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AGDC: Matt Costello on 'Developing Story and Gameplay Together'

At the 2007 Austin Game Developers Conference, Polar Productions game designer and writer Matt Costello gave a presentation entitled, "One World: Developing Story and Gameplay Together," offering his ideas on structuring story around a game's interactive

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

September 6, 2007

3 Min Read

At the 2007 Austin Game Developers Conference, Polar Productions game designer and writer Matt Costello gave a presentation entitled, "One World: Developing Story and Gameplay Together," aiming to explore ways that story in games is "built," and how it impacts gameplay. Costello wrote the classic The 7th Guest and has scripted quite a few games in his time, including Shellshock-Nam ‘67, Bad Boys 2 and Doom 3. He's currently working on Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean 3 game, a "major new game" for Eidos, and id Software's Rage, and in his presentation he shared some of his tips and tricks. "Every game is going to have a unique solution to its story and game problems," Costello noted; that being said, he highlighted several traits that distinguish a real story from a simple set of sequential events. First, it must be active, and there must be a mission involved, with something at stake -- close encounters, dangerous environments and completely isolated characters are ways to raise those stakes. Costello went on to suggest that interactivity is actually an illusion, actually demonstrating a magic trick for the attendees. "If you think you've impacted things, you've impacted things," he explained. "The illusion of interactivity is what you want to deliver." "It's not always going to be thinking about using new technology," he added. "Sometimes it's a different kind of idea to make something interesting. It's so low-tech, it's like going back to the days of text adventures," he continued. He demonstrated how a man lying on the ground who can only be instructed to move his limbs specifically -- and can be unhelpful if the instructions are not clear -- can turn a normal activity like standing up can be funny or challenging if users have a role in it. "Add the parameters from the beginning of the session -- something at stake, something dangerous," Costello added. "It changes the tenor. It can be a dangerous and exciting puzzle. Think of an interaction that fits that world, and then think of storytelling parameters from story and books and movies." In the audience Q & A portion of the presentation, one attendee asked how Costello's storytelling tips relate to a casual multiplayer game where people are going to live in the world, rather than conquer it. "I'm working on a project with the BBC that's in its third stage now, and it's going to be an MMO and an animated series," Costello said (possibly referring to Adventure Rock?). He explained, "People tend -- I've done very large games where I've concentrated on the story, and [for] the interactive elements, they send the player on milk runs. Go get five cats, go get six monkeys. It can be so much more than that. The world suggests the interaction, whether it's a film world or a book world or a game world. The game should suggest that." Another audience member asked about the "puzzle-solving under pressure" Costello mentioned, asking him how he addresses the tendency of these situations to become more boring than suspenseful; Costello likened the issue to dealing with the challenge of, for example, being killed by zombies and having to restart the level repeatedly to deal with the challenge. "We're still trapped in this re-do universe," he said. "What would happen in a film if Bond didn't succeed in path X? he wouldn't start over and go back to the beginning again; there'd be some alternative. Hopefully you can build that in."

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About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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