The second day of AGDC was pretty fun, although perhaps not quite as informative as the first day. For me, the day started off with a lecture by Andrew Walsh on the topic of “On-Demand Storytelling” as it applied to Prince of Persia, subtitled “The Death of Linearity.” It seems that non-linear storytelling is all the rage these days, with all sorts of mechanisms for implementing it, some of which sound very creative. I have no idea if they work, though — or, if they do, how effective the resulting story is.
One thing that was clear from Walsh’s talk is that he falls on the side of those who support and promote the use of cutscenes, when used properly. I’m a cutscene fan myself, so that was good to hear. But at one point, Walsh hammered developers who allow cutscenes to be bypassed (like with a “skip” button), arguing that if you do that, you communicate to the player that the information in the cutscene is basically unimportant — and if that’s truly the case, you shouldn’t use a cutscene at all.
Interestingly, he later went on to describe the system of “on-demand storytelling” used in PoP, which essentially equates to “on-demand dialogue” (a term he actually uses in its place). Already, he’s simplifying storytelling to essentially just dialogue, which may very well be the case for PoP. But then he described a complex system where on-demand dialogue (ODD) is layered in multiple levels on top of the required main narrative; layers include narrative ODD, relationship ODD (dialogue pertaining only to the relationship between the player character and the main NPC), and ingredient and foundation ODD, which are essentially just extra dialogues at higher levels. The point is that all of this different dialogue is optional and available on-demand — if the player wants to explore the underlying story, he is given the ability to do this by basically spamming the “talk” button. But if he doesn’t care about it, he doesn’t have to hear any of it — the game can be played and finished without bothering with any of the “on-demand” stuff.
But what this is really saying is that most of the dialogue (and, by extension, story) in the game is optional. Really, how different is that from the concept of allowing players to bypass cutscenes with a “skip” button? Doesn’t this setup also communicate to players that the story is essentially meaningless and unimportant?
I won’t go into my thoughts about a dialogue system that consists entirely of mashing a single button.
After a fun keynote talk on the future of gaming, I took in a lecture on the creation of story in MMOs by James Portnow of Divide By Zero. I’m not an MMO player or fan, so I didn’t have a big stake in the discussion, but had a passing interest in some of the techniques used to create story in these player-driven environments. I didn’t take away much from the talk, except for a brief discussion about the use of “real DMs” for some games — a really interesting concept I hadn’t heard used before. Basically, he argued that, in some instances, using actual people to act as DMs in online game worlds — controlling NPCs, creating events, and so on — can be cost-effective for companies and transforming for players.
It’s a fascinating idea, although it’s hard to imagine for really large worlds; I’m not sure how people could handle the potential workload that would confront them, or the large number of people that would require.
The only other interesting talk I attended was by Dave Grossman fromTelltale Games on “Writing and Designing Episodic Games.” Grossman is a good speaker and his talk was well organized, and he provided some really good insight into Telltale’s philosophy and approach for series like Sam & Max. He also tried to describe how they address the issue of losing control of story event sequence and pacing in an interactive medium such as games, and outlined the algorithmic approach they take in constructing possible story pathways. All in all, an entertaining talk.
The approaches described by Grossman and Walsh reminded me to some extent of the techniques used by Emily Short and others to construct sophisticated conversation and narrative structure in IF, and for a moment it seemed like the mainstream games industry was finally starting to catch on to some of these concepts — somewhat. It just serves to reinforce my opinion that the games industry really can learn some things from the world of interactive fiction, if it would only take notice. Maybe next year that really would make a good lecture or roundtable — I’ll have to consider submitting that.
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Hear hear — I agree that the games industry could stand to learn a lot from current IF. So could the mainstream academic scholarship of gaming, but fortunately there are already plenty of examples of that going on right now.