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AGDC: Denis Dyack - 'The Media Is The Massage'

In his AGDC talk, Denis Dyack touched on Silicon Knights' methods for story, and warned that the media of games will often overpower the message you're trying to tell - he also dropped a few hints about Too Human along the way.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

September 6, 2007

7 Min Read

Silicon Knights president Denis Dyack’s talk at the Austin Game Developers Conference on Wednesday was purposefully titled, though he says many people tried to correct him. The Media is the Message is a book by Marshall McLuhan, but the first printing had a typo on the cover – to wit, 'The Media is the Massage'. Apparently McLuhan thought it was such an appropriate typo that he let it stay, and indeed, media massages the user into feeling a certain way. The crux of Dyack’s talk was that the media can often trump the message you’re trying to convey – though that’s no excuse not to put forth the best message you can. During the course of things, he also dropped some hints about Silicon Knights’ upcoming Too Human. Technology and Art His lecture was in the writing track, but he said, “More than anything else, I like talking about technology and its effects on society. There are common themes [in every talk I’ve done] – our game Too Human, [also] talks about the effects of technology on society. This talk is aimed at discussing technology and the messages we’re sending.” When you’re thinking about writing a story for games, he says, it’s important to consider that “Basically, the medium is going to overpower anything that you write.” “D.H. Lawrence says ‘always trust the tale, not the teller,’” McLuhan continues. “I think there’s a lot of validity in this, and oftentimes you’ll see in the movie industry that they ask very specific questions about specific elements of movies, in interviews and discourse. These sorts of questions are sometimes almost better not answered.” For instance, the director may have had a very different vision from the viewer about the movie’s message – but this does not invalidate the viewer’s reading. The medium is so powerful that no matter what the message is that you put in, that’s not necessarily what will come out. Dyack then proposed video games as a proper art form, saying that Ricciotto Canudo (1879-1923), one of the first film theorists, described cinema as the 7th art, calling it a convergence of the spatial arts with the temporal arts. “I think video games are the 8th art,” he says, “because we do all of that, and add interactivity. More people play games that read books, watch television, or listen to music. We may not be bigger than film, but their industry continues to decline, as ours gets larger.” Method “My theory for games is called 'Engagement Theory',” he offers. “Engagement is greater than, or equal to, story plus art, plus gameplay, plus technology, plus audio. People say gameplay is everything – without gameplay you’re dead. But games like Myst or The 7th Guest were not played for the gameplay. Users looked for entertainment, they wanted to be engaged. So engagement is paramount.” In Myst for instance, the art was so good that nobody cared about the story, he says. “Gears of War is the same way -- the art is so good that nobody cares about the story, and if they did, they’d be disappointed.” Silicon Knights has a whole content creation group that just makes concepts and story and universes. The company is also set up somewhat like a guild. “We try to create an environment like a university,” he says. “If you join Silicon Knights, we don’t care as much about how you make games as if you’re creative, and if you care about advancing the medium. And we’ve set up the company in such a way that all those disciplines mentioned contribute to the content.” But Silicon Knights is not without its own story and pacing mistakes, and Hideo Kojima lectured him on that very subject as regards Eternal Darkness, saying that if you didn’t get past the fourth level, you didn’t get it. And that was a mistake, Dyack admits. As for Too Human, “We’ve been thinking about it for so long,” he begins. “We’ve been trying to apply everything we’ve learned from a content and storytelling point of view over the years. So as an example ,we have three levels of script in Too Human. We have what’s close to a movie script for the main story. We started using the scriptwriting techniques of film – I hope it’s a good thing." "The second level is a detailed level of story that describes the universe," Dyack continues. "It’s from a human level; the basic story is man versus machine. But it’s also retelling the story of Norse mythology – basically, exactly. It is, as much as possible, one-to-one, exactly the same conceptually – except the gods are cybernetically-enhanced humans." "The last level of script is just your basic combat dialogue and stuff," Dyack added. "The amount of script we have is maybe 4 to 5 times bigger than anything else we’ve ever created. We’re doing lots of compression to make sure we can get everything in there.” Story vs. the Medium Dyack then went on to analyze the story - i.e, the message -- versus the medium in a number of high-profile properties. In each case below, he asks the question: was it a good story (message), or was it a good use of the medium? Half Life – “I’ve had so many people come up to me and just take it for granted how good the story was. They’ll be like, ‘I love the story in Half-Life, it was great!’ And I say ‘what story, it was terrible!’ It’s not that it’s a bad game -- I love it, and I think it was groundbreaking. What they did was, they understood the medium enough to use the medium of the game to give people content they’d never had before, to such an extent that it overcame what I think is a pretty weak story.” Bioshock – “I’m only half done, so I can’t tell if it’s a good story yet. But what they’ve done, which I think is fantastic, is that they understand media, and at some point must’ve been into stuff like War of the Worlds, and the big radio dramas of the 50s. The look of the game takes off from that. If you listen to it, it sounds like a radio drama. That’s understanding the media of sound, and putting it on top of a first person shooter that’s very content-rich, and people are saying it’s groundbreaking. It’s done in such a way that people are just really loving it. And I think it’s fantastic. “ Armageddon (movie) – “That thing was such utter shit! Like why did they bring a Gatling gun up into space? But it did huge box office because the production values were so high, it just reinforces the fact that the medium is the message.” Se7en (movie) – “Seven won all kinds of academy awards, and was a very well-done movie, had an excellent script and was well done across the board - except for one area. I watched the director's commentary, and he really tried to make sure that the serial killer in this movie was not the hero. Somebody you wouldn’t identify with and say, 'he was cool.' He made the script revolve around what that character was doing, and nothing to do with the person – you never get his name, for instance. I think in that aspect, the director absolutely failed. I think the serial killer in that movie is the coolest guy, bar none.” Knights to the Future “Our philosophy is to imagine the technology is infinite when we create our content,” he says. “That’s what allowed an idea like Too Human, that we thought of in 1993, to come out now. Good concepts are good concepts regardless of the technology. But do remember that the content will alter your message.”

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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