Carving a Story from a Game

Gamasutra posted an interview with Warren Spector, which starts out promisingly but quickly gets mired in little rants. To be fair, Spector prefaces the particular comment I am about to deconstruct with, “I’m going to alienate just about everybody in the game business,” which sounds conciliatory; but instead of being alienated, I just want to point out one or two specific things which ring false to me. It may seem picky, but we should hold our industry luminaries to this kind of standard because the level of discourse in our industry will not improve unless we do so.
Let’s begin:

“I mean seriously, who in their 20s or 30s give a good gol-darn about being the last space marine on a space station who has to stave off an alien invasion? Who cares?”

It’s possible that this comment is actually simply a call to game developers to explore more genres and settings than the fantasy and science fiction standards with which we are so over-familiar, and if this is the case I agree that there is much new ground that can be broken here. But if he is trying to say that the stereotypical video game story is, itself, a bad idea, it feels like a reactionary statement, and one that is not wholly reasoned.

Deus Ex, Spector’s most famous and arguably most successful title, follows a nanotechnologically-enhanced agent in a cyberpunk future. Most people would agree that the story of Deus Ex is generally more interesting or more complex than what is to be found in most games, but it’s still science fiction that relies heavily on ideas developed before in various media. Because of this, I feel that Spector teeters on a slippery slope when he criticizes a huge swath of other stories so offhandedly. To turn the question around, how many people really care about the crackpot conspiracy theories upon which Deus Ex was based? If aliens are dumb, why did the game feature enemies resembling stereotypical aliens who threatened the player with radiation damage? If being the “last man” is so boring and clichéd, why is JC Denton, the player’s character, a figurative last man, the only person who can do what he does and the only agent of change in the world of the game?

If Spector really believes in the storytelling power of games, I believe he would acknowledge that the story of the last space marine, if artfully told, could be just as powerful as any other story one can imagine. Pixar Studios has found success by making people care about insects or cars or fish; upon hearing the premise of Finding Nemo, a cynic might say “who cares about some dumb fish?” It turns out a lot of people did– because the storytellers were able to weave a captivating narrative around the main characters. By being willing to reject the idea of the space marine out of hand by assuming nobody cares, Spector is actually subverting his own emphasis on storytelling.

“…I looked around before the millennium, and people were thinking the millennium was going to be the end of the world. There were so many conspiracy theories coming in at that point. I thought “lets play with that, challenge their beliefs or reinforce them.” I also saw the coming surge of interest in nano-technology. You put that “we know what’s right and wrong,” with every conspiracy theory you ever thought of to be true with a backdrop of artificial intelligence and nano-technology, and you have 4 or 5 things that people already care about. I think in every game you need that grounding.”

The assumption here seems to be that people really care (or cared, at the turn of the millennium) about conspiracy theories and nanotechnology. But it would be silly to assume that simply selecting from a palette of the issues of the day necessarily makes for a better or more innovative story (or game). For example, international trade is a frequent topic of political discussion and often becomes a hot-button issue on many people’s minds– does that mean a trade dispute was necessarily the best way to introduce conflict at the beginning of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace? Every game does not need an intentional effort to ground it in the issues of the day. This method, while interesting, is not in itself a way to tell better stories or make better games.

What makes a story capture the spirit of its age is its themes, not the details of the setting. Hollywood films set in ancient Rome are all products of their time, reflecting the fears and dreams of the era in which they were made, even though each of the filmmakers did not set out to do so originally. If, as artists, we set out to describe the world as we know it, we will already be reflecting our own times.

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