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GDC: Deus Ex Star Spector Questions Storytelling

Addressing a packed auditorium-sized room at the Game Developers Conference for his “Future of Storytelling in Next-Generation Game Development” session, Warren Spector asked not only what narrative in games can do, but what it should do.
In a packed auditorium-sized room at the Game Developers Conference today, Warren Spector gave a much anticipated talk about writing and narratives in games. “The Future of Storytelling in Next-Generation Game Development,” a continuation and follow-up to a speech he gave in at the 2004 GDC called “What Would Aristotle Do?” questions why, how, and if storytelling is the point of video games. Spector, a man best known for his driving work on Deus Ex, has recently launched a new company, Junction Point Studios, and although little is publicly known about what kinds of products and services the studio will offer, Spector seems to hint that he and his collective forces will be closely examining the “point” of video games, whatever it may be. Spector, whose voice is similar to George Clooney’s in both tone and delivery, carried his audience to a place where all things about game development and storytelling ought to be questioned. One of the mainstays of his talk was to look at what narrative in games can do (such as “discuss the human condition” or “introduce ethical components”), but also what it should do. The former Ion Storm creative thinker said he believes narrative should give options to players rather than lead them down a linear path. “Games are not about their stories ... Story is just a context for player action and player choice,” he said during his lecture. Professing his love of The Legend of Zelda games, Spector admitted that he does have an appreciation for games that contain more traditional stories. “I love Half-Life, I love God of War and other completely linear games,” he said, but also added that those games only appear to offer the player a wide array of choices. The player is in fact limited in what she or he can do in the game, and virtually all players who have ever participated in that game experience have all been through the exact same story. Choices are often only mirages. One developer whom Spector said does actually does give real choices to players is Will Wright, “the rock star of our industry, the highest profile guy we have.” Spector said he is surprised at the fact that so few other developers mimic Wright’s games or his sandbox-style, saying titles in the Grand Theft Auto look-alike genre are about the closest most developers have come to doing so. He noted, too, that there are a handful of studios, such as Bethesda and Irrational, that are trying to push bigger story elements, but says the titles that emerge are “really very close. They’re kissing cousins” rather than unique entities. You can read more about Warren Spector’s thoughts on game narrative and the state of digital storytelling in Game Developer magazine’s exclusive interview with him (see the March 2007 issue), recently reprinted here on Gamasutra.

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