Against Warren Spector!Complications Ensue
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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Oh, not really. He's an important figure in the history of video games. He's made important innovations and great games. We're lucky to have him.

Warren Spector
But I disagree with Warren Spector's evangelism for blank player characters and against linear narrative in games.

For those of you who don't know the name (you're not in the game biz, are you?), Warren Spector is famous for the Deus Ex game franchise, which gave players different ways to confront each challenge. You can stealth your way through a Deux Ex game. You can shoot your way. You can talk your way through a lot of it. You can ghost your way through it, being so stealthy that no one even knows you were there. Point is, you have "problems" that can be solved different ways, not "puzzles" that you must solve the way the designer intended.

I met Warren yesterday because I was asked to interview him as part of his master class on Game Narrative. It was to some extent an expanded version of this GDC talk of his.

After the class, we got to arguing, a bit. Not unpleasantly so, because we both agree (as New Yorkers tend to) that the shortest path to the truth is an argument. 

Warren believes that games should strive to give the players room to express themselves through their gameplay. So if you like killin' dudes, you should be able to do that. If you like stealthing, you should be able to do that. 

And that's a great way to make a game. (Assuming the studio can afford it.) 

But Warren draws the conclusion that, therefore, the game designer must not tell you too much about the player character. We can't say the main character is shy; what if he beds everyone he meets. Can't say he's kind; what if he shoots everyone? Can't say he's bloodthirsty; what if the player is doing a nonlethal playthrough? The personality of the player may be at odds with the personality of the player character.

Underlying his point of view is the axiom that the player character isn't really a character, he's you. He's a blank slate on which you write your own personality. So on Deus Ex, for example, the voice actor was literally asked to speak in a monotone, sort of robotic voice.

It is a common notion in games that the player is you. And therefore, in the last Dragon Age, although you are always the savior of the world, you can be different races and different character classes, and you can call yourself by different names, and you can make your character look more or less like you. Fallout 4, same thing, you pick a name and a gender, you pick or mold a face, etc. These games give you room to express yourself buy picking who you are going to be. So avoid giving you any information that might contradict that. 

But I don't want to be the character. I want a relationship with the character. I want to know who he or she is. I'm not going to care about him or her unless I do. 

The many successful narrative games with well-defined heroes suggest that I'm not the only player who'd rather have a relationship than "be" the main character.

Of all media, only games let you actively join the fun. You can identify with the hero of a book, but you can't change what he does. You can interpret that R2D2 and Chewbacca are the real heroes of Star Wars, but Luke is always going to blow up the Death Star. You can't change who Harry Potter is

An axiom of Warren's, I think, is that because there are certain things only games can do, games should only do those things. 

Now, Warren acknowledges that games that don't let you express yourself are not only common, but often very fun, and indeed, he likes playing Telltale Games' Walking Dead; he's the first to admit he has the Walking Dead games on his laptop. 

But he doesn't want to make such games;and he feels these games are inherently inferior. He feels they're not doing everything that games can do. He calls them "Low Expression" games, as opposed to "High Expression" games like Madden Football and The Sims, where the outcome is all the player's. 

I don't buy purist arguments in general, and I don't buy this one. 

One way we engage with the main character in a game is by making choices for him or her. But it is not the only way. There is another. 

See, in movies and TV we learn the exact opposite idea about main characters. They should be as distinct, and precise, and human as possible. We should give him or her specific flaws and a specific past. 

But won't that alienate people who are different from the main character? 

Why, no, because we have the capacity to engage with other people.

Normal human beings have what are called "mirror neurons." They fire when we see another human being go through pain or joy or injustice or whatever. When we see someone take a bad fall, we don't just intellectually know that's going to hurt; we actually feel a bit of the pain. We feel it, we don't think it. Our nerves are actually firing. 

So when Indiana Jones gets the snot knocked out of him, we feel it. And when he kisses the girl, we feel it. 

And when the very disabled kids in this video feel joy, well, I defy you not to feel it too.  (Trigger warning: disabled people feeling joy.):

But our mirror neurons only fire when the individual feeling the feeling is real to us. We can care about a dog or an alien, but our mirror neurons don't fire when a ten ton weight falls on the head of a cartoon character. We laugh. Hah hah, ten ton weight!

The less distinct, and precise, and well-observed, and flawed, and real a character is the less we care about him or her. Cartoons make us laugh, but the more cartoonish they are, the less we are really moved by their predicaments. "Everyman" characters get tedious fast. Saints get tedious immediately, in a story.

That's why, in Casablanca, we care about Rick, not Victor Laszlo. Victor Laszlo is set up as a genuine hero. He gets the crowd to sing the Marseillaise. He's escaped from concentration camps. He doesn't get bent out of shape about how his beautiful young wife obviously had an affair while he was in one of those camps. 

He doesn't feel real. 

Meanwhile, Rick is wounded, and cynical, and angry. He sticks his neck out for no man. He's a bastard to the woman he loves; he calls her a whore (that's what that "tinny piano" crack means). 

And we engage with him, and we care about him, not the hero-saint in the white jacket.

I submit that the reason The Last of Us worked so well was because both Joel and Ellie were very real, flawed people. Ellie was mouthy and sullen and ungrateful. Joel was cold and angry. 

So when I played Joel, I cared about Joel. I am not Joel. I do have a daughter, but she was not killed by soldiers during a zombie pandemic. But I can relate.

And when I played the kid in Papo & Yo, well, I am not a kid from a Latin American ghetto. I'm a privileged white dude from the Upper West Side.  But I had a relationship with that kid. He was real to me. I can relate to his worries about Papo. 

So, I believe, even in games, Warren, we storytellers create emotional engagement by creating very specific and real and human-feeling player characters. I think when people play Arthur in We Happy Few, they're going to feel what he's feeling. They are going to feel engaged, not because he's a blank slate, but because he isn't one, and because Alex Wyndham brings all of his amazing wit and humanity to the role.

And I don't feel that much engagement with Corvo in Dishonored. I don't feel his pain. I enjoy the fantasy of being a magical ninja, but how many players feel the pain when their character is shot up and bleeding? I don't really engage with Captain Shepherd in Mass Effect because he's a heroic stiff. 

I think there are two ways to engage with player characters in games, and they are both one hundred percent legit. 

I was in a Live Action Role Playing group in the 90's. Some people used their characters to play an upgraded, upgunned, richer, faster, sexier version of themselves. Some people used their character to play someone who was decidedly not themselves.

See, playing someone who is not you can be freeing. A lot of people play games for escapism. If you're playing a version of yourself, you're not escaping as far as you are if you're playing a well-defined character. Playing John Marston frees you to be an Old West gunslinger whose solutions to most problems is shooting someone. Playing Ezio frees you to assassinate people. 

When you read a novel, you can imagine your way into Huck Finn's skin, or Ebenezer Scrooge, or Ishmael, or Elisabeth Bennet. Or you can watch a movie and imagine your way into Han Solo's vest, or Slayer Leia's bikini. 

Why do you think people cosplay? 

Warren's argument is that only games can allow you to be yourself in imaginary circumstances. But games can allow you to be someone else. Just because other media do this doesn't mean games shouldn't.

Games are becoming a dominant art form. By that I mean the form to which artists turn by default. In Shakespeare's time, if you wanted to express yourself, you wrote a poem or a play. In Jane Austen's time, you wrote a poem or a novel. In the early 20th Century, you wrote a novel or a screenplay. In the tail end of the 20th Century, you wrote a screenplay or a TV show. Now my writer friends want to write cable TV shows, and only if the idea doesn't lend itself to that do they consider writing a movie, and only if that's just not plausible do they consider writing a novel. 

Sure, people still put on plays. But it's a niche form. You'd only write a play if that idea really only lends itself to people performing in a ritual space with the audience present. 

In Shakespeare's time, people wrote poems at the drop of a hat. These days you'd only express yourself in poetry if that's really the only way you could communicate what you have to say. (Or, if you have very little to communicate, and you're afraid of being found out. Contemporary poetry is great for that.) 

If you're working in a niche art form, you have to justify yourself. Why is this a play? Why is this a poem? If you're working in a dominant art form, you don't. In Shakespeare's day, of course you were writing poems. Every educated person did. Good Queen Bess wrote poetry herself. 

Theoretically We Happy Few could be a TV show. Theoretically it could be a movie. But games are a dominant art form, so we don't go to TV first. We make a narrative game.

The underlying assumption behind Warren's argument is that games need to justify themselves by doing the things that only games can do. I'm saying games don't need to justify themselves at all. That's for niche art forms; for media that are past their sell-by. Sure, in some sense, The Last of Us could be regarded as a movie in which you kill zombies in order to advance to the next scene. So what? The guys who made it didn't want to make a movie. They wanted to make a game. Dominant art forms don't need to justify themselves. 

And to the extent The Last of Us is a game, it takes advantage of that additional bit of identification we get with the hero that passive entertainment can't give. Because you do have a different relationship with a player character than you do with Mr. Hiro Protagonist in a novel. You are engaging actively in the gameplay, even when the storytelling is linear. So when Joel makes his big choice at the end of the game, you are a little bit closer to owning that choice yourself. Which makes it all the more shocking.

There is nothing wrong with games that are the artistic expression of the game maker, rather than the expression of the player. There is nothing wrong with Papo & Yo

There better not be, because while We Happy Few will have expressive gameplay, the narrative is made up of things I wrote and directed and edited, and the player can't change any of them. The interlocking stories only end one way. The player characters are as well defined as I know how to make them. They make choices for you that I made for them. You will feel for them, you will be pissed off at them, you will identify with them, I believe, not in spite of their flaws but because of them. And maybe you'll identify with them even a little more because you play them. 

A story is a:
  1. Character we care about
  2. who has an opportunity, problem or goal
  3. who faces obstacles, antagonists, and/or a personal flaw
  4. who has something to lose
  5. and something to gain.
You can't tell a strong story if you refuse to tell your audience who the main character is. 

So I believe we can call some games Player Expressive games, and some games Designer Expressive games, and they're both valuable and righteous and good.

So I call shenanigans on Warren, innovator and cool game-maker that he is.

Shenanigans, I say!


Modern implementations of narrative in games have only managed to contribute to the dumbing down of games. Everything is shoveled down your gullet at the expense of player choice. Ultimately, it's writers justifying their salaries. They get to choose what happens, not the player, so that their jobs are much more secure.

Games would ideally explore what you can do with player agency (gameplay) instead of falling back to being movies.

Fallout 4's conversation system is one of these fallbacks. Four choices all badly voice-acted. Congratulations if you can relate to any of it.

More "games" should ask themselves if their gameplay is geniunely engaging, or if it's just filler between cutscenes. If it's affecting your vision, then strip it out. There's nothing wrong with making your game one long cutscene.

By Blogger Max Munro, at 3:06 PM  

You will find it very interesting to read up on gamification if you haven't. When I first heard about gamification of business applications of computers I thought it was a completely stupid idea, but then I read about the concepts of gamification as they have now evolved and decided that this could be a major wave.

By Blogger SteveHovland, at 11:24 AM  

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