What if a game's legacy weren't its set pieces or its graphics, but the issues and choices players make. For people like Warren Spector, such a thing is the Holy Grail - and, he says, there's no reason we can't do it...
Does linear narrative in games not appeal to you?
Well, interaction is the thing – it’s what we do, right? It’s the one thing that sets us apart. What passes for interaction in the game business 98 per cent of the time is an illusion, and the reality is that we have enough computing power and we have enough software knowledge that we can actually create truer interaction than we could in the past. When I see people faking it – choices that don’t mean anything, choices that have no consequences, choices where the game will keep bumping you back until you make the right one, games that allow you to see every branch of every crummy conversation tree because every word is a gem, as if you wanted to go down even one branch of a conversation tree – I just can’t deal with that.
Really giving players power over how a story unfolds is the ultimate grail. There are baby steps we need to take along the way, and there are people taking those steps, but by and large people are still in the movie mindset. As soon as I hear of scripted moments that provide incredible emotional punch, and as soon as I go on forums and read every person saying ‘Wasn’t it cool when character X jumped across that chasm?’ all I want to do is scream. If every player is doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time, it’s not a game. Go make a movie and get out of my medium.
Not a fan of the cut-scene, then?
I think cut-scenes have their value: they’re valuable as player rewards, and there are certain things that, because we’re still young as a medium, we don’t know how to solve in an interactive storytelling context and so it’s important to communicate that in cinematic ways. There’s value in cut-scenes, but they are dramatically over-used. But the real point I’m trying to make isn’t that cut-scenes are bad, it’s that what passes for the interactive parts of most games might as well be cut-scenes.
You had multiple endings in the original Deus Ex – what was the reasoning behind that, and did it just make things awkward when it came to the sequel?
We talked a lot about it, and a bunch of people on the team didn’t want to do it, and I just thought ‘No, we have to do it’. The whole game is about player choice, it’s not about defeating the boss monster, it’s about ‘Who are you as a human? As a player? What do you think is important? What’s right and wrong as you define it?’ So to tie things up with a neat little bow and say ‘this is the true ending’ seemed like it’d be dishonest. And in the end games in Deus Ex, not one of them revolved around defeating the bad guy to save the world, which is The Game Story.
It was about how important free will is in a dangerous world. Is the world better off plunged into a dark age, where no-one is connected and everybody is free, or is the world better off with people giving up personal freedom and free will but everyone is completely connected and understands one another perfectly? Which of those is a better world? Well, I’ve seen people argue about that, I’ve been in arguments about that, and it’s nothing to do with ‘Wasn’t it cool when character X jumped across that chasm and planted three bullets in the face of that enemy’ – it was more ‘How could you possibly think the world could be better off like that?’
Frankly, that’s the coolest thing about Deus Ex to me. Everything else is secondary. The fact that people could have that kind of conversation as a result of experiencing a story through gameplay, that’s what made the game special. Regardless of anything, that’s got to be the hallmark of my games – that’s what makes our medium cool and potentially something really great.
I hope the players see that – I hope they don't get bogged down and go ‘Eww! Disney!’ That’s just stupid. I’m hoping people get past that and see that the core of all what I’m all about is still there, is untouchable and unshakable.
Is this interactive narrative ‘Holy Grail’ something that Disney’s vast history of storytelling can help you with?
Yeah – one of the reasons that Disney and Junction Point are such a good fit is that Junction Point is all about player-driven, character-driven storytelling games, and Disney is all about character-driven movies, rides, plays, you name it. So it’s certainly becoming less difficult to convince people in the games industry that stories are important, but here it’s not even a discussion, it’s assumed that you’re going to tell a story.
On top of that, without getting into specifics of what we might or might not be working on, one of the other appeals for me is that we have access to not only all of the IP that Disney has created should we want to take advantage of that, but there’s this vast treasure trove of archive material – I mean, every memo that Walt Disney ever wrote about the Snow White story is still there. So we have Walt Disney teaching us how to tell stories – that ain’t bad!
I’ve made sure that we’re really plugged into to people at feature animation, and I’m trying to weasel my way into Pixar, because I want to learn from those guys. There’s an immense amount that I can learn from these guys. The people I get to sit at tables with now and chat with and brainstorm with is, for a fanboy, the most over-the-top cool thing in the world.
Plus, I’ve got about 85 DVDs of noted Disney luminaries over the years talking about how Disney tells stories, how to animate characters, how you model in 3D – it’s all this stuff that nobody but Disney employees get to see. Disney didn’t become the pop cultural force in the world that it is without knowing something, you know? It’s intense; it’s the coolest thing in the world.