Story Time With Valve’s Erik Wolpaw, Pt 1

By Ernest Hemingway.

It all began one sunny, seemingly inauspicious afternoon in a Starbucks. It also ended there – but, you know, later. Ragged and bone-weary from three days of wading through PAX’s diseased hordes, Valve’s Erik Wolpaw, Double Fine’s Anna Kipnis, and I huddled around one last vestige of civilized humanity: a table. Then we spent nearly an hour talking about this year’s sudden upsurge in crazy-interesting videogame stories, because it seemed like the thing to do at the time. It isn’t anymore, but – if you’ll believe it – it was considered cool back then. Those were the days. Anyway, here’s part one. If you behave yourself, you might get part two tomorrow. And maybe a cookie. But probably not.

RPS: People spent ages during your PAX panel bothering you about entirely non-scripted stories in games like Day Z, and you said you never, ever, ever want to talk about it again. Sooooo… mind talking about it again?

Erik Wolpaw: It weighs on my mind heavily, but I don’t really have an answer for it. Not at the moment. I don’t know what to do about it. If I had my way, every game would be full player agency. It’d put me out of a job, but that’s actually what I like as a game player. I think about it every day. Literally every day I go to work and I think about it. It’s part of my job to think about it. How to do that. I don’t have the solution yet. They didn’t seem to have the solution. Anna doesn’t have the solution. Tim [Schafer] doesn’t have the solution. Tim’s fallback, which I respect, is “I’m gonna make the games I make – and that’s it. That’s what I’m gonna do, this is what I like to do.” Which is respectable.

Anna Kipnis: It’s actually a lot of work to write a good game story –  to craft a really good story. But to have player agency and have a good story, that’s extremely difficult.

Erik Wolpaw: Yeah. They are at odds. The one answer I did give is that, even with decision-tree sorts of stories, it’s crazy hard to come up with one good ending. Much less five good endings. Then the problem is, if you come up with five endings, hopefully one of them is great. The chance of all five of them being great, let’s just call it zero. One of them’s gonna be okay, and three of them will probably be crap. At the point where you’re trying to have that, you’re like “I don’t want to give people the crappy endings.” I want to give them a good ending.

This is, again, in an authored experience. If it was full player agency, which is totally theoretical, but in some full player agency procedurally generated thing, I guess it wouldn’t make any difference. It really would feel like it was on you as the player. Like, I got the ending I deserved because it wasn’t preordained. But in the case where it’s even a little bit authored, it’s preordained. If they get the mildly crummy ending, even if the decisions they made led to that, it’s still gonna be like, “Somebody wrote this crummy ending for me, and I’m not having a good time.” It’s just tough. In some ways it’s laziness on my part, I guess, but just knowing how hard it is to come up with a good ending…

Anna Kipnis: People take for granted that writing is easy. It’s not.

Erik Wolpaw: Yeah. Everybody can write. I mean, you’re a writer. But everybody thinks that they can, because everybody can to a certain extent.

RPS: I think also, it’s a modern-day society thing. We’re all tuned into social networking stuff and texting and whatnot, so we’re always writing. Everyone’s always writing.

Erik Wolpaw: Yeah. Writing all the time. Even with comedy stuff, everybody gets a decent zinger off in an e-mail every once in a while. Everybody’s capable of it. The hard part is delivering it consistently and reliably. But yeah, it’s a weird skill to have. I wouldn’t even presume to be like, “Well, I could probably just sit down and write the physics system for our game.” I wouldn’t even know where to start. But people are so tantalizingly close to being able to do our jobs that it’s difficult sometimes. I mean, it’s also rewarding and all that.

RPS: During one PAX panel, someone asked if writers are valued in the gaming industry. The impression I’ve always gotten – at least, from a perspective of what’s absolutely crucial and what’s not – is big, fat “no.” I mean, for instance, even BioShock’s plot was still up in the air six months before release. But at Valve, development and writing are parallel processes, right?

Erik Wolpaw: I know all this, obviously, just secondhand, so it could be a disgruntled writer thing. I don’t know. Luckily, I’ve worked in two places. Double Fine, where writing is obviously really valued, and Valve, where it’s also really valued. So my two experiences have been at places where it’s important to the studio. I think most studios that are going to put a story in their game do feel like it’s important, and the team probably feels like it’s important, but they may just not know how to go about getting a good writer or integrating a good writer.

Again, part of that’s because everyone can kind of write. It’s hard to judge whether this person’s going to do a good job writing your game. Again, with the physics system, there’s at least some bar you can test them with, to see if they’re going to get close. But with writing, everyone can write. Unless they have a track record of doing it, [there’s no point of reference].

Anna Kipnis: This is something that Erik probably wouldn’t say about himself, but he can actually program. He might not be able to write a physics engine, but what I’m saying is… The way he writes dialogue, and I’ve worked with him on a lot of stuff, you know how it’s going to be put together. Somebody might be able to do comedy and they’re good at writing zingers, but they still might not be good at writing video game dialogue.

Erik Wolpaw: That is a thing. And Tim’s a programmer originally, too. It’s a useful thing, to know… Well, to be able to integrate the dialogue into the game yourself, but even if you’re not doing that, to have a really clear understanding of what it means to put it into the game. Pretty much every position working on the game – and Anna I think would agree – benefits from knowing some amount of programming. Having some idea of what goes into it.

You want to know all the systems, too, because part of it is you’re working in a group for a long time on a project. The decisions you make impact a lot of different people. There’s this artistic integrity where everybody should obviously be working as hard as they can to finish my vision. But there’s also the reality of, these are people that I care about and I work with. I don’t want to make them do a ton of work unless I’m sure that it’s at least got some chance of success. I want to know, the things that I’m asking them to do when I’m making a request, what that actually means. Tim knows and just doesn’t care. You will just get this done. Maybe he’s not like that as much anymore. I remember on Psychonauts… well, everything’s fine now. We get along. Anna’s just not saying anything. [laughter]

RPS: I think there’s definitely something to that idea of a singular creative vision, though. I mean, some of my favorite games this year were developed by one-person teams. What I felt like that helped them do is realize one vision really well. Because it wasn’t just a matter of them knowing program and also how to write a story. It was them knowing where the game was going to go. They even made the soundtrack.

Erik Wolpaw: What games are we talking about?

RPS: Have you played Lone Survivor?

Erik Wolpaw: I did, a little bit. I didn’t get too far into it. But I know what it is. I didn’t know the guy made the soundtrack to that too.

RPS: Yeah, Jasper wrote the whole soundtrack. So there are points where the music will come in at this perfect moment, and you can tell it’s just because we had this vision for the game. He knew exactly where he wanted these things to happen. It’s affecting to the point where it’s like… “I feel sad, but I’m not really sure why I feel sad. I just know I feel it really strongly right now.”

Erik Wolpaw: There’s definitely that. That singular vision sort of game. That’s obviously tough to pull off with a team, especially when you have a work environment where everybody gets to contribute. Personally that’s the environment I want to work in. You can argue with the results, but there’s no way that you could have made Psychonauts or Portal with [a one-person structure]. They simply aren’t one-person games. There’s a lot of interesting stuff. This isn’t really story-based, but some of a Brendon Chung’s stuff – like Atom Zombie Smasher and Gravity Bone…

RPS: Yeah, I was actually just about to bring up Thirty Flights of Loving.

Erik Wolpaw: On Thirty Flights of Loving, I guess he had [current Double Fine community manager] Chris Remo do the music. Even he had to branch out a little bit to realize his vision. And, of course, there’s Tim. He actually is a genius and has a vision and could push people to do it. I’m not really confident enough. I want the crutch of having people who are smarter than I am around me to do this. I do not want the responsibility of having to do it all by myself. I mean, because I couldn’t. Fully honest with myself. I’m not going to do that. But yeah, the polymath guys, who are artists, musicians, programmers, writers – it makes sense for them.

RPS: On the topic of stuff like that, you were talking about how in an ideal world, what you want is full player freedom. But how about things like Thirty Flights of Loving? I mean, it’s ultra-scripted, but still brilliant. Plus, I felt like simply being able to look around the environment and interact a little really added a lot to my attachment to the story.

Erik Wolpaw: Thirty Flights of Loving and Gravity Bone –  they’re amazing. I just don’t know where they exactly fit in the world. I love that they exist, but I wouldn’t want every game to be like that. At some point I want my game to be a performance test. I want that as well. Gravity Bone actually has a couple little puzzles in it, some platforming. Thirty Flights of Loving, I think he wisely took it out, because the actual gameplay of Gravity Bone wasn’t that great.

As much as I love them, it makes me a little bit sick to my stomach. There’s no game in it, but I like it. Maybe I shouldn’t like it as much as I do. But I do feel like that’s definitely one viable branch of the interactive narrative. Maybe you don’t even call it a game. It’s an interactive narrative. It seems like this demo reel of narrative tricks that Brendon Chung has thought up. Here’s all the things I’ve thought up about game narrative in the last year that I’m gonna package into a small package that holds together, but it’s almost like a demo reel.

Every time I play either one of them, I’m like, “I’d love to steal this, this is so ingenious what he did here.” Like the jump cuts in Thirty Flights of Loving. Why did I never think of that? I can see why other people didn’t, but it’s my job to think about things like that, and it never occurred to me. The chase scene in Gravity Bone is amazing. Chases are really hard to pull off, because games train you to run forward. Like, if we give you some danger you should probably go fight it, right? Whereas there’s that scene in Gravity Bone where you crash through something and you land on that table and everybody looks at you… I’m babbling about it now. But it’s great. It’s such an incredible narrative moment that had no dialogue. Totally interactive. It was amazing.

But Brendon Chung… Part of the thing that sticks in my mind are the seamless things that he does. He’s clearly someone who understands game design as well. Atom Zombie Smasher is almost pure game, right? It’s literally a game about organizing dots in a maze.

RPS: What I liked about it was that even though it was very narrative-based, it didn’t spoonfeed you the plot. It just gave you these little snippets, like you said. It’s more up to the player to piece together the whole picture. To the point where there are some bits where even once you’ve finished it and you sort of know the general arc of it, you don’t quite know everything. I guess to me that was the game. Putting everything together.

Erik Wolpaw: My only thing about that is that… Again, I want to preface any criticism, and I don’t even know that this is criticism, with the fact that I sent Brendon Chung fan mail after Thirty Flights. I don’t do that a lot. But I felt like the structure that Thirty Flights of Loving had – piecing it all together – you could have pulled that off in a movie as well. I didn’t think it was specifically a game thing, where there was so much exploration involved.

I felt like the puzzle pieces were there. Maybe there were a couple of parts where you had to poke around a bit to get them. But you were basically moving from one point to another, in a linear way. If you gave me a movie of Thirty Flights of Loving, the puzzle would have been effective. Anyway, that’s a challenge. When Brendon Chung manages to mix Gravity Bone and Atom Zombie Smasher together, it’ll be the greatest game ever made.

RPS: So what about something like Dear Esther? Again, it’s that sort of mental puzzle, except that the game part is that it rearranges everything each time.

Erik Wolpaw: Dear Esther is interesting. It’s just that the tone of Dear Esther isn’t necessarily the tone that I go for. I thought it was great. I guess it just didn’t speak to me as much as Gravity Bone does, because that’s more in my pace. The story that he’s telling. But yeah. Also along that same line of this new genre – I don’t even know if it’s new, but it seems to be making a resurgence – of the interactive short story. Both of them, I’d like it if you could do that, still make a short story, it doesn’t even have to have a lot of game, but that involved a little more exploration. Dear Esther was pretty linear. I know that in the beginning you go down the beach the one way and get to a dead end and come back. But they’re both pretty linear. And with Thirty Flights of Loving, it’s linear game-wise even though the story it tells is totally not.

All this stuff – whatever criticisms I have – it’s not based on why they do this. It’s a criticism of me thinking about it because this is part of my job and being like, how can we make this even better? This branch is exciting. This narrative direction where it’s, again, like an exploratory, potentially even combat-less narrative experience. There must be some less arty way to put that.

RPS: I talked with Notch yesterday, and it was interesting, because he’s actually very fascinated now by stuff like Proteus where it’s completely stripped out. It’s kind of the total opposite of Minecraft, where anything can be interacted with. You just wander around this island. Have you played Proteus at all?

Erik Wolpaw: No. What’s that one?

RPS: It’s first-person, and the graphical style is really simple. Almost painter-like, but not quite. You just walk around this island. It’s very naturally beautiful. Then things happen sometimes – really ethereal, crazy stuff. At one point I walked into this little circle of rocks and things, and suddenly – it was daytime – the sky just zoomed past, and it was night almost immediately. I basically wept at that point. Except doves came out. I wept doves.

Erik Wolpaw: This seems like more of a traditional game-ey game, but the procedural generation stuff is really interesting to me. Like Jim’s robot game [Sir, You Are Being Hunted] looks really neat. I don’t know what he’s doing narratively with it, but as something I want to play, it looks pretty cool. It’s such a different branch entirely. And Minecraft is procedurally generated exploration, basically.

RPS: Whenever you’re doing story stuff, whenever you’re coming up with what you write, what’s most important to you? For some people, it’s very much a conceptual thing – like, “Here’s this high-minded idea about what I can do with a story in a game or a book or whatever.” I’m going to write around this. Other people are just like, “I have this cool idea. I want to tell this story. I’m going to execute it.” Narrative techniques come of that. So where do you start? Is it a technique, or is it more like “This is the story I want to tell”?

Erik Wolpaw: The process tends to start with some gameplay, a gameplay mockup, and I try to figure out a story that will work with this very basic gameplay. Not a finished game, but you start poking at “OK, what story could complement this?” And not just what story, but what storytelling, what method, would complement this gameplay that we have here? Again, Left 4 Dead, very different kind of story structure from Portal, which is very linear. And then you just kind of go back and forth from there.

I think my co-writer on Portal, Jay [Pinkerton] thinks the same way. We tend not to start with any themes, because we like to let the story develop and then look for themes afterwards. If you push a particular theme, you might get sort of frantic about it. It’s easier and more fruitful to go back and see what themes have evolved as you’ve been writing the story, and then you find places to maybe push those a little bit.

RPS: Your results always end up being incredibly unique from a structural standpoint, though. I mean, Half-Life 2 and Left 4 Dead were brilliant at telling story via little environmental cues, and Portal’s a textbook example of linear story done right. Is there pressure to continually top yourself in that regard?

Erik Wolpaw: Yeah. There’s always pressure. But Valve tends to hire kind of highly motivated people who would probably feel that pressure [regardless of whether or not they were at Valve]. But yeah. It makes everybody better, too. You understand that you’re doing this thing and it’s going to have the Valve name on it. People expect it to be really good.

The upside to working at Valve, though, is that they will not put something out that’s not good. If it takes an extra six months to get it right, Valve isn’t going to go out of business. You do have that going for you – which takes some of the pressure off. The company isn’t riding on every single decision that you make.

But yeah, there’s a lot of pressure involved. As there should be. Someone at Valve said recently, “If you’re not doing something that scares you, you may not be doing the right thing.” At some fundamental level, you should be doing something that feels kinda scary. Like, I could fail at this.

Check back tomorrow for part two, wherein we discuss scrapped Portal ideas, virtual reality, Valve’s newfound love of community-driven content, how the Portal song came about, and why Wolpaw still hasn’t played Psychonauts. 


  1. Rikard Peterson says:

    Cookie? COOKIE?! COOKIE!!

  2. Ganjatron says:

    Anna clearly writes more than she talks, what was the point of interviewing her when she says 3 things?

    • Nathan Grayson says:

      Originally, it was set to just be a chat with Erik, but Anna was there too. She chimed in when she had things to add, and it was useful info. Why is that a problem?

      • Ravenholme says:

        Might want to write that for the people like Ganjatron.

        I thought it was a great interview, looking forward to reading part 2.

      • Lazaruso says:

        No part two for you, Ganjatron!

      • Ganjatron says:

        That makes a lot more sense, the way it was setup at least to me was, “here’s two people we are interviewing” and one hardly says a thing. It started off where I thought she would go into writing and flesh that out more, didn’t realize she just happened to be there and chimed in. Appologies here, didn’t mean to come off sounding like a muppet.

    • AmateurScience says:

      I got the impression this was more some folks having a chat about videogames over a coffee. And there was a dictaphone. Rather than a super formal interview type thing. So I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Seems a pretty redundant point to bring up to be honest.

    • rustybroomhandle says:

      Also, Anna’s a programmer, not a writer. If you want to hear her talk about coding, there’s a number of bits featuring her in the Double Fine Adventure documentary and features on the forum.

  3. TychoCelchuuu says:

    Great article! I can’t wait for part 2. He’d better have a great excuse for not having played Psychonauts yet. It is interesting to hear how focused he is on moving games towards being player-driven rather than narrative experiences you happen to walk through. I can understand why you would want lots of games or even most games to go in the first direction, because that’s something that clearly games are good at and that no other medium is at all good at, but I don’t think that means we shouldn’t have things like Portal 2 or Thirty Flights of Loving, which are much more traditional narratives that just happen to be video games (or in the case of Thirty Flights, barely even a game).

    • VelvetFistIronGlove says:

      He’d better have a great excuse for not having played Psychonauts yet.

      Probably because he knows too many of the jokes already.

  4. Nemon says:

    Will there be a part 3 as well?

  5. AmateurScience says:

    I wish you could in fact send cookies through the internet. That would be a good thing. It’s an interesting subject (emergent narrative not eCookies, well they’re interesting too but anyway).

    Can you have a strong, player-centric, actively told story with total gameplay freedom without losing narrative momentum? Is it possible tie in those great emergent stories that games like DayZ, Planetside and (ironically) the non story bits of Skyrim generate into a wider story?

    I don’t now, I do science amateurly, but I think it’s really interesting. I love that people are really starting to tinker with narrative in games and really play to the strengths of the medium

    • Xocrates says:

      Indeed that is a very interesting question.

      On first analysis I would say yes, but I think the problem is more maintaining narrative momentum than telling a story in an environment with complete gameplay freedom.

      My answers would be having the story “chase” the player (i.e. key events happening at the player location regardless of where he is), and/or telling a story where time is more or less irrelevant (so that the story has the same momentum as the player will to follow it.

      An example I can think of would be having a world with NPCs with pre-programmed story arcs which the player will occasionally run into, and where the player’s actions will determine how their story progresses.

  6. keithburgun says:

    I find this story very vindicating – watching Valve, of all videogame companies, trying desperately to not admit that I was right all along. Games Hurt Stories, and Stories Hurt Games:

    link to

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      Wolpaw and Schafer said it correctly in their panel: there is value in all kinds of games, regardless of their storytelling technique. Linear, procedurally-generated, and everything in between adds value to the game space as long as it provides an audience with compelling experiences.

      That we have Uncharted, Plants vs Zombies, The Sims, and Minecraft giving people totally different kinds of experiences is a very good thing, and I’m extremely skeptical of any navel-gazing about how games are only special because they’re interactive or emergent.

    • DarkFarmer says:

      I agree with pretty much everything you say except for the reason that “modern games”, which I guess means games post Playstation era, or post instruction-manual era, is because people want games to be respected like movies. I dont think anybody really cares about the way games are perceived by the “world at large” that much. I think the reason stories exist in games is because the developers want to have more control over the player’s experience for economical reasons. A game where the player has a large number of choices tends to be hard to make look good. You need to have the really intricate levels and enemies for the screen shots and movies and to not have to model everything and its brother you have to limit the player to a more “pro wrestling” like path. I dont think anybody really cares about the story that much. I think really at the end of the day the reason “modern games” kinda suck as far as their scope compared to real old fashioned games is because in general, content is so expensive to produce, they need to basically keep you on rails. I think now that procedural generation is becoming more and more popular, you’ll start to see this stuff fade away more and more.

      • gameoveragain says:

        You mention ‘post-instruction manual era’: this is incredibly upsetting, and glad I’m not the only person to notice. I have a half-an-hour bus journey between me and my nearest game shop – it’s nice to have something to read to break up that boredom, and I have been cheated of this so many times now.

        But I will say that narrative is something that should not have to harm games – we’re still just fumbling around in a relatively new medium. We need to work out how to effectively and engagingly tell stories. I can’t find a link, but in Charlie Brooker’s Gameswipe, Graham Linehan had something good to say about the fact that we’re still telling stories in the way that Zero Wing did.

        • DarkFarmer says:

          well, its not just games. Nothing has an instruction manual anymore. People expect to master even incredibly intricate software like Maya or learn programming languages without reading any primer on it whatsoever these days and if it doesn’t work for them, they cry that the “Interface isn’t intuitive”.

          Oh well. I definitely miss learning about how a game works by reading the instructions, I remember when I bought my first copy of Catan, how excited I was to finally read a new set of rules after so many years of tutorials. /oldmanrants

        • MondSemmel says:

          How can you criticize narrative in games, then agree that it’s upsetting that we are in a ‘post-instruction manual era’?
          Surely manuals, being written, non-interactive, etc., are the perfect example of what _not_ to do with games? Games Hurt Manuals, Manuals Hurt Games?
          I don’t see why we need have manuals when most of what would be in there could be learned so much faster in an interactive, in-game tutorial. Plus, learning by doing probably makes everything you learned more memorable, too.

          • NathanH says:

            Manuals are for reading when you’re not physically capable of playing the game, of course.

      • NathanH says:

        Although I agree with this, I don’t think we should dismiss the existence of people who want gaming to be “taken seriously” so quickly. There are quite a few journalists and commenters who make exactly that point, and they need to be resisted. It’s natural and understandable that they seek validation for their hobby, but it’s still poison that needs to be resisted.

  7. Ultra Superior says:

    Will there be any new Valve game ? Like, their own game, not another Portal or Dota or whatever they buy and slap Valve label at?

    I’m always amazed to see Valve widely perceived as a developer studio….. Team Fortress 2 ?
    They’re games salesmen, dressed up as devs.

    COME ON VALVE, make a GAME already ! (You may start with HL3, your only IP that was actually conceived in your studio – hows that for a story, huh?)

    • Nick says:

      Get back under your bridge.

      • Ultra Superior says:

        Is that some new L4D map they keep on beta for six months?

        • LintMan says:

          Speaking of L4D, isn’t that Valve original in house development?

          • jorygriffis says:


          • Werthead says:

            Not originally. It was an independent game being made by Turtle Rock Studios. Valve bought them during development, a bit like how they hired the ALIEN SWARM team as well.

            PORTAL I think is different, in that Valve hired the NARBONCULAR DROP team and then they decided to make PORTAL along with other Valve personnel. And of course both L4D2 and PORTAL 2 were developed fully in-house by Valve.

            So I sort of see where the point was coming from, but as a bit of a dig at Valve it didn’t really work. Valve may have brought in some outside help, but it was Valve’s culture, development process and money which led to those games being finished and their sequels being made.

    • zeroskill says:

      Ignorance is bliss.

    • TheTourist314 says:


    • lurkalisk says:

      Uh… All these games make use of technology made by valve, and when they nab ideas from the outside world, they do it by actually employing the people to make it, thereby making ALL these games in-house titles.

    • kemryl says:

      I sort of agree with what Ultra Superior’s saying on this. I never understood why people applaud valve as being especially innovative game developers for any reason other than Half Life 1, which came out quite a while ago. They innovate the hell out of the business and research side of things, and my hat has to go off to them for that, but I can’t say I’ve ever thought they were that great at making innovative games.

      It seems to me that their more inventive titles are ones they nabbed out of the indie space and gave a few thousand coats of polish, and the few they came up with one their own have really stagnated. Half Life 2 was gameplay-wise the spitting image of Half Life 1, and is to me the shining example of a linear story-driven manshoot, which also means it falls into the trappings of being a linear story-driven manshoot. The episodes got to be too much for me to handle once I saw that there were no real additions made to the gameplay and no much needed reworking of the source engine.

      I don’t really agree with their philosophy on how games should be made, either. I remember watching an interview with Gabe Newell, where he was explaining how their fancy QA showed them how to make players subconsciously gravitate toward a given path through a level by decorating the level a certain way. Of course, the path they prettied up to make players choose it is the only path that lets you progress.

      That’s amazing that they have mastered their specific craft to such an extent that they can get 80% of players to make the same decision, but to cast aside meaningful choice that way flies in the face of the biggest strength of videogames as a medium: player agency. It feels like, when I play it, the developer doesn’t trust my ability to choose, doesn’t trust their own game world to accept my choice, and are afraid to take advantage of the medium they chose to tell a story in. What you end up with is a world that only “works” when and in the manner that the developers think it should, but leaves no room for the player to experience it to their liking. It all feels very condescending, really. I don’t understand why Call of Duty’s everpresent “Follow” command is lambasted, when valve really do the same thing with their games, just behind the curtains a bit.

      However, I think valve’s employees always have the most interesting things to say about games out of any developer out there, and I just wish they weren’t so risk averse because I know they could do some awfully incredible things if they weren’t so set on designing around statistics.

      inb4 troll etc

      • VelvetFistIronGlove says:

        In a linear game, the two techniques are functionally equivalent: they make it clear to the player which way is the only way to proceed. That one does it with the subtlety of a brick to the face and the other with a little more finesse does not, as you say, change the fact that the level in both cases has only a single path.

        But the same technique Gabe described is also useful in multilinear levels—e.g. in Team Fortress 2—to make the various connecting paths stand out to the player from the various nooks and crannies and cul-de-sacs, allowing a player unfamiliar with the map to still navigate effectively with relative ease. In a completely open (i.e. nonlinear) world, the technique can be employed again to emphasise certain directions over others; although the world allows the player to go anywhere they want, as a designer you still want to draw their attention more to some areas than others.

        • kemryl says:

          Yes, when used correctly I think the technique can be an excellent way to keep a player progressing without breaking any immersion or impeding the flow of the game, and valve do use it excellently in their multiplayer titles. I just don’t think it helps their singleplayer games, at least in the way they have employed it.

          By providing the illusion of choice but making one choice “false”, they trade meaningful interaction and level complexity for an improvement in player progression and, I assume, a drop in production overhead. I suppose that all makes some business sense, but it really doesn’t make sense to me as far as building a believable world and a rewarding game goes. I wouldn’t be surprised if valve has access to information that would make me reconsider, but then I wonder how games like STALKER and Morrowind are so compelling even though they have a near opposite design philosophy.

    • DrGonzo says:

      Team Fortress 2 is their property. They created the original Team Fortress mod for Quake. They ARE these people. You don’t understand what a game developer is, or how game production works.

      • Werthead says:

        That’s not strictly accurate. The creators of the original TEAM FORTRESS mod were hired by Valve after Valve were founded and after HALF-LIFE came out to port TEAM FORTRESS to the HALF-LIFE engine. The modders certainly didn’t make TEAM FORTRESS and then form Valve, which is how your statement reads.

        There is zero argument against the fact that Valve are a great developer and have great people working for them who make very good games. However, the point that they have only one franchise (well, two if you count RICOCHET) which is 100% their own creation is hard to refute. TEAM FORTRESS, COUNTER-STRIKE, ALIEN SWARM and LEFT 4 DEAD all came from from outside teams that Valve later hired, and PORTAL is effectively a remake of an indie game after Valve hired the same team.

        Fantastic work by Valve for doing so, and certainly knowing to hire the right people is a key part of being a good developer, but it would be interesting to see Valve’s internal team sit down and come up with something 100% original, new and unique to them (after HALF-LIFE 3, of course).

        • Ultra Superior says:

          Thank you for a well-informed input. I’m also aware of Ricochet, though I don’t consider that game to be particularly original either (Erm…Tron).

          However I don’t criticize Valve – they’re obviously extremely successful and talented people. I just don’t like the blind praise labeling them such amazing developers, while in fact, they’re more investors and businessmen rather than a studio with its own vision.

          Of course their games have a top-notch production value – imagine sitting on unlimited piles of money, imagine having faithful audience that worships you even after you ignore their demands for ten years.

          They can BUY all the polish in the world. That isn’t the same playing field as what the 99.9% of other developers have.

          I wonder if all that praised paradise-like corporate culture makes the creative talent thrive, or rather slowly suffocate, sleeping lazily in Gabe’s well-fed embrace.

        • VelvetFistIronGlove says:

          Portal is a remake of Narbacular drop in the same way that Half-Life was a remake of DOOM.

          • Werthead says:

            Not really.

            PORTAL is a ‘spiritual successor’ to NARBACULAR DROP, using the same, specific core mechanic. It’s made by the same team of people. The relationship between the two games is extremely clear.

            HALF-LIFE shares nothing with DOOM aside from the very general trappings of the genre (shoot people with guns).

          • JackShandy says:

            Sounds to me like Half Life and Doom share the same, specific core mechanic.

        • zeroskill says:

          What “internal team”? Everybody that is working at Valve is part of Valve and is working on every project Valve is working on right now, there is no “internal team”. Even the original team that made Half-life 1 was hired from the communtiy. Stop talking about things you obviously have no clue about.

  8. Runs With Foxes says:

    This is pretty hilarious. The people who go about how Games Need Great Writing And Stories often point to the work of Wolpaw and Schafer. And here they are saying that player agency is what games are all about.

    It’s pretty telling that games like Minecraft and Day Z become hugely popular, while narrative-driven nongames like Dear Esther remain the purview of navel-gazing gamez jernalists desperate to find something to write about. Maybe game companies might finally understand that they should be making games that are actually games, not wannabe movies.

    • jaheira says:

      Dear Esther sold 100,000 copies.
      There’s room in life for more than one type of game.
      Capitalising a phrase in order to belittle it’s meaning is decidedly vieux chapeau. Get some new schtick.

      • Runs With Foxes says:

        Did the 100k sell based on Dear Esther’s gameplay (or whatever Walking Around Aimlessly can be categorised as, because it sure as shit isn’t gameplay)? Or because those navel-gazers generated some buzz by spending thousands of words trying to pretend they’re intelligent?

        By contrast, Day Z attracted a million players because of the amazing stories players created out of the game’s consistent simulation. As even the narrative-focused Wolpaw and Schafer have now said, that’s where it’s at.

        • jorygriffis says:

          Your first paragraph is meaningless conjecture. I’m a fan of Day Z and didn’t much care for Dear Esther, but I think it’s fair to assume that the many, many people that said they enjoyed Dear Esther probably weren’t lying about it.

          Your second paragraph is, as numerous other comments have pointed out, based on assumption, outright fabrication, and some very tenuous logic.

          • Runs With Foxes says:

            Nobody actually enjoyed Dear Esther.

          • VelvetFistIronGlove says:

            I’m a big fan of Dear Esther and DayZ. They do very, very different things, both of which I find engaging and inspiring.

          • JackShandy says:

            Come on, Velvet, we all know you don’t exist. Stop pretending.

        • Totally heterosexual says:

          Plenty of people “actually enjoyed” Dear Esther. What the hell are you talking about?

        • ffordesoon says:

          Dear Esther’s an interesting proof of concept, but there’s no attempt made to engage the player in the story being told, which hurts it. Even just having control of the flashlight and having the slices of narrative come a tad faster would have immeasurably improved it, I think. Also a better save system. While the randomized story gimmick is cute, and the writing is lovely, if a little too pleased with itself and obsessed with using dictionary words, the narrative is too divorced from the player to work as well as it should.

          Thirty Flights and Gravity Bone are far more successful, because the player is always in control of the pace of the story, and they’re short enough that the player never wants to take a break.


          I don’t care for racing games. Nobody does. I wish gamez jernalists would stop sucking up to the makers of racing games in their desperate quest to validate their meaningless profession. Just parrot the latest press releases at us, you sad little men! Stop talking about racing games! Nobody likes them, and nobody likes reams of navel-gazing about the perfect curvature of an F1 wheel, and everyone should realize that! Get back to talking about real games that don’t have cars in them!

          Remind you of anyone? :P

        • DrGonzo says:

          I loved Dear Esther. I would argue it’s just as interactive as any other first person game. CoD is only superficially interactive. Dear Esther said sod that, let’s let the users engage their brains.

          But a much better example of the arty narrative game is The Stanley Parable. It’s properly interactive and does something genuinely refreshing.

          But I love how terrified and angry people get about Dear Esther. I think it went over your head didn’t it? Does having to think about a narrative scare you? Or have you just not played it and live under a bridge?

          • Runs With Foxes says:

            I have no problem with Dear Esther existing. It just shouldn’t be called a game.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      Schafer said no such thing, he went to great lengths to defend the use of story and narrative writing in games.

    • Askeladd says:

      As I understood it they want to somehow tell a story and bring in the freedom of choice that for example Day Z provides to it’s players. The only problem seems to be how those two should interact.
      If you put one into a game it usually cancels out the effect of the other, so it’s kinda hard.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      “while narrative-driven nongames like Dear Esther remain the purview of navel-gazing gamez jernalists desperate to find something to write about”

      Oh dear.

      As much as I think Dear Esther is easy to criticise – and it really is – this kind of attitude is deeply unhelpful. Games are about agency, but as a form they are also about diversity. You simply cannot argue that story is a small part of that. It isn’t. Moreover, attempting to say what games “are” or should be, is self-defeating, precisely because it limits what they can be.

      Sure, don’t play games like Dear Esther, but decrying them, or the people who do enjoy them, does nothing but make you look miserable. Games mean different things to different people. And Dear Esther sold well in excess of 100k, so it’s hardly just “navel-gazing gamez jernalists” who bought into it.

      Also the idea that anyone in games journalism is “desperate to find something to write about” is laughable. Have you seen how much content we put up *every day*? The issue is not finding stuff to write about, it’s finding time to actually write it.

      • Runs With Foxes says:

        Defining something does not limit creative output. It might limit what can be included in certain categories, but that means you’re better able to discuss and analyse them intelligently and meaningfully.

        Without a meaningful definition of game, you’ll end up with a situation like RPS reviewing visual novels, or something ridiculous like that.

        • jorygriffis says:

          You’re right. Films such as Dear Esther and Thirty Flights of Loving clearly don’t belong on a PC gaming website. What a blunder!

        • hello_mr.Trout says:

          ‘that means you’re better able to discuss and analyse them [games] intelligently and meaningfully.’

          ‘while narrative-driven nongames like Dear Esther remain the purview of navel-gazing gamez jernalists desperate to find something to write about. Maybe game companies might finally understand that they should be making games that are actually games, not wannabe movies.’

          • DrGonzo says:

            It’s interesting. Because I see Dear Esther as trying to embrace the fact it’s interactive. With a story that changes each time you play it etc. Very far from cinematic.

            Unlike say, Gears of War which is trying to lay down a cinematic film, with abstract ‘game’ bits in between the cutscenes.

        • rustybroomhandle says:

          Actually, RPS have reviewed visual novels. Nothing wrong with that. Authors like Christine Love utilise that genre to very good effect.

  9. ffordesoon says:

    Terrifically interesting stuff!

  10. HumpX says:

    Is Chet still at Valve?

    • TheTourist314 says:

      He is. He and Erik did their own panel on Saturday about Narrative and what makes a story in Games. I got to meet them both! Woo!

  11. bill says:

    I think there’s room for the entire spectrum of games.

    I’ve always wondered why there has been so little development in the area of AI gamesmasters. It seems like one possibly interesting approach to allowing player agency and keeping things interesting, moving and having a story.

    Given how much games have taken from RPGs I always assumed the natural next step would be for computers to become GMs. I remember playing old VGA rpgs and expecting that the next development would be AI gms who’d react and adapt to player actions. The same when I tried to play the first Vampire RPG game.

    But games have focused so much on graphics over those years, and we’ve gone from pixel sprites to fully textured, shadered, bump mapped 3d objects. Yet in terms of actually evolving the gameplay / narative we’ve just had a few baby steps.

    • jrodman says:

      There are a lot of procedural games being written. That is “AI gamemasters”. Your first roguelike was one of these.

      If you want the procedural system to be smart enough to write an engaging, thought provoking story, and work the story flexibly to the needs of the players, then you can keep waiting. That advancement is not coming soon.

      • bill says:

        That’s not really what i understood procedural games to mean. though i might be wrong or there might well be some overlap. Procedural seems to be essentially randomly generated (withing some set rules. I guess you could say that the procedural generation of something like Spelunky does create the “story”. But it’s not exactly story as we are talking here).

        What i mean is there isn’t much AI to it. there isn’t much reaction to the player. For example P&P RPGs tend to have defined scenarios and some kind of loose overall plan – but then the players have a lot of agency in what they do and how they respond. The GM then is mainly fitting their actions into the context of the scenario and deciding what would be the best thing to happen next to keep things fun.

        I agree that i’ll probably be waiting a long time, but imagine if the amount of resources that has gone into graphics had gone into AI. (we could all have $400 AI cards!)

        The writer could create a number of scenarios into which to throw the players, but then they’d have a lot more agency within them. The AI would respond to those actions in the way that makes the game the most fun, and attempt to keep the story flowing in the correct direction.
        It’s the only way I can see agency and story really coexisting.

  12. keithburgun says:

    Me and some friends responded to this article on the GAME DESIGN THEORY PODCAST tonight. Listen here: link to

  13. Lemming says:

    “Like Jim’s robot game [Sir, You Are Being Hunted] looks really neat. I don’t know what he’s doing narratively with it, but as something I want to play, it looks pretty cool.”

    No pressure, Jim!

    In regards to the article though, I think Erik is being a little hard on himself. I think the full player agency model is here to stay, but I don’t think it can survive alone. We need the narrative driven games. I can’t be the only one who’d rather play another Portal 2 than Minecraft any day of the week?

    • Wang Tang says:

      You’re not alone *pats you your shoulder*
      Yes, please give me more Portals, Bioshocks, Mass Effects and Deus Exes!

  14. RagingLion says:

    One of my favourite things to read on RPS in the past few months.

  15. Gary W says:

    Some of my favourite games have rather light narrative and just rely on ultra-refined gameplay loops that they repeat over and over. Viewtiful Joe and God Hand, for example. DOOM.

    So just chuck the story in there at the last minute?