Next Generation Storytelling

In a recent article for the Escapist Magazine, Warren Spector argues that storytelling had better catch up with the graphics etc or else games are not going to get better… he writes :

“In the short term, at least, next-gen hardware will allow us to make prettier games (at great cost) but not better games, and there’s nothing inherent in the hardware that makes better stories more or less likely.

What Do We Do About It?
Those of you who know me – or know my games – know I can’t have just one endgame. That’s too limiting for players.

Similarly, I can’t have just one conclusion to this article. Buckle up, read on and pick the conclusion that best fits your prejudices and beliefs.

Conclusion 1
Stories have been around forever. The success of story games tells me current players are vitally interested in them and will reward us for taking story games to greater heights.

But we want to look beyond current gamers to the vastly larger potential audience of (current) non-gamers – an audience we have no chance of attracting if all we have to offer are prettier, louder versions of what we’ve done before.

To grow our audience to match our ballooning next-gen development and marketing costs, we have to broaden the range and increase the quality of stories we tell. We need to lure people in with things that are familiar and comforting, and we must take interaction out of the realm of the abstract and into an area they already understand – emotionally satisfying stories about recognizable people, stories that illuminate and enrich their lives.


We need outsiders, indie developers, academics, two guys in a garage somewhere, to point us in new directions, to show us a new way to involve players in stories and take this medium to a new level. And there are academics, researchers and even some expatriate game developers like Chris Crawford working on some cool stuff. Frankly, a lot of industry types, even the most creative industry types, look askance at the work of the outsiders, but I’m finding myself more and more drawn to the schemes some of these guys are coming up with.

When you find yourself reading whitepapers and interviews and such with these guys, and feeling more kinship with folks with the letters “P,” “H” and “D” after their names than you do when you hear what your peers have to say, there’s something weird going on. I’ve been arguing for years that industry and academia need to work more closely together and this – the need to develop tools for collaborative and truly interactive storytelling – seems like a great opportunity to do so.

I’m not going to pretend to understand how universities work, but I kind of get that academics have as profound a need to find funding as game developers. I believe there are, however, a couple of things they don’t have to worry about – commercial success and 12- to 36-month development windows. And that positions them pretty much perfectly to tackle hard problems that will take a long time to solve – longer than we industry-types can afford to devote.

We’re already seeing some of this in the work of folks like Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, Chris Crawford, Ken Perlin and Katherine Isbister (and others I’m sure I’ve just offended by not mentioning them). These people are asking great questions, tackling many of the right problems and making some progress.

Even if you think these guys are nuts, or their belief in procedural storytelling is misguided, or their specific approach is a dead end, you have to respect the fact they’re tackling hard problems. You have to respect their audacity and their commitment. And I, at least, respect them for looking further downfield for their inspiration than developers typically can. Even our most “out there” story efforts are still mired in action-movie tropes – our rallying cry might as well be “Let’s make an interactive Star Wars! Yeah!”

The Outsiders are looking to Moby Dick, to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, to Scenes from a Marriage. That takes chutzpah of a sort I find sorely lacking in even the most daring “insider” efforts to transform storytelling in games. These guys may strike out, but they’re swinging for the fences, and to a guy another of whose mottoes is “Fail gloriously!” that’s worth a lot.”

That makes me – an academic who loves games – feel like I’m not wasting my career with this obsession…