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Games need to learn what to borrow from other media

GDC 2013: Warren Spector talks about games pulling ideas from film and television

Today at GDC 2013, freelance designer and "out of work guy" Warren Spector detailed what the industry can and should not learn from other narrative mediums. The designer said imitating other media is a natural stage in the development of any medium. Radio, film, and television all took from each other in order to grow, with Spector showing clips from old film and television clips.

"Video games include more of the building blocks of storytelling than any other medium has had," said Spector. "The singular, simple statement that we can tell stories because we combine other media characteristics got me thinking, 'is that all we are?'"

He stressed that games are a separate medium that should stand on their own, but asked if interactivity is the only thing the industry had to bring to the table? Spector noted the industry has done films with added interactivity, citing Telltale's The Walking Dead and Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain as examples.

According to Spector, the trick is to know enough about other mediums to pick and choose only the worthwhile conventions.

"What we have to do is to understand how other media may move and adopt the conventions that work for us, but know enough about them to jettison the conventions and techniques that work against us," he said.

He called movies the medium of the 20th century and explained that there are "significant differences" in how filmmakers handle storytelling through editing and cutting scenes, while games rely on a linear, player-controlled narrative. Spector said that games are at their best with no cuts or edits.

"In spite of the success of cinematic games these days, I argue that even the most fundamental movie editing techniques are not for us," Spector added.

On the topic of cross-cutting and parallel action, Spector gave an example of a movie and game project he worked on featuring horrific scenes. In the film, the director planned to cut away from horrific scenes to lessen the effect on the audience, while in a game developers would be trying to make that horrific action palatable.

"It breaks the illusion, which is critical to a game's success. It wrests the experience away from players who want to be directors of their own experience. In most games the action is continuous; we either take control of the camera ourselves, or we leave the player to the work of controlling the camera. Games are linear in the way they treat time and space."

Spector used clips from Hitchcock's Rope and Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake to show how movies fail at using a single continuous take and first-person perspective respectively. Both techniques are fairly common in video games.

Spector then talked about film directors, who can be sure that the audience will stick with a movie's up and downs because audiences understand how films work. Developers instead have to frontload an experience with excitement.

"If you don't get to your verbs quickly and make them really actiony--or at least make them compelling in some way--your player's going away," he said.

Spector said that games cannot rely on a single straightforward script like movies. Even in the simplest games, developers have to make sure the heroes don't say the same thing over and over again. In contrast, Hollywood can think in single shots and "wonderful moments" that games cannot rely on. The first time game players perform an action it's great, but after a while it becomes boring and trite. Gaming is valuable when we allow players to make the "magic moments".

Spector also explained that developers are still relying on techniques gleaned from tabletop games long ago.

"We don't want to make games about rolling dice. We have better tools," he stressed.

Spector closed his talk with a few important lessons that can be learned from other mediums. Audio is still really important, though we've moved beyond radio. Comics have amazingly economical storytelling by combining a few pictures and words.

He reiterated that games are "dangerously similar to other media", but it falls to the industry to start looking at what makes them unique. To Spector, video games can transport the player, immerse them in worlds that are real, and are the only medium that prizes "repeated actions".

"We're the only medium in history that responds to what players do. No one's ever been able to do that. Except maybe LARPers and they don't count," he said.

Spector hammered on his classic design pillars: choice and consequence. He also noted that the industry needs some new structures and even referenced design choices from the original Deus Ex.

"When interaction models haven't changed since 1990, we've got to work harder. We have to focus on non-combat AI. So much time figuring out pathfinding. Have you seen a game where a drink was spilled and a character responded appropriately? I think not," he said. "We've made progress, and we can get partway to where we're capable of going by borrowing from other media. We need some original ideas."

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Mike Williams avatar

Mike Williams

Reviews Editor, USgamer

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.