E3 Panel: Top Designers Tackle the Challenges of Interactive Narrative

Games are a new, different type of narrative, and strong interactive stories can not emulate the tactics of film. This was the central theme of a discussion held at E3, with God of War's David Jaffe, Indigo Prophecy's David Cage and others.
Games are a new, different type of narrative, one that inspires emotion and immersion in ways that no other medium can, and strong interactive stories can not emulate the tactics of film. This was the central theme of "Perfecting the Mix of Story, Character Development, and Interactivity," a panel session held this afternoon, on the second day of the E3 2006. Mad Doc Software CEO and Founder Ian Lane Davis (Empire Earth 2) moderated a discussion that brought together Quantic Dream founder David Cage (Indigo Prophecy), Ubisoft Manager of Design and Writer Richard Dansky (Tom Clancy series), Sony Computer Entertainment America Game Director David Jaffe (God of War, Twisted Metal), Valve Software Writer and Game Designer Marc Laidlaw (Half-Life series) and Neil Young, Vice President of Electronic Arts Los Angeles (Medal of Honor, Lord of the Rings franchise), to discuss the strongest methods of telling an interactive narrative. "Maybe there is nothing to figure out," said Jaffe. "I'm starting to lose faith and interest in the whole thing, truth be told." Jaffe feels that story is entirely secondary to good gameplay. Jaffe came into Sony thirteen years ago with the goal of bringing his love of film into the games industry. Having made God of War, a project done to his exact expectations done his way, he says he no longer feels that the protagonist itself is important, that the story is "distracting" to what makes games inherently compelling. "I think games are telling crap stories right now," said Young. "I think what we've tried to do in the past is say, okay, let's take the structure of another linear entertainment media, say film, and use that." Living and spending time with an in-game character, Young argues, is the strong point of what could potentially be an interactive story. "What we're trying to understand is how we paint interactive story comprehension," he continued. That doesn't invalidate games that don't try to do that, that are purely focused on being interactive entertainment. Tetris doesn't use a story. But Nintendogs has one, it's just what the player brings to it, as with The Sims. "I think a writer is important as a toolset for the player to create his own story," said Richard Dansky. "It has to be there from the beginning, tacking it on the end weakens the internal consistency, and pretty much the entire experience, because there's a feeling that this entire world has been hastily constructed and tacked on." Dansky also argues that a writer should be on a development team on a full-time basis, through the entire development process, doing iterative passes on storytelling, in the same way art and gameplay aspects are done. "If you don't, your game comes out lopsided. It's a very obvious flaw, and it cripples everything you've done." "I don't think that every single game needs a strong story and characterization," admitted David Cage. His last game, Indigo Prophecy, was almost entirely based on telling a story, but again using Tetris as the opposite example, he says that two types of games can happily co-exist. "I don't think there should be any dichotomy between the two," he said. "But a good story can make you care about what's going on. I played a lot of games that were very good games, and I'd get through the levels, and eventually I find myself asking, 'Why am I doing this?' And this is what a story can do. If you care about the character, you want to help him, and you want to finish the game." Cage wants to see games with deeper, more mature stories, with one aspect that games in general are missing: meaning ."In this industry there's a real lack of meaning in general," he said ."Most of the time it's a hero fighting against zombies and killing everyone to save his life or whatever. There are so many other great characters and emotions we can use to create an experience. We shouldn't limit ourselves to basic things." Cage is also tired of censorship, which hindered several arguably sexual scenes in Indigo Prophecy. "There are crimes, murder, blood, kids burning…that's all fine. But at one point we had a girl taking a shower, and that was drama with the ESRB. They asked us to put a swimsuit on a girl in the shower. I don't know how you guys in the U.S. take a shower, but in Europe we're usually naked." With his next title, Heavy Rain, Cage's goal is to give the player the illusion that he is telling a story. He wants to tell narrative in an invisible way. He also hopes to tell it in a more mature way, arguing that censorship restrictions on games should be equal to those of feature films. Marc Laidlaw says that there's no reason for interactive storytellers to set there sights low. "I think we can emotionally evoke what any other medium can. I've had plenty of experiences playing games where I gasp, which is something I never do reading or watching movies. And that's a really strong emotion to play with." David Jaffe brought up a scene from the original Half-Life where near the beginning, the player is able to open lead character Gordon Freeman's locker, and find a photo of a baby. That, he says, allows the player to generate his or her own backstory, in a way that isn't overt or distracting from the interactive game. "The stories that work for me when they don't work, are the ones that don't get in the way or fold themselves into the experience." By way of another example, Jaffe revealed that at one point he was developing a first-person shooter. And through the simple addition of adding a wedding ring to the character's hand, he said that the game's focus test players responded overwhelmingly, asking questions about the character's past and showing an active interest. "I try to start with an archetype," said Cage, on character design. "In Indigo Prophecy, Carla is a sexy girl, but sexy without wanting to be sexy, and really professional. You got the feeling that you know who she is, so you care for her and you start to get involved in the way she behaves and who she is. So I start with the archetype, and try to give depth and backstory to the archetype. And I try to make the story not something you have to endure, but something in the background that you shouldn't notice. I think there are ways that making both work together, gameplay and storytelling, and we're still trying to figure out how." Indigo Prophecy, he says, was his attempt at finding a proper balance between storytelling and gameplay, but admits that there's still a lot of work done to integrate the two. And essentially, this simple thought mirrors those of the entire panel. Little touches and set pieces without overt explanation seems to be the key to creating an immersive interactive experience. It is the old adage heard in any good writing class: "show, don't tell." In an experience that is interactive, that demands complete immersion from the viewer while requiring a suspension of disbelief arguably higher than in any other medium, it is the duty of the interactive story scribe to give the player enough leg room to fill in the holes by him or herself. After all, what could be more immersive than that?

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