So What's Your Story?: BioWare's Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk
(Contributor: Gus Mastrapa)
Left: Ray Muzyka; right: Greg Zeschuk. Yes, they're both doctors. No, they will not take a look at your boo-boo.
With plot-intensive titles such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect on their resumes, it's clear that Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk love to spin yarns. As development on their latest game, Dragon Age: Origins, comes into the home stretch, the founders of BioWare pulled back the veil to show it off during GDC.
During the interview that follows -- where Gus Mastrapa was kind enough to back me up -- Muzyka and Zeschuk hold forth on mass media perceptions, story integration and world-building. Start scrolling to hear how the two Canadian M.D.s handle both the big picture and the little details in BioWare's games.
Evan Narcisse: I wanted to start off by addressing something that's on the official BioWare Web site. On it, there's a quote attributed to you guys that says, "BioWare's vision is to deliver the best story-driven games in the world." In the videogame industry, there's such a low premium placed on story. What makes that the tent pole that you guys want to base your properties on?
Ray Muzyka: I'd say that the bigger tent pole is emotion, and story is more of a path towards that. You create that path with the characters, the story and the narrative, by making choices and having consequences result in the narrative flow. Narrative is bigger than just story, too. Story's one valid way -- an important way -- to get narratives conveyed, but narrative can be the social interaction outside a game, in community interactions or user-generated content.
Jade Empire, BioWare's widely acclaimed martial-arts RPG, found success first on the original Xbox in 2005 and then on the PC in 2007.
There's the moment-to-moment narrative in combat, as you head from tactical decision to tactical decision, or the narrative of an explorer as you go from place to place. For us, we want it to take you beyond story, beyond narrative and ultimately to emotion. We want you to feel something, like you're an explorer with a sense of awe at discovery, or visceral fear if you go into combat and you think you might die. We're concerned with making you believe these are credible characters that you're traveling the world with, and making tough choices regarding them. That's the endpoint for us, emotion. It's this thing you're always reaching for, as opposed to a goal, because you never quite reach genuine, true emotion in any artistic endeavor. But you can get closer and closer, and every project strives for more genuine emotional engagement.
Greg Zeschuk: It's what we think of in a long-term view, with creating emotion as the endpoint. A third of the games that come out in a year are basically technology demos about how many characters are up on the screen. So, once you reckon with that, what do you do? For us, it's try and tell better stories. We know the tech's not that far off from the point where we'll all have engines that are pretty similar and they'll all look awesome. If we want to do super-realistic, we can; and if we want to do cartoony, rubbery guys, we can. Now it's all about how you tell the story.
Narcisse: So, you're kind of anticipating hitting the high point of the Uncanny Valley graph, then? Where eventually, game characters are going to look just like us??
Zeschuk: I think so. Another thing to relate it to is CGI in the theaters. No more is it the fact that "Wow, it's a CG movie." It's funny. When you look at "Coraline," it's celebrated that it wasn't CG. It's gotten to the point where CG is just the medium?
Muzyka: You know you've won when they stop talking about the medium and they talk about the result and the impact and the characters. More and more, you're having conversations about the art of it and the emotions, and less about whether they look real or not. Because if you don't even notice it anymore, then you've transcended that interface barrier, and you've broken through that to "it's an art form."
Narcisse: At a panel I went to at DICE, a THQ exec said that working on better story could be an easier way to earn better Metacritic scores because it gives writers something else to write about. His basic point was that it's cheaper than spending money on the other elements of developing a game.
Sometimes, instead of letting the talking do the talking, Mass Effect's Commander Shepard let his gun speak for him.
Muzyka: That sounds like a comment from someone who hasn't actually done it, because story isn't cheaper. Story's actually more expensive, because it's not superficial. Every aspect of a game has to flow into creating emotional engagement. You have to invest in the world, in the history of the world that a player ever gets to see. It's like an iceberg; it's there and has weight, yet all the players see is this top part. But the top part feels real because of the other stuff under the water. You have to invest in a whole bunch of stuff to make that happen. You have to make sure the characters comment on the world, the exploration, the combat and interactions amongst themselves. You actually multiply the possibility space of what you have to manage and test exponentially, when you add a dimension like deeper story.
Zeschuk: We actually run across a lot of folks who say, "We're doing a ton of story in our game." And, it's like, "Okay, but how do you deliver it?" On the written page, a guy sits down at a typewriter and writes it. In a game, there are so many choices. Part of the brilliance of BioShock, for example, was the environment telling so much of the story.
Muzyka: And that's an example of a game where the story is integrated at the deepest level.
Zeschuk: So, to change the BioShock story means to change the environment. That's not cheap. It's in the story delivery tools and techniques. For us, who've been doing this for seven years, it's not been easy to get characters on the screen that you want to watch. Usually, they're kind of embarrassing. When they're discussing story, people forget that the trick to games is that it's not clear what the best way is to deliver story yet. We use the dialogue method a lot, but we use other subtle methods. Valve somehow magically gets story out of their stuff.
Muzyka: Well, they have characters that comment on their world, and free control of the camera during that stuff as well, and the environment reacts to your actions?
It's a safe bet that the guys in the nooses probably lost their battle.
Zeschuk: I'm being a little facetious. [Laughter] But they do it their own way. If you say there are like five or six techniques, they're all big investments.
Muzyka: And, we're trying to use all of them, too. Story through narrative, voiceover and characters is one that we're known for, but if you look at a game like Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect or Knights of the Old Republic, you'll see the other techniques, too. I think you'll start to see us talking more about these things as well. Just talking through them and getting reactions from people at panels actually helps us understand what it is we're trying to do, and how we're surfacing these things in the game.
Narcisse: In this business, the focus tends to be on game mechanics, and it trumps the focus on story. Do you think things have to be that way?
Muzyka: No; [for us] story's so integrated into the game mechanics that it's one and the same. Internally, we talk about BioWare's pillars, and there's a narrative in each of those pillars as well. There's a meta-narrative of those all weaving together; there's a meta-narrative outside the game. It's the dance of combat. You can take a three-minute boxing round and moment to moment, a fighter ducks and punches right, left. If you could slow it down frame-by-frame, there's a combat narrative and an exploration narrative. Which areas you go to first, second, third or fourth in a game; it's kind of mechanical when you describe it that way. But, when you think about the impact of that -- your first experience as an adventurer going through a really difficult area, versus your first experience as an adventurer going into a nice, safe town and talking to the townspeople -- your whole experience of the game world is going to be different. That's a narrative?
Narcisse: And that kind of choice sets up hostile or anticipatory feelings in the player.
Muzyka: Right. You have a chill going through you in every new area if you think you might be defeated, versus "I'm looking forward to talking to the townspeople." Progression customization creates a narrative, too, with a sense of pride. Because of the way it branches, it could go in so many ways, depending on what class and what origin you choose or the abilities you choose to level up. Dragon Age plays totally differently, depending on which non-player characters you have with you. I was walking with Liliana and Morgan -- two of the characters in the demo -- and totally random conversations started happening that I hadn't heard before, where Liliana was telling Morgan how she likes to shop. I was listening to this, thinking it was kind of surreal. But these are real characters. You wouldn't have that unless you happened to be traveling around at that moment with those characters.
Gus Mastrapa: You're talking about kinds of narrative that are partially steered by the player, so there's a kind of co-authorship?
Muzyka: Yeah, you're the actor and director at the center of the experience.
Mastrapa: How do you think about that, working with players as a co-author and approaching their contribution and empowering them to contribute to that?
Zeschuk: Some of the considerations are technical. One of the things we have on Dragon Age internally is this telemetry that shows exactly what players are doing everywhere. So, part of it's observational. When you structure an area, you want certain events to fire at certain times. These tools allow us to know the path that people naturally take through an environment. If we see that people always go this way, why don't we put something there that they're going to notice. It's a function of knowing what the player's going to do -- at least, the majority of players -- and then populating the environment accordingly. One interesting example of that happens in Fallout 3. You know how you'd find these little shops? What was unusual was when I found this entire room under a bridge filled with toilet seats, piled in these intricate pillars. If you put yourself into the game world, you go "Well, what's the story behind this?" That's an example of how you can create these little scenarios that make people's minds start racing.
The battles in Dragon Age have 100-percent more mystical canines than the fights in Mass Effect.
Muzyka: That's the iceberg underneath the surface. That's the player fiction that they might reference. Given that they've got user-generated content tools now, maybe players can make additional dialogue plug-ins to explain that room or generate a quest based on it.
Zeschuk: "Your job is to collect the toilet seats."
Muzyka: You can manifest the co-authorship, not just behind the scenes or one player at a time, but you can show it and share it because you have tools that allow players to make new content, and then talk about the content in forums where even more new ideas could come up. I think that's kind of cool, because the players always surprise us.
Zeschuk: Also, on some level, that is considered "fun." Quantifying fun is very difficult, in terms of teasing out the pieces. But there may be certain activities that work particularly well. Ray's been talking about tactical combat, and how winning at that may make you feel smart. Discovering something really amazing is fun because it's personal. In this case, imagining a little story or triggering a sequence of events is fun because you've influenced the world. The concept of fun is interestingly dispersed amongst these worlds and maybe that's one of them.
Muzyka: The neat thing about Dragon Age is that, depending on your origin and the party you travel with, you won't be able to do certain things like, say, open a chest without a thief in your party.
Narcisse: So, you're really poking at players' OCD, then?
Muzyka: [Laughs] It's a real world. It's just like you can't go in every area in the real world in a set amount of time. You do want to allow players to explore most of the content because it's an art form; but it's also commercial, so you don't want to have content that's wasted. On the other hand, having the water-cooler talk where players compare very different experiences through the same narrative framework is cool: "Do you remember that moment where??" "No, that didn't happen to me!" Increasingly, our games will be geared to those kinds of experiences.
Narcisse: What would you like other developers to rethink in terms of emotion or narrative or story?
Zeschuk: I'd say, "Think of it earlier in the process." For us, we really do think of it right at the beginning.
Muzyka: Some [other developers] do.
Zeschuk: Yeah, but the analogy you always have is, "Hey, we made this awesome shooter. Okay, now what's the story? Why are we shooting these creatures that we made that are also cool?" I mean, we did that, too. I remember, years and years ago with Shattered Steel? [To Muzyka] Do you remember this?
Muzyka: Oh, yeah.
Zeschuk: Literally, it was the weekend the game was getting finished, and me and Ray were like, "What's the backstory on this? Why are the players doing this stuff?" It's the night before the game's shipping and we're banging out stuff like, "Hey, that sounds pretty good!" That's the tradition of game story. And that's the last time we did that.
What, were you thinking a game with "Dragon" in the title wouldn't have fire?
Muzyka: We learned something there. On Baldur's Gate, we took a different approach, spending a lot of time up front building that iceberg, so the part that surfaces on top felt that much more real.
Mastrapa: Last year at GDC, during the Portal talk, Eric Wolpaw talked up the difference between story and action. Action is, you're killing a bunch of people and there are ghosts everywhere, and you go and run and talk to a guy and he's just disconnected -- like, "Hey, how's it going?"
Muzyka: You ever hear of someone named Richard Bartle, who did the two-by-two matrix of players acting on a world and acting on themselves?
Mastrapa: Yeah, I have.
Muzyka: So, there, story is social interaction. It's a form of action where you're making choices. It can be active; it doesn't have to be passive.
Mastrapa: The example Wolpaw gave -- where an NPC standing in a haunted house was having a normal conversation with you -- was about the action and the narrative not intersecting.
Muzyka: That's also the Uncanny Valley problem, too. It's not just about the characters looking real; it's about them feeling real, too. That's why story adds so much complexity to the game development process.
Zeschuk: Yeah. Is that NPC hiding in a closet with a bunch of crosses and garlic?
Muzyka: Then, your animation, AI, QA, programming and production processes all have to be different. Your environment has to be different to account for that closet door. It all changes. Again, that's the kind of thing [the designers of] BioShock did really well with their voiceovers, and you could see the evolution of their craft over the years as well. I'm a big fan of their stuff.
Zeschuk: No one wants the hole poked into their reality, like "Hello, I'm having tea here in the vampire haunted house."
Mastrapa: The thing that's interesting to me is that there's this kind of base-level story that's told by the action of a game, and there's this overarching action?
Muzyka: And that's often implied. You have to infer things and that's cool. You make the player feel smart.
Mastrapa: Someone had described the story of Fallout 3 to me as, "You need six bullets and you have five." And that tension is spread out through this sprawling game. When you guys make a game, are you able to find a tension that's parallel, or do you have different kinds of tensions that you rely on?
Zeschuk: We build smaller islands of tensions. You don't want to have continuous tension. You want tension/release, tension/release. I think that's why we've always opted for chunks of tension that end -- so you can take a breather. The Zelda games do that particularly well.
Narcisse: I want to shift gears a little and ask about the sex controversy that came up with Mass Effect. Do you think it's the fate of any game that takes on sexuality to be pigeonholed -- and wrongly so -- the way Mass Effect was? If you had your druthers, what would you have preferred that the mainstream media had focused on?
Muzyka: I think any art form undergoes an evolution in terms of how people perceive it, and games are going through the same evolution that painting, music, movies, literature?
Zeschuk: Good news, good news ? Twitter's going to get them looking in their direction. I'm not joking.
Muzyka: Wait, so you're saying Twitter's an art form?
Narcisse: In some people's hands.
Muzyka: I'm not disagreeing with you. I'm intrigued.
Mastrapa: It's a means of expression.
Muzyka: True, and that's an element of art, for sure.
Zeschuk: Sorry I interrupted. But I do think we've almost passed [that time of games being misunderstood].
Muzyka: I think it's just part of a normal maturation as the history of an art form -- it's a commercial art form, sure -- develops. People like to attack what they don't understand, but the good part of that is that it provokes an emotional response. The thing that people miss is the actual view of sexuality in Mass Effect or other games. We've actually had this in all of our games. It's in Dragon Age; it's in Mass Effect 2; it's in everything moving forward. It's not something we're shying away from in any way.
Zeschuk: It's not like it's all that graphic, either. It's actually less than what you see on, like, DirecTV.
Here's where you go in the Dragon Age world to become as smart as Mssrs. Muzyka and Zeschuk.
Muzyka: And that's the point. [Fox News] missed the point and they took it out of context. The scenes that were shown, that was all [the sex] was in [Mass Effect]. But, to get there, it's the journey that's the more important thing. The romantic journey of building a relationship over dozens of hours -- representing lots of real-world time, once you translate the game time to the real world -- it's a normal way to interact as humans. Romance, friendship and hatred are valid expressions of relationships, and we're trying to reflect those in the game.
Narcisse: Would you have preferred them to have looked at the entire character arc as opposed to just one point on it?
Muzyka: Yeah, because that's looking at the art as a whole. Michelangelo ? I'm not saying our art is equivalent art to Michelangelo's?
Zeschuk: I would say it's better?
Muzyka: I'm sure, as an artist who was painting a scene, he didn't want people to focus on one thing. I'm sure they did, because they attacked his work.
Mastrapa: Even centuries later, they attacked the sculpture of David, right? Because of one thing?
Muzyka: He had to paint over some of the stuff in the Sistine Chapel, as well. When I visited the Sistine Chapel, I learned that, after one of the popes who persecuted Michelangelo died, he painted him with some very unflattering features in the lowest reaches of the lower planes. That was an artist who was frustrated at the time with the persecution of the mass media, and the mass media at the time was the Vatican, say, for him.
Mastrapa: So will there be a town crier with a very small package in Dragon Age?
Zeschuk: "I'm Sean Hannity!"
Muzyka: That would be funny, wouldn't it?
Zeschuk: But, again, I honestly think we're moving past it. There's a Wii in the White House. Curt Schilling retires and he proudly comments on the fact that he's a gamer.
Muzyka: Wouldn't have seen that 10, 20 years ago ? and he's the kind of gamer in genres you wouldn't necessarily expect, MMOs and RPGs.
Zeschuk: With all that, I don't know that there's going to be a follow-up story.
Muzyka: I think that the answer we have is simply to quietly, confidently execute, again, the same kinds of themes that we always have in our games. We'll continue to push the quality in them, and people will want to talk about them again. And I'd hope that they look at the whole picture so that they understand in context how it all fits. Will they? You can't make people do things, but we had a lot of supporters come up and advocate [for us]. I think that's a sign of the times, as well, that more and more people?
Zeschuk: People aren't afraid to take a stand.