Crispy Gamer

More Than a Shiny Sword

BioWare cofounder Dr. Greg Zeschuk has his creative plate full. On top of the ongoing Mass Effect series, Zeschuk is overseeing the creation of his company's first massively-multiplayer online game, Star Wars: The Old Republic; and a spiritual successor to the classic Baldur's Gate games, Dragon Age: Origins. Crispy Gamer spoke to Zeschuk at PAX 2009 on the subject of game narrative and the way player choice adds new challenges to telling a story.

Crispy Gamer: There's a move toward revision in fantasy storytelling -- at least, if you count the popularity of George R.R. Martin's books as a movement. What's happening in Dragon Age: Origins? Is it more classic than, say, A Game of Thrones?

Greg Zeschuk: We always talk about how it's "dark, baroque" fantasy and it really isn't classic. We've always had this historical view of dwarves who are happy, gruff guys who go mining, drink a lot of beer, and like fighting; whereas the dwarves in Dragon Age are really, really nasty to each other. They're backstabbing, political.

Crispy Gamer: The elves feel a little different as well.

Zeschuk

Zeschuk: They're barely surviving in the Dragon Age world. And they're subjected to all kinds of racism and they're put in these ghettos. It's a really different spin on all these things. In a sense, it's another form of revision -- a reimagining of the traditional images. In some ways, bringing them into a more contemporary setting. In the comics space there's the whole Ultimates thing -- taking all the old franchises and recasting them so they're more relevant to today. I think, in some ways, that's what we're trying to do with Dragon Age.

Crispy Gamer: I spoke briefly with Mac Walters about the Greywardens and their similarities to the Spectres in Mass Effect. These characters have leave to do whatever they want. Why do BioWare games tend to lean toward those sorts of empowered characters?

Zeschuk: I think part of that is fantasy fulfillment for the player. For us, a lot of fantasy is about being someone special. You're right that it's a pretty traditional thing in a lot of our games. In Jade Empire you were a Spirit Monk. People play these games to be special -- to be someone that they aren't today.

Crispy Gamer: There's a second interesting parallel in these BioWare games. Players are usually combating a destructive outside force -- that's a device that echoes the current political climate.

Zeschuk: As games are more and more reflective of society, they become a kind of therapy -- where you take control and make your choices. Maybe in society today, it's not as easy to make the choices you want to make all the time; but when you're playing one of these games, you can make the choices you want to make.

Crispy Gamer: At E3 you revealed some pretty big plot spoilers for Mass Effect 2. Is it really possible to spoil a story? Or is it really about the execution -- the journey to those big moments?

Zeschuk: Over the years, we never really showed any plot points, and as a result it's always been very hard to communicate what we make. The first time we did that was the Wrex decision at E3 probably two or three years ago. We actually did reveal the Wrex cut scene. And people were blown away. People who have never played our games never realized that this was the stuff that we were doing. One thing I find very exciting about our games is that they're very surprising. You just don't know what's going to happen.

Crispy Gamer: Well, we do know a couple things that are going to happen in Mass Effect 2.

Zeschuk: The execution from moment to moment up to that point is so strong, we thought, we're not going to spoil the game for anyone by doing this. Because it's actually the act of getting there. The irony, of course, is that you may not have Wrex in your party. So you may never see that scene anyway -- which is, in most games, a bizarro concept. Most people have what I call a beautiful tunnel -- an experience where you see every piece of content, because they point you at every piece, and you're done.

Crispy Gamer: While your games are impossible to take in at one glance.

Zeschuk: That's the kind of games that we make. That variability is what we do. And the people that it engages are incredibly rewarded. That's one of the fundamental things that we do, I believe.

Zeschuk
In Dragon Age: Origins players can chose to ruin their complexion through tanning or go without undergarments.

Crispy Gamer: So you're fairly confident that people will play Dragon Age: Origins three or four times?

Zeschuk: When you play it from a different perspective, the game feels different. I'm playing as a female elf mage right now. I played before as a male noble warrior. People say different things to me. In particular, when you see elves in the world, they say, "Oh, I can talk to this person." It's really weird -- almost a simulation of what it would be like to be a minority. And they react very positively to you. "Oh, well, you'll understand this." And then you go to human areas and they don't want to talk to you.

I think people will find it something they want to explore and enjoy. Their friends will tell them something they did that will sort of pique their memory and they'll think, "I want to go back." We're trying to facilitate that. We're doing a community site that will actually allow you to capture your story choices -- what you did -- and share them.

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Crispy Gamer: How do you, as a game designer, get your message across if there's content that you can't guarantee that people will see?

Zeschuk: I don't think we specifically have a blatant message we're trying to push -- like "Smoking is bad." In our games you can choose to or not to. When you get to the end of the game you could have been a good guy; you could have been a bad guy; you could have been a selfish guy. We don't really care how you get there. You actually define that yourself.

Crispy Gamer: But the reactions that you write in -- the way BioWare decides that the world responds to the player's choices -- carries with it a certain ethos.

Zeschuk: When you have your party, you have to juggle this hilarious dichotomy. Who are the best fighters I want, and who are the most approving of what I do? It's really hard to juggle. You can make a total goody-goody party, but they're not as tough as the bad-ass party. That's one thing, I think, that we pull off really well -- the whole ongoing dialogue between the characters. It feels very natural and very dynamic.

Crispy Gamer: Do you think the underlying subtext, then, is the inherent difficulty of interpersonal relationships?

Zeschuk: That's the challenge. Because if you want to, you can go and cultivate relationships with people. There's a gifting system. You can give them a gift and go talk to them. But if you try to do it before they like you to a certain degree, they'll shut down. It's very involved and intricate -- and that, as a result, makes it very, very compelling to play.

Zeschuk
A common thread in BioWare games is the complexity of interpersonal relationships.

Crispy Gamer: Is there ever the impulse to put your best story moments out in the middle of the road -- to guarantee that players experience them?

Zeschuk: That's one of the problems we've had over the years. In Jade Empire there was the Kang the Mad character -- little did you know that he was a god who had forgotten he was a god. And the only way you could get there was in a sort of mini-game. But unfortunately it was really obscure, and most people have never seen it. It was one of the coolest things in the game. We made a little mistake there.

We have to make sure, at the very least, the overall story arc -- the key events to the story that everyone sees -- are really, really cool and impactful. So if we've done that, we've accomplished our mission, right? You don't want to have a lot of amazing stuff off the beaten path. How much side stuff do we want and how much core stuff do we want? We have to put more side things, because that enriches the world.

Crispy Gamer: There's also a pact that you have. When we play a game we know that when we go down a dead-end alley, there's going to be at least one piece of loot there.

Zeschuk: It's almost a sense of always providing the player a reward for their efforts. And a reward can be narrative. That's one of the exciting things that we've learned. It doesn't always have to be a big, shiny sword. It can also be an incremental change in your perspective of the world, or a little story bit that that really adds something. In Dragon Age: Origins there are these Codex Entries -- books that are all over the place. Lots and lots of them. You find them and you can go read them. They're interesting, well written and tell a detailed history of the world. And if you read them -- all of a sudden you're going to realize, when you go to certain places, that they're telling you something important about that place.

Crispy Gamer: There's never really been a shallow BioWare game.

Zeschuk: I think we just can't do that. I try to make them more accessible and more streamlined, but they're certainly not shallow. That's one of the interesting things we learned from Jade Empire. The combat system wasn't quite as deep as we wanted it to be. And it was our fault for that. What we learned was that players actually want complexity, but they simultaneously want an easy way to access that complexity. That's the most important thing for a designer -- to provide great power, but easily.

Crispy Gamer: What was the difficulty with Jade Empire?

Zeschuk
BioWare is careful to weave story into the landscape.

Zeschuk: We were trying something new -- this action combat system. We totally took it for granted. We had it working quite well for a while, but I think we didn't have the kind of progression we needed. That was probably the main factor. We were balancing the desire to make sure the player could make that choice against the need for progression. So everything kind of fell in that middle channel of variability.

Crispy Gamer: There's a notion today that narrative and gameplay are two separate things. But in the early days of games, like the Infocom text adventures, the word was the game.

Zeschuk: In multiplayer Halo, the narrative is what the players do to each other and joke about after the fact. That's what we've come to believe. And that's the reason we want people to be able to share their stories.

Gameplay can sometimes be narrative, but at the end of the day narratives can be emotional -- it can have emotional impact. And it's really hard to have gameplay that has emotional impact. For us, when we undertake a game we generally know the type of gameplay we're going to have. We don't specifically think about it in the context of narrative. We think of story and areas -- the art, the music, the audio -- they sort of confine the gameplay. I don't think gameplay is something you have to put separately.

Crispy Gamer: You're looking to add quite a bit more narrative to the MMO genre with Star Wars: The Old Republic. That seems like a massive undertaking.

Zeschuk: It is daunting. It's enormous. But also really exciting for us. Having already played it a fair amount, there are times that you really forget that it's a big-time online game. It's solo-able, but you can also have your buddy with you. It fulfils that dream you have when you're playing an RPG, when you think, "This is so cool; I wish I could share it with someone." That's what this Star Wars game fulfills.

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