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ACC: Dallas Dickinson On 'Making Storytelling Work for Games'

As part of Austin Community College's monthly series of lectures on game development, former Sony Online Entertainment writer and Caliber Games head Dallas Dickinson talked about the foundations of interactive storytelling, and how developers can harness
When Dallas Dickinson made the transition from writing plays for the stage, which he studied in college and chose as his initial career path, to writing scripts for the screen, the message was to “think visual.” It's an easy thing to say, Dickinson admitted to a group attending his lecture at Austin Community College, part of its free monthly series featuring subjects relevant to game development and the industry. Easy to say, but hard to put into practice and nowhere near as explicit as it needed to be about how stories are told on a stage and on a screen. An Introduction To Story But at least there is a metaphor for stage to screen, Dickinson said, where there isn't any for games or other interactive media. Stage and screen projects start with a script, but games hardly ever do. Furthermore, depending on the sort of game being played, such as massively-multiplayer online games like Star Wars Galaxies and Planetside that Dickinson worked on as a producer for Sony Online Entertainment, players might not be after any “story” the developers might have had in mind. That didn't stop Dickinson from trying to push a MMO project through SOE that had story in mind from the beginning – though it was canceled. Dickinson is now head of an Austin startup called Caliber Games. Story has been a vehicle for interactive media almost since it began, Dickinson said – even the text-parsing engine ELIZA made in the 1960s to simulate a therapy session is a game of sorts – but it wasn't left up to people who wanted to tell stories. Usually the designers, who decided what the gameplay should be like, also had the job of writing the stories. “For a long time it was like that,” Dickinson said, “and I think the quality of the writing often showed that.” Early in his slideshow, 'Interactive Storytelling for Multiple Media' [.PPT], Dickinson defined oral tradition, storytelling in its earliest known form, as interactive. The works of Homer as known today, Dickinson said, were just the versions of his poetry that someone decided to write down – but surely the traveling poet would vary the versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey he would say aloud, based on how the audience reacted. In theater, which he called oral storytelling “plus props,” the focus, meaning the point at which the audience's attention is directed, shifts a lot. Usually there's only one character talking at one time, and the interest comes from watching the story unfold. 'Stack The Blocks And Don't Die' The forms of radio, film and television are much more recent in the history of emerging storytelling media, Dickinson said. Games, at least video games, have only 30 years at best, and only infrequently have been thought of as a form of storytelling. “Stack the blocks and don't die” might be an understood set of rules for a game, but a story to explain what the player must do isn't always necessary. And what if there's more than one player? Dickinson said in player versus player situations, “The story is, 'I'm going to kill you,'” he said. “There doesn't need to be much more subtlety than that.” But even if the players aren't at war, old storytelling tricks like controlling time (“Meanwhile...” “Four years later ...”) won't work at all. So what are game stories good for? They help provide a deeper focus for the player, Dickinson said. That's even if, he said, the method to provide that focus is non-interactive. He cited the “cutscenes” in between levels of Ms. Pac-Man as an early example of this, and then pointed out that Ultima I, one of the first among what would be called “computer role-playing games” came out the same year, 1981. Certainly RPGs make story a more important “glue” for the gameplay than arcade games, he said, but few games are entirely “about” story, though the notion remains a popular one, with many possible approaches. Games, Movies, Standing Apart One that Dickinson said has been popular for many years is to make games “like the movies.” It's a popular notion among business-types wanting to minimize risk, just because it's understandable – it has that metaphor. But, Dickinson suggested there ought to be ways to tell interactive stories without relying on mere spectacle. He warned that some Broadway theater productions have tried to take the Hollywood movie route, only to end up with big-budget props that don't add much to the experience. No one goes to see Les Miserables because of a bigger flaming barricade, he said, and while he cited professional voice acting in games as an early boon, he left the notion open about whether it was always worth the bother. Games, being interactive, have a potential to teach, something Dickinson said he finds especially interesting. Playing games helps keep minds sharp, at least, and while the term “obsession” could be applied to someone playing a game for two hours or watching a movie for the same time, Dickinson said he'd wager the game player had the potential for a fuller experience. Conclusion - Toward The Future? So how can game storytellers change their game? They could give up further control and put the tools entirely in players' hands, but Dickinson warned the result could be too far from the hand-crafted entertainment consumers have come to expect. Huge artificial intelligence systems could be an answer, but such complexity, besides being hard to create in the first place, is even harder to test for errors, he said. Giving up control for some of the time, only to return to linear storytelling, might also be a viable option. So could making a game where the whole point is to interact emotionally with in-game characters, something Chris Crawford's Storytron project might one day make possible. He linked it up along with Austin locals Online Alchemy's mega-AI project, Dynemotion. Dickinson ended his talk by urging his audience, mostly students and locals interested in ACC's game development program, to plan carefully when working on game projects, to identify what the “core” of the game is early, including its story, and then preserve it throughout development to release.

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