Consulting The Doctors, Part II
BioWare heads Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk talk about the progress storytelling has made in video games, the moral ambiguity in Mass Effect 2, and why Final Fantasy XIII is at the bottom of their to-play lists.
BioWare has always been a champion of storytelling in video games, and you've been around for almost 15 years now. In the time that has passed, do you feel the industry has made significant enough progress toward viewing the narrative as an essential part of the game experience, or do you sometimes feel like we're treading water?
Ray: I think there's a lot more emphasis on story now, and there are many different kinds of stories now – it's not just one-size-fits-all stories. You have narrative that's built through dialogue and characters, or through the world, or a whole bunch of other things and they're all good. They're really high quality. You look to the winners last night [at the GDC Choice Awards] —
Greg: I was going to say, you look at all the award nominees for game of the year – they're all really story-based and great mechanic-based games.
Ray: All of them. I mean it was a great honor for Dragon Age to be nominated because there were some really, really good games this year.
Greg: And you can see in all those games that story is not just an afterthought. That's probably one of the biggest evolutions, because when we started we were like the only ones out there that were doing pre-production, worrying about what was going to happen in the game. Typically people would make the game, and slap the story in after the fact, and it was generally a joke. Not everybody did that, there were exceptions, and those exceptions were very notable. But now, thinking back to all those nominated games – I think it was Assassin's Creed II, Arkham Asylum, us, Demon's Souls... Demon's Souls actually has a really interesting story; I like the way the story integrates into the game. And finally of course, Uncharted 2 – I was going to forget that one. [Laughs]
Ray: That was a great game last year, that was brilliant. I finished that, and I loved it. It totally deserved to win.
Greg: Yeah. All those are very story heavy, and you can see real thought went into it. And even Demon's Souls, I mean the world has this entire setting that's integrated into the game mechanics, and it's really, really thoughtful. You've never seen a group as setting, world, and story-driven as this set this past year.
Ray: And action, too. All of them are really fun in multiple dimensions which is – I mean, has there been a better year for video games?
Greg: I think maybe this year. [Laughs] This year is crazy.
Ray: It's better. It's just getting better. The best is yet to come.
Greg: The minimum bar of entry has gone up.
Have you guys had a chance to play Heavy Rain yet?
Ray: Not yet. I have a copy on my desk. I got it right before GDC.
Greg: That's a big one for me. I've read a lot about it, but we've both been busy.
Ray: It's one that we'll for sure play.
Greg: There's so many games to play right now.
Ray: Battlefield, Heavy Rain – I haven't played Demon's Souls, but you've talked a lot about that.
Greg: I go on and on and on...
Ray: But there's a big stack of games I have to play.
Greg: I just finished BioShock 2.
Ray: I'm playing Borderlands right now. I finished Uncharted 2 a little while ago. BioShock 2 I did play as well.
Greg: And didn't some kind of Final Fantasy thing just come out?
Ray: I've been reading some reviews on that one. That may be on the bottom of my list right now. It's kind of a question mark. It would have been right up there before I read about it, but some of this other stuff is probably more pressing.
I haven't played it, but a lacking story seems to be one of the big criticisms of the game.
Greg: It's really interesting. They're trying to do something different, which is admirable, but it's hard. They also had a very long development cycle. They may have been aiming at a real interesting spot at one point, but then too much time goes by. Not only are there a lot of games, but they are coming out fast.
Ray: Just the games this year have raised the bar again for expectations. You look at Battlefield, Mass Effect 2, BioShock 2—
Greg: God of War III – the reviews have been coming in pretty high—
Ray: Every year, every game sets a new standard. You can't do stuff that's two years old and worn out. It's got to hold up.
With both Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2, it seems like you've embraced moral ambiguity as a central role in your narratives – painting less of a clear view of right and wrong and giving it more of a real-life contrast where the right choice isn't always clear cut or maybe there isn't a “right” choice. What attracted you to this approach?
Ray: We wanted all the outcomes to be interesting. Maybe not all pleasant, but always emotionally engaging. They may not make you feel that way or this way, but they always make you feel something.
Greg: We let the team be very creative, it's not like we say, “do it this way.” It's a question we have of how are we going to address that, and it gives them an opportunity to be creatively involved. I like where both Dragon Age and Mass Effect ended up. Dragon Age with the individuals reflecting on a personal level is really what's most important in that game, what you and your pals think of each other. Of course, with Shepard it's what the galaxy thinks of Shepard. It's always his or her place in the broader spectrum.
Ray: The games that we release out of BioWare Edmonton tend to have a lot of focus on companion characters. They really show you how the world's perceiving you and how you're acting. The interactions between the two tend to be pretty important, showing that moral ambiguity and reflecting it because it's all relative to their individual perceptions and their mindset.
Greg: It think it's a way to challenge the player, too. One of the ways we measure the emotional engagement we create is just a simple engagement with the product. It's about how do you think of it outside of the game. Folks will play Dragon Age and sit at work and daydream about how they are going to make their decisions, who they are going to romance, or what they are going to do. It's about challenging the player, because if you make it too black and white there's no difficulty in the decision. We're better served by having that lack of clarity.
Click here to read the first part of our interview, which discusses BioWare's transition from independent developer to Electronic Arts employees.