SAN FRANCISCO — Yesterday at the Game Developers Conference, Jeffrey Yohalem, the award-winning, Yale-educated game writer, gave a talk about his theory of gaming. Entitled "Method Acting and Interactive Storytelling in Far Cry 3," the speech made the case that game scribes ought to turn players into method actors, agents who have so thoroughly absorbed the motivations and biographical details of their characters that they become, while playing, nearly indivisible.
The speech was peppered with academic jargon and went long past the allotted 25 minutes for each presenter. As Yohalem pivoted to a defense of the maligned meta-narrative of Far Cry 3, the audience grew restless. The room grew tangibly uncomfortable as Yohalem continued to speak; it felt like a tomato-throwing atmosphere — and turned into one on Twitter as Yohalem continued to ramble.
At least one AAA game writer openly mocked Yohalem during his speech. Anthony Burch, who wrote last year's Borderlands 2, wrote on his Twitter, "You know that part of 2001 when the guy sees the shape of the universe and ages 100 years? That's what watching Jeffrey Yohalem talk is like."
To be sure, Yohalem's talk was at times confused, pedantic (it featured a slide called "The Final Meaning"), and even condescending. It was also fascinating and full of interesting ideas. So what gives? Aren't fascinating, at times infuriating contradictions what people want from their creatives? Why did the audience at the most prestigious professional development conference in the industry publicly excoriate one of their own?
When it comes to writing video games, it turns out, everyone has got a better idea.
The Yohalem talk was part of GDC's "Game Narrative Summit," and to sit through a handful of these sessions — frankly, to sit through a single talk in which the writer compares game writing to Strasbergian acting — is to realize that there is nothing like a consensus when it comes to writing video games. There are the highfalutin theorists like Yohalem, the game culture smart alecks like Burch, the DaVinci Code and Western Civ-devouring historical fictioneers like Assassin's Creed 3 writer Corey May, the choice-tree-branch-wavers at BioWare, the science-fiction fans at 343 and Visceral, and the tearjerkers at TellTale. One thing they all have in common: No one thinks any of these approaches have come close to cracking the potential of game narrative.
No less an eminence than Warren Spector, creator of the legendary Deus Ex, said as much in a talk on Monday. His two-word take on the state of game narrative?
Spector argued that for game writing to grow out of a painful adolescence, it had to move beyond its indebtedness to the other media: television, cinema, radio, literature. He also admitted that he had no idea how to do so.
"I wish I had answers to any of these things. You have the opportunity, 30 years after the creation of this medium, to determine what it is going to become."
There's a problem, though, with Spector's assertion. The best game story of the past year, in TellTale's game The Walking Dead, is based on a graphic novel and full of filmic and comic-book devices. It's also an adventure game, linear and full of dialog, perhaps the most straightforwardly narrative genre in gaming, and the closest to a film or a novel. In most games, the writer has significantly less control over the direction of his or her players, a lesson that game writers are starting to take to heart.
If there is any common philosophical ground around game writing, it probably has to do with the humble realization that writing, in games, has to play a supporting role to the way the player interacts with the game. Last week, in an interview with The New Yorker, the journalist-turned-Gears of War: Judgment-writer Tom Bissell reflected on the lessons learned from actually scripting a AAA game:
Pure storytelling is never going to be the thing that games do better than anything. Games are primarily about a connection between the player, the game world, and the central mechanic of the game. They're about creating a space for the player to engage with that mechanic and have the world react in a way that feels interesting and absorbing but also creates a sense of agency. So writing, in games, is about creating mood and establishing a basic sense of intent. The player has some vague notion of what the intent of the so-called author is, but the power of authorship is ultimately for the player to seize for him or herself. This goes for any kind of game. I think good game writing is a process of getting out of the player's way. You give him or her just enough to work with narratively, but ultimately you let the player tell his or her own story.
This idea, that story should supplement gameplay, and not vice versa, has started to affect even the most heavily plotted AAA games. In a Monday talk, Corey May, the Assassin's Creed 3 writer, talked about just this: "There is a myth that story drives narrative to damage mission design. I literally take the mission design document and copy and paste it into our script-writing software. Every single line of mission design becomes part of the script. That is the skeleton and backbone that I work off of. The final script of the game is an amalgam of my own writing and the script of the mission designer."
Some game makers have started to take this a step further, and let all game narrative arise out of the mechanical limitations of their games. In their talk "Storytelling as Problem Solving," game developers James Cavin and Lars Doucet explained how in the writing of their game Defender's Quest, they made a painstaking list of the game's systems and wrote their story according to the logic of those rules. For example, because Defender's Quest's genre demands a never-ending stream of regenerating enemies, Cavin and Doucet made those enemies zombies because, of course, they come back from the dead.
The idea is to write a game story that never distracts the players from their experience with the game. And frankly, that sounds an awful lot like what Jeffrey Yohalem described yesterday: a philosophy of game writing that draws the player in so deeply that they start to conflate the game experience with their own. I couldn't believe, yesterday, that Yohalem failed to point out that the word for a Shakespearean actor is, of course, "player." If you put aside the professor-speak, most of these approaches to game narrative arrive at the same old goals: immersion and identification with character, that feeling when a three-hour movie ends and you haven't blinked, or when you've read 300 pages without looking up from your book.
Gaming may be our newest medium, but when its stories succeed, it feels more than a little like the past.