Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Warren Spector calls "failure" on Uncharted and other big hits: does he have a point?

One of the first posts I've written for Videogames Beyonder was about Warren Spector and his 'One City Block' design dream - I'm going to translate that one from the original italian text soon, as it's a very interesting description of some of the highest objectives attainable in the realm of game making. And I'm happy to return to Spector in the wake of his PAX Aus 2015 keynote, where he made a distinction between "low", "medium" and "high expression games" based on players' agency and the potential for emerging, unpredicted situations. For instance fighting games, sport games and sandbox experiences (Dishonored, Fallout, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, The Sims are explicitly mentioned) would fall into the high expression category, while things like Uncharted and Heavy Rain would respectively be low and medium affairs.

Taking such successful brands and associating them with a "low rate of expression" has caused a bit of unease among the fans, as if Spector was trying to imply that certain genres were somehow "better" than others. While some of his words about Uncharted suggested that this was not the case...
"It's not that games like these are bad, but they limit your ability to interact with the game world, so the story can unfold the way the storyteller wants it to unfold.
You have very limited ability to express yourself; it's about how you accomplish a predetermined path to get to the next plot point.
It's a great story - a better story than I'll ever tell in a game - but it's not a player story; it's not your story."
 ... some others weren't chosen as wisely, causing an apparent contradiction:
"If all you want to do is show off how clever you are, get out of my medium! Go make a movie or something, because that's what you should be doing."
Game developers are not required to be subtle or elegant, but such statements creates unnecessary friction rather than helping to get the real point of discussion across, and that is: certain genres are somehow better than others at doing what? There's no misinterpreting Spector here, as he talks about offering engagement through chances, variety and reiterated unpredictability, rather than an underlying scripted narrative that justifies the gameplay.

In fighting games, the moveset associated with a character is a tools allowing the players to build their own emerging narrative, match after match: the story you tell your friend about how you beat a boss or a strong contender online, is something the game creators may or may not have predicted. The same goes for RPGs and adventures where open mechanics (= interactions) can be used to resolve particular problems and puzzles in clever and unscripted ways.

Offering engagement through chances, variety
and reiterated unpredictability, rather than
an underlying scripted narrative
that justifies the gameplay

That's what it means "making the most out of the medium" in Spector's terms, which are quite a departure from the kind of experiences he is known for; storytelling is one of the original Deus Ex (2000) strong points after all*. With the rise in computing power for both PCs and consoles, a merge of complex IA and physics could contribute towards making Spector's design dream a reality: games where the objectives are only loosely defined, and the players can use the world rules to attend them while weaving a deeply personal, active and surprising narrative all along.  

Sounds rather futuristic, right? Maybe not that much, but there's no denying the need for extensive (and expensive!) research on how the underlying systems of such games should work, and that's something that is simply not possible in the current AAA space without a radical change of philosophy from the publishers - call it courage if you will. If anything, it should be up to people like Spector to find ways to carry on such research, possibly within the scope of smaller projects: his assertions at PAX Aus may be interpreted as a wake up call to whoever has similar ambitions at heart, but the monetary problem remains.

Nowadays, it is much easier and cost effective to tie specific gameplay systems into rigid (or semi-rigid) scripts, and there's actually nothing wrong with that - both Uncharted and The Walking Dead are compelling experiences that people loves AND expects to spend a finite amount of time with. Their existence has perfectly valid commercial and design reasons, in spite of a scope that is barely comparable to what Spector would aim at - a goal that is unquestionably worth pursuing somehow.

* Quite curiously, one title that better aligns with Spector's recent views would be Thief: The Dark Project (1998), a particularly gameplay-centric experience that he produced until the mid-1997, when he dropped out of Looking Glass Austin to set up Ion Storm: in the words of project director Greg LoPiccolo, the goal in Thief was to "build a type of simulator where object interactions are correct and physics are tied in correctly". Lead designer Jeff Yaus wanted everything in the game to "behave as it should. For example, things that burn will burn, and then is up to the player to burn things, whether or not we've anticipated it" (sources: Wikipedia's "Thief: The Dark Project" and "Warren Spector" entries).

Should you be interested, here's Naughty Dog's timid response to Spector's opinion about Uncharted

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