GDC Keynote: Warren Spector on Other Media
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Warren Spector (Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Deus Ex) in his talk “What Videogames Can Learn from Other Media” at the Game Developers Conference Europe in Cologne mused about videogames borrowing elements from other media, especially older forms of storytelling.
Film is a prime example. After all, both media share the language of ‘moving images’ and a screen display. This is also why some Hollywood directors get involved with making games at one point in their career. Their attitude, according to Spector, is: “if we’re good at making movies, we’re also good at making games.”
This is not always the case. According to Spector, games differ from movies in a couple of fundamental ways and designers should exploit these differences to create an experience that only games can offer. In contrast, using too many movie elements might weaken such an experience.
“Players should always feel in charge of what’s going on”, said Spector. “If a player is taken from one scene to another without making a meaningful contribution to such a transition, it might frustrate and infuriate players.”
In film, directors do nothing else but take the viewer from one scene to the next, so this is an important difference from games. Spector showed footage from two old movies that actually break film convention. Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) is filmed in one continuous take, while Lady in the Lake (1947) is filmed in first person view. Both movies were interesting experiments in their time, but they’re utterly unwatchable.
Spector also had a thing to say about narrative. “While movies allow for long diatribes, storytelling in games should be economical. The more you can say in a short time, the better.” This means short dialogues, but also storytelling through the environment and gameplay.
Repetition is boring
Movies are remembered because of certain impressive scenes. Movie directors who dabble in game design often want to incorporate such scenes as player actions. “But how cool is a particular finishing move once you’ve executed it a thousand times?” Therefore, Warren Spector said, unlike movies, games shouldn’t rely on ‘one time’ special moments. Let alone repeating them dozens of times.
Besides not copying movie conventions too often, games should also dare to move away from Dungeon & Dragons-like mechanics and statistics governing the gameplay. Reason: it’s been done to death while easier and more interesting computer-generated features like AI and psychics are available.
According to Spector, media that game designers should look to for new inspiration instead are radio, comics and the ancient practice of oral storytelling. Although this might sound strange at first, it actually does make sense. Radio should be looked to because the importance of sound is often underestimated. “Think about how old radio plays with actors, voice overs and sound effects created a mood, tension and expectations for the listener.”
Moving away from cliches
Comics contain a lot of information in a very limited space while still conveying a strong message in an iconic rather than photorealistic way. The subject matter of comics should be expanded upon however, so games need to move away from superhero/space marine cliches themselves.
In oral storytelling the responses of the audience helps as much to shape the story as the person telling the story does. In the end, the listeners will have influenced the story perhaps as much as the storyteller.