Warren Spector says gaming can only borrow and steal so much from other narrative media

In a far-ranging talk bursting beyond its 25-minute running time, newly unemployed game designer Warren Spector discussed the "role, forms, problems, and potential" of narrative in games, beginning with a simple question: "What can we learn from other narrative media?"

First, Spector asked the audience to excuse his often declarative statements, for example suggesting that there are right or wrong ways to make successful games. "In those cases, just assume I'm exaggerating to make a point, or a really bad joke, or both," he said, laughing. He pointed out that his two favorite games of last year were The Walking Dead and Heavy Rain ("I came to Heavy Rain pretty late," he admitted) though both contradict some of what he presented.

"Why is it important to not be too judgmental?" Spector asked. "It's important because imitating other media seems to be a natural, even necessary stage in every new medium's development."

He began by discussing how some other media have done this. "Movies started out emulating theater, of course," he said, playing clips of early movies borrowing from the theatrical expectations that preceded them. "It took a fair amount of time, a decade or even more than a decade [...] before the techniques of cinematic storytelling came into widespread use."

Once they were in widespread use, they were copied from film to television easily; to illustrate this point, Spector showed a near-identical shot from the 1954 teleplay of 12 Angry Men and the 1957 feature film adaptation. "Every medium does it, maybe we should too?" he asked.

He offered a quote from Janet Murray's First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game in which she writes, referring to video games, "It is a medium that includes still images, moving images, text, audio, three-dimensional, navigable space — more of the building blocks of storytelling than any single medium has ever offered us.

"imitating other media seems to be a natural, even necessary stage in every new medium's development"

After showing short clips of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope — which famously used one long continuous shot — and Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake — which was shot almost entirely from a first-person perspective — Spector said, "Movies live and die by cinematic technique. Directors very quickly figured out what didn't work." There's a reason we don't see more movies with single shots or the first-person perspective, he suggested.

Before wrapping up, and while being reminded that he had already exceeded his allotted time (and then some), Spector began to power through slides, jumping from topic to topic with the barest of connective tissue knitting his ideas together. He identified the four things that games do that make them unique; he castigated gaming's continued reliance on arcane reliance on virtual dice rolls; he detailed a taxonomy of the five different kind of narratives in games.

Wrapping up, Spector encouraged designers to concern themselves more with building "sets" and not "worlds." He encouraged developers to concern themselves with the importance of non-combat AI by referring to a scene in 2000's Deus Ex: "We spend no time on going to the women's bathroom and having people notice. People still walk up to me and say, 'Wow that was cool.' That was 13 years ago!"

"But we've come a long way, obviously," he said. "I remember when people would get up on stage here and say, 'Story doesn't matter except in movies. It doesn't matter in games and pornography.'

"We can get partway to where I think we're capable of going as a medium by borrowing from other mediums, by studying and stealing from them, but we can only go so far. We need some original ideas, tough problems solved.

"You have the opportunity, even now, 30 years after the creation of this medium, you have the opportunity to determine what it's going to become, and change the world."

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