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Video game storytelling has come into its own. The medium of gaming isn’t as old as books or movies. But some of the most moving and riveting tales are debuting on video game platforms, where a title must keep a player entertained for 10 or 20 hours.
And it’s a big business. Good stories have been the hallmark of the bestselling and most innovative titles, including Journey, Uncharted, The Last of Us, and many others. Solid narratives help these titles stand out from the rest, and they have helped differentiate the Triple-A platforms such as the consoles and the PC in an age of digital gaming on a wide variety of new platforms.
Sony even called out storytelling as something that distinguishes its PlayStation 4 platform at a big fan event in San Francisco. At the recent PlayStation Experience event, Sony gathered a group to talk about the future of storytelling in front of a big crowd. Ryan Clements, social media writer for Sony’s PlayStation blog, interviewed some of the best-known video game storytellers at the event. The panelists included Cory Barlog, creative director at the Sony Santa Monica studio; Jenova Chen, creative director at Thatgamecompany; Kareem Ettouney, creative director at Media Molecule; and Greg Kasavin, writing and design head at Supergiant Games.
Here’s our edited transcript of the conversation.
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Ryan Clements: I wanted to ask you about storytelling from your childhood and growing up. Any writer, any artist usually derives inspiration from early in their life. What inspired you when you were growing up, especially in the realm of video games?
Cory Barlog: When I was a kid, what was the first story I read? Everybody Poops. That inspired a lot of my future work, according to some people.
Jenova Chen: Surprisingly, I was the same way. People are always asking me, “Why do you make these games about eating and pooping?”
Barlog: Not as a young kid, but when I was in middle school, I read Ender’s Game. That drew me into the concept of really good storytelling.
Clements: It’s interesting that science fiction first drove you, and then you worked so hard on fantasy stories. Did you ever find that those two were at odds with each other?
Barlog: Not really. In the end you want to find the human connection to any story.
Chen: When we talk about story, I keep going back and forth between world-building and narrative. They’re both part of your story. With Tolkien it’s the fantastic world that makes you want to live in it. I’d always read fantasy and sword-and-sorcery novels, dreaming about being in that world. But as I grew older I started thinking more about a character’s development, a person’s transformation. That really touches me. A strong story can move me to tears, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a science-fiction or fantasy world. It’s about what happens to a person, the choices they make. That’s what’s interesting.
When I read a good story, I often start thinking, “Should I live my life according to what this character chooses and values?” It makes me think. I feel like I grew up to be a more mature person while thinking about character development in these fictional situations.
Kareem Ettouney: I’m an artist. My angle was comics. I always wanted to be a comic artist, to do graphic novels, to connect to the visuals, the setting, the intrigue. Some of my earliest memories are of the Jungle Book. I love the Jungle Book. It has that lingering story — there’s not much going on, but there are lots of connections.
For me, the anchor for a story is the moments that intrigue me and make me want to find out more about the world. I love the word “intrigue.” When I watch something that inspires me, I’m captivated by it. I’ll draw it. I respond to the characters and their feelings. When I was a kid I’d impersonate characters – a week of being Batman or something like that. But it’s always the visuals, always the intrigue, as my launching point.
Clements: Is that part of what brought you into the video game space?
Ettouney: My training is in architecture and interior design. Then I specialized in set design for film and theater. Games for me was that, but the fantastical version. The ability to make worlds and characters and go to places the real world can’t. What attracted me to games was being able to tell stories and create worlds that aren’t possible anywhere else.
Greg Kasavin: I always loved reading and writing in general. I was that kind of kid. But I loved games even more. I’ve been playing games since my earliest memories, reaching up for arcade controls when I was four or five. I played a lot of computer games as well.
It was really around the age of eight, when I played a game called Ultima IV, which was a classic RPG. Ultima is pretty old at this point. But if you’re playing Fallout IV or something these days, any big sprawling RPG owes a lot to the classic Ultima games. They were my first exposure to the raw power of video games. I was in this world and able to affect it in a profound way. The moral choices were for me to make. The game didn’t judge me. It just presented the consequences of my actions. At the age of eight or nine, this was heavy stuff.
It not only broadened my horizons as far as what games could do, but also what stories could do. Mechanically the game was really fascinating as well. For me, that summed up the whole thing. I didn’t know how it was done, but I knew that I wanted to do it someday.
Clements: You made a unique leap from games writing, critiquing, and previewing games, into writing scripts and working on games yourself. What was that leap like for you?
Kasavin: Prior to getting in game development I worked in the gaming press for 10 or 12 years, particularly at Gamespot. This is almost 10 years ago now. I left back in 2007. I fell in love with writing about games. I had no competency as a programmer, but I knew I had to do something with games, and that ended up being writing about them, trying to understand them critically.
I guess my underlying desire was to always work on them, though, that creative impulse around wanting to make stories and make characters. It’s an itch that writing game reviews ultimately does not scratch. Finally the opportunity presented itself.
Chen: You mentioned, when you were eight years old, it was a mind-blowing experience to play Ultima IV. I remember playing it when I was about 12. It was a really powerful experience. But when I play Fallout IV today, that experience kind of becomes blurry. My nerves seem to develop some kind of defense system. I’m not easily blown away anymore. But do you think that if you were eight years old playing Fallout IV, would it be more intense than playing Ultima back then?
Kasavin: I’ve thought a lot about this. I’m sure that when someone encounters the right work of media at the right point in their lives, it has that effect on them. Fallout IV is going to be that game for someone out there. Probably a lot of people. Bloodborne is probably that for someone. A lot of different games can provide that for different people, depending on what sparks their imagination.
Chen: The other thing I find interesting, Peter Jackson used to say that the reason he decided to make films was when he was nine years old, he watched King Kong. He wasn’t supposed to watch it, but he was blown away. He couldn’t believe how magical that was. I notice that a lot of people make these lifelong choices because they were blown away by something before they became cynical teenagers. What’s happening with that? Why can we only be touched that way at that age?
Kasavin: I think you’ve had fewer experiences to compare against. It’s more informative. That’s my suspicion, anyway. I’ve continued to play RPGs my whole life, the next 30 years or whatever. I think it’s understandable that a game I play in year 30 has a harder time being as impactful on me, but it still happens. That’s why I still play games. Every year there are several games, at least, that are really inspiring to me.
Ettouney: When you get older, I think it’s the absence of curiosity. The whole point of gaining knowledge of experience — it leads to the opposite of curiosity, being surprised, being blown away like that. In some ways knowledge is the enemy, experience is the enemy. Experimentation and risk-taking are what lead to being surprised. I think curiosity is the key word.
Clements: The next thing I wanted to talk about is modern work, things you guys have been working on recently, and the ramifications of the stories you’ve told.
Barlog: Have I done anything recently?
Clements: You have! I know people primarily know your work on God of War, but please talk about any work in your field.
Barlog: On Ghost of Sparta, the experience I had with that one—The idea of drilling into a story within that universe, it was a bit more about the characters’ relationship with their brother, and this constant lifelong blame they had for failing at such a young age. Feeling at that young age that they should have been strong enough and smart enough to prevent that failure from happening. Which is fascinating to me, wondering what it would be like to play that game at eight years old.
Kasavin: I had an older brother, which I think is why I got so much out of that. Everything good that I know, I think, is because I had someone older than me in that place.
Barlog: I have a question for Greg. Did you start Bastion saying, “We’re going to make a game where the narration unfolds”? Or did you start to make the game and someone had that crazy idea?
Kasavin: It’s more the latter. It was definitely not there at first. The narration in Bastion is an aspect of it that stands out and it wasn’t there at the inception point. The game started development in September, and the first attempts at the narration didn’t happen until January of the following year.
There was always a narrative ambition to the game, but there was a paradox. We wanted it to be a fast action, pick up and play kind of game, but we also wanted to have a narrative. The narrative could never interrupt the play experience. So how do we do that? Most RPGs stop you for character interaction, walls of text and that kind of thing. That was off the table.
But it all became possible because our studio director, the audio director, and Logan, who’s the voice of the narrator—They all knew each other from middle school, and they said, “Hey, man, can you record a few lines for us? We want to try this thing.” He recorded a few lines and it worked. The game had no artwork in it at that point. All you had was this voice, and it immediately made an impression. We ran with it.
Chen: I always have a problem playing text-heavy games. I’m a slow reader. I don’t speak English well. As a kid in China, trying to play these games, I just wanted the text to go away.
Barlog: Is that why Journey didn’t have any text?
Chen: No text at all. I hate text! And I failed at writing English. I had to go to extra classes to make my units up as a foreign student, so I know I’m no good at text.
Clements: What is that like for you, operating in a space where you want to minimize the amount of text you want to use in your games work? Is that restraining in an almost liberating way, in that it refines your creativity? Or is it a burden you have to overcome?
Chen: My shortcoming essentially has to be turned into a strength. When I was in film school, my writing teacher used to say that I should give up on writing English. “Just write Chinese dialogue.” That was my first year here, when I couldn’t even speak good English yet, and I was writing film scripts for American drama.
When I first came over here — I didn’t grow up with consoles. I grew up on PC games. I saw Madden football, Gears of War, and Halo, and in all three of them the characters looked the same to me: a guy with big muscles, armor, and a helmet. “What’s happening here? Why do Americans like this so much?” I went to USC, too, which was a big football school, but I never went to a game. So I couldn’t write anything based on local culture. I sucked at that. And I’m no good with text, so what can I do?
I looked around and I found that Hayao Miyazaki’s movies were very popular in the west at the time. He was just doing his own thing, very imaginative and fantastic. Also, in film school I learned about silent film, where they were telling stories without dialogue at all. I kind of cheated around that, making these games.
Clements: Kareem, I wanted to hear from you again for a bit. Media Molecule is working on Dreams now, which introduces storytelling of a very unusual kind. You give a lot of power and narrative control to your players. How does that work?
Ettouney: The thing we’ve believed in from the start at Media Molecule is empowering the audience to express themselves. Everybody has a story. People keep diaries. They share their opinions around the dinner table. Everybody talks about themselves.
As far as our DIY approach to video games — we wanted to reassemble them, and in the process rediscover how stories are told. LittleBigPlanet was our first attempt to charm the gaming world and make them contribute to one big adventure, one big fantasy. Dream is the evolution of that idea.
I believe in being prolific. The reason a musician gets better, the reason we learn to talk, it’s because we do it all the time. What if you have a medium that allows you to tell a story every day? What if you have a medium that allows you to change your mind a lot and refine that story? That’s our approach to games, a rapid, iterative, empowering system. It allows you to mix disciplines — musical disciplines, fantastical disciplines — and see what you get. You can benefit from technology and the power of game engines.
A story, in Media Molecule terms, can come from making a space and putting a few characters in it, adding some atmosphere, and creating a setting. Suddenly the spark appears. Who are those characters? And on you go. It’s a very practical method. It’s not an approach like moviemaking, where we iterate on the structure of a classical story. It’s more integrated in the mechanics of the game. We have people laying motifs, people creating visual elements, and it all comes together.
Our angle as far as attacking the realm of storytelling was fusing it with the building blocks of making games, the act of making things enjoyable, and letting you put them together very fast.
Chen: You used a very interesting word. You made LittleBigPlanet around the concept of users creating something out of their dreams. Now your new game is called Dreams. Does that continue in the same sort of meta-setting?
Ettouney: LittleBigPlanet was meant to be very charming and familiar. It reminds you of where you’d play in your childhood — building costumes out of felt and cardboard, that kind of thing. Dreams is more about your personal weirdness. When you go to sleep and you have a fusion of things that happens to you. Why am I standing up in class in my swimsuit?
It’s wonderful, what our imagination can do. We travel from one thing to another in dreams without anything connecting them in any logical way. We wanted Dreams to be the equivalent of that for technology and video games. Not only can you make and express things, but you can connect to the next dream and surf between them in a way that feels like the different acts of a dream.
We wanted to contribute to innovation in the medium. How can we make use of all these personal things, but have some cohesion between them? Dreams seemed to be the only angle that could cope with so much difference, yet have some cohesion.
Chen: I’ve had my hands on it. You can create a very interesting environment, very interesting characters, but stories don’t usually happen until the characters meet conflict and become involved in a plot. LittleBigPlanet had all those tools to create characters and create a world, but how do you provide the tools to create plot?
Ettouney: Performance. Performance is the way. When someone plays with their toys, they add a story. Not just the act of making the toy, but breathing life into it, imagining that. Think of a puppet show. We’re borrowing a lot of these analogies. Think of a musician using a guitar to tell a story. By making our tools performative, they lend themselves to storytelling.
There’s a massive difference between animation and puppeteering. Animation is the craft of breathing life into a virtual character. Puppeteering is performing a story. What you’re doing, you’re doing right now. That sense of aliveness was our angle. We didn’t want you to spend ages making a set and ages making a character, getting lost in those disciplines and those crafts. We wanted you to be in the director’s chair. “Give me a set. Give me some characters. Let’s start performing with them.” Then you look at it and perform again. Maybe add some weird music. Turn it on its head and see it again.
If the tool allows you to work like that, then you can delve into plots and complex stories. Speed of virtual performance was a very big thing for Dreams. We can’t wait for you guys to get your hands on it.
Clements: Performance is an important part of the God of War series. It’s very visual storytelling. Obviously there’s dialogue and narration, but a lot of the storytelling comes just from the performance of the actors, from the visuals, from the sets. How does your team put together those massive set pieces?
Barlog: It’s a long, arduous process of trying things and throwing them out and rebuilding. You start with a core concept, a big idea. That big idea starts to be understood by the collective until people say, “That’s great, but I don’t like any of it. Why don’t we try this?” The willingness to keep throwing out ideas when they’re not holding their own is kind of how we put these larger things together.
There’s the part in God of War II with the collapsing bridge. The direction was, “Hey, we need to get from this location to this location. We should use the grapple.” One of the level designers, Johnny Hawkins, just said, “I’m gonna do something crazy!” If anybody knows Johnny, he’s a great level designer, and he’s crazy. He put together something amazing. It’s a big part of the Santa Monica team in general. They do so much more than you expect.
Clements: It seems very collaborative, then. You said, “We need to get across this bridge,” but this one person says, “I can tell a story with this. I can make an action set piece out of it.”
Barlog: Making it the greatest bridge ever. That phrase maybe echoes through all of the God of War games. Everything that people take on, they want to make it more and more and more.
Chen: I often run into people who have a crazy idea and they want to put it into a game. But how do you tell them, “That’s great, but…”?
Barlog: It comes down to the execution side. A lot of people have crazy ideas. But when someone stays late to put that idea on the screen and then shows it to you — “This is going to be awesome!” Or I crush their dreams and say, “This is horrible.”
Clements: Have you used the word “horrible” to describe someone’s idea before?
Barlog: It’s entirely possible. I read a quote from Sid Meier the other day. Somebody put it on my wall. It said, “Playing games is a series of interesting decisions. Making games is a series of heartbreaking compromises.” Which I thought was fantastic, because it’s so true. It’s a wonderful thing to make games, but it’s also absolutely soul-crushing.
You work on these things for years. You lose sight of what you’re doing so often. You have so many people who are so good at what they do wanting to take each piece and make it better. Sometimes it’s like trying to herd kittens, figuring out what piece is going to fit where.
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.
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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