GDC 2011 Preview: Richard Rouse III

GDC 2011 Preview: Richard Rouse III

This week, we've asked the speakers of some of the most promising sessions at next week's Game Developers Conference to write for us about their presentations. Richard Rouse III is a game designer and writer at Ubisoft Montreal, currently working on an unannounced project. Previously, he worked as director of game design at Midway where he consulted on titles such as Stranglehold, Wheelman and This Is Vegas, following a stint as creative director at developer Surreal Software. Rouse is also the author of Game Design: Theory & Practice.

Last year at GDC I did a talk titled Five Ways A Video Game Can Make You Cry.  That talk started as a bit of a joke, poking fun at the industry's obsession with making emotional games that will make you cry 'just like a film'.  I maintained it was ridiculous to try to judge whether games qualified as 'art' because of whether they could make someone cry or not. But the talk had a serious side too, looking a little deeper into the subject, discussing why people do cry at films or movies or books, and then talking about some games that have come close to making me cry – and the one that actually succeeded.

Bethesda's Fallout 3

This year, I'm still talking about the notion of games evolving as meaningful art, but this time it's something I don't see as a joke. This year my talk is called Seven Ways A Video Game Can Be Moral. My interest in moral storytelling dates back to when I read a lot of Ray Bradbury stories in my high school library. Bradbury is a great writer because he blends pulpy, enjoyable science fiction stories with real, weighty subjects, in stories like There Will Come Soft Rains…; Marionettes, Inc; and his novel Fahrenheit 451. You have fun reading his stories, but you also think about the world in a different way by the end of them.

There are lots of lessons videogames can learn from moral storytelling in other mediums, and I go through seven of them in my talk, such as being clear in your intentions (for example, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) and dealing with real moral quandaries, like those you'll find in the TV show The Wire or the movie Gone Baby Gone.For example, I bring up the idea of characters who find redemption. This is a common motif in episodes of The Twilight Zone, where a character makes a bad decision at the beginning of an episode, but in the middle realizes the error of his ways and makes a change for the better by the end. In the classic episode Walking Distance, Martin Sloan is an ad executive who is frustrated with his life and is a jerk to other people because of it. He ends up going back to the town where he grew up, only to also travel back in time and see himself there as a happy child. If only he could stay here, he thinks, he could be happy once again. But he ends up meeting his own father, who realizes this Martin has come back from the future and tells him that he can't relive his childhood and must return. The father suggests that all the things that made Martin happy in the past are available in the future, if only he tries harder to find them. Martin sees his father's point, and by the episode's end returns to the present ready to make changes. It sounds simplistic and pedantic when written in a quick summary, but the episode tells it very elegantly, as if it were a beautiful poem. It really works.

In games we often implement morality through meters and systems, as you see in RPGs like Mass Effect 2 and Fallout 3. The choices we make about those systems determine if redemption will be possible in our games. For instance, if we look at Mass Effect 2, we see that 'Paragon' and 'Renegade' decisions only move your morality a small amount per choice, with many small choices over the course of the game. If you, as a player, want to change your mind in the middle of the game, you'll end up not maxing out either meter, resulting in a middle ground with no perks. Thus redemption is basically impossible.

EA's Mass Effect

Contrast that with Fallout 3, where you have a single Karma meter that goes from -1000 to +1000. In that game, many decisions are worth 100 points (positive or negative), and really big choices (such as blowing up Megaton) are worth 1000. In Fallout 3, you can change your mind in the middle of the game and that was very much part of the design. As the game's lead designer Emil Pagliarulo says, "Very early into the game you have the opportunity to nuke [Megaton]. And it's so fun to do it, it's kind of hard to resist. So, if you're at the beginning of the game, and your Karma is in the toilet, how do you come back? Well, we realized how many hours Fallout 3 was going to offer players, and knew we had to give them opportunities to change their Karma radically to make up for some earlier decisions. The idea of redemption, especially in the very late game, was very important for us. We wanted players to change their mind, to come around." Though both games have pluses and minuses to the way they implement a morality system, for better or worse Fallout 3 supports redemption while Mass Effect 2 does not.

What's interesting about exploring morality in games is that we can do things with it that no other medium can. The Grapes Of Wrath is different as a novel than it as a Hollywood film (an excellent John Ford-directed version was released in 1940), and then different still when it's a song performed by Bruce Springsteen (The Ghost Of Tom Joad"), and then different yet again when that same song is performed by Rage Against The Machine. In just the same way, I think morally complex subject matter can be explored in new ways through videogames that will produce different effects than can be achieved in any other medium. A lot of people think that games aren't the place for such serious subject matter, that they should be strictly 'fun' and only entertainment. But just as Ray Bradbury took the popular form of pulpy science fiction stories and added moral weight to them, I think games can elevate themselves in a similar way. It's not easy to do amongst all the other challenges of development, but I think it can be totally worth it.

The slides from my talk will be up on my website by the end of GDC.