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On Changing The Shape Of Interaction

Narrative designer Patrick Redding (Splinter Cell Conviction, Far Cry 2) discusses the techniques employed to create more complex and satisfying character interaction -- including an examination of Conviction's co-op mode, which he directed.

[Ubisoft Montreal narrative designer Patrick Redding (Splinter Cell Conviction, Far Cry 2) discusses the techniques employed to create more complex and satisfying character interaction -- including an examination of Conviction's co-op mode, which he directed.]

Patrick Redding believes that the integration of narrative and gameplay is something that has to take place at a systemic level to be satisfying -- just examining his work on 2008's Far Cry 2 makes that obvious. He has been handed a simpler set of tools, though, with Splinter Cell Conviction, for which he served as the co-op portion's game director.

What can you do to make character interaction more compelling? And what can you do to engage players they want to be engaged today? Can games move forward into new emotional tenors and narrative spaces? And just what did Infinity Ward accomplish when it delivered the No Russian mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2?

These topics and more are all examined in depth in this interview.

How did you get involved with this project? You were previously on Far Cry 2, and this game has been in development since before that shipped.

Patrick Redding: Absolutely. I think it's well-known now that the project went through a half-time major turnaround and transitioned into a new direction, new team, et cetera.

Once that happened and I rolled off Far Cry 2, rather than doing the sensible thing and lying low for a little while, I took two months of vacation, and then our executive producer Chadi [Lebbos] basically said, "The co-op side of this is going to need some narrative love. Obviously, it's not going to be as complicated as Far Cry 2, so you shouldn't be clawing your eyes out and pulling your hair out. It should be something where we can go in and work with a team."

It's also quite different in that Far Cry 2 wasn't a co-op game at all.

PR: Right. Quite honestly, the main attraction for me -- aside from the fact that it's Splinter Cell, and I specifically love Splinter Cell co-op -- is that I really believe co-op represents the new center of gravity for mass-market gaming. I think people want these kinds of experiences that are narratively rich, that have a lot of interesting kind of depth and authorship attached, and all that other fun stuff that people talk about when they play Modern Warfare; but I think they want to share that with someone. I don't think they necessarily want it to be a solitary experience.

Our generation, you know, we're used to sitting in our basements and playing Deus Ex for eighteen hours, and I do think people want that same level of narrative depth; but they want to be able to have a social interaction that's part of that. So I think there's an interesting challenge there, in how to do that. The multiplayer side of it is something that's reasonably well-understood by a lot of people, and I think that the co-op part is an interesting mix.

There's an increasing amount of variety in the approach to co-op design these days.

PR: I think co-op in particular, across the board, is just an interesting opportunity. Because, yeah, you can make it a total arcade experience -- that's not hard to do -- but I think the idea of a co-op game that has a storyline represents an interesting challenge.

And your traditional single-player narrative and your co-op narrative are totally separate treatments, right?

PR: What we have is a single-player story, and then we have a co-op story. [Co-op] is four missions, about five to six hours of gameplay. Then, on top of that, we have Deniable Ops. Deniable Ops is four modes, three of which can be played single-player or co-op. The [last one] is actually an adversarial mode, the spy vs. spy mode we call Face Off. Deniable Ops, quite honestly, I couldn't even begin to tell you how much gameplay time is in that because, particularly when you look at our Last Stand mode.

Because it's intended as more of a traditional repeatable multiplayer scenario?

PR: Yeah. And it's honestly something that, if players dig it, they might be playing it for dozens if not hundreds of hours. Hopefully it introduces a huge amount of replay value into the final product.

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Splinter Cell Conviction

Are all of those co-op modes and campaigns available on both versions of the game?

PR: Yes. The only thing that isn't on PC for us is split-screen.

You were mentioning earlier the familiarity developers have with traditional multiplayer modes as opposed to co-op. Is that one reason you just went with an entirely separate mode, instead of the more traditional "two Master Chiefs" scenario?

PR: Yeah. I think that, commonly, you get this phenomenon: "We have a single-player game, and people like to play with their friends, so let's reuse some the maps and some of the setups, and maybe put a different path through it and beef up the number of enemies." Maybe you also mix in slightly different ingredients so it's fun for two players. That's the tried-and-true approach. It works; you can ship some awesome games that way.

The other way you do it, which is really technologically hard to do, is you have drop-in/drop-out, like in Left 4 Dead, where literally it's the same experience.

And that's not just a technology issue; it's primarily a design issue. Left 4 Dead assumes co-op by its nature; it basically intentionally isn't fun without it.

PR: Exactly; it isn't. I think other games have moved into that space because they realized that, if you're willing to make the commitment to it, it's pretty fucking cool.

The other way you do it -- and it's the more expensive way, but ultimately [the way] that allows us to explore some things mechanically that are unique to co-op -- is you say, we are going to have unique content, unique maps, and level design that is really two-player oriented level design. We're going to have scenarios and gameplay moments -- whether it's exotic gameplay or mini-games or even just core gameplay -- that is really designed to implicate two players or three players or four players or however many it is; and we're going to build a story around that to help justify it.

That's what we did here. It was interesting because, again, as everyone's aware, we were a game for which the clock was ticking when we got started. People were waiting for it. Going down that path was an interesting and ambitious [choice], for which I am extremely grateful because it allowed us to try something new.

One of the only other current series to really explicitly focus on a two-player co-op experience with mechanics designed solely around that assumption is Army of Two. Did you learn much from playing that?

PR: Oh, yeah. We played every co-op game we could get our hands on -- obviously Gears of War, lots of Left 4 Dead sessions. We certainly looked at the way co-op had worked in all the various shooters and previous Clancy titles. It took a lot of time spent playing [Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell:] Chaos Theory co-op with Bob and Steve.

In terms of Army of Two, it was something that we looked at mainly because they did focus on the experience as, by default, a co-op experience. It is a third-person game, like [ours]. They were looking at some interesting, exotic gameplay that was focused on having two players. There are definitely lessons to be learned from it, but it was part of a huge library of games that we looked at.


In terms of delivering a new narrative experience in co-op, what particular principles or goals did you set?

PR: Partly it grew organically out of a couple of things that we knew to be true about Splinter Cell. For one thing, Splinter Cell isn't a shooter, and Splinter Cell co-op -- even if it's going to tend towards action because you have twice as many ways to get detected -- still needs to be a stealth experience.

By definition, when you have stealth gameplay, when you can impose dynamic and fluid rules of engagement on the player as part of the DNA of the game, it gives you interesting opportunities for staging narrative moments in the game. That's one thing, and that gives you a bit of pacing you don't have in a game that is just a third-person co-op shooter.

But along with that come all the challenges: the fact that if we're going to have narrative events taking place directly in-game, which is how Splinter Cell does it, what happens if only one player sees it? What happens if we need both players to see it? How are we giving the information to the player?

Luckily, Conviction gives us a lot of tools: we have the projected videos, we have projected text. There are ways of telling that story in-game in addition to hearing it through your earpiece.

But the fun part, for me anyway -- and something that won't be a surprise to you because you and I have talked a lot about this in the context of Far Cry 2 -- was the idea that you've got two characters who are working together.

In our storyline, Archer is an American; Kestrel's a Russian. Right from the get-go, they don't like each other, they don't trust each other, they've never worked with each other. At the beginning of the game, there is a different relationship dynamic between these two player characters, which maps to the fact that you have two players who may be sitting down and playing the game for the first time.

In the same sense that the players haven't necessarily mastered the mechanics of the game, haven't mastered cooperating with each other, haven't learned how to be efficient as a team -- Archer and Kestrel also haven't done that.

What we were able to do is say, "That's awesome! Let's use that to our benefit. Let's make that progression that the players are going to be going through, whether they're listening to the dialog or not. In some way, allow them to live that progression in their relationship."

Of course, we back that up with dialog. We back that up with the way they react to each other in certain situations. Systemically, if Archer takes a bullet and falls in battle and Kestrel has to come and bail him out, at the beginning of the game Kestrel's attitude is, "You fucked that up, arrogant amateur. Look what I'm stuck with; I have to babysit this guy." By the end of the game, there's a real sense of camaraderie and they're really trying to help each other; he doesn't want his friend to die.

That was like one of the easy, low-hanging fruit solutions, and I honestly feel that's the most compelling part of the narrative. We had some pretty interesting responses from people during play-testing where they've said they really appreciate the fact that we set up Archer and Kestrel as professionals. It's not a buddy cop [premise]. It's not Tango and Cash. It's not two guys who are already making dick jokes with each other at the beginning of the game. They don't really like each other, but they've got to get a job done. They're pros, and they will.

Over the course of the game, their professional respect for each other changes and improves and increases, and by the end there almost is a sense of, "You know what? When this is over, we can go fishing and have a beer, but we're not best buddies or anything. I don't hate you."

I think that's an interesting progression to work on. Players can relate to it because, mechanically, they're getting annoyed with each other; they're getting frustrated with how things are working or not working when they make a plan and then the plan doesn't work.

They're mastering the controls; they're learning to explore the hidden depths and hidden layers to all these new tools that we're giving them. They're learning what to do if one of them gets grabbed in a choke hold and one of them is shot down and needs to be revived. All of these are things that force the player to go through a progression not only by themselves but in how they work with someone else.

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To dust off another Ubisoft Montreal title, one of my favorite things about the relationship between the Prince and Farah in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was that the game eased you into that symbiotic relationship. It was almost saying, "Look, I know you hate escort missions. These characters don't want to be here either." But as it continued, and as you as a player became more invested, the characters warmed to each other in a genuinely charming way.

PR: Honestly, Sands of Time did it so well. I think it's one of the best games for doing that. That success insinuated itself into the DNA certainly of Ubisoft Montreal that there's something to this. There's something to this idea that the rugged, individualist solo character is all good and well and interesting, and there's still plenty to do with that, but there is something really compelling when you add another human factor into the mix that's not just your enemy.

Did that require a lot of tuning? I can imagine a situation as a player where after a certain point I'm thinking, "Look, asshole. Just help the guy out already. I don't need your snideness here."

PR: Yeah, absolutely. It's the curry of game development. You put in a little tiny bit, and under the right set of circumstances it adds a certain flavor to the game. Even with Far Cry 2, I took away from that a very, very powerful resistance to the idea that the player character should be constantly beaking at you or beaking at the other characters. It's better to say less, but make what's said interesting and worth something.

For us, there are two components. As in a lot of our games, there's the scripted part, which is really driven by the story moments: the players arrive at a certain point, they have a certain variable to communicate with each other. They say, "Okay, there's our objective, and I see some interesting possibilities. There's a ground floor door and some windows." They're giving the player information, but they're also talking to each other. It gives you that exposition, but it justifies it by the fact that there's two of them.

Then on the other side, you get those moments where, say, I've got enemy targets marked, and all of my marks are red. I'm Archer, and I know Kestrel's lurking in the shadows somewhere; maybe he's got some marks that we can take out all at once.

I'll say something to that effect: "I've got a clean shot at these guys. How about you?" You're getting valuable information and really trying not to talk too much otherwise. If they bump into each other, they're not going to be like, "Hey, watch what you're doing!" They're not going to be high-fiving each other. It's focused on the stuff that matters to the player.


I'd be curious to know what else you learned from Far Cry 2. That was such an unusual game in many ways, and certainly very different to this.

PR: Absolutely. There's a whole entire narrative postmortem that you and I can talk about at some point. [Creative director] Clint [Hocking], I think, actually covered it extremely well in the postmortem that he did for you guys.

But I think for me the number one takeaway was that if you're serious about trying to make the story something that lives in the game's mechanics and is not just embedded in the background or the cut-scenes or the dialogue, you need to give visibility and important and prominence to the NPCs.

You need to be willing to invest in the NPCs almost more than anything else, because players do develop positive or negative reactions about these characters, but only if they can understand why they matter.

I think one of the big mistakes that we made on Far Cry 2 was that we built all these systems -- we created an entire system for managing buddies, for managing your reputation within the factions, for tracking various choices you've made throughout -- but the player didn't really get to see the consequences very well.

Sometimes the consequences were there, and the obsessive types who were willing to play the game for 40 hours would start to discern some of it. But that's not fair to the player who just wants to sit down with the game and appreciate why their choices matter.

I've always believed we could have done tons with the buddies that we didn't do, rather than complicating it more than that. When it came time to look at a co-op experience [in Splinter Cell: Conviction], for me it was like, "Okay. This is the best possible opportunity to take away the lesson of the buddies and apply it to another game, because you by definition have a buddy."

You're playing co-op; you have a human being who's talking to you at the same time the characters are talking to each other. There's a relationship there that is a layer above and beyond what Archer and Kestrel are doing in the game itself. The depth of that relationship and how much it matters to you is something that's going to be entirely personal, which is something we wanted to do with the Far Cry 2 buddies but which here I think is going to be more or less by default.

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It's tough, because in a game -- unlike in some other forms -- it's much harder to actually jump into the motivations of another character. Everything is filtered through your own character, whose main function is usually to kill things. In Far Cry 2, for example, you deal with that by just removing your gun entirely when you enter a house. In some games, like BioShock, they make a point to put "friendly" characters on the other side of glass whenever possible. Then on the other end, games like Fallout just let you shoot almost anyone you want.

PR: Right. You can depopulate the planet. [laughs]

None of them seems ideal yet. We haven't yet figured out how to make meaningful NPCs seamlessly interactive without taking away the player's systems or breaking the game.

PR: Yeah, and let's not kid ourselves. If you sell a game that's a first-person shooter, then no matter how many RPG elements you shoe-horn into the game, the shadow that hangs over every character interaction that you have, no matter who they are, is the question in the player's mind of "What happens if I shoot this person?"

And that's our own fault! We've sold the player that; we've made a contract with the player that says it's okay to kill people. Why would we then chastise them for exploring that?

I think the answer is that the Fallout 3 approach, to me, is still in some ways the holy grail of being able to say, "Well, we want a world that is so dynamic and so responsive to the player's actions and so flexible that if they want to go on a murderous spree, they can do that, and the game will reflect it in the characters' attitudes. They'll face specific difficulties and challenges as a result of going down that route."

Certainly, with Far Cry 2, I think we would have loved to have done that in a more complete way. But it is always a trick, because we weren't mandated to create an RPG; we were mandated to create an open-world shooter. The fact that it was open-world created interesting implications that needed to be at least looked at. The buddies were a way for us to do it.

But as you say, that means there's a compromise; there's a point where you walk in the door and the guy pats you down and takes your guns away. That's our concession, and it was an expedient solution; but it's not always the most satisfactory one.

Game expectations are tough like that. There are a million games that have absolutely no true NPC interaction, and are purely shooters the whole time; but as soon as you give someone an inch, the mile is implied.

PR: For example, the most legitimate complaint I'd say I've heard was, "Why is it that every time I hit a checkpoint, my only option is just to get into a firefight?"

If people are asking that question and actually complaining about that, then that's a good thing! It's bad that we didn't satisfy that need, but I'm really happy that the need exists, because it tells me that in this giant open-world shooter where everyone's carrying an AK-47, people still thought it might be a cool thing to drive up and bribe a guy, or show him the stamped letter that they got from [faction boss Addi] Mbantuwe that says you're allowed to be there.

It's that idea that maybe you sacrifice a bit of your firepower in order to be a little more mobile or a little less visible, and maybe work your way through that world without being molested -- maybe that's a worthwhile choice for the player to make. I totally think that's true, and I wish that we had had the presence of mind to go after that; but that's one of these "hindsight is 20/20" things. There are interesting experiments to be done with that, for sure.


So on the NPC design side, what are you bringing to Conviction?

PR: Let's be clear: This is a very, very different approach towards NPCs and narrative to what we were trying to do on Far Cry 2. This is absolutely authored, 100 percent embedded in the game. I think the main thing we do is a very simple mapping that exists between the banks of dialogue for Archer and Kestrel at different chapters of the storyline. And that's it! That's purely a data solution. There's no system there; it's just, "Don't load these dialogues, load these dialogues."

Well, it works for Left 4 Dead.

PR: That's right. It works really well. In some ways, if I'm being self-righteous and indignant, what I often say is, "Damnit! We don't spend enough time working on AI and making characters that are believable and having those human interactions that Doug Church is always talking about and has been working his whole life to try to create!"

We don't have that. We don't have AI acceleration parts that people can install in their PCs. We're still fetishists over graphics and immersion and all that kind of stuff.

But the opportunity we're being handed by having interesting co-op gameplay is the ability to say, "Alright! That's fine. If we can't have an AI do it, we'll just have to get a human being to do it. We have to get a person to wear that suit -- climb into the chicken suit and act like a chicken."

I think that that's cool. If we go down that path and say, "Let's really make games that are about people working together or having relationships" -- maybe not necessarily always liking each other, maybe even betraying each other at some point -- then suddenly all that stuff that we were talking about with Far Cry 2 buddies -- "Do I betray my buddy, or do I help him? Do I use my last syrette to revive him, or do I put a bullet into his head?" -- can actually be addressed by using the real human beings. It becomes even more profound and even more impactful emotionally.

The way I see it is that this is using the tools we've been given -- humans -- and offloading some of the processing work to them, which is a recurring theme for us.

In a way, you're moving the spotlight. A player can only think about a certain number of things at any given time while playing a game, so if they're spending more time thinking about this person they're playing with, they're less concerned with the NPCs.

PR: It's that "prisoner's dilemma" scenario. It would be very interesting to imagine what the infamous airport scene in Modern Warfare 2 would have been like if there had been two players that were both in deep cover who couldn't communicate with each other but both found themselves in that situation with no preparation, and were looking at each other thinking, "What do we do? What do we do? What do we do?"

There, the different choices are, "Shit. Okay, buddy number two's about to walk over and put a bullet in that civilian's head; do I stop him? Do I blow his cover? I'm perfectly okay shooting all these guys because I know they're evil bastards, but that guy's just doing his job. He's just got maybe a stronger stomach than I do."

That, to me, would be super interesting, and probably would have given that entire sequence an emotional weight and gravity that I think everyone would have appreciated and acknowledged, and would have dispelled a lot of the pointless controversy about it.

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I personally thought that scene was a poor inclusion, but one thing that disappointed me about that debate was that there wasn't more discussion about the notion of whether it's okay for a character to want something different to what the player wants. A lot of complaints had to do with people saying, "I didn't want to do this!" Maybe you don't, but your character had experiences you didn't; not every piece of entertainment has to be a power fantasy where you are doing the most desirable thing. Do you have any thoughts on that?

PR: Right. Here's the problem I see. You have a game which, on its surface, is delving into territory that's well-understood in the game world, which is a war. On the surface, there's nothing about that that's really preparing you for the idea that what you're about to experience isn't, at least in some fashion, a power fantasy or a transgressive experience.

When it puts you into that situation, there's no shorthand for it. It doesn't show up anywhere else in the game. You're left only having the same set of tools you have everywhere else in order to complete that. That's problem number one.

Problem number two is that, if they were going to do this, they needed to go further than they did. I honestly feel there are two things that could have happened that could have been interesting.

One: Rather than having the little pop-up that says, "There's disturbing content in this game; do you want to do it? Are you sure you want to do it?" why not simply ask point-blank, "Okay, private. This is a voluntary mission. If you take it, you're going to have to do some really terrible things. You might have to kill innocent people. But if you do that, millions of innocent people will survive. If you're not willing to do it, we'll somehow find that intel some other way. Or maybe we won't, and we'll just have to live with it."

Then it might be more expensive to develop, because it becomes a thing where it could have been very interesting if I make the choice of, "You know what? I'm not willing to compromise myself morally this way, even if maybe I'm the only guy they've got with the qualifications to do it." Then, in the end, that incident takes place without my involvement, but on top of that we don't get the intel.

It wouldn't even have to be much more expensive, if the plot were written such that it curves back around if you don't accept the mission. Because in the game, the mission goes wrong anyway. There are two ways to the same ultimate place; one of them is just more fucked up. To me, that is interesting.

PR: I think it could have been interesting. Maybe you never get the bullet that lets you then trace it back to the guy. There's a little chunk there that could have been lifted out, and then maybe the next mission is literally Russian paratroopers landingin Virginia. There are a few different ways they could have done it, and I agree: that's not optimal.

The other thing, frankly, is that I was totally fine with being put in the position of saying, "You're not this guy, but this guy is being put into this situation. He's going to do a terrible thing, and the game is about is the fact that he has to live with that." And for the rest of the game, he's got the blood of innocent people on his hands, either directly, or through his complicity in not taking action. He certainly has guilt, and the game is about his redemption, about him making up for that, at least in his own mind, by going after the people that did this thing.

And then when he discovers that, in fact, maybe the guys that were behind sending him in were also implicated, really going after them -- like, "You fuckers! Not only did you manipulate this entire situation, but you manipulated me into killing innocent people for no good reason, and now it's payback time."

All that wonderful vengeance stuff we spend a lot of time doing, that we've gotten pretty good at, could have been put to use telling the story of this guy who has done this really fucking awful thing -- not because we told you that he did it, but because you did it. You experienced it first-hand.

Okay; maybe that's not Call of Duty. Maybe that's something else. But I think the opportunity was lost a little bit, or diluted a little bit, by not forcing those consequences to stick, because at the end of the day, the guy who does it gets shot. I'm just spoiling it for everybody who hasn't played it!

I think it would have been hard for that not to have been spoiled to anyone who reads video game websites by now!

PR: Yeah, exactly. But this is my point: It's relevant insofar as we're talking about how you introduce these bigger narrative ideas into games in a way that's actually playable. I think that's a perfect example of where it could be done a few different ways.


Would you ever imagine a scenario where the daughter of some salaried guard Sam Fisher has killed goes on a mission to take out the guy who ruined her life?

PR: Hell yeah! I'd love to do that game! [Laughs] But I don't want to talk any further about that because, for all I know, someone's already thinking about it. In fact, they explore a little bit of it in Assassin's Creed II.

There are moments where you are touched with the consequences of your actions, and you're shown that nothing you do is indiscriminate.

If Ezio decides to slit the throat of some hapless archer who's walking around the rooftops of Florence or Venice or anywhere else, you do get some sense over the course of the game that these are guys with families and that there are consequences to it.

I think that's great. It's cool to go down that path; it's important to explore these things. I think Ubisoft has a tradition of wanting to try to move in that direction. It's cool to go dark, but let's go dark with some purpose. Let's have some meaning behind it.

How much do you think that games are moving in that respect? Do you think we're actually moving towards a future where "core" games do have primary mechanics that aren't going there and killing the guy, but are still game-like?

PR: Yeah. It's tough, because it's become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The people making the games are the people who have grown up playing the games that are of a certain type, so the genres become entrenched. But I clearly see it. You're seeing it in games that are coming out now that are by any measure mass-market.

Actually, it's interesting, because Clint just did his little article on his blog about this -- not so little, actually -- about the notion of social responsibility in game development. There's a prescriptive argument that says we need to make games that are socially responsible. His counter to that is, "No. What you need to do is let game developers express themselves creatively about things that are important to them personally, and what you're going to find is that, eventually, game developers start talking about things other than power fantasies and transgressive behavior."

And he's absolutely correct on that front. I think that alongside that argument are two interesting observations, however. I'm now going to not be able to write about this, but I'll let you say it. [Laughs]

One is that all mammals participate in gameplay, and humans, for as long as they've been around, have been using games to prepare themselves for the challenges of real life. So a lot of games, especially early games and sports and a lot of what we play in video games, are about dealing with existential threats. It's hardwired into our DNA and our nervous systems to worry about existential threads. That's how we've survived.

But, at the same time, we've got all this other circuitry that's up there that's designed to deal with non-existential problems, like being able to communicate with people and find food and find a mate and build a sustainable community, and all of these other ideas that are now part of our DNA.

It is absolutely, 100 percent true that it is possible to make games about those things, and if you don't make games about those things, people will find ways to play games about those things anyway. They will create proxies for those types of games; they will create analogs for those types of games. They'll play chess; they'll play go. They'll play Diplomacy instead of Risk. They'll find ways to make the sort of gameplay they are engaging in or just the play they are engaging in about those things because that's what's in their heads.

Similarly, the flipside is that there are also now, maybe even for the first time, entire classes of problems -- real-world problems -- for which interactive games provide a potential solution. In the same way we think about outsourcing as a way to find solutions to problems in the real world, I genuinely believe that we will look to harness the kind of collective energies and industry of people who are playing interactive games in their spare time in order to crack problems. And I'm not talking Wii Fit; I'm talking like games that can solve hunger.

A broader application of serious games.

PR: That's right; exactly. I think that because those two things are true, we can be sure that games are going to be moving in this direction, because that's where the vacuum is. We haven't filled it yet. As long as people are still groping around, looking for things to explore with gameplay -- even if it's relatively genre-inherent -- that's the direction we have to go.

I don't see us really making games more transgressive than they already are. [Laughs] I think we've pretty much hit the wall on that, so I think now, at least in the mass market, people want games that are going to allow them to get better at different kinds of problem-solving.

I think a challenge there is that, at least traditionally, those kinds of games came in more abstract form. It's obviously not a serious game, but Civilization IV can depict amazing things -- things that are mind-blowingly suggestive about the way powers interact. But usually that comes in games where you aren't a guy walking around. Some people have a harder time connecting to a system that's more detached.

PR: But I think that's interesting, because you look at tabletop games, which are as abstract as that, and yet you can sit there with a piece of paper and a set of stats and use your imagination. I can feel like I'm having a compelling experience playing a tabletop game with a full range of human interaction at work, mostly because I'm dealing with other people. So we know that it's possible. It's possible to create an abstract container that still allows players to explore things that are very personal and intimate.

That said, there's no question that it's easier with the kind of inputs we have to give them broad, gestural strokes, which lends itself maybe better to games that are on a literal map like Civilization, where rather being the little guy running around, chopping down trees and building walls, you're this God-Emperor who's nudging things around -- or the Black & White hand that's moving things around and throwing lightning bolts.

I've always maintained -- right back from the very beginning -- that this was one of the problems we needed to overcome. Someone was asking me my opinion of Natal. The thing that's exciting to me about Natal -- and this is in no way saying that this problem is going to be licked in two years -- is that the "thin-pipe/fat-pipe" problem is something we're trying to take a crack at.

We're pumping a huge amount of graphical fidelity and simulation detail out of our high-definition screens and through our speakers at the player to make them feel like this world is real. We're doing everything in our power to push through the uncanny valley so that our NPCs seem lifelike and that they behave in a human way.

But what about the player? The player's controller is the same thing that we had with the Sega [Genesis]. We need to find ways to give the player more nuanced input so that they can start using things like body language; they can start using things like gesture, and there could be subtleties to their input that make it possible for them to play games that are about things other than the kind of gross motor-skill, eye-hand coordination type actions that go along with lining crosshairs up on a pixel and pulling the trigger.


Do you think there will be a challenge presented there, that maybe the closer the player gets to the game directly reflecting his input, the harder it will be to do something that isn't a direct power fantasy? If you start conflating the player and the character to that extent, it might exacerbate that.

PR: You know what? I might be totally wrong. [Laughs] There is a valid point to what you just said, which is that, in a sense, the physical immersion part of it and the simulation part of it is one of the reasons we've gotten ourselves into a bit of a bind.

Some of the most compelling games that are about things other than killing other characters have been really low-res in their own way.

If you're playing Passage or any of these simple but incredibly moving games that guys like Jason Rohrer have been working on, you're not talking about pushing the envelope in terms of simulating a world space. You're talking about pushing the envelope in terms of the amount of meaning and the kinds of meaning that you can embed in the mechanics of the game and the systems of the game.

I think that also goes to the Scott McCloud concept of identifying with simplicity. Games like those are trying to tap into existing truths that we hold, whereas when you're shooting a guy -- I have no idea what it's like to actually shoot a guy.

The game sort of does need to tell me, "Look at what happens when the bullet goes into his head!" because I'm not going to be able to tap into that from experience. That's convincing when the game can sell it to me. But if you're trying to tap into the feeling of longing, for example, that's a more inherent thing that people can understand with less explicit description.

PR: Right, exactly. There's a shorthand for it because we've all got it. Actually, you just said it way better than I did. [Laughs] But it's exactly right. Every one of us has at least gone through the sting of loss, betrayal, hope -- all of these core social emotions -- to varying degrees.

And we can kind of invoke that in the same sense that familiar smells bring back the flood of memories. We don't need to do much gesturally to enable the player to access that. That's a good way to say it.

conv_shot5.jpg

On that note, to get back to Conviction, when I see things like the projection on the walls, it strikes me as having a lot of potential in terms of telling the player what Sam Fisher already knows, but not doing it in the fiction itself or with a traditional UI element.

And while I imagine in this game it's primarily used for style and directional purposes, it does suggest a lot of potential evolution in what you could convey. It very naturally combines the abstract and representational aspects that are so intrinsic to games to begin with.

PR: I think part of it is the realization that it's not a dogma, the idea of creating physical immersion. And even if you think about it, it's already a third-person game.

Right, which is an abstraction in and of itself.

PR: It's a level of abstraction that the player assimilates so quickly they almost forget it's there, because they can see their avatar put a hand up against the wall when he slides to a halt next to it, or lean around the wall, or even flinch when a bullet goes past. After a while, they see it 80 times and it just becomes something that is happening in their own mind. They can experience the game in the "first person" without realizing it.

What's interesting, and what we could be doing and trying to push a little bit, is that idea that there are visual cues in the world that are entirely "gamey"; it's just that rather than two-dimensional layers over my view of the world, they exist in that perspective. They're projected on the wall; they respond to wind. They exist as a function of the surface of the world. Those things represent the kind of inner workings of Sam's mind in a way.

I know my thoughts are not Sam's thoughts. Sam is a guy with a really different life than mine; he's having a really terrible day, and his experience is way more extreme than anything I've had. So what's interesting is, rather than forcing me to try to think Sam's thoughts, you're kind of allowing me to peek inside his head.

That's where this text stuff is coming from; that's where these projected images are coming from. When he's interrogating somebody, and you start seeing images -- yeah, okay, the guy isn't being that descriptive, but Sam's got a good head on his shoulders. He's imagining what it might be like, and we're using the real world to show the player that.

That's almost a function of the third-person perspective in literature, right? Even though that character is being externally described, you're allowed into that character's head a little bit more than the other characters.

PR: Yeah, the literary analogy actually works pretty well, because you've got the main character, and the player is third-person omniscient, insofar as we know what Sam's thinking and what's going on in his head. Occasionally we show a glimpse of what another character's doing in places that Sam can't possibly have access to, but we're doing it in such a way that it flows naturally around him.

I think that's kind of an interesting way of looking at it. There is maybe something else going on there even above and beyond everything that the designers have realized about it, in a way. That's good, though; that means that there's an opportunity there to build on it. There's an opportunity for other people to kind of take the cue from that and be inspired by it.

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