Clements: Speaking of soul-crushing, let’s talk about aspirations for the future. Where are games and storytelling going?
Kasavin: The sky’s the limit. Jenova alluded to the distinction between world-building and narrative. When we talk about story sometimes we’re talking about one or the other, and in different proportions. I see games branching out very broadly in both of those directions, where some games are extraordinarily strong in terms of world-building and others are focusing on narrative in a way that games in the past haven’t. Telltale Games decided, “We’re going to focus on branching narrative.” That’s been amazing. Developers in the past haven’t been able to hang their hats on something like that in such a focused way.
I love that there’s so much exploration happening in so many directions. Different developers are realizing that some degree of what we call storytelling here, whether it’s world-building or traditional narrative. Some amount of that, applied thoughtfully to what they’re working on, can enhance a game. Your game may as well say something, be about something. It stands a higher chance of leaving an impact on the player in a positive way.
That’s the reason Supergiant’s games have narrative in them. It’s not necessarily for its own sake. There’s not a story we absolutely have to get out. For us it started from a pragmatic place. We’re seven people making an action-RPG and our favorite game in the genre is Diablo II. We’re not going to make a game with nine character classes and 10,000 weapons and eight-player multiplayer. We don’t have the features that are necessary, traditionally, for making a good game in this format.
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So all we can do is contextualize what we’re not doing. If we’re going to make a game about one character, we may as well at least try and make that make sense. Other games that think about how narrative can enhance what they’re doing have been doing great things. Sometimes these games come from just one individual. Papers, Please from a couple of years ago was just mind-blowing. It’s an incredibly strong narrative game, even though it’s not a traditional story. It’s just incredibly powerful world-building.
I love that people are playing with this and recognizing that it’s powerful, but I’m also — I brought up Ultima. I also feel that games have been doing this stuff all along. It’s a bit more trendy now. More people realize that there’s something to this. I’m glad for that, because I love games that attempt interesting things on that front.
Barlog: One thing that’s interesting is that we can maybe not tell stories at people. There seems to be a lot more of inviting them into the story, letting things get a little bit messy. The result may not be perfect, but life isn’t perfect.
Chen: I’d sum it up in two trends. First, participatory storytelling, where you play the game and influence the story. Second is story streaming. These days we stream sports. Sports have their little narratives. Maybe in future games, everybody will have different versions of a story, and someone will have a really amazing version that we’ll all want to watch. That might come from Dreams.
What we’ve worked on in Journey and our new game — for most of the game you’re playing alone. The narrative is completely based on your choices. But when you start playing the game with other people in the same environment, they add this chaos factor. You’ll never have the same story the next time. So how do we handle the narrative structure and still touch you when there’s so much chaos? That’s my current thing.
I feel like, in the future, the most interesting thing about narrative — one of my college professors used to say that video games were still in the era of silent film. The equivalent of sound and words is the ability of AI to understand what we’re saying. Imagine you’re playing a game and not just pressing buttons, but actually talking to the game. You’ve seen the movie Her, right? A game could understand you to a much greater resolution than just the inputs of 16 buttons. The interaction between you and a game could be so much more emotional and social. If you could talk to a character, what kind of feedback could you get?
Peter Molyneux showed something in Project Milo that spurred my thinking along those lines. We still don’t have the technology yet, but I’m looking forward to it.
Ettouney: Talking about technology, the thing that needs to evolve in order to progress stories to another place is how long it takes to make games. A game like God of War, something with that epic mythological setting, it takes years. It takes an hour or a minute to write a song. You take your guitar and you strum it out, if you’re able. It’s a medium with a sketching mentality. You lay out your thoughts in broad strokes and play it to people. Some people can do that so well that they play concerts that way.
Games are slow, very slow, and very expensive. That’s a problem. If you have an idea, you should be able to see it in a day, completely. And not only just what it looks like visually. It should be something like a sketch by Rubens or Michelangelo. It should have music, narrative integration, mechanics. That stuff needs to get faster.
Then hybrid skills will emerge. Narrative is still borrowing a lot from its older ancestors — theater, books, comics. Game narrative, the marriage with mechanics, that’s still difficult. It’s always the problem. You have beautiful, deep narrative ideas and then you have mechanics about a ball bouncing. The marriage of mechanical interaction with the feeling and depth of your world will develop when we have hybrid skills, new talents, that mix the work of a level designer and a writer and an artist. We can fuse that into a new kind of creator who can tell stories with a video game vocabulary and present it and iterate on it. That’s what we’re trying to do.
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