GDC panel tries to pin down the significance of story

Four known quantities grapple with interactive stories, present and future.

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SAN FRANCISCO--"Can we go from fighting outer demons to fighting inner demons?"

At GDC's Thursday panel "Why Isn't the Game Industry Making Interactive Stories?" this deceptively simple question--posed by moderator Andrew Stern (InteractiveStory.net)--established the overriding theme of the session.

The panel featured game design giants Neil Young (EA), Tim Schafer (Double Fine), and Warren Spector (formerly of Ion Storm), as well as researcher Michael Mateas (Georgia Tech). For one hour, the four panelists discussed the present and future of video game stories. And nobody had any easy answers.

First asked to describe the specific qualities they seek in video game stories, the panelists all emphasized the importance of compelling characters. "We're still a babe in arms when it comes to character," Spector commented, remarking that current video game characters are equivalent to "cardboard cutouts." "I really want to care about characters…I want to feel what they're feeling," he continued, and talked about his desire to see video games evoke genuine feelings of empathy. Spector explained, "[gaming is] the most narcissistic medium on the planet…and I think it should be."

Young seconded Spector's focus on empathy, and touted the concept of "emotive resonance." The best stories, he argued, are those that leave the audience reflecting long afterward. But Young urged that we need to figure out how to give digital actors "subtlety of performance" and a human element of "perfect timing" before video games can evoke any such empathy or self-reflection.

Schafer discussed his desire to see video games incorporate other types of story genres. "There's more to life than science fiction and fantasy," he stated, adding, "[there are] so many other places to seal from." Instead, Schafer suggested that game designers draw directly from their own personal life experiences.

Next, the panelists were asked to describe the obstacles that currently prevent them from achieving the kinds of stories that they envision. "Gamers sadly seem happy with what they get," Spector answered, indicating a certain complacency that isn't easy to overcome. Schafer agreed, and pointed to the difficulty in "overcoming the history of what's been done before." "I think [players] have only been exposed to mostly bad story," Schafer explained, further conjecturing, "players would ask for story the more they get good stories."

Commercial pressure was listed as another obstacle in the evolution of video game storytelling. Spector even recounted experiences in corporate board meetings in which he was "not allowed to say the word 'story'" due to the perception that emphasis on story scares many gamers away. And though Spector criticized those notions as "very frustrating," he stopped short of assigning specific blame, wondering if "it might be unrealistic for us to ask publishers to take those kinds of risks." Instead, he suggested that more experimental games might have to find new outlets and new market appeal. Young offered a less critical response, theorizing, "To some degree, it's just where we are in the arch of understanding our medium." He suggested that video game artists are slowly "uncovering" their specialized skills over time, and that the maturation process is "absolutely incremental." Spector seemed to agree, admitting, "We've made amazing progress."

Lastly, the speakers were asked to offer realistic solutions for overcoming current obstacles in video game storytelling. Young proposed that we address the problem one feature at a time, rather than considering the full problem at once. Spector seconded this notion, praising strict design constraints as "very important."

Schafer focused on his belief that "integrating story and gameplay is key." To that end, he suggested that design teams specifically pair writers and artists with more technically informed partners. As for dealing with commercial pressure, Schafer revealed, "[It's] my job to be experimental without letting them [the publisher] know I'm being experimental."

As a short-term solution, Spector encouraged designers to stylize games, asserting, "Stylization is a valuable tool that we underutilize." However, Spector seemed somewhat bleak about the larger picture and wondered aloud if it's even possible for video games to tell significantly richer stories. He analogized the situation to one of his nightmares, in which he was assigned the impossible task of producing a musical via silent film. More optimistically, though, Spector urged designers to "give players real choices" and "attach real consequences." At times, the atmosphere of the session felt distinctly antiacademic. Stern specifically began by asking the panelists to avoid the academic terms ludology and narratology, and only called on Mateas to speak in response to the third and final question. When Mateas did finally speak, he prescribed a move toward "procedural content." That is, story generated on the fly rather than pregenerated. However, he identified a problematic lack of concrete design solutions, pointing out "we don't have a language to think about procedural narrative in."

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