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Plot vs. Play: Chris Avellone, Ken Levine, and David Gaider PAX Panel Report

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Plot vs. Play: Chris Avellone, Ken Levine, and David Gaider PAX Panel Report

Information - posted by Crooked Bee on Tue 10 April 2012, 11:24:26

Tags: Chris Avellone; David Gaider; Ken Levine

This Saturday, at PAX East, Kotaku and G4 attended the "Plot vs. Play" panel which brought together three "story-driven" game developers of very different mold: Ken Levine, David Gaider, and the RPG Codex's darling Chris Avellone. Both of those sites have posted their reports on the panel, and it is a fairly interesting read.

G4 reports:

Levine is more concerned with environment than the words he's going to write. “I would say the best tool we have to sell our story is the world. The visual space...if you think about dialogue, especially in a first person shooter...the environment gives you so much information,” he said. “You can take in so much more visual information than you can take in audio information.”

Avellone works along the same lines. “One of the parts of a narrative designer's job is to tell out the story in the environments without a single line of text or a single line of dialogue from the characters,” he said. Environment artists in the Fallout: New Vegas DLC packs would tell stories through devices like the way a camp was set up when the player discovered it, which would indicate how long someone had stayed there, or what they were doing.

Even if narrative isn't the strongest aspect of many video game experiences, Gaider doesn't want to tell someone they are taking the wrong approach, because he doesn't know if he's taking the right approach. “There are many different types of narrative, and with the advancement of technology we're starting to encounter them,” he said. “Cinematic storytelling, environment storytelling...emergent narrative.” Proper writing demands linearity, but that's not good gameplay, so game developers have to decide where they draw the line between storytelling and writing, because they're not the same thing.

Levine noted the developers of Portal came up with a world in which arbitrary challenges made sense, because the players were in a test environment where random experiments fit with the narrative. Valve created a context for those strange activities. Movies don't have the problem of having to provide challenge, Levine said, and he doesn't know how you make that story really organic compared to other media which don't have the challenge problem.

Gaider suggested the solution to these problems was sometimes stumbled onto accidentally, and Avellone agreed by using the example of Fallout which allowed players to be successful in the game purely through speech options. That trapped Obsidian into needing to concoct an endgame scenario which the player could win only by talking, which required a narrative solution.​

Kotaku's report expands on some of the quotes:

The differences in core philosophy shone right from the start of the panel, which opened with a short but complicated question: why does narrative matter in games?

Gaider answered first, saying, "I think the importance of narrative is to give the player a reason to care. Any game can offer you great-looking models and great-looking levels... It's giving the player a reason to care about the goals you're providing them in the game."

Avellone's response, meanwhile, challenged the idea that the story a game designer can write matters at all. Instead, he explained, the systems that designers put into a game can let the player tell their own, more compelling story. He had found that perhaps the best role of a narrative designer was to "ultimately let the systems and the player's interaction with those actually create their own story." He cited experience with Fallout: New Vegas, describing the way a player brought more to the game than he could ever have intentionally written in:

"One particular example that comes to mind is .. Josh Sawyer, who was playing through Fallout New Vegas for the second time. And he decided to piss off both factions in the game, who hate each other. And when you piss off either faction in the game, assassins will attack you, which is pretty typical for showing reputation mechanics in games.

But because he had chosen to piss off both factions, which is something we hadn't accounted for, he woke up in the Mojave Wasteland one morning to find that both assassin squads had spawned in but rather than attack him, they launched at each other, murdered each other, and Josh just went by, whistled, looted all their corpses... And I could have spent like a month and a half trying to do a narrative design solution that would set up that situation, but because of the mechanics Josh was able to have a story all his own because of his actions in the environment."​

Levine answered last, saying that for him, the story in a game is all about context.

"I would say that the best tool we have to sell our story is the world because the visual space. I don't have the comfort of being able to tell the story through a lot of words as much because I view that in our games as sort of a 14.4 mode of communication... so the environments are the T3 line. And it gives you so much information that's always there, it's all around you, all these polygons, and you can take in so much more visual information all at once than you can take in audio information. So I don't see it as a right way or a wrong way. I see that for us, we tend to rely upon the environment so much because you can do so much at once, process so much information so quickly."​

Context, freedom, and emotional engagement. Which is better and why? Discuss!

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