Update: Naughty Dog has offered a response to Spector’s criticism via community strategist Arne Meyer.
Veteran developer Warren Spector has encouraged designers to create more games than encourage player agency and ‘collaborative storytelling’, while singling out the likes of Uncharted, Heavy Rain and Telltale’s The Walking Dead for failing to make the most of the medium.
Opening his keynote at PAX Aus 2015 earlier today, the Deus Ex creator told the audience: “We are all part of a medium nothing else can do: collaborative storytelling. And I think it’s important that we embrace that capability.”
Spector, who has been involved in creating video games since 1990’s Wing Commander, used his presentation to remind both gamers and developers that video games are unique, and that we must look at them as ‘games as games’, rather than interactive movies. He outlined the unique advantages that video games have over other media, including the power to transport, immersiveness, participation and responsiveness – all of which can essentially boiled down to the fact that video gaming is a two-way medium that allows for ‘shared authorship’ and player choices that have real in-game consequences.
The seasoned designer re-iterated on several occasions that player experience and the ability to express themselves in a game should always comes first, adding to developers: “If all you want to do is show off how clever you are, get out of my medium! Go make a movie or something, because that’s what you should be doing.”
Spector then went on to break down video games into categories of low, medium and high expression. Joking that he was about to ensure that he never worked again, Spector cited Naughty Dog’s Uncharted as being an example of being a ‘low expression’ game. He said:
“It’s not that games like this are bad, but they limit your ability to interact with the game world, so the story can unfold the way the storyteller wants it to unfold.”
“You have very limited ability to express yourself; it’s about how do you accomplish a predetermined path to get to the next plot point.”
“It’s a great story – a better story than I’ll ever tell in a game – but it’s not a player story; it’s not your story.”
Moving on to ‘medium expression’ games, Spector said that they provide the player with the illusion of actually being able to do something unique, but that’s all it is: an illusion. The developer used Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain as examples of ‘medium expression’ titles. On TWD, he said:
“I love The Walking Dead, but the choices you have to make; they’re compelling choices… but they’re designer driven, not player driven. Every choice in a game like this has been pre-scripted and handwritten by a designer somewhere, and the effects of that choice have been predetermined by the developers.”
“There’s very limited stuff that players actually get to do.”
On Heavy Rain, he added:
“Heavy Rain is an amazing experience. They can tell great stories; better than I can tell in my life as a game developer. But they tell better stories because no player will ever do anything surprising or unaccounted for. They’re basically like five movie scripts all mashed together, and you’re just picking which script you’re telling at any given point in time.”
Spector went on to conclude that gaming was largely “in a rut”, with these so-called low and medium expression games not doing “a great job at exploiting what makes video games different”. While he considered a number of games to be ‘high expression’, including fighting games, Dishonored, Fallout, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and The Sims, Spector felt that designers on the whole could do more. In order to establish itself as a medium of the 21st century, he argued, video game developers must take advantage of the unique ‘collaborative storytelling’ opportunities provided by the medium in terms of emergent gameplay and greater player agency.
As for gamers, he added, they should “vote with their dollars” to ensure designers put their players’ experience ahead of showing off “how clever they are”.