The things we did and didn’t say
I’ve never really learnt to be careful when I have a mike in my hand. Not because I’m some sort of rebel, just because I came to public speaking rather late. It’s got me in trouble a couple of times before, but now I know to be extra careful when there’s press in the room.
Last Tuesday I spoke (along with Charles Cecil, David Varela, Adrian Hon – Patrick O’Luanaigh moderating) on a panel called ‘New Stories, New Platforms’ at Develop in Brighton. We had a fun natter about the way storytelling is changing and should change in games. I waved my usual flag for strong storytelling in social/casual games, and plugged Echo Bazaar and Varytale like a Dutch plumber.
What I didn’t realise is that next door our evil twins were running a panel called ‘Are AAA games too long?’, where they plotted the demolition of long-form CRPGs in order to fatten their wallets with the blood of real gamers… or something. You can read about that panel here: http://uk.gamespot.com/news/6324422/are-aaa-games-too-long … The piece isn’t too bad, actually, bar a rather cavalier attitude to context and a focus on the bits where I said ‘fuck’. But the 16-page comment thread,where people tell each other how much they loved Planescape: Torment and casual gamers don’t get it, is pretty sanity-blasting stuff. (note: most of FBG loves Torment.)
To be clear about this. I don’t have a problem with long games (Deus Ex, possibly my favourite AAA game of all time, is 40 hours or something). I do think that stories in games often bloat with self-consciously epic importance, partly because of our industry’s colossal inferiority complex about being Real Art or The Next Big Medium. I think many AAA games would benefit from the developer being forced at the last minute to go in and pick two talky cut-scenes to excise. I think that audience patience with exposition is at even more of a premium in games than it is in films or books, and some developers still don’t get that.
Here’s some things we actually said.
Charles Cecil made the point that it used to be possible to assume everyone who played games was up for a 20-hour-plus marathon. Given the immense broadening of the gaming audience (social gamers, casual gamers, people with small children… my mum), this is no longer the case. Devs need to provide for a variety of different tastes. I jumped in and pointed out that games – particularly social / casual games – benefit from having microfictional, coffee-break-sized narrative chunks that people can enjoy as individual episodes without needing to commit to a whole arc… but which can then be layered up to make a series of larger narratives that more engaged or hard-core players can enjoy. Which, plug plug plug, is what we do with Echo Bazaar.
I also stole Russell Davies’ gag about Jason Bourne again and pointed out that ‘roleplayer’ isn’t a binary flag. Nearly everyone engages in some degree of personal fantasy. We as game designers do well to cater to to the whole continuum of enjoyable pretending, from players who just about take the Big Final Branch in a CRPG seriously enough to think about it for five seconds, all the way through to players who agonise over every clothing choice and write in-character diaries. Even the most enthusiastic roleplayers know it’s just a game really (or they have problems), even the most casual and dismissive non-RPers are imaginatively active in some sense (or they really don’t have any imagination). It’s all good. Let’s support all of it.
Oh, and I did the bit about fantasies of failure: that there’s only so far you can go, creatively, with another successful bit of kingdom-saving, and that a lot of the best stories begin or end with something really appalling happening to someone. Not for everyone, no. But let’s spread our wings a bit.
These are all things I’ve said before. I did also go off on one about Heavy Rain – that it’s a shame to see all that ingenuity squandered on a hack serial killer plot, that it takes the wrong lessons from films, that it’s meandering and flabby and would work better at half the length, that killing a player-character is about the least interesting thing you can do to fork a narrative. With hindsight I probably wouldn’t have compared ‘narratives that take the wrong lessons from films’ to ‘botched bastard things like the baboon Jeff Goldblum turned inside out in The Fly.’ But it got a bit of a laugh.
Anyway. I’ve now started getting unsolicited email from people explaining to me that actually, real gamers love long games, and it’s bloodsuckers like me are spoiling it for the hardcore tribe. Once I’ve blogged this, at least I’ll have a link to point them to. It’s a bit rambling, isn’t it? Sorry about that. Any questions, do ask below. Any newcomers, do please check the comments policy at the top right before you go weapons-free.