Pulling their weight
March 07, 2011
Do you wish your actions as a player mattered more in the game worlds you explore? Are you tired of the game industry copying Hollywood and spending more and more money on elaborate cutscenes for linear stories? Do you want to explore ways in which games can harness interactivity and take advantage of what's unique to our medium? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then this talk is for you! 
The schedulers for this year's GDC had a curious sense of timing. At the same hour David Cage was speaking about storytelling in Heavy Rain, Kent Hudson (lead designer at LucasArts) was across the hall speaking on the very same subject. It's tempting to suggest the two were a corridor apart, but miles away from each other philosophically. Tempting, but not quite accurate.
Coupled with LucasArts Creative Director Clint Hocking's session on dynamics, Hudson's talk offered a vision of interactive storytelling that would seem diametrically opposed to Cage's at Quantic Dream. And yet, Hudson's catalog blurb (above) could easily have been lifted from Cage's abstract. When Clint Hocking asks "What is the role of the author and of the interactor, and how do they share in the generation of meaning?" he is essentially posing the same question Cage addressed in Heavy Rain.
In fact, it's easy to imagine Hocking observing "The player should play the story. I didn't want to make a game that the player would watch. ...I wanted the player to be the actor, the co-director, and the co-writer of the game," but those words belong to Cage, who might as well be describing Hocking's goals for Far Cry 2.
If Cage and Hocking ask similar questions, then we might assume the gaping divide we perceive between them appears in their answers. But here again a simple binary "who's side are you on?" characterization doesn't quite work.
No doubt, Cage's cavalier dismissal of mechanics and rules flies in the face of Hocking's system-driven approach to design. Cage still believes classic literary techniques (authored narrative arc, conflicts and obstacles, closure, etc.) apply to games, and he's more comfortable relying on traditional dramaturgy than Hocking.
So I'm not suggesting both designers are essentially saying the same thing. They aren't. Nevertheless, I saw some noteworthy common ground emerge between Cage and Hocking at GDC this year, mainly due to the continuing evolution of Hocking's vision for interactive storytelling.
Hocking still clearly believes in player agency and the unique possibilities for emergent meaning that games can provide. But in his talk this year, Hocking focused more on people than systems. "Meaning comes from the application of skin to mechanics," he observed. "The mechanics don't, in fact, create meaning, but how we play does."
Dynamics that produce meaning stem from a designed system, of course, but Hocking's example of clever authorship in this regard was telling. He referred to Hemingway's six-word short story "For sale: baby shoes, never worn," in which the author's meaning is clear, despite a lack of details or specifics. The balance between authorial intention and reader interpretation suggest essential roles for each, and that's a bit of a recalibration (if not a conceptual reversal) for Hocking. It makes the distance between him and Cage look more like an ocean than a galaxy.
Hocking wondered how changing a narrative's dynamics might also change its meaning. Referencing Brenda Brathwaite's Holocaust-themed board game Train, Hocking suggested that it's possible to alter an abstract game like Tetris by applying a narrative layer on top of it. Attaching Train's narrative to Tetris (cooperate with the Nazis and pack together as many blocks full of people as possible; or defy them by creating as many gaps as possible) changes what Tetris means and suggests something important about how games impart meaning.
"We must observe the game at run-time to understand what it means to the players," Hocking noted. Small choices made in apparently insignificant moments help define the player and his experience. Hocking related the story of a Go master who characterized a challenger's move as "ugly. …it was like smearing ink over the painting we had made." The player is how he plays.
David Cage sees such moments as opportunities to "bend" the story. Hocking sees them as expressions of a player's personality and sensibilities. Both see the potential meaning derived as synthetic and instantial, in-the-moment dialectics between player and game. "How you play the game matters greatly," observed Hocking. What the player brings to that experience will help define the meaning of that experience - sentiments Cage expressed in his talk as well.
I don't claim that David Cage and Clint Hocking are more alike than different as designers. But I am suggesting their ideas aren't as diametrically opposed as we might think. It may be fun to pit one against another, but creativity doesn't work like Parliamentary debate. One idea needn't invalidate another to 'win.' Both can be right. Both can be wrong. The other two outcomes are also in play.
If GDC has value as an idea incubator, it's because the conversations it hosts promote multiple points of view for broad consideration. This isn't about sing-along Kumbayah; it's about sharing and maximizing resources to make better games. To this end, Cage and Hocking are pulling more than their weight.