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.

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Prey (2006)
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Deus Ex
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Fallout 3
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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.
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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