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Postcard From GDC 2005: Why Isn't the Game Industry Making Interactive Stories?

During GDC 2005, four professional game designers and one research professor got together to look at the future of interactive stories, and industry obstacles and gamer wants took center stage before an audience of developers and academics.

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Warren Spector

Michael Mateas, founder of the Experimental Game Lab at Georgia Tech, seemed walled away from the rest of the game development community as moderator Andrew Stern and his podium towered between Mateas and the three other game designers on the panel: Tim Schafer of DoubleFine and formerly of LucasArts, Neil Young of Electronic Arts Los Angeles, and Warren Spector of Junction Point Studios and formerly of Ion Storm.

Though the discussion didn't devolve into dreaded narratology vs. ludology debates, or linger on definitions to the word "story", the panel seemed to be limited by the fact that the outside academic was not addressed by others on the panel or the moderator until the last third of the hour. While the professional game designers were allowed time to reflect on the past and their own personal requests for game and story spaces, Mateas did not speak until the panel was asked to look to future affordances.

Stern began the session by asking the game designers to relate the qualities and pleasures they seek as they design their games with story interaction in mind. For both Young and Spector, the goal is genuine human interaction, being able to explore characters that are on the other side of the uncanny valley. Spector also insisted on the ability to explore self as one explores environments in current games. Inner conflicts would dominate such a game. He also warned, however, "Once you need victory the narrative is in trouble. There is no winning or losing an inner conflict."


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Tim Schafer

On the traditions and technology that are keeping the games industry from implementing better stories, Tim Schafer noted that gamers "have only been exposed to bad story… it comes down to talent. We need good writers!" While games have expanded to require real artists and real musicians, "we mostly forgot to get real writers." Neil Young mentioned that Electronic Arts was "…founded on the idea of 'Can a computer make you cry?' We need to reconnect with that idea."

Spector also mentioned, "I've been told by [several people] that you are not allowed to say 'story' in meetings." From there he moved on to the example of Citizen Kane; "Citizen Kane was not a particularly successful movie… but RKO was willing to take a chance. We need to get to that point." Spector also mused that a change of business model might be the key to having more creative opportunities.


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Neil Young

For the last section, Andrew asked the panelists to recommend a prescription to the industry and invited Mateas into the discussion. For Tim, the solution lay in game designers to keep on striving for more experimentation. "It's my job to be experimental without [my publisher] knowing that I'm being experimental."

Mateas believed that the future for interactive stories would move toward procedural stories rather than embedded narratives. Designers need to work toward "creating a language to describe procedural narrative." Without this we will not be able to push stories in the same way technology has pushed video and audio content.

Spector responded by offering that "If it's about the player, maybe we're going about this in the wrong direction." He once dreamed that, as a silent film director, he was asked to create a musical. "Players are not very good at telling stories… rather than let players tell their own stories, it should be about players exploring their own inner devils." He also explained that from this, we need to give players extra dimension. "There so much more than just good and evil. It's not the hardest thing in the world."


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Michael Mateas

Young offered his take on the difference between story comprehension and narrative. Story comprehension is of the individual while narrative belongs to the creator. "Film makers master narrative in order to create good story comprehension… [Game designers] have all the buttons to create good story comprehension but we haven't found all the buttons."

No matter how you decide to define story, "story belongs to the game player," Spector insisted. "Players can be bad at writing it, but at least it's theirs."

Stern capped off the panel by encouraging everybody to continue the discussion at grandtextauto.org

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