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Deus Ex Creator: Uncharted, TWD and Heavy Rain Fail to Make the Most of Video Game Medium

Warren Spector

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.”

The Walking Dead

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”.

Header photo by Moody College of Communication. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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  • TwinspectreGaming101

    all i can say is I AGREE WITH WARREN

  • phar0ahad3

    i RESPECT you sir for finding this creative way to market your game smart idea throw some shade bring some attention so when the story doesnt match up well all just say oh i guess he didnt know what he was talking about but atleast theyll get some sales because the gameplay is solid i love deus ex fun game but the story has never been the main point…

    • TwinspectreGaming101

      because you need to write the story and not follow the story like a movie

      • Travis Morton

        Name a game that allows you to write the story?

        • TwinspectreGaming101

          suuuree it is a pleasure, Half Life, Medievil, ResidentEvil, Deus Ex, System Shock, Tomb Raider (classics), Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong series, Metroid series, Twisted Metal games, Thief, SilentHill, Doom, QUake, DukeNukem, Nightmare Creatures, Souls games if you want i can go on and on

          these games are NOT story driving

          • Travis Morton

            MediEvil has cutscenes with story just like Uncharted. Basically all the games you are listing have stories just with no direction to the next level other than a map. Not having a story does not make it better than a game with story.

            Also I hate games that require a walkthrough to even understand what to do or go.

          • TwinspectreGaming101

            cutscenes should be a form of rewards because in Medievil you don’t have cutscenes every 5 minutes just like Uncharted, today games have more cutscenes and this is ridiculous i don’t know why mr.Warren didn’t mention the Order1886 where some chapters were only cutscenes
            back in the days cutscenes were only for reward, but now we have a game that tries to emulate a movie filled with cutscenes

            in Medievil you have a cutscenes when you complete some levels(for example every 5 levels), now a game has a cutscenes when a level start, mid level and when you beat a level too much cutscenes these days and the same story goes for other games i listed you had a cutscenes when you beat some levels

          • John Mark

            Souls games not story driven? Uh….wat?

          • DocHolidae

            They aren’t. Like at all. They have a neat story if you’re willing to dig for it, but in no way are the souls games reliant upon their story to do what they do. It’s not uncommon for someone to play through the entirety of a Souls game and take very little story away with them. But that’s kind of what’s neat about their style of storytelling.

          • TwinspectreGaming101

            what are you playing?
            they give us just an introduction that’s it
            you don’t have cutscenes all over the place

    • erthos

      Signed up for Disqus just to upvote you, good sir.

      It’s a sad day when one of the most objectively influential game designers of the last 25 years resorts to throwing around these kind of pseudo-opinions just to get his brand back in the limelight.

      • phar0ahad3

        Thanks for the upvote good sir but thats whats happening to the industry corruption everywhere……..thats what happens when western companies take over gaming i wish it would go back to a japanese ran industry…………

  • brian0057

    When one of the makers of the Holy Trinity of Game Design comprised of Thief, System Shock and Deus Ex says that your game is basically a movie with little to no interactivity, you know you’re doing something wrong.

    Between the restrictive linearity and the “totally not Indiana Jones” story from Uncharted 2 and the god-like level design and player agency mixed with a genocidal techno-cult hell bent on wash away the imperfection of all organic life from Thief II: The Metal Age, there is simply no contest.

    • brian577

      Since when is there only one right way to make a video game? We can have both ways, that is what is great about games, the possibilities and the ways the stories can be told are endless.

    • Varg2015

      When the maker of some games say makers of other types of games are bad, he’s right? That’s a ridicilous statement.

      • brian0057

        It is a valid statement. Thief, System Shock and Deus Ex = Good. Uncharted and The Last of Us = Bad.

        • Varg2015

          I void it. It’s the other way around. (Except I didn’t like the first Uncharted so much)

  • TwinspectreGaming101

    i’m seeing for the so called gamer is hard to understand the difference between Writing the Story and Following the Story

  • James Clark

    I really don’t understand what point he’s trying to make unless I have mis-understood something. Games cover such a wide breadth of experiences, why would we want to limit ourselves to one type?? Sometimes I like to experience a linear Uncharted style game which has sub-par gameplay but excellent presentation value, sometimes I like to play games like more open-ended games like Wolfenstein that are mindless fun in terms of gameplay but not as engaging. I do agree that gaming is stuck in a bit of a rut though, budgets are getting higher and I feel like more companies are playing it safe.

    • NimbusStev

      That’s the whole point he’s making though – to allow your games to cover that wide breadth of experiences. He’s saying that games need to do a better job of giving us player driven narratives.

      Maybe you walked into that room of enemies only to realize you forgot to reload first. Or maybe you swung your melee weapon at a guy but missed and hit the wall instead. These are super specific instances that might happen to you while playing a game, and Warren is saying that developers should be better incorporating those subtle events into their narrative.

      When you look at Deus Ex for example, there are always multiple ways to do just about anything in the game. The game doesn’t necessarily present you with “here’s a decision: choose black or white.” Instead it naturally weaves these choices directly into your gameplay and changes circumstances as you progress. There is so much untapped potential to make games like that that are more immersive and engaging, and I think that’s where designers should really focus.

      • games4gamers

        TLOU is an incredibly well crafted and riveting experience and even if not everyone thinks so a TON of people will agree and theres a lot of value to that. Theres great value in an story that was carefully developed by someone else. Of course I want to see more games that let me craft my own story and do things my way but not at the expense of experiencing someone else’s fantastic story. Its absurd to suggest that the people who want to make these types of games should do something else. Before anyone says “then go watch a movie”, the options dont have to be 100% agency and 0% agency. Plain and simple people love to play these games and to say people should stop making them is a stupid thing to say.

        • Fool Angel

          Agreed. I think the industry needs to recognise that the average age of gamers isn’t 15 any more.. and that unlike in the past, the breadth of age groups is a lot wider. What does that mean? It means that gamers don’t (usually) live in a bubble, and that they are also consumers of films, Tv drama, and loads of other media so the bar for what is considered satisfying, engaging and so forth is not just set within the gaming world, the audiences are broader than ever and so is there diet of art and entertainment. This choice and the higher numbers of gamers over 30yo means that they are also more sophisticated than maybe they once were, have more mature tastes and can handle a little more ambiguity than most designers give them credit for and want a diffierent kind of challenge than button mashing.
          Tastes will always be different, but appetites for more will only grow larger.

  • hvd hvd

    lol look at the but hurt ps4 fanbuys…lol

  • John Mark

    Just goes to show how out of touch this guy is with gaming nowadays.

  • Fool Angel

    I respect his comments, and in fact I even partly agree with him – to an extent.
    But, while he is right to highlight what gaming has that is unique – shared authorship – and that games can do things that movies cannot do, I feel he is missing a massive trick when it comes to storytelling.

    In my opinion, it is better (by which I mean more enjoyable and satisfying) to play a game that has limited choice and a powerful, affecting and engrossing story that you care about – than playing a game in some thin, 2-dimensional, bland, pointless and dull world with no engaging characters or stories but within which I have full cotnrol to act as I please (naturally within the scope of the game in question).

    Now, I know he’s not saying that it’s one or the other but I think that what he’s missing is that games like Uncharted, Last of Us etc have learned a lot of the best bits from film & Tv about how to tell engaging stories, the power of likeable complex charaters, rich story worlds, snappy dialogue that bring these people alive and how to build relationship arcs for them over time – not to mention dramatic suspense, build and release and many other techniques to really make an audience care about the world, and the people wihtin it. The fact that they do it in a game where ther outcome is linear is perhaps not the pinnacle of interactivity but their success shows that matters of the heart triumph over matters of the head when it comes to stories – something that good filmmakers have been working out for over a century. Gaming while a large industry in financial terms is still in it’s infancy when it comes to storytelling and has a lot to learn but an exciting future.

    Most ‘sandbox’ worlds leave me with a cold feeling after I get over the initial fun of playing with the toys I have been provided because – like he alludes to in his comments – your choices are always limited in regards to the affect you can have on the world due to every scenario being pre-designed by someone – and when that is only blowing stuff up, or running around in an empty-feeling place then that soons grows tiresome.

    Frankly what he describes – true shared authorship – like any medium is always going to have limits, parameters that have to be set by somebody, but finding out where the sweet spot is for that, where you get the maximum ‘frisson’ of freedom to truly influence and the opportunity to discover something from another’s point of view, or psyche is perhaps the holy grail.

    Exactly HOW you build a world that has the best of both (depth and choice – or player agency) is a thorny question, and one worth exploring, absolutely – but don’t throw the storytelling baby out with the bathwater or else we end up with even more games where you can do everything but where none of it means anything.

  • Jason Mounce

    I’m getting tired of hearing people given Warren Spector the time of day, he’s a washed up nobody in todays’ age. He helped by making Deus Ex AT THE TIME….HOWEVER, he has lost touch with EVERYTHING to do with the industry that he may as well be compared to a senile old man who can’t adapt, just like how I don’t listen to the opinions of John Carmack, he does good with what he does as a coder, and for what he did in the industry, but what he can do for us Now? Not so much.

    Warren Spector, is a guy who blasted Square for ‘Not getting the vibe right of ‘His’ Deus Ex’ series by claiming that DEUS EX was not about killing at all. All the while he somehow forgot that he made a trailer that emphasized killing in his game.

    “”I thought the Mankind Divided trailer was pretty violence-o-rific, which bugged me a little. I mean, the DX game was never about killing stuff.”

    Says Warren.

    And then here’s a DX trailer:

    He is Gamings’ ‘Roger Ebert’ for a reason.

  • Moisés Berducido

    Waren Spector was righ; sure, some history improvement could mantain our interest in the game, but the main core and fundamental in a videogame is the GAMEPLAY, somthing Warren always priorize over history-telling. And I hate Heavy Rain, Thethallha The Walking Dead’s videogames, Beyond Two Souls and The Order. A frustrated movie director and badn script writers trying make a “interactive” novel. More and more game mechanics, and less story-focus

  • Varg2015

    Oooh, listen to this guy, he’s a famous game maker, his words are gold. No.. He has a strong opinion about interactive gaming, and make this bitter comment about that they should make movies instead. Shut up Deus Ex-creator. I’m not a fan of your games, but I loved Heavy Rain. Make your stuff and let others make their stuff. Go to your own office. Choo!