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Jesse Schell's search for the Shakespeare of video games
Jesse Schell's search for the Shakespeare of video games Exclusive
March 27, 2013 | By Patrick Miller

In general, GDC's Narrative Summit sessions focus on the task of improving game storytelling techniques. However, Schell Games CEO and Carnegie Mellon University professor Jesse Schell closed out the GDC Narrative Summit yesterday with a talk called "The Future of Storytelling: How Medium Shapes Story" that took a different tack.

Rather than offer insights on contemporary day-to-day game development, he framed the talk in terms of the future of game narrative, and what it would look like -- and the picture he painted looked very, very different.

Identifying narrative weaknesses

Schell began by posing a question to the audience: "Are we going to have a Shakespeare of games? A game that was told so perfectly, and so well, that 200 years later people will insist we play it exactly as it was?" With that challenge in mind, Schell identified a few of game narrative's endemic weaknesses that stood in between the medium and its Shakespeare. "One of the weaknesses is a problem of verbs. Video game verbs tend to be running, shooting, a movie, and the verbs are different -- talking, asking, games are really good at the below-the-neck verbs."

"Another problem," Schell continued, "We suck at tragedy. It's not really a thing for us. If we're doing interactive Romeo and Juliet, what happens? Oh my god, she died. Go back to the beginning. Go us. Not everything has to be a tragedy, but it's unfortunate that this is off-limits to us. We create ridiculous stories, with zombies and monsters and time machines, and we set it up so that there's always going to be a happy ending."

According to Schell, these narrative weaknesses were best summed up by USC Games Institute's Chris Swain: "Film wasn't taken seriously as a medium until it learned to talk. Games are waiting to learn to listen. I suspect he is dead-on right."

Learning to listen

Having identified the fundamental limitation of current game narrative techniques, Schell then ran through a series of technologies that he thought could offer games the chance to "learn to listen," from using player facial-tracking features to read a player's emotional state, voice recognition and natural language parsing tech for conversations (with examples ranging from Hey You, Pikachu! to iOS's built-in intelligent assistant Siri). "Everyone always thinks [natural language understanding] will never work," Schell said, "There have been people working on [natural language understanding] for 30-40 years, and it's starting to pile up."

Redefining characters

Part of Schell's vision of the future of game narrative involved a fundamental paradigm shift in terms of how developers thought of video game characters. "Mario is a cool character, but he frustrates the hell out of me," said Schell. "At the beginning of each game, Mario always says, 'It's-a-me, Mario! Enter your name.' 'Enter your name? Mario, my God, we've played together for 30 years! And you don't remember, do you?' We have persistent databases for each game; why don't we have persistent databases for each character?"

Instead of thinking of characters as in-game avatars for the player, Schell suggested we think of them instead as "Virtual Companions," citing Mass Effect 3's voice command during an in-game conversation as a simple example. "I say something [to Commander Shepard], and then Shepard says something else, and it's like we're a team. It's like we're buddies, which is a little weird, we've never had it before, but is it really that different from the relationship we've already had?"

Where characters are static, Schell said, virtual companions could evolve: "Normally avatars are made for a certain age, and games are made for a certain age, and when we change, we're going to leave them behind. We're going to want them to change and grow as we change and grow. Which is a huge challenge for us as designers, but if you could do that, damn, that'd be powerful."

Shakespeare of games

"Our Shakespeare won't be a teller of tales, but a crafter of characters," Schell said. "Someone will make characters you want in all your a companion for life...World of Warcraft is going to be here for 20 years, 30 years. What should we do when characters die? Should we bury them? Or should we pass them on to our descendants? Think of a world where the best way to know our ancestors is through their virtual companions."

Finally, Schell concluded his talk by stressing that this work would be done by game developers themselves. "I know how it sounds weird, but tell me how this will not happen," Schell said. "Who's going to make it? Not Google and them -- it's going to be us. Was Siri first? No. It was Hey You, Pikachu."

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Michael Joseph
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"...A game that was told so perfectly, and so well, that 200 years later people will insist we play it exactly as it was?"

I like that Schell attemps to define what a Shakespearian type work looks like for a game because it's something we think we understand implicitly, but maybe we don't. There are games where the mechanics are so well tuned and the units so well balanced that the games feels like they've reached the pinnacle of their genres. And at that point in time perhaps they did.. they were best of breed and literally "state of the art." But 200 years from now maybe nobody will be playing Starcraft I or Portal or Eve. But they probably will be playing some other real time strategies, story driven puzzles and mmo persistant scifi 4x games.

Maybe the perfect game is more like an evolutionary marker species on the games tree of life.

Perhaps this has to do with how we've come to view software and 1.0...N versioning. We have the sense that there's always going to be something more advanced, more compelling or more complete down the line which will supercede whatever came before. You try to do that with novels and you're a plagiarist.

Either way, it's a good reason for game developers to let their technical expertise, their life experiences and beliefs, their gaming history knowledge, and personal gaming experiences come together and combine chromosomes to bear interesting new offspring that will advance the state of the art and provide meaningful experiences that gamers will enjoy.

p.s. Maybe they will be playing Tetris 200 years from now!

John Gordon
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"p.s. Maybe they will be playing Tetris 200 years from now!"

I think that is a good candidate. Although I was thinking of Pacman.

Kenneth Blaney
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With the way the hacking community works, I'd say "Breakout" is a good contender also... followed closely by "Doom". Why? Because getting a device to run "Hello World", then native code like "Breakout" or "Tetris" and finally something open source (specifically "Doom") are the orders of the day whenever a new device comes out.

That said, I don't think that is what the article is asking for, but perhaps it should be.

Adam Steele
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Final Fantasy Tatics

The final ending is perfect tragedy. I believe this game fits for what you are looking for.

Not to mention the whole game is the struggling of a young man finding out what is fair and just. And just what you have to do when you believe something is wrong to make it right.

Gwaredd Mountain
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These aren't very original ideas - may I suggest reading "Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace", Janet H Murray (MIT Press, 1998)

Christopher Engler
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"...A game that was told so perfectly, and so well, that 200 years later people will insist we play it exactly as it was?"

I've never seen it told exactly the way it "was." That's nostalgia. Sure, people don't change Shakespeare's words (often), but everything else changes to adapt to the time (interpretations, approaches, performances, settings, costumes, stagings etc...). That's one of Shakespeare's keys' to success: his ability to stay universe and current through adaptability.

Justin LeGrande
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I'm not sure replicating a single person's synthesis of works is what the computer game medium does best... I think it's more about teams of "non-important" peoples' stories, rather than being about a single guru who is nearly deified. Shigeru Miyamoto may one day be known as the computer gaming equivalent of Shakespeare, regardless of whether or not he wants that distinction. For us, it's impossible to draw this sort of distinction within this century. Maybe the people who live in the next one will be able to...

However, I do think the Phantasy Star series, especially #2 and #4, is an early example of a series of plots which involve far-reaching tragedies and uneasy, unknown conclusions. A #5 was also considered, but it was never created... so that's the equivalent of a Shakespearean "lost work" right there.

Harald Hagen
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As far as tragedy being off-limits in games, Schell seems to be neglecting at least one notable exception to the rule: Red Dead Redemption.

Although I'd agree that 'verboten' is the overwhelming trend, RDR is a damn good tragedy if I ever saw one. The fact of its existence proves that it can be done and it can be done well. And I'm sure there are others, just not that many. I'd nominate Final Fantasy X too if its direct sequel, FFX-2, would just hurry up and admit that it's all a hallucination in Yuna's mind, driven mad with grief.

Michael O'Hair
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Much Ado About Rated M for Mature. We're there already, it's just too soon to make the call. More important than games telling timeless stories are the things that distinguished games from films, books, music, and other media. PLAY!

At some point, games must abandon the concept of "story-telling" and embrace the concept of "story-playing". Books, films, music and other media have already mastered the process of "telling". Games are meant to be played; and that means play determines the story, not story determining play. I think most have a firm grasp of the progression from Exposition -> Rising Action -> Climax -> Falling Action -> Resolution... is anyone yet trying to turn that linear series of scenes on it's head yet? Anyone? There is so much more that can be done with games other than interactive movies powered by the latest computer hardware, that either provide a few hours of static linearity (it's like a movie!) or weeks of mind-numbing repetition of kill monster -> get loot.

"Are we going to have a Shakespeare of games? A game that was told so perfectly, and so well, that 200 years later people will insist we play it exactly as it was?"
How old is chess? Go? Backgammon? Monopoly? The Legend of Zelda?
That brings me to a side-point: why does Nintendo insist on producing the exact same game over and over again? Are we not sick of tired of saving Princesses yet? Apparently not, and that trope may be around for more than 200 years. Players are still buying and/or playing classic games, games from 20 years ago and beyond, either to relive the old times or to see how old games played. Why? How? Who? That phenomena needs a closer looker eventually.

Anyway, the question of the longevity of games begs a look at the games of old. The term "Nintendo-Hard" comes to mind.
*puts on aged gamer curmudgeon hat*
Remember way back in the old days when games were incredibly difficult to keep players trying to master them, when games were padded with multiple loops of increasing difficulty, when extra lives were limited and continues cost 25 cents each? "Fun" did not make or break those games. The stories they told were poor or mediocre at best when compared to other media. Despite the limited color palettes, sound effects, control schemes, and methods to continue progress from a previous session... we loved those games. Those primitive games that often told no story, or told them incredibly poorly.

We loved them because they were more than fun, some more than others. Games were challenges we invested time and money into; full of frustration, headaches, heartaches, controller-tossing, shouting, agonizing activities, that sometimes resulted in blissful satisfaction upon mastery of the game and getting to the end... unless the game told you to do it again while the enemies moved faster and shot more bullets at you.

With arcade games every quarter invested resulted in defeat or the game eventually telling you to stop playing so someone else can have a try. With early PC games play involved meticulous notes, dozens of maps drawn on paper, reams of spreadsheets detailing unit strengths or commodity prices or plans for character attributes and skills. With early console games play involved countless mistakes, defeats, lessons, victories, and more mistakes and defeats when the game was played on the next highest difficulty level. Those things don't sound very fun... they're not very interesting stories, either. But people are still playing and enjoying those games, possibly even still trying to master them. We didn't just buy and play games, we invested in virtual struggle.

And in many great games, the main character was the player. Not Desert Ranger, not Pokemon Trainer, not nameless space marine. The person holding the controller or pressing keys and rolling the mouse around. The player. YOU. Or some assumed pseudonym created by the player. If the game didn't tell us whose role we were assuming, the placed ourselves into the story. I doubt anyone reads or watches The Lord of the Rings and mentally replaces every occurrence of "Frodo Baggins" with their own name.

And at the end of (many) those games, the last words on the screen were not "Thank you for guiding the assigned protagonist to the end of the sequence of events and watching the staff credits without skipping".
They were:

Thank YOU for PLAYING.

Max Sydow
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Elizabethan's had games. Their games were different than their plays, which were different than their novels. I think the insistence of modern game industry people that games be the next step in the evolution of dramatic literature is why so many games tank.

So many are weighted down with boring, tedious, exposition, that RARELY does what it needs to, which is facilitate an emotional connection with the protagonist. How much AAA game exposition have we endured, sitting stone-faced as the most wild, plot-twisty, deep, profound, fill in the adjective, backstory gets explained by one of the NPCs? And we take it all in, patiently but unmoved, waiting for the action to start? And once the action starts, THAT's when we become emotionally involved. Why? Because regardless of whatever backstory we just absorbed on a purely intellectual (non-emotional) level, the inherent tension in all video games is the fear of death. Not literal, but death as cessation of forward movement. Failure to achieve the goal. Fear of the void. The reload screen. Or having to sit through another boring cutscene. That fear is palpable. It's real. That tension (emotion) is what we channel or "transfer" into the plight of the fictional protagonist. Players only need (and want) to be told who they are, what's at stake, and what their objective is. The level design is the obstacle. The level design is the story of the game. The only time real emotions take hold during gameplay are when the player himself navigates the obstacles. When the game is done, our most intense memories of the "story" of the game will have happened while our fingers were pressing the buttons.

My plea to game designers - stop trying to turn games into dramatic literature! Or at the very least, learn what makes good drama. That said, I have seen, from time to time, dialogue heavy narratives in games that I thought succeeded - usually in a sort of movie-game hybrid, like Rockstar's Max Payne. But so often, the story part of games seems tacked on, and serves no purpose other than at best to offer a reprieve from the intense gameplay sequences, and at worst, to bore the living pants out of us for no good reason.

Watch kids at the playground - they don't sit around coming up with tons of backstory - one's a cop, one's a robber. Go. It is the gameplay that immerses them, not the setup. Watch as they scream with delight, because during play they ARE a cop and they ARE a robber. Is it that game designers were the indoor kids that they don't remember how serious and invested we were when we played kick the can? We were all James Bond. And that was a can. Now we have fully 3D worlds and photorealistic playgrounds to play in - so let us play and stop trying to "enhance" our belief with boring expositional cut-scenes. I wouldn't have gone out and paid 60 bucks for Crysis (for instance) if I wasn't already totally willing to believe in the reality of my super-suit. Just tell me what my objective is and leave me alone! Stop trying to re-sell me on the concept with your horrible in-game dialogue. It only pulls me out. My imagination is WAY better at getting me to believe than your lame exposition and backstory (so long as the level design is good.)

It's playtime, game designers! Stop boring us with your cutscenes. We are born with the ability to transfer the tension of death to the goal of kicking a can. Now we have photo-real 3D worlds in Dolby sound to play in - if you can't immerse us in the gameplay part of the game, you've failed.

Hm. Not the rant I thought I was going on when I started. Oh well, there it is.