Would you ever make an open world game?
No, I’d never do one. The whole open world thing is a really interesting question, because I don’t think it’s any great bragging point to say ‘We’ve simulated an entire world and now you get to walk for miles’.
I’ve done that. I made a game where I made my team create all of Mars and you could walk all the way around every inch of Mars and see every landmark. And it was boring. There’s a reason movies cut out those boring bits, right? So, for me, what I want to do is make my world smaller and smaller and smaller, and more deeply simulated.
My ultimate dream is for someone to be foolish enough to give me the money to make what I call the One Block Role-Playing Game, where we simulate one building, one city block perfectly. And I don’t know how to do it (which is why no one will give me the money), but I’d love to fail at that!
Have you seen Synecdoche: New York?
The movie? No, I haven’t seen it yet.
It harks towards a similar dissatisfaction with a structure of narrative (within theatre) and attempts a full real-time simulation of one city block, which is simulated deeply enough to have characters within the world want to create their own-sub plays and it kind of spirals out of control a bit.
Oh yeah, oh my God. I’d totally love that. But I’d want to make that as a game. I know the setting, I know at least one major thing that I’d want to do in it, but I don’t know how to do it. I’ve been whining about the one block role-playing game since about 1994, and someday I’ll figure it out, or someday someone will be foolish enough to give me the money to do it, and we’ll fail gloriously at doing it.
Yeah, that’s not a great pitch. Just so you know.
That’s the way the world changes, though! We were talking about pacing, which gets back to the whole emotional level of story-based games. My games are paced very weirdly. When I hire a new designer, there are always a couple of things I have to say. They all come in and think ‘Warren makes games about choice’, and that’s really not true. I make games about choice with consequences. If there are no consequences, the choice is meaningless and you’ve done a lot of extra work for nothing; if you’re not going to show the player the results of their choice, don’t do it.
If there’s only one choice you allow the player to make, even if there’s a consequence, don’t bother. You’re wasting everyone’s time. There always has to be multiple ways to solve a problem, which of course makes things much tougher. But, that also affects the pacing of the game. People (even the people who come in and start making the games) hate the way my games are paced – they’re all stunned by it, but players I hope love it.
My games are all designed so you get to a spot, survey the scene, understand the problem, make a plan then go go go! You execute the plan and have to stop and re-evaluate, as you’ve found yourself in a new situation as a result of all that action you just did. Make a new plan, then go go go again.
So, it’s this really kind of jerky start/stop, start/stop thing, whereas when you’re playing a traditional shooter of any kind, it’s all go go go go go and you get into this flow state, get caught up in it and just lose yourself in the game. And I’m constantly dragging people back. It’s frustrating, because I don’t know how to get past it. I have to give the player time to survey the scene, make that plan, then go.
That’s one of the things that kind of pulls you out of the experience. And if you’re into that, it’s an amazing experience. But if what you want is that adrenaline rush and I want to feel the emotion that someone’s trying to make me feel – I don’t know how to combine those two things. I think about pacing a lot.
So where you choose to imbue a player with a sense of agency and give them the impetus to try and achieve something, you’re creating action (potentially) in a moment where the player isn’t even touching the controller.
Absolutely, and the interesting thing is that when I first started doing this consciously as opposed to just sort of doing it by mistake, doing it on purpose, what I discovered really quickly was that games have trained people not to think very very effectively. They’ve trained people not to make choices. In most games, what choice to do you get to make? Which gun am I going to use to kill this thing? In which order to I have to position those soup cans to unlock that door? Do I have to combine the smelly cheese and mouldy bread into the vat of doom to create the twig of unlocking?
Yeah, real-world moral dilemmas there.
Yeah, exactly, and that’s a great point! Because the other thing that I have to tell my designers is ‘Don’t judge the player’. They all think there’s a morality system in Deus Ex, Thief, Ultima and Disney Epic Mickey and there simply is not. If you ever feel like you know what I think is right or wrong, or what a designer thinks is good or evil, we’ve failed. Because the only morality system I’m interested in is the one between the players’ ears, you know?
It’s about asking what they think is right and wrong. And that’s something that only games can do. So, for me, any game designer or and developer who tells you what’s right and wrong is handling it incorrectly. You end up with people playing the metre and deciding they want to be evil and steal things and kill things or wanting their character to be entirely on the light side. As soon as you start playing that metre, I’m done. I have no interest. You might as well make a movie or write a book if you’re going to tell players what to think.
So: morality. I’m totally into it as long as it’s not me determining it.
Thank you for your time.
Warren Spector was interviewed during the Game Masters exhibition in Melbourne.
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