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Default The Escapist - Next-Gen Storytelling

April 27th, 2007, 11:02
I haven't had the chance to read the article but Warren Spector has popped up at The Escapist, writing an article titled Next-Generation Storytelling:
Sure, more powerful hardware offers new possibilities. We will certainly be able to create more believable actors. We're already seeing next-gen visuals get better. And there's at least the possibility that some of our horsepower will go toward more robust NPC behavior. This could allow us to tell better interactive stories.
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April 27th, 2007, 11:02
Excellent article. Of all the aspects of electronic entertainment, interactive storytelling is the one I find most fascinating; it's also the element most neglected by game developers. I agree with Spector that significant progress in this field likely won't come from mainstream devs/publishers anytime soon.
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April 27th, 2007, 13:21
Spector strikes again. I admit, I am biased… against Spector as well as The Escapist. Both of them found their very own ways to talk about one of most entertaining things that exist as if it were the most boring thing on earth. The Escapist is constantly publishing pseudo-scientific articles (Gygax-Model - I still have a grin on my face) presenting piss easy aspects of computer gaming as if they could only discussed in an academic context.

Always willing to throw in his two cents: Warren "I made great games - Players all suck" Spector. And let's face it - who else than Spector could tell us dumbass players that finally the time has come for - tatatata: Next Gen Story Telling! And hey, it's Dr. Deus Ex that's talking here, a man of whom many think he should be worshipped like a god just because he made one or two good games in the past (legend goes he did it all on his own - there were no other people involved; he just made up that other people were involved in the creative process, because he is such a humble man).

And so Spector begins his six page long discourse about next gen storytelling to finally come up with an absolute groundbreaking conclusion:
At the very least, we have an obligation to offer players stories that have a bit of subtext, stories that are about something.
Yo! Awsome!

But hey Spector would not be Spector if he came up with only one conclusion - he's offering five - yes five(!!!) - ladies and gentlemen, not one, not two, not three, nor four, but five conclusions!!! What a god among men…

One of these conclusions includes getting those people to play video games that so far were totally ignorant of such things (translation: GiEv $$$ plx plx). And somehow, and that's remarkable, Spector even manages to bring in Thief: Deadly Shadows - a game that the medium [guess he means pcs and consoles] can "boast of having produced" (translation: Thief 3 was such a fucking good game, but the idiotic players just did not understand how great it was and therefore did not buy enough copies).

And so Spector goes on, telling us one joke after the other. For example that changes in gaming have to come from the outside - predominantly indie developers and academics. Because, you know, the big commercial developers can't do anything. Since years they are slaves to the publishers that hold their families hostage and force them to create games for the mass market.

Now, on a more serious note: Of course not everything that Spector writes in his article is wrong or rubbish. But it's also nothing really new. Artificial intelligence is not something new. Experts and academics are working on it since years. Scripting is indeed not an ideal thing, but if we are honest - very often it seems more natural than dynamic solutions. And Spector knows that… he even admits in the end that everything he just wrote is not that easy to put into practice (talking about AI - someone tell Spector that AI in Thief 3 sucked). He's talking about a future that is quite a bit away. If you look at games like Facade then you have admit it's certainly not the peak of AI. It gives you the impression of an adventure running in real-time… we've seen these before in scripted form, and they were much more entertaining.
I have to admit that I cannot hear the term "next gen" anymore. Today everything is "next gen" - the term has become meaningless. Development is not a straight line - if that were true the new would alwadys replace the old, but as we know, that is just not true. The radio would have replaced newspapers and books, the television would have replaced the radio, and the computer would have replaced the television. Fact is however that they co-exist.
I'm sure that even in 100 years people will enjoy games like Tetris. People do not always want story. They also do not always want to write their own stories.

Spector is looking at a far future, and he's presenting it as if that is the only way to improve story-telling. But I would think that there are easier ways, which can actually put into practice - one of them would be to tell better stories. Non-linearity and freedom inside the game world could also help alot…
Last edited by Ionstormsucks; April 27th, 2007 at 13:43.
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April 27th, 2007, 14:13
Originally Posted by Warren Spector
As in all things, the reconciliation of story and player experience lies in balance. People who think games have no business telling stories are nuts; people who believe their creativity is more important than the player's creativity are equally crazy.
Here's a story: I noticed a fish oil shortage in a sector adjacent to the Split home system, so I built a refinery to exploit it, but I forgot to check for nearby aquariums. So I built a couple of those, and this time I did check for power plants, but my factories quickly overwhelmed the capacity of the ones nearby. So long story short I'm now in the mining business. :(

Now, that's a terrible story. Nobody ever shows any interest when I tell it. Anecdotes like that still mean more to me than the plot of almost any game I've played. Events that I've caused through my interaction with a simulation feel real in a way that "deciding the fate of the Jade Empire" doesn't; I know damned well that the Empire and everyone in it ceased to exist at the end of the second act. I don't believe I'm making choices that affect the world and genuinely participating in the story unless they've built that world and made it work, and if they have, I ignore their stories and find my own. Nuts, right?

Statues wouldn't be better if they could move. Model airplanes would not be better if they were the same size as airplanes.
Last edited by abbaon; April 27th, 2007 at 14:26.
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April 27th, 2007, 14:35
I love a good story, what I don't like is being steered around in someone's attempt to make a scene from a movie. On the Twenty Sided site (home of the DM otR comic) he was talking about a particular mission in GTA: Vice City Stories that I remember well (he's playing PS2 whereas I played PSP) … it was supposed to play out in a certain way according to the designers, and they messed with normal game mechanics to steer you into doing it the way they planned …

— Mike
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April 27th, 2007, 15:57
You don't need eye candy to produce highly interactive stories. Believable actors only matter if the story and dialogue are good enough. I don't care about seeing a 3D, photorealistic, normal mapped and bloomed version of Marlon Brando if all he can say is spout nonsense about chosen ones and often exclaim "pwnt!".
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April 27th, 2007, 18:06
Warren Spector and Janet Murray seem like some very smart people, and I enjoyed reading what they have to say. I like their ideas. They don't quite get it, though.

Here's where they both go wrong. Spector quoted Murray saying, "…A new medium of expression allows us to tell stories we could not tell before…." That sounds nice, but it's nonsense.

Every story imaginable can be written down or spoken out loud. Other mediums of expression offer their own advantages and limitations, but they will never enable new stories.

Essentially, stories are told. They can also be portrayed. In CRPG they're also experienced, and there is the potential for collaboration between the author and the player. That is something very special and needs to be understood in order to be done right.

Here's the best part of the article, IMO: "We need outsiders, indie developers, academics, two guys in a garage somewhere, to point us in new directions, to show us a new way to involve players in stories and take this medium to a new level." That's right, but he left out one thing: Fan Forums.
Last edited by Squeek; April 27th, 2007 at 18:19.
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April 27th, 2007, 19:35
He really didn't leave out Fan Forums. He was talking about people who would actually produce something tangible, not about 'computer-chair experts' who post their 'feelings' about games on forums.
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April 27th, 2007, 19:59
Ouch! Having a bad day?
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April 27th, 2007, 21:16
Originally Posted by Squeek View Post
That's right, but he left out one thing: Fan Forums.
Yeah sure, especially Spector has made himself a name as a person that is listening to the fans…
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April 27th, 2007, 21:22
A problem I often see is the story itself.

I'm not the kind of person who is actually able to produce an excellent, thrilling story.

And I guess that there are more like me.

So, what developers also need, are good, talented storytellers. People, who can develop a story with twists 'n' turns (if possible), and stories that make gamers gasp.

I'm not one of them.




As a sidenote, I've begun exploring and developing a branch of the defunct Larian Forums RPG "Manatopia", which will eventually lead into a different world, but still with the character I hads developed then. It won't be thrilling and it won't have twists 'n' turns, but I want to develop it into a good read. Nothing more, nothing less. But since I'm only at the very first stages of it, it might need months until I'm ready (until I've told my story), And THEN I need to translate it for a bigger audience … *sighs*
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April 28th, 2007, 01:10
Originally Posted by abbaon View Post
Here's a story: I noticed a fish oil shortage in a sector adjacent to the Split home system, so I built a refinery to exploit it, but I forgot to check for nearby aquariums. So I built a couple of those, and this time I did check for power plants, but my factories quickly overwhelmed the capacity of the ones nearby. So long story short I'm now in the mining business.

Now, that's a terrible story. Nobody ever shows any interest when I tell it. Anecdotes like that still mean more to me than the plot of almost any game I've played. Events that I've caused through my interaction with a simulation feel real in a way that "deciding the fate of the Jade Empire" doesn't; I know damned well that the Empire and everyone in it ceased to exist at the end of the second act. I don't believe I'm making choices that affect the world and genuinely participating in the story unless they've built that world and made it work, and if they have, I ignore their stories and find my own. Nuts, right?
Hey, a fellow X player! Sweet.

Anyway, you're both right. I think letting the player create their own narrative is very powerful but the best result is going to occur when the framework is provided by the game for an interesting overarching story. A combination, basically.

-= RPGWatch =-
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April 28th, 2007, 14:10
The problem I have, is that these two elements - the overarching story provided by the game's developers and the emergent stories created by the player's interactions with the simulation - exist largely in isolation. One has little or no bearing on the other. If I decide to let a pack of Ogres chase me into a village to see what happens, the overarching narrative can't possibly react to the situation, since it would be virtually impossible to predict all the crazy ways in which I might manipulate the simulation.

For me, the most interesting stories are about characters, what they say, what they do, how they adapt to unexpected situations etc. Trying to realistically model human behaviour (heck, even Ogre behaviour) by way of computer simulation is far beyond the reach of current AI technology. Therefore, in my opinion, the best approach to interactive storytelling at present is still good old fashioned scripting. The player's choices will be limited, but at least the actors' reactions will be believable (in the hands of a good writer).

Sadly, the concept of "interactive" is almost universally absent when it comes to storytelling in games. The interactive part of the game generally consists of such things as battering rats, or rolling barrels down hills, while the narrative is force fed to the player through one or more (usually separate and linear) storylines over which he/she has little or no influence. When reading a novel, one of the things I like to do is to ponder the what ifs. What if so and so had done such and such differently? How would this or that character have reacted and what effect would this have on the story. I'm probably not the only one who would desperately like to see more elaborate branching options in game narratives. From a publisher's perspective, however, this seems to be of little interest. Why bother creating reams of extra content, which the player, depending on his choices, might never see? After all, the current approach of pumping it all out sequentially has had no shortage of commercial success.
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April 29th, 2007, 13:21
There's a difference between story and storytelling. Storytelling is the way the story is told. Someone said that the best stories are already told and what's left is the storytelling.

"Sadly, the concept of "interactive" is almost universally absent when it comes to storytelling in games. "

Not in good old rpgs like Fallout. I don't think this game even has a story. What we have is great well written characters which tell stories and have many possibilities to interact with.
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April 30th, 2007, 10:33
Yup, the manner in which the story is delivered is the key here. This is where computers have enormous (largely untapped) potential. As squeek said earlier "Every story imaginable can be written down or spoken out loud…", which is true, but a new medium allows the story to be experienced in a way that was not possible previously. A video game has the length to develop characters and subplots to the same degree of depth as a full length novel, while providing the audio-visual stimulation of a movie, and offering a level of interactivity not present in either of those mediums.

A story can let us vicariously experience an adventure that we wouldn't be able to in real life. Ideally, it should try to imitate real life as closely as possible. It's nice to read a well written description of an elven maiden with a golden harp sitting by a waterfall playing a beautiful melody, but it's even better to witness the scene on screen and hear the melody through the speakers.

In the not too distant future, treadmills and other alternative user input devices will become more common. Thus, instead of watching or reading about the protagonist gasping for air with sweat dripping down his face while being chased by a Troll, we'll be able to experience it first hand (except the part about getting eaten for dinner if we don't run fast enough). I look forward to that day! In any case, it will change the perception of hardcore gamers from overweight geeks to the fittest, most athletic people on the planet
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April 30th, 2007, 10:49
Originally Posted by Geist View Post
In the not too distant future, treadmills and other alternative user input devices will become more common.
1D motion sensing? Pfft. I'll be running on a 30-foot-wide trackball.

Statues wouldn't be better if they could move. Model airplanes would not be better if they were the same size as airplanes.
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April 30th, 2007, 11:00
That's even better! Some sort of surface that can change its shape, slope and rigidity according to the terrain input.
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April 30th, 2007, 16:52
A virtual shovel ? Connected to a real one ? Meanwhile you dig in your garden ?

Reminds me of this one, by the way.
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April 30th, 2007, 18:52
Characters in computer games can't be developed to the same degree they can be in a novel (not even close). So game makers have to be clever about it.

A good example of someone who understands his medium is Peter Jackson. The Lord of The Rings is a story that's problematic for film, despite the opportunities for awesome special effects. In the books Tolkien explained a lot to the reader that he needed to know. Jackson wanted to avoid long narration, so he sometimes resorted to changing the plot around. Since it was a movie, he wanted to show his audience how decisions were made instead of explaining them the way Tolkein did in his books.

I also don't agree that computer games need to imitate reality as closely as possible, not all the time, anyway. They should simulate reality sparingly. Those moments should be clever and cool.

I expect game designers are already well aware of the advantages and disadvantage of their medium. But they're strongly emphasizing graphical effects right now at the expense of the other elements of good storytelling. IMO, we as an audience need to become more demanding.
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