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Now, before I start, let me say Will Wright is a really smart guy. Made (and will continue to make) lots of popular, and good, games. I even ostensibly work for the same company he does (although we are many, many degrees separated).

But who the fuck does he think he is coming along taking a shit in my proverbial fucking cereal?

Let me explain – at the South-by-Southwest Festival this year, Wright gave a talk that covered storytelling in games. I can’t even link to proper coverage of it, I can only link to coverage of the coverage. But he goes on about how story in games is flawed, player stories (like the experience one has playing the Sims, or soon, Spore) are much more compelling. How all the traditional stories in games fall flat and the future is, basically, his games. Oh, and the cereal shitting thing is a Kevin Smith reference.

Um, door number 3 please? For starters, looking at storytelling in games at this point and saying, because they suck, a game can’t have use any “traditional” storytelling methods is pretty flawed logic (Raph Koster, this means you too).

There’s sooooo much to be explored in the middle, taking authored storylines and weaving them around players, that to dismiss it simply because you don’t think the mission structure in Grand Theft Auto stacks up… Craziness! Baby, bathwater, you get the idea.

So, ok, he’s entitled to his opinion, and his talent and success also entitle him to more power of broadcasting that opinion. But what sort of ticks me off, is that there are young potential game developers out there now, maybe they’re studying in a game design program, and they think, well gee, Will Wright said stories in game suck, I’m not gonna explore anything having to do with stories in games because he’s smart so obviously he’s (w)right.

Fuck that! Sigh.

He is right about one thing though, an emotion games can convey unlike any other medium is guilt. But we’ll leave that for another time.

8 Responses to Will Wright, Cereal Shitter

  • Michel says:

    As a young potential game developer myself, his talk inspired me to think more about how stories in games should be told. I was struggling for a while with the concept of emergent narratives, and he helped clarify a lot of the thoughts going through my head. I don’t really understand how anyone could walk away from that speech thinking “game stories can’t work, sandboxes from now on.”

  • borut says:

    Well, I am completely, unabashedly, taking the articles and transcripts out of context since I wasn’t there. :) So I’m glad that you walked away with that impression.

    But he still seemed to focus on what we can do to help the player tell their stories in more interesting ways, as opposed to helping the player in telling the story of the game – he says (from one of the transcripts) that in movies the director knows the ending and in games we don’t, so then he goes into more things we can do in interactive storytelling to help the player explore the story they want to tell (like via player modeling, large user communities, etc.).

    But in games we can still know where the player is going to go. Sometimes the definition of that ending location is wider than others, but there’s still a goal with a traditional story arc, empathy, and everything. It will take some of the same technologies he’s talking about – using player modeling to find interesting dramatic choices that move the player towards the goal we want as interactive storytellers vs. the goals we’ve seen them explore themselves.

    So we’re constructing that more traditional story arc by presenting the player with dramatic options to reach the goal we want, but specifically choosing the further subset of dramatic options we think might be of interest to them.

  • James Wallis says:

    I wasn’t there either, but from the transcripts I’ve read and the Will Wright games I’ve played, every time he says “story” he means “narrative”. The trouble is, narrative is involving for a while but what we remember, what we learn from, what moves us and what changes us is story.

    It’s the difference between ‘Big Brother’ and ‘1984’.

    The thing that I couldn’t quite believe from the transcripts I read was that Wright didn’t understand the difference. If he honestly doesn’t, if he didn’t understand that he was arguing a fallacy, then what a dull cultural life he must have.

  • Michel says:

    Figuratively walked away… I wasn’t there either. Good points though. I automatically applied his thoughts on narrative to games with actual stories because it seemed so obvious, but in retrospect he does seem pretty narrow-minded.

  • Cory Sponseller says:

    Hey, nice blog you’ve got here. I blew in from Grand Text Auto, where I happened to see a mention of Doug Church, and *click*ed.

    For a while, I myself was sort of gravitating towards that sort of hardcore ludology point of view, like what Will Wright was apparently expounding. Basically, I was of the opinion that “hey, books and film already do storylines better than videogames can and will be able to do in the foreseeable future, so why put much thought into it?” I would roll my eyes at anyone who wanted to talk about storylines in games (figuratively, I rarely find people who want to talk about game design in person).

    The significance of good narrative, or at least narrative elements (strong characterisation especially), was reaffirmed for me when I played Psychonauts and Oblivion, back to back not too long ago. Psychonauts was like a good book, and I was genuinely sad to see it come to an end. Meanwhile, Oblivion’s storiness felt so watered down that it left me cold. I played for dozens of hours, much longer than I had played Psychonauts, but it all seemed, in the end, like a sort of trivial time-waster.

    So, while I certainly understand what Will Wright is getting at with his statements, I think that the importance of narrative is self-evident, and I don’t see it being phased out any time soon.

  • borut says:

    Thanks Cory, about the blog.

    Part of is, like James points out, a language issue – we use a lot of words interchangeable to mean many different things. Just because a game has a strong narrative doesn’t mean that narrative is even linear or forced onto the player, but oftentimes that’s what people assume it to be.

    And so then you have developers like Wright, or Koster, or others, say x is the future of games, where x is just one type of game (and usually the games they like to make). To think that people who enjoy other types of games, games with strong narrative in this case or whatever it may be, would somehow just drop off the face of the planet seems… circumspect, to say the least.

    And a lot of developers do have this internal debate of how much to go one way way or the other – but that’s a tension inherent in the medium, one of the things that fascinates me about it really, we have the ability to go back and forth in that spectrum quite a bit.

    I guess I sort of think of it like perspective in novel-writing. Obviously, you can write in first person or third person perspective, but even writing in third person you have a lot of leeway in how close you are to the main character – do you only write about facts that character would know? How much information do you reveal from a omniscient pespective? Now imagine Chuck Palahniuk (who usually writes in first person), saying all third person narrated novels were going to go the way of the dodo. You can’t even imagine it, which is hopefully where the game industry will get to in a little while. :)

  • Patrick says:

    Whats funny about this, roughly a year ago I was postulated at doing episodic content with Storytron (its not really suited for that, but other drama engines are) and I was thinking very much along the middle line of authorship balanced with dynamics. I realized that the big pull there isn’t content that is represented in the game, like the different societies and species in Spore, but the social content between players as they compare notes and argue conspiracy theories, game morality, future character development and how they might differ dynamically, and so on. You see the same phenomena in anime subbing communities and in fan fiction. I clicked “its like its massively single-player.” I thought I was really clever.

    Will Wright is a really smart guy, but his plurous speaking opportunities slant his percieved mastery of the intellectual playing field.