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GameCity: Frontier's Braben On Next-Gen Storytelling

How can games become a truly mainstream medium? It's all in the story, says Frontier founder and Elite creator David Braben, who used examples from his forthcoming political thriller The Outsider to show the company's new devices for pulling
At his session at this year's GameCity event in Nottingham, England, Frontier Developments founder and Elite co-creator David Braben told his audience that it would be storytelling that would move the games industry into higher regard as a viable mainstream media. Braben then used examples from his forthcoming title The Outsider to show how the studio hopes to draw players in with a new approach to the problem. Games, claims Braben, continue to be classed as a second tier of the entertainment industry, under films, books and TV and alongside "action figures and cuddly toys." "The games industry is really sneered at," he said. "Look at the way politicians cozy up to the film industry, and then compare that to how they treat games. It's quite clear they have no respect for the games industry." Illustrating the point, Braben flashed a quote from Conservative MP Boris Johnson, saying that under games' influence, "kids become like blinking lizards, motionless, absorbed, only the twitching of their hands showing they are still conscious." Just as other, earlier, forms of entertainment from books to films have suffered similar pessimism in their infancy, especially in the latter case it was story that drove the medium into true credibility, Braben contended, and said that with this generation -- the fifth generation of computing -- it's time for the Hictchcocks and the Welles to move the industry forward. While graphics and computing power have increased exponentially, Braben says the fifth generation still has yet to actually be embraced, and there's a "fantastic opportunity" to do so in creating true empathy, emotion and emergence in games. Focusing on the former two, Braben says that there's a different way through the 'uncanny valley' problem, adding that he absolutely doesn't think it means realism, it's whether the emotional connection is realistic. With that, he turned to a quick demonstration of how he is tackling the issues with Frontier's The Outsider, where the game begins with the main character being accused of murdering the president. From there, the player can influence and play off of a number of rival factions from the media to the Chinese secret service, to U.S.-led "terrorist" resistance organizations, to your own employers, a branch of the CIA that you soon learn are essentially corrupt. The game itself, Braben explains, doesn't use the standard branched-path storytelling, but rather an infinitely more malleable system in which factional character AI chews through a formula of possible actions and outcomes and acts out more contextual and emergent behaviors. The player influences those behaviors through a conversational system that, too, is contextual. "Dialogue trees totally kill the experience for me," he said, with players getting taken out of the action to pause and read through things you might be able to say. Braben showed a short segment of the game in which a policeman bursts through a door to discover the player and immediately shouts at the fugitive main character to freeze for an arrest. At the same time, a rival faction comes in through another point in the room and pins both down with gun fire. Using the contextual system, which gives players a quick choice of words snippets and phrases, Braben convinced the policeman to help fight the rival group. Now, because the encounter has made him friendlier with the police, they might, in later sections of the game, be persuaded to let the character slip by, or help him chase down other fleeing enemies. Combined with other proprietary synthesized animation systems alongside traditional motion capture, which can be shared across any in-game character providing "striking variation" in NPCs, Braben says the result is a vast increase in believable behavior, and characters that bring out far more empathy from the player. The problem, admits Braben, is that though the studio is getting interesting emergent behaviors, it's also getting some behaviors "we don't like," but says it's also seeing beheaviors "a lot more natural, like threatening a character’s friend." Braben concluded by telling the primarily younger audience that "the time to get into the industry now... Now we have the opportunity to move out of our niche." "This is an industry just getting to the start of a really exciting period," he said. "We have a much more interesting medium for getting a story across."

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