GDC08: Surviving the war of words in 'The Future of Story' session

First off, kudos to the GDC organizers for putting such different-minded people together for "The Future of Story" panel, which ended up being an insightful and vitriolic debate. The panel, hosted by indie writer Deborah Todd, included Saber 3D's Matthew Karch and Michael Hall (Time Shift), Silicon Knights' Denis Dyack (Too Human), Eidos Montreal's Mary DeMarie (previously: Myst III, IV and Dungeon Siege), Matt Costello (7th Guest) and Director of id Software Tim Willits.

A focus of the panel was the the dichotomy of story and gameplay, with both Dyack and Karch taking opposing viewponts and everyone else scattered somewhat in the middle. Early on, Karch asserted his view that some genres don't need to value story as much, citing Call of Duty 4 as a game where no one cared about the story. Later, he summed his viewpoint up best saying, "My whole argument is, it doesn't need to be a story written by Steinbeck, it needs to be someone who just keeps the game moving on."

Said Dyack, "In five to ten years, there will not be a shoter genre. It's gonna be more literative -- horror, science fiction, etc." When Karch asked if Bruckheimer would go away (referencing the "high-octane" film producer), Dyack retorted that "He's McDonald's, thats what he is. and people love McD's." The back and forth continued, culminating in the following exchange:

Dyack: "We should still aspire to this. you could have bubble gum like, Transformers [the film] for example, but in the end its what entertains."

Karch: "I'll take bubble gum."
Costello provided the less heated, but still thought-provoking observations. "We all love oil refineries, but if we blow it up for a reason, for a purpose, it just magnifies that 100volt," he said near the beginning, and later, "I would argue doom has a story -- there are monsters that will kill you. And i think that's compelling."
When should writing be implemented and to what extent? DeMarie told an anecdote from when she worked "out of house" (not in the studio). "I'd work with the designer, we'd talk on the phone for hours, gong through the process, and he's day 'great, I'm going to take this in house to talk about it," she said. "Months later he'd call and say, 'We're good to go now, write the script, but oh yeah here are all the changes we made." DeMarie said she got frustrated and it's why she moved in hour to become a narrative lead at Eidos Montreal.

Hall and Karch noted that, while full time pay is good, a writer does not necessarily to be involved for the entire development process. "It'd be nice for everyone here to have full-time with benefits where you go to office and everyone's happy," said Hall, "but you gotta make a living, so it happens." Costello mentioned that out of house writers are beneficial in that those who excel at genres (i.e. horror) aren't tied to a single studio.

Karch noted that in many cases the story is supplementary to the game mechanic, whereas Dyack said the story precedes gameplay, like it purportedly did for Too Human. Those who start with mechanics are "fundamentally flawed," he said. "We didn't think about gameplay, technology, audio," he said, "all that came later. The central core was to entertain."

De Marie asserted that game mechanic can come first, and given the clever Portalthat came out this year, we're inclined to agree. Said Willits, before Rage, "we actually started a new game that John [Carmack] had great technology ideas for. The game story and design of that was not working with the title. So we talked with Matt [Costello] and he had to fundamentally change the game design to fit with that."

How far is technology? Karch said that gaming haven't scrapped the surface on the technological possibilities. "We're still cavemen in that regard," he said. "If you want to tell a good story, it's only going to be possible when you think the people you see are real people. that's technology." Dyack (and later Hall) described the advancements of technology as a curve. "However," said Dyack, "society is reaching perceptual threshold where they don't tell it as much."

Hall provided an amusing moment when he said, "I think we're damn close to the ceiling. how close are you to photorealistic. Show of hands," he said, pointing to the audience. One, maybe tow hands show up. "We're not real close, well okay," he quipped to a room of laughter.

The concluding moments led to one of the funniest exchanges between Dyack and Karch, with the latter providing the zinger. In talking about integrating interactivity into cinema-like storytelling, the two argued over whether it was possible. Said Dyack, "Many people thought it wasn't possible with what we're doing with Too Human but you can play it yourself," to which Karch replied, "when it comes out I'll be happy to," referencing the decade-long development cycle. Burn.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.