: Technology needn't get in the way of storytelling unless we focus too much on showing off our cool new shaders and particle effects and not enough on establishing an emotional connection with the player. Technology can definitely facilitate for better storytelling. The best visual stories are just that--visual. There's that whole "show, don't tell" rule which has often fallen by the wayside because of technology; The Longest Journey, which I wrote, was definitely an example of that. Mostly everything had to be communicated through dialogues. The more we can show, and thus allow players to figure out for themselves, the better. And nowhere is that more apparent than with human characters. Things like facial expressions and body language enable us to communicate the story in a massively different fashion, making it much more immediate and personal than what's been possible before.

It needs to be more than a gimmick, however. We need technology that fuels the narrative and the gameplay, and not the other way around. Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should do it. We're still at a gee-whiz stage where every new technological innovation is tossed in there, because gamers will love it. And they do! Hell, I love big explosions as much as the next guy. But we have to look at the technology as a tool, as a means to an end, and not an end in itself.

How do you think stories in games are going to continue to evolve?

Chris Avellone: Well, I think people are recognizing the benefits in character development and story as games progress--it's just a natural evolution. As mentioned before, I think there's been a trend of games becoming more like movies and delivering a cinematic experience and drama, and I think that trend will continue. I know for every story we do at Obsidian, we try to introduce more and more story mechanics into how you relate with the characters and the world (influence systems for companions, multiple paths, deeper characters, new NPC mechanics and reactivity) with every game we do.

Hideo Kojima: With video games being interactive, it is extremely difficult. Interactivity and freedom head in opposite directions. But I think it is OK to have games in which you can virtually experience lives of others that are portrayed in film and novels.

Tim Schafer: Not sure. People seem to be against story in games. But that's because they are usually terrible. Gamers really haven't been exposed to that many great stories, or even semi-decent writing I think.

Ragnar Tørnquist: This is a constantly evolving medium, so of course stories will evolve along with the mechanics and the technology--as long as we allow them to. Budgets have mushroomed, and it's easy to fall back on conventions and clichés instead of trying to push the medium forward. We see that happening all the time, and unfortunately originality is sometimes punished--not because the players don't want it, but because publishers don't always know how to sell it.

I think that interactive--or participatory--narratives will become increasingly complex and mature and that they will reach an ever-growing audience. We just need to get past the gee-whiz-bang stage and dig into the kind of stories that will make people feel. Mix interactivity with emotion, and you've got a very, very powerful tool.

"Even great games have bad stories, but that doesn't stop people from buying them--not until they have a choice" -- Ragnar Tørnquist

What would you say to someone who told you that games have universally terrible stories?

Chris Avellone: I'd say game stories can be a little formulaic at times and a little unpolished, but then I would point up at the sky and say, "Holy s***, look at that!" And when they do, I would punch them in the gut, and while they were gasping for breath, I would lean down and go, "You are wrong. There are several games with compelling stories, stories that achieve greater strength because it's a story you can interact with. Thus, the experience is even more personal than reading a novel, where you are basically watching the characters go about their adventures without any participation from you except flicking your eyes across the page." At this point, the person would be about to get up, so I would kick them in the shins and then run.

I will also say that people tended to denounce comics and graphic novels for quite some time, but I think some of the best stories I've ever read have come from graphic novels--DC's Vertigo line comes to mind, which really put Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, and Grant Morrison into the limelight. Graphic novels are a lot like games in some respects, considering it's a fusion of art and story without the interactive element that technology provides.

Hideo Kojima: I would agree with that person. It is weird that there is a "Best Story" category in video game awards.

As I said previously, the story of a game is only one component of the game design. The story should not be evaluated on its own.

Ken Levine: I'd hand them a copy of X-COM, Civilization, Beyond Good and Evil, Half-Life 2 and tell them to talk to me after they've had a go.

Tim Schafer: Oh, hey. That was me wasn't it? I just said that. Yes, I would say 99.9 percent of writing in games is terrible. And what's left--the part that is good writing--half of that is ruined by nonprofessional acting.

Ragnar Tørnquist: I'd say they were partly right, but that they probably need to play more games. The stories aren't necessarily terrible, but they often suffer from bad pacing, poorly written dialogue, clichéd characters, lack of motive and context, and so on--much like most Hollywood movies, then. But that's the thing: Hollywood isn't the be-all and end-all of movies. Independent cinema is going strong, and there's a thriving audience for movies with low budgets but great stories. The economics of game development mean that there are very few independent games being produced, and the blockbuster is becoming increasingly ubiquitous. The problem with the blockbuster is that it has to appeal to everyone, and it has to fall within established genre parameters. The price tag is so high that it must be an easy sell, or no publisher will risk putting millions of dollars into it.

To answer your question: Yes, for the most part, games have bad stories. Even great games have bad stories, but that doesn't stop people from buying them--not until they have a choice.

How do you balance the desire for a good story with the need for compelling gameplay?

Chris Avellone: Well, gameplay always has to come first, but I think it's always best to break up conversations, foreshadowing and any cutscenes with enough player involvement to keep the pace going--having a few dungeons or battle zones, some exposition, some NPC interaction, more battles, etc. We always try to identify the elements that are going to be "fun" about the game first, focus on those, and try to make sure the story complements it (which is the goal on Neverwinter Nights). In some cases, we even use the story as a means to explain certain game mechanics (for example, there's a reason why the companions in Planescape: Torment and Knights of the Old Republic 2 follow you, even when it seems they would rather do anything but).

Another aspect we tried to experiment with on Planescape: Torment was that we'd do a story first and try to weave the game mechanics around it--so there'd be no load screen when you died, for example, or you could resurrect your companions, or that you were all classes at once, it was just a matter of "remembering" all your class skills when you focused on training to try to explain away a lot of the more RPG game mechanics that are taken for granted. I think there's a lot of room for doing this in future titles, and rather than slapping a story on top of a game, both of them become equally important, and each one drives the other.

"We always try to identify the elements that are going to be "fun" about the game first, focus on those, and try to make sure the story complements it." -- Chris Avellone

Hideo Kojima: MGS is not about telling a good story. It's about a protagonist who infiltrates and fights some bad guys. The bad guys occupy a certain area. That's why the protagonist infiltrates that area to eliminate the bad guys. That's the whole plot. Well, I do throw in many twists towards the end to surprise the player, but I limit that to a level that is not confusing. MGS is an action game, and I cannot really make the story any more complex. I am for limits. What's important is to make the player objective obvious. The same holds true with what the player must do next.

Ken Levine: Keep in mind the gamer. Remember that they are there to game, not to watch. Give them enough context to motivate them, let them know what their goals are, reinforce the mood and vibe of the game, and then shut the hell up.

Tim Schafer: They don't work against each other at all! They don't need to be balanced. You can have both turned up all the way!

Ragnar Tørnquist: The two aren't mutually exclusive, but you have to be constantly aware of the implications of every design decision, which is why it's hard for writers who aren't also game designers to write a game. Which is why we sometimes end up with subpar stories, because most game designers aren't good writers.

With Dreamfall, we began with the story, and every decision regarding genre, interface, and gameplay evolved from that. We were very clear about what our focus was from day one. Still, the story we'd written was tailor-made for a game and wouldn't work in a movie or a novel, which is why we could do it that way. You have to balance compelling gameplay with a solid narrative, and the latter can never take away from the former. This is why Hollywood has struggled with games, because with movies, the story is everything. With games, it's part of a larger equation.

Do you agree with the sentiment that who we are is just a factor of what we like? If not, what else can you tell me about yourself?

"You have to be constantly aware of the implications of every design decision, which is why it's hard for writers who aren't also game designers to write a game. And it's also why we sometimes end up with subpar stories, because most game designers aren't good writers." -- Ragnar Tørnquist

Chris Avellone: I think who we are is partly what we like, true, so if I needed to flesh anything else out I guess I would say that I like walking around in the Santa Ana winds at night because it's like the air is electric. I also love Southern California--I love the sun so much, in fact, that I think I was a lizard in a past life. I tend to have lots of questions for people I meet because people are a big mystery to me. I have spent a large part of my subconscious life trying to figure out the proper way to greet cats and am nearing a breakthrough. Talking on the phone can drive me crazy, since I feel physically paralyzed for the conversation. I also like girls from Norway, and left-brained trash talkers who use English in ways that it was never intended and reinvent the language as they go. Oh, and people who ask about your day and mean it rank pretty high on my happy scale, as do bars with just enough white noise so you can talk and still be heard by the person next to you.

Hideo Kojima: While you might not be able to figure out what kind of a person he/she is 100 percent, you can figure out what kind of environment that person is in right now. People's hobbies change depending on where they place themselves.

Currently, I enjoy creating games. I don't have too much free time to enjoy. When I can find any, I enjoy what I have listed in the above. But if I were to quit creating games, I'd rather do a lot of things than settle down in the country.

Ken Levine: Absolutely. I love the guys I work with and a lot of that has to do with the fact that we all have a common background and tastes. They're all super smart too, which doesn't hurt.

I finally got married when I realized I should find somebody who has the same tastes I do. My wife and I are eerily similar: We like the same food, the same movies, the same TV shows. And we both have the sense of humor of your average 9-year-old.

Tim Schafer: Uh, no. I think not. Because what makes you happy does not necessarily relate to what is going on deep inside. Also, regardless of what kind of personality you have, really great art can cut through all that and reach many different kinds of people. So lots of different people can like the same things.

Ragnar Tørnquist: Despite the fact that I'm freakishly tall, I manage to blend into most crowds by virtue of my chameleon-like demeanor. Around the office, I'm known as an expert juggler and a skilled mime. In 1978, I played an important role in the Nicaraguan revolution. I have an enormous collection of Vietnamese bottle caps in my bedroom. My first spoken words were "vorsprung durch technik." And I lie constantly to cover up for the fact that I'm actually an unbelievably dull person.

Thank you very much for your time.

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