GDC 2013: Warren Spector on choosing the right way to tell game stories

In a reliably-impassioned appeal at GDC 2013, Deus Ex and Epic Mickey creator Warren Spector voiced concern about the influence of other media on video games, whilst pointing to areas where video games urgently needed to grow and learn from other media.

Spector, who describes his current role as, “Out Of Work Guy” started his talk by recognising that all media build on each other, with movies imitating theatre and TV imitating radio. Yet he also recognised that, with time, these other media grew to have their own languages of storytelling, built from both borrowed and unique elements. He quoted Janet Murray, author of First Person; games, she said, “include more of the building blocks of storytelling than any single medium has ever offered us.”

But, Spector asked, “Is that all we are? No medium has survived without changing and growing beyond its borrowed roots … Is interactivity the one thing we offer? That’s an abused word – almost as abused as transmedia.” Spector implored developers to be more selective in what they adapt – to, “Adopt the conventions that work for us but know enough about them to jettison the conventions that work against us – to know why and when we borrow something.”

For an example, he looked quickly at the similarities and differences of movie- and game-making particularly focusing on the non-linearity and dreaminess of movies, as demonstrated in the technique of the ‘cut’. “It breaks the illusion of immersion and wrests control away from players.” Even his two favourite games of the year – The Walking Dead and Heavy Rain – ultimately disappointed him in their use of mechanics, relying on a mix of cinematic techniques and extremely ancient game memes. “When interaction models haven’t changed since 1990, we’ve gotta work harder.”

That dreamlike style of movies also gives them leeway in other areas; he referred to a joint movie-game project he was working on with particularly gruesome scenes, which worked perfectly in the cinema, but proved troublesome to enjoy in a game – “and that’s why I made a Mickey Mouse game instead”, he joked. Similarly, in terms of pacing, he said, “a filmmaker can know that an audience will cut them the slack. We don’t have that advantage… unless you’re Hideo Kojima. We have 30 seconds. If you don’t get to your verbs quickly and make them really actiony or at least compelling, you’ve lost them.”

And because you’ve then got to hold the audience, you need a huge script. Spector indicated that the stacked script for Deus Ex amounted to about two feet tall, partly to avoid repetition. “You have to find a hundred ways to say ‘I thought I heard something.’” And you can’t have, as Spector found when working with John Woo, a player doing a cool thing too often. “If every time a gun goes off, doves fly, people will start laughing.”

Conversely, he showed two experimental movies – Hitchcock’s uncut Rope and Robert Montgomery’s first-person The Lady in the Lake – that employed game-like techniques before games existed and failed miserably in the effort, which he felt backed up his argument that certain techniques only work for certain media.

Rushing through the rest of his talk (having already hugely exceeded his allocated time), Spector talked about what games could draw from other media – praising, particularly, roleplaying systems like Dungeons & Dragons, which lets the players drive the content, and comic books like In The Shadow Of No Towers, which demonstrate extremely economical storytelling.

Spector asked developers to be more aware of the unique elements of games, especially the responsiveness, repetitiveness and ease of immersion in imaginary worlds, and begged them to make more real-time, responsive games where choices have consequences. He also begged them to hunt out new game structures, build “sets” not worlds and to create virtual gamesmasters.

It’s worth noting that Spector does still thinks games can learn elements from other media, he’s just aware that there are transmedia tools that don’t work for games and elements of storytelling that only games have.