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A Human Work: Denis Dyack On What Games Need

In this in-depth Gamasutra interview, the Silicon Knights founder (Too Human) talks about story mythology in gaming, the role of 'directors' in the game business, and why - ultimately - it's better for your game to be late than bad.

Gamasutra has spoken to Denis Dyack before. An outspoken proponent of exploring and examining narrative in games and working practices in development, in this interview originally conducted at the recent DICE Summit in Las Vegas, he discusses these topics in more detail.

From thinking of new ways to structure development teams to a need for all elements of development to serve a central vision, the opinions of Dyack - who is also still conducting a lawsuit against Epic Games over issues Silicon Knights encountered in using Unreal Engine 3 - are as strong as ever.

Quizzed as the first entry in his planned three-part epic, Too Human, was being prepared to be seen by the press once again, he opened up about what the game's success or failure could mean for his Ontario, Canada-based studio.

How are things going now? I mean, you say that you're coming out of the dark here, so...

Denis Dyack: I feel that, in general, from a personal perspective -- both internally, and people who've worked on the project -- feel extraordinarily good about Too Human. And I think the overarching, real hurdle is going to be what you guys [the media] think about it.

And my opening [when I demo it] is really going to be: Let's forget about the stuff from the past, and judge the game for what it is. Look at it fairly from that perspective. And I feel if that happens, we're OK.

You know, if it doesn't, we're just going to live with it; but I'm just, sort of from a personal perspective on where the game has come, I'm still happy with it. I think it's great. I think it's gone beyond all our expectations and it's more than I wanted it to be in some ways.

Well, that's good. I mean, it's obviously going to be difficult for people to not measure it against their previous expectations, or thoughts that they may have had about the game previously, but it's not uncommon for games to change a lot, so...

DD: You know, I've been very forthcoming in saying that I don't know if it's a possibility to get over that stuff or not. I hope that's the case, and you just really hope for people calling it like it is, and that's it. That's all you can do. I don't pretend to be able to guess what anyone's going to think, but as I said, again, from my perspective personally, we think we've hit all the marks, and we're happy with it.

That's good. We were talking about the Norse Mythology influence earlier. I guess by that time, all of the writing must've been done. Was it?

DD: Long time ago.

Alright, OK.

DD: Yeah, actually, a significant amount of writing, and the whole script in the entire trilogy has been worked on quite a bit.

Oh, wow. OK. So it's basically mostly scripted out already? It seems like a good way to build out the universe. You've got it all documented.

DD: It's the only way. What I like about what we've done, with the trilogy itself: This is not a -- you have some games, and you have some movies being called "trilogies," that were never meant to be trilogies. The first one was successful, they decided to do more, they decided to call it a trilogy. You know, there's four, they call it whatever you want to call it. And there's decologies, or whatever. You know, you get Final Fantasy X and stuff, but our story, our overarching story, is meant as a trilogy.

We have a theme, so the theme of the first game is discovery, the theme of the second game is revenge, the theme of the third game is enlightenment. And each game itself is encapsulated as a story, so there are no big cliffhangers, of, "Oh my God, Batman, what's going to happen next?" We're very specific in that, because I hate those kind of endings. I think anything like that, really, is a disservice to the gamer.

So, what it allows you to do is, there's a beginning, and there's an end, and you know where it's going to be, and it allows you to encapsulate everything. I'm a big believer in, you know, learning from Hollywood, and writing rules. The thing about Aristotle's Poetics, and just basic principles of -- don't put anything superfluous in. If you have a character in there, he should serve a purpose and a meaning. Not any of this sort of... You get a lot of games out there, that are just, quite frankly, verbal diarrhea.

And I've heard it so many times, and people say, "Well this game story is really good, for a video game." And I think we have to sort of throw those ideas and critiques away, and just say, "Is this a story, or not?" I don't care if it's for a video game, I don't care if it's for a novel. I think -- you know, this is definitely a really super-high watermark -- I am a massive Hyperion fan. That is good literature to me -- Dan Simmons. And that's a good science fiction. That's the kind of science fiction that we're trying to achieve with Too Human.

We're not trying to shoot for some low watermark of some cheesy B-movie plot line. What we're trying to do is actually be serious about the literature, and we want to be judged in that light. I think if we're going to really take video games as a serious art form, we have to start stepping away, and stop saying, "Oh, this is just video games, therefore X is OK." Nothing is OK. You know? It needs to be the best possible that we can ever do.

 


Yeah. I've been finding recently that the best narrative experiences I've had in games, several of them came in the last year. But a lot of them were not -- they didn't feel overly written. It was just so well integrated into the design of it -- I think as it should be -- it was not entirely spoken, it was communicated through the universe.

DD: Yep. I agree. Well, what's one of the first big rules of movies? It's that if you have voice-over, there's something wrong with my script, because what you're explaining to people, you should be able to in visuals and cinematography.

And we talked about, at Austin GDC, about BioShock's approach. Fantastic approach, they used the medium really well, and they took some sort-of '50s radio, War of the Worlds approach, and it worked really well. And I was just listening to the talk today on story, that was the ad hoc talk, that was my favorite one at the conference so far.

Like you were saying, the thing about superfluous characters, and stuff: There's so much superfluous stuff in games. It seems like things should be better planned, story-wise. They're constantly introducing new characters, instead of figuring out ways to make it simple and solid.

I don't know; I think some of it is ambition, maybe? And some of it is just not knowing how to create stories, and trying to emulate stories that are really sweeping and complex, but they're not really. I mean, you think they are, because they have all these nuances, but nuance and complexity are very different.

DD: I agree with that. And what I would say -- not to say that we have the only answer, or anything, but -- what I've noticed inherently, and it's starting to change, is that processes that we can learn from Hollywood are very good. Did you ever notice that there's a distinct lack of position in video games? We do it a lot at Silicon Knights, and there's just a few other companies that are doing it. But how many directors do you see?

And our philosophy: We have several directors on a project, and with engagement theory, we've got content, and story, artwork, game design, technology, and audio. We have five directors. Plus my role on Too Human is as a director.

But how many times do you say, "Oh, this person's the creative director," but there's no overarching director. That person who's responsible for that game's vision, from when you first started out, to the end. And so many times, in our industry, do people pitch a product or pitch an idea, and by the time they start and the time they get to the end, they don't resemble each other. That's a fundamental flaw in the process. That means something's wrong, and I think one of the things is lack of directors.

You know, if someone says they're the lead designer, that's not director. If someone says, you know, "I'm the lead technology person," or, "I'm a lead programmer, and I have a lot of influence over game design," that's great. But they're not the director either. And you need someone to take responsibility for that, to carry it from the beginning to the end, and I would like to see more of that in our industry, actually.

It started off being very producer-driven, and I think Electronic Arts' model has been very heavily producer-driven, but I think it really needs to change past that. There is a need for producers, for sure: we need to keep on the schedules, we need to make sure that the budgets are intact, and as Ken Levine said, we have fiduciary duties to make sure that we're on time and on budget as best as we can.

But my role as a director is to make sure that the creative vision stays on track to the end. And I have producers and executive producers say, "Hey! Keep in line!" but I'm always like, "What can I do to make this game the best that I can, and keep it on that vision?" And when the game is all said and done, I would like to do something at some point with you.

After you play Too Human, and it's all done, I'll give you -- and I can't do it before, because there are too many spoilers, but -- there's a one page sheet that we did, when we first started project, before we did any of that; and some of the dates are wrong, but beyond that, it's pretty accurate to what our vision is.

And I think that needs to happen more often in our industry. Not this sort of continuous grind and churn. I know the process is iterative, but the content flow direction from beginning to end does not need to be.

 


Right. Yeah, the thing that people would probably argue is that often you do find, as you're developing stuff, is that, "Hey! This works better! And this... I didn't realize that it was going to be so well suited to this," or, "This doesn't work at all." But, indeed, ideally, if we could figure more of that stuff our earlier...

DD: It's not a matter of making things out early. So here's my dilemma: I face those decisions all the time. As a director, when something like that comes up, it's my job to say, "OK, we thought X was gonna work. X clearly doesn't work." That happens all the time; I'm not trying to push this utopia where X should always work. That's a joke. Anyone that does video games knows that that won't work.

So then you're stuck with Y. And you know that Y works, everyone loves Y, but instead of saying, "Y is now going to change our direction all the way over to here," as a director, my job is to say, "OK, it's Y now; how does Y fit into the direction?" How do I turn that back in, to make this the original vision that it was supposed to be?

And if there's a point in time where you're so off, if you're trying to go to here, and you ended up being over there, I think you really have to say, "Should we kill this project?" And that doesn't happen very often in our industry. You get these sort of random, sometimes it works out, most of the time it doesn't.

Yeah. Well, I mean, it's really, people are definitely afraid to kill stuff. But it's funny, because people ask, or instance, Blizzard -- I don't know if you saw their talk...

DD: I did; I liked it. Yeah.

They asked them why their games are always good, and it's because they only release the good ones. And someone during the Visual Fight Club... he was saying that if you look at all of the successful, blockbuster, really good games, they were all delayed and late. Like, they were all finished when they were done. They tried to meet a ship date, but, you know, it wasn't the guiding principle.

DD: Absolutely.

It wasn't the thing that ultimately crippled them.

DD: Miyamoto-san said it right a long time ago: "No one will remember a late game; everyone will remember a bad game."

Yeah!

DD: And, you know -- maybe he was more positive, that everyone will remember a good game. You know, either way it shakes out, I hope it's pretty clear: We believe in that strongly. We live and die by our last game. And, you know, you're only as good as your last game. This industry is merciless, it's competitive, it's difficult, but it's worth the effort. But I agree with that. And it's pretty clear.

I look at -- I was listening to Mike [Morhaime] talk today, and the other day, when he accepted the award, talked about his family. Just wanted to go up there and hug him myself; I know what that's like, when your family is behind you, and it's tough. It's really tough up there.

Yeah. It's interesting that more people don't subscribe to that. Because if you look at Valve, or somebody? It took a really long time to get from Half-Life 1 to 2. But was it worth it? Yeah.

DD: It's a good game. Well, we as a company, we don't ever want to give in. If we think something is not working out right, we'll just take the time and fix it.

And I think we owe that to the consumer, and to the gamer, and we work for the gamers. Under any circumstance, or anything, in the end we have to be the people who deliver and fix the things. It's us that's ultimately responsible.

 


The tough thing is, how do you get enough money to keep going for that long? How do you get people to trust you to do that? Like, publishers and whatever, if you still have to deal with publishers.

DD: You do. And it's never easy. And it's kinda, every day that you survive is a day that you've made progress. So it's always that kind of -- you know, when I look back over the course of Too Human, and I look back today, we're in the tweaking and balancing stages, like I said, I'm really happy with the way it is. You look back over the development, which has been insane -- really, really crazy... It's, nothing is for sure, ever.

There are some pretty dark days in the history of Too Human. And, I use Nietzsche a lot in Too Human, and "That which does not kills us only makes you stronger," is at the end. We all aspire to that.

You just hope that you can, and you move forward. And there's a point in time where you have to say, always, "What's worth more? Am I just gonna ship this?" Like, you'll never finish anything. Nothing is ever "finished," it's just "shipped." But there's a point in time that's, "Do I give in on this major issue that I really feel needs to be done?"

And a lot of groups say they will. And that's how we get B product. And the groups that don't, they'll keep going. And sometimes it still doesn't work out; sometimes you can work on something, and you know what, it should have been killed. But you never know that until you're done.

And what I think -- it's really interesting, that I didn't know that, that all the major hits had been significantly delayed... Hopefully that will bode well for Too Human. In the end, we could only make the type of games that we're proud of making, and we just, from Silicon Knights' perspective, we will not give in to anything else. We just won't let it happen.

I can't, I just can't say it enough: you cannot give in to that, because as soon as you do, you're just giving up on the people who you're working for.

What would happen -- I mean I'm sure you don't want to think about it, but you probably have -- what would happen if it winds up not being commercially successful.

DD: Bad things. You know, I've got a sort of samurai mentality on some level. Just sort of the Bushido code. One of the main tenants is: Prepare yourself for death. And if you don't fear death, then you don't have to worry about it, you don't concentrate on it.

So I think with this industry, that's pretty important. You know, if I worried about dying every day, I'd be all-consumed. Because there are so many things, and so many problems that could occur. And I don't want to concentrate on that goal. I don't want to be distracted by some negative possibility when I can focus on the positive. So, yeah, it would be really, really bad, and in some sense... Would it kill us? I don't know. We'd probably recover.

But Silicon Knights, our track record, if you look at our past products -- we go way back, and a lot of people don't know some of them, but -- we have no skeletons in our closet. I wish everyone knew all about the stuff that we've done in the past, but you look at Legacy of Kain, you look at Eternal Darkness, you look at Metal Gear.

All different experiences, but those are all things that we stand behind totally. And Too Human is going to be another one. We wouldn't let it out until then. It's real tough, though. It's real tough. It's not an easy process.

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