Obsidian, Bohemia, Tornquist, Splash Damage On Story

Just wrapped up at the second day of Rezzed 2013 is the second Walker-hosted dev panel, this time focusing on whether storytelling in them there electronic videogames is getting any better. You can watch the hour long talk, featuring Obsidian’s Chris Avellone, Bohemia’s Dean Hall, Red Thread’s Ragnar Tornquist, Spash Damage’s Ed Stern and The Indie Stone’s Will Porter below. It’s just like being there, except you don’t have to sit next to any thin young men frantically scribbling things in notepads.

We’ll probably post more of those in the week, but in the meantime you can watch any of the Rezzed sessions so far here.


  1. grechzoo says:

    Nice panel.

    Was hoping for more input on the linear side of things from Ragnar, both him and Chris, the two most talented storytellers on the panel were kind of overshadowed by Dean Hall talking about how he hates singleplayer games and how DayZ is so fricking dynamic. :D

    Enjoyed it though. will try and get out to rezzed next year i think.

    • Noviere says:

      Hehehe — I was hoping for more of that as well. Dean Hall was certainly interesting, but when I think of “storytelling in games” I think about the story being told… not the story I’m telling about what I experienced after the fact.

      Either way, good panel :)

      • ahmedaak88 says:

        i disagree with the fact that Dean Hall is out of place in here , they said in the panel that the most remembered story’s are the one that been made by the players themselves in fact it might be an evolution of story telling that only games can achieve and the game that showcased this method is dayz ,and you can tell how this method of story telling is affecting the gaming industry by the fact that alot of new games are trying to copy the dayz formula (the Division for example) so yes i think Dean Hall can bring something to this panel .

        • jonahcutter says:

          The “DayZ formula” is an open world where players can either help or hinder each other. Which is a formula that has existed previously in many other games.

          • moisan4 says:

            I agree Dean Hall is very over rated. He created a perfect outlet for trolls and griefers to run rampant terrorizing each other. Having him on the same stage with legends like Chris Avellone and Ragnar Tornquist is almost sacrilege. Those two men created some of the best narrative storytelling ever done in gaming history, and Dean Hall has only made one alpha that has no artistic or intellectual value at all. Sure, one could argue they are on opposite sides of the spectrum, but on a panel about storytelling, having Dog Meat on stage would have contributed more poignant discussion on the topic. Dean’s constant insistence to plug his game at every opportunity didn’t help either. Also, his consistent bashing of the single player narrative being boring at every opportunity really showed a lack of respect to the other members of the panel that have actually created games with powerful and rememberable storytelling.

        • Justin Keverne says:

          DayZ doesn’t do anything more for “storytelling” than performing any activity with other people does. Any time a group of people do something together there will be emergent stories; highly subjective personal accounts of funny or dramatic things that happened. The activity they are performing can be anything, playing a game like DayZ, going to a club, taking a road trip, etc. To imply that DayZ, and similar games, are doing is something revolutionary in the area of “storytelling” is misleading. Its strengths lie in the creation of an interesting context from which player stories can emerge; that’s not an easy task though it is a markedly different task to “storytelling”.

          There are emergent stories everywhere, games might be better at providing a dramatic context for them but they are not necessarily better at creating them or encouraging their creation, that occurs within our brains when we recollect them and structure the events that occurred into some form of narrative.

          What it comes down to is emergent stories are created by the players not the games, the games need not even exist for such stories to be created.

          • shagohad says:

            this comment makes no sense to me….

            how could I generate stories about surviving the zombie apocalypse without a game?

          • Justin Keverne says:

            You need the game to provide the context, but the act of creating the stories exists separately. You create stories about what you did within that context, and that context can be anything from a game about zombies, to a football match, to a road trip.

    • Infinitron says:

      Chris Avellone has become increasingly enamoured with non-scripted storytelling over the years, so I’m not sure he wanted to talk about the linear side of things.

      • Jason Moyer says:

        I’m not sure I’d really call the writing in Avellone’s games linear, anyway. The reason Black Isle/Obsidian stories are so strong is because they’re interactive with actual choices/consequences. The writing in Icewind Dale/Dungeon Siege III is pretty good even without much of that, but the really memorable stories in Obsidian games are stuff like Torment/Kotor2/New Vegas/Alpha Protocol where the narrative is highly malleable.

    • ZyloMarkIII says:

      If there was one person who I wished was at this panel; it would be Brian Mitsoda, the lead writer of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. To this day, I don’t believe I have played a game with that much oomph in character design and story (I will admit, Bastion came pretty close, but the World of Darkness setting won me over). It just astounds me that we haven’t gotten another title like Bloodlines to further extend the boundaries of storytelling and to give us quality dialogue options (Malkavian dialogue options are always quality, no matter what you choose).

      Edited for grammar and punctuation.

      • moisan4 says:

        Brian Mitsoda is currently working on Dead State. It looks like a really interesting game. Think old Fallout with zombies. It’s not going to be released for a while yet, but it looks really promising. I look forward to the player interactions with the NPC’s, and how your decisions on a course of action, and your dialogue choices will affect the outcome and story line of the game. He’s a great writer. Here’s the link to the Dead State home page for more info if you’re interested.

        link to deadstate.doublebearproductions.com

  2. Cross says:

    I hereby declare my love for Ed Stern. That man is amazing to listen to.

    • Noviere says:

      Yeah, he had some really interesting things to say. I didn’t know who he was before this, and was surprised to see that he works for Splash Damage. I’ve never played their games, but multiplayer shooters aren’t really my thing.

      • Oak says:

        Brink was a fantastic work of world-building. It’s just a shame it didn’t have a proper single-player campaign.

    • BubuIIC says:

      I certainly agree, he is a very handsome speaker. And I also did not know him before.

  3. Rollin says:

    I disagree that because games allow a player to act stupidly, that all games should just be ridiculous and not take themselves seriously. Sure, you could kick turtles in Crysis, but that’s no reason to throw everything out of the window and make everything like Saints Row.

    • lordcooper says:

      Agreed, so long as we can make some things like Saints Row.

  4. tigerfort says:

    Re: multiplayer games allowing players to disagree about what to do (~40 min), Larian Studios’ recently kickstarted Divinity RPG (Original Sin) is allegedly going to have a mechanic for allowing this in two-player co-op. I’ll definitely be interested to see how that works out.

  5. Grygus says:

    Starts around the 7 and a half minute mark, in case you’re wondering what’s up with the sound.

  6. Anthile says:

    Damn, Avellone looks buff. Probably to get rid of those RPG Codex assassins.

    • Ashen says:

      Assassins? He’s like the most beloved guy on the codex. Well, maybe not so much after he praised Bethesda in a panel yesterday.

      At least today they had the sense to put him next to Ragnar and Ed. Yesterday he really looked out of place.

      • ffordesoon says:

        To be fair, being “beloved” on RPG Codex translates to “rarely stabbed, and usually not in the face” anywhere else. ;)

    • tnzk says:

      Chris is a very handsome guy, but no, that’s not a buff physique. He’s gotten pudgier.

      I mean, not that it matters unless you’re heading for heart failure, but those guys on the panel weren’t in the fittest of shapes at all. I’d chill with them, though. It’s kinda scary seeing guys at the gym with checking their vasculated muscles after every pump. The whole “Aesthetics” craze is just a little too fruity for my liking.

  7. Bostec says:

    Reply fail.

  8. ShockLobster says:

    Dungeon Siege 3 and NWN2 had abysmal stories. KotOR2 and Alpha Protocol have stories that were hurried up and finished, feel like it, and a lot of blame for that is foisted on publisher pressure. Fallout NV was good but story elements in general were rather unremarkable and par for the course- except they really gave you a nemesis worth hating with the Romans. I’ll entirely give them that.
    They’ve got South Park coming along… but it sounds like they’ll be influenced and directed well enough by Stone and Parker. So if the story is good or bad, I don’t see how Obsidian could be afforded total credit in either case.
    A ‘Wheel of Time’ game? The entire story concept should be buried with its author. It is too late for the touch of any experts to pull that repetitive, creatively bankrupt, mary-sue fantasy military crap into respectable shape. I’m sure the world is desperate for the ‘next thing’, or at least, ‘a similar profitable thing’ to the recent Tolkien and GRRM successes, but Jordan won’t provide it, and I fear Obsidian’s soiling their hands with it.

    I don’t exactly think they’re presiding storytelling experts to the extent they would be on a panel about storytelling I would take serious.

    • TheTingler says:

      In your opinion.

      • ShockLobster says:

        Hence, the button, ‘Opinion, away!’ I imagine.

      • grechzoo says:

        An opinion I would like to agree with,

        Honestly, and its a very harsh opinion so don’t react too violently, but I honestly believe The Wheel of Time is nothing more than glorified Tolkien fan fiction. The writing quality is poor, the ideas are unoriginal, and the “epic” length is so drawn out its like he is trying desperately to fit a mould perfectly rather than tell his own story.

        His defenders will come out and say “all fantasy is essentially Tolkien fan fiction.” Thats not so. Tolkien started a genre, one that writers like GRRM and Erikson (not his biggest fan but he has great ideas) dove into an explored on their own terms.

        Wheel of Time is so formulaic that it read more like a homage than a wholly new universe. (I only got through 1600 pages of the series, so the above opinion is based on the first 1.5 books. which…if you can’t differentiate yourself by then…im not interested.)

        • malkav11 says:

          Book 1 of the Wheel of Time is fairly close to Tolkien pastiche, admittedly, and is not a great introduction to the series. I also can’t blame you for bailing out shortly after that because that is a lot of book even as is. But the series does take very different directions after that and I don’t think it’s remotely accurate to label the Wheel of Time as a whole as being “Tolkien fanfic”. But then, I think a lot of people write a lot of fantasy off as such when very little of it actually is. At most he’s an influence among others.

          This is not to say that I vouch for the quality of the series overall – I enjoyed it as a teenager until it hit a go-nowhere slump in the 9-11 book stretch and I abandoned it at book 10, but I won’t swear that it holds up, and it’s certainly nowhere near as good as the Song of Ice and Fire or the Malazan Book of the Fallen, etc.

          • Jamison Dance says:

            I feel your pain on the book 9-11 quagmire. Maybe it can be partially attributed to Robert Jordan’s old age when writing them. However, when Brandon Sanderson comes in the books improve dramatically. The final stretch of books 12-14 is quite excellent, and the conclusion does pretty well in the impossible task of wrapping up a 20k page long fantasy series. Power through those last ones or just read the plot summary on Wikipedia, and you will get some great fantasy out of it.

          • timethor says:

            I’m a big fan of asoiaf, the malazan books, and also the WoT (still waiting for the paperback of the last book). But they’re all very different series. WoT for the most part is fluffy, simple, “stuff happening in fantasy land with characters you’ve come to know”, almost the fairytales of knights and dragons you were told as a kid. It’s pure escapism, family friendly comfort food. Most books don’t contain anything resembling a gripping storyline, and I probably can’t name more than a few events that I remember happening in all the books combined, but reading 50 pages of the stuff before going to sleep is almost always very pleasant.

            Compare with asoiaf and.. yeah. I wouldn’t call those books comfort food. The first malazan book starts with an introduction where the author explains “this is not going to be easy”. Still good books though, and books that I’ve reread, while rereading WoT is painful (just as watching a new episode of a soap opera is comfort food for many, but how many people rewatch soaps?).

      • malkav11 says:

        Speaking as someone who’s currently intermittently playing Dungeon Siege III with a friend, the story in it is pretty fantastic. Morally nuanced, rich with implicit history and portent, and leavened with amusing things like the constables in Stonehaven and the “Krug” prisoner. I think most people will be familiar enough with Obsidian’s other games to know that they’re pretty strong on the story front as well, but DSIII has been unfairly written off in a lot of places, which is sad. I think the name on the box is its persistent curse as fans of the previous games get something that bears precious little resemblance to them (although I get the impression that the story from those games is referenced by DSIII’s, something I can’t say for sure as I was far too bored with them to really register anything resembling a narrative before I quit), whereas people who (correctly) wrote off the previous games in the franchise as exercises in automated tedium had no incentive to try the very different Dungeon Siege III.

    • Infinitron says:

      There is no Wheel of Time game. It’s vaporware.

    • aepervius says:

      Dungeon siege 3 having a bad story is not a big problem. I mean come on, DS1 and DS2 did not have a much better story. But what was *unforgivable* was the poor gameplay (at least on PC). A poor story I can forgive, a poor gameplay for DS3 kills the game.

    • DrMcCoy says:

      Say what you will about the NWN2 OC, but the expansion Mask of the Betrayer was really damn great.

    • Bhazor says:

      So it says something that even when “rushed” they still make nuanced often highly post modern stories. I heartily recommend the Jedi Jesus let’s play of Kotor 2 that does a good job of highlighting just how much is happening below the surface. As for NWN2 I still say the original campaign was better than Dragon Age: Origins and it was the first RPG to make me laugh since Anachranox.

      And yes publishers have repeatedly screwed them over. Moving release dates, denying bonuses, taking Alpha Protocol away from them for months without letting them work on it.

  9. coldvvvave says:

    Linked article. Someone complains all guests in some event are white males and thats uncomfortable.

    Linked video. White men talk about games.

  10. GrassyGnoll says:

    That was interesting. I was surprised it took so long for Crusader Kings II to get a mention, and from Dean as well, as while it’s not a story driven game but has definite narrative. I don’t remember the tactical moments half as clearly as those tie key events occuring like my heir dieing (assassination) and his younger brother, a canivering weasel, taking over and ballsing things up.

    • grechzoo says:

      I still haven;t played it.

      It seems so inaccessible at first glimpse.

      Are there any fun to watch vids that will help me understand and get into the game?

  11. lebbers says:

    Hey, that was… a really good panel hosted by John Walker. Go figure.

  12. Marshall Stele says:

    From about 36:35, just before the Q&A part of the talk: “There are tons of ways to communicate a story that doesn’t require an invulnerable NPC to follow you around and be Jar Jar-ing you all the time.” Unfortunately John had to let that sit there so as to let others ask questions, but the natural response is “…so how do you feel about Alyx Vance?”

    I think Avellone is right on the money here, but you can’t deny that Alyx Vance tells the story much better than the bulletin boards did in Kleiner’s and Eli’s labs. It’d be little surprise that designers would be tempted to use NPCs in just the same way.

  13. ffordesoon says:

    I am so glad Avellone brought up that moment with the Sublime song in Saints Row. It was one of the best bits of character work I’ve ever seen in a game, and certainly the most efficient one. It’s such a small moment, and one that could have gone so wrong in so many ways, but I swear to God I felt closer to those characters in that moment than I ever have to a GTA protagonist.

    The way that game uses music in general is stunning. The part with the Kanye West song was another one where my jaw dropped, because they choreographed it perfectly while never taking control away from the player. It was one of those scenes that felt like “playing a movie” in a good way.

  14. Rikard Peterson says:

    I played through Spider, and liked it a lot, but I never noticed that there was a story.

  15. Deviija says:

    It was a really nice panel, and a good listen. Would have be nicer still, I think, if there were some women and people of color on the panel as well to chime in on whether the video game storytelling medium is getting any better.

  16. Tacroy says:

    You should totally post Avellone’s talk on Project Eternity too, it was awesome (though unfortunately the questions got shuffled off to the bar later).

  17. Munin says:

    It was a really good panel but how all the discussion around it has gravitated about movies does annoy me a bit.

    Most of the heavily story driven games could never fit in a movie format. The same way that most books need to be heavily edited and cut down. One of the great luxuries games have is the hours of attention players devote to them. That allows designers to include a kind of scope and world building that a film maker could never be able to fit in.

    The only only modern cinematic medium which has that kind of luxury is long run serials. They weren’t even touched upon though.

    To take an expression from the panel, films are flings. They are generally forced to be a short form work whereas like books games can work both as novellas and grand trilogies and most things inbetween.

    Heck, whether the worlds and stories conjured by games could ever match what you get from a good book would be worth discussing as well.

    [e] Really miffed I couldn’t make the Eternity session. Damn friends wanting to have BBQs. *shakes fist* (It was a good one.)

    • Morzak says:

      Really? Most game Stories could fit in a 90 minute Film, no problem. If you get rid of all the unneeded parts that are just there to justify the gameplay. Movies can tell very powerfull stories and are in many ways superior to games in that way. That’s one of the problems of linear games, the Story in those games would only fill 60-120 min of screen time in a motion picture, while it has to carry 6-20h of gameplay.

      Games are tremendous at world building and telling small stories in that world , they are also good in creating characters to care about. The interactive element really elevates those kind of elements. Nothing is as good at creating incredible worlds as games, because they can let you explore them at you’re own pace.

      Open world games aren’t really alll that good when it comes to the main plot, because the pacing can’t be controlled. Those games are good because of the side stories and the characters, the mainplot is just there to give a framework.

      Asking the question, what is better is stupid, Books (much of what is discussed here has not much to do with literature), Movies and Games have different strenths when it comes to storytelling. The question needs to be at which elements does the medium excell.

      I also think there is a place for different styles, Linear Stories can work quite well and aren’t the devil…. Open world / sandbox is great and gives a totall different style of story. I also enjoy stuff like Heavy Rain which is more an interactive Movie then a game, but executes it really well.

  18. AndreTheTinny_withagiantdick says:

    The future of game storytelling is………… GARY´S MOD