Video games have had a clear evolution in terms of graphics, scope, and interactivity, but the medium has been a platform for telling engaging stories since the earliest text-based adventures. Game designer Warren Spector has been one of the champions of storytelling and gameplay innovation since the early 1990s with groundbreaking titles like Wing Commander, System Shock, Thief: The Dark Project, Deus Ex, and Epic Mickey – a series of projects that have pushed the notion of player choice and how it affects the outcome of the narrative.
Warren was a recent guest to Full Sail on behalf of the Career Development department, and spent three days touring campus, meeting with students, and offering a lecture on his three decades in the industry. We sat down with the game legend during his visit to learn more about his unique approach to production, and the future possibilities of interactive gaming to engage with story and design.
Full Sail: The notion of intelligent game design has been a factor in your work since the first Wing Commander. It felt like you knew that games had the potential to be something more than simple entertainment. Going into the industry, was that already inside you, or something you learned and developed?
Warren Spector: I knew that games could be more than what they were since before I got into the business. It started with Star Raiders for the Atari, that was the first time I knew that games could transport you to another world. Then later on Ultima IV convinced me that games could be more than just about killing monsters, it had an ethical system of morality built into it. That was really powerful for me.
So I came into electronic games wanting to show that you could bring all those things together in one package. The power to transport, the idea that games could have a kind of ethical underpinning, and then the collaborative storytelling of tabletop role playing.
FS: What made gaming the right storytelling platform for you?
WS: Just from my experience playing Dungeons & Dragons I knew that games could be a medium for collaborative storytelling, and I saw that as completely different than any other storytelling in humankind. I started out as a film guy and a writer, so I understand cinematic storytelling. When I started playing games I saw something completely different. It wasn’t a revelation, it was just something I knew inherently. The trick was bringing it over to the electronic game space, and I’m still working on that 30 years later.
FS: How do you balance strong story elements without getting in the way of the gameplay?
WS: There are a variety of story styles in gaming. If you know every step that a player is going to take, you can trigger in-game cut scenes and events that are pre-planned. That’s one kind of storytelling, where it’s embedded in the game itself. There’s another style which is what I called ‘shared authorship,’ which is what I do. I own the high level story arc, I can create the bare bones skeleton of the story, and then the player decides to do this or that. And then I can respond and say ‘Okay, now this is going to happen.’
So in all the games I’ve done I own the story – like you’re going to rescue your brother – but I don’t care how you do it, which I think is a great combination, and truer to what games can be as a storytelling medium because then you get the best of both worlds.
FS: Your best games give the player the feeling of choice – Deus Ex is an obvious example. When you’re deciding the possible ways to go through a level, are you thinking more about different user personality types, or more about the different outcomes?
WS: You start thinking about high-level goals – it could be saving your brother or getting through a door. My thinking is ‘Why do we care how you get through that door?’ The rule in most of my games is we’re going to pre-plan at least two or three ways to get past every problem, but we’re going to build a deep enough simulation that players are going to discover solutions to problems that we never intended, or even know existed.
Where games really come to life for me, where they’re magical, is when it’s not just the illusion of control over the experience, it’s actual control over the experience that’s important. A lot of people took the wrong lessons from Deus Ex and System Shock – that choice was the key. It’s not. Choice with consequence is the key. You have to show people the results of their choices.
FS: Will the new generation of consoles like the Xbox One and Playstation 4 offer developers more flexibility in terms of gameplay innovation?
WS: New technology doesn’t do much for me. We were telling fun stories and giving players power over their ability to interact with worlds when we had computers and consoles that were less powerful than the cell phone in my pocket.
The new machines open up new possibilities for prettier pictures for sure, but where do I see the innovation happening? In the indie world. I don’t see innovation happening much in the mainstream of game development. A game like Papers, Please is unlike any other I’ve ever played. Games like Journey, The Novelist, The Stanley Parable.
Then there’s the mobile space. I was telling the students I met here, what artist wants to make something for the smallest possible audience? There are so many more smartphones than consoles, there are billions of those things. So what excites me is the opportunity to make games that have the potential to reach that big of an audience. That’s where you’ll see innovation.