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Old 07-04-2006, 06:55 PM   #1
Evil Dead
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[Live Interview] Sheldon Pacotti - Deus Ex series - Part 1

Reminiscing Deus Ex With Sheldon Pacotti - Deus Ex Series, Game Writing, Mainstream Game Development
Jonathan S. "Liquidize105"

Jonathan: Hey Sheldon.

Sheldon: Howdy. Were you wanting to talk today?

Jonathan: Yep. You off work?

Sheldon: Yeah, no work today. I'm happy to field some questions.

Jonathan: Let's do it.

Jonathan: Tell me, how did you end up at NetDevil? They don't strike me as a story-centric game company.

Sheldon: Well, I was between projects. There was some uncertainty at the studio where I was at (Secret Level), and I had this chance to get involved with a sci-fi MMO. I really liked the world of the game -- very reminiscent of Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling -- so I took a chance and moved to Colorado.

I was also blown away by the tech behind Auto Assault. Netdevil is in a unique position to take MMO's to the next level.

Jonathan: Hmm, I was curious and jumped the gun. We better take it from the top.

Sheldon: All right.

Jonathan: Who are you and why would you want to work in this industry?

Sheldon: Ah ... the big question.

Let's see... I have a pretty scattershot academic background, with undergraduate degrees in math and English. I've always enjoyed writing and wanted to do it professionally, but along the way spent a lot of time as a programmer in the multimedia industry. Well, at Ion Storm, I finally found a place where I could put both halves of my brain together and tell stories in a medium that suits me.

Jonathan: Deus Ex

Sheldon: Right.

I got my "start" in the business at a company called Human Code, though ... first as the scriptwriter for a game that wasn't released, then as the lead programmer for an edutainment game called Wishbone and the Amazing Odyssey.

Deus Ex was like mana from Heaven, naturally. Warren and his group had already worked out a really compelling universe and storyline by the time I showed up. I threw myself into the project and had a great time both with the characters and learning how to put fiction into a game.

Jonathan: What was your official role on the Deus Ex project?

And you said it, boy that was a fantastic game.

Sheldon: I was the main dialogue writer. It wasn't until Invisible War that I was given the title of "lead writer," but for Deus Ex I did the first complete draft of the dialogue and managed the two contract writers we brought in for the final push (Austin Grossman and Chris Todd).

Jonathan: Uh huh, who did the unvoiced news clippings, the script for the intro sequence, and misc. dialogue.

Sheldon: It was a pretty seasoned team of writers we had by the end of the project. Chris and Austin already had lead design/VP of development caliber credits by the time that they were drafted to help us out. We were lucky to get their help.

Jonathan: What are some of the pitfalls to watch out for when fashioning a game story so that it would harmonize with the sensitivities of the interactive nature of videogames?

Jonathan: To this date, Deus Ex has no equal in this arena.

Sheldon: Hard question... First and foremost, I think that the story has to be good. That's where most games fall on their face. I see why this has happened historically. Games are still trying to find their identity, so often a company's focus will be on the tech, or the level layout, or the art, and there isn't anyone with the time (or vision) to put all the pieces together at a high level.

Beyond that, the game itself has to be meaningful. I think the current buzzword is "meaningful gameplay." You don't need a cut-scene to drive home the significance of landing on Boardwalk when there is a hotel on it. How exactly you create meaning in gameplay is very tricky. I don't know if I have the answer or even the vocabulary to explain it, but I think a game (or any entertainment product) has to be an all-inclusive coherent package, starting with the box art and marketing and moving all the way down to the game's control scheme.

Where exactly storytelling lies depends on the game, but I think even for linear games (to which Deus Ex belongs, in many ways) the fiction has to respond to the gamestate. It doesn't necessarily need to create completely different experiences for every player, but it needs to be alive, reacting to the big things and, hopefully, little things the player does. Like Manderley chewing out the player for sneaking into the lady's restroom in Deus Ex. The things we did with the Deus Ex fiction were pretty simple, really, just combinational logic here and there, but those little touches are what people remember, those moments where they started to believe that the gameworld was real.

Jonathan: I'm going to name a few things that are relevant to the story-gameplay relationship, you tell me what comes to mind.

Sheldon: Okay

Jonathan: 1.) Pacing

Sheldon: Well, I don't know if this is pace, but one really simple dumb rule I learned at Human Code was that the more you can slice up story delivery into the gameplay, the better off you are. The opening of Max Payne II, for instance, has a great feeling of narrative movement because of the numerous quick cut-scenes rather than long story-dumps. The best scene in the edutainment game I worked on was the one where a pushy executive slams the door in the player’s face every time he knocks, delivering one pithy line. This technique, if you could call it that, might just be an artifact of certain game types, though. I think what most of us really want is a movement toward games where the story simply emerges from the game structure itself. Bad pacing is often just an artifact of the irrelevance of a story to the game being played. Story, structurally speaking, is just window dressing even in a tightly conceived adventure game, especially when it is delivered in cinematics that interrupt the gameplay.

Jonathan: I'm going to go off on a tangent here for just a second.

I'm a big fan of Max Payne 1, particularly because the story-gameplay relationship was more or less a logical one. In Max Payne 2, the emphasis placed on the death of a few key characters was kind of absurd considering the number of lives the player takes through out the game.

And furthermore, if we take into account the characterization of Max in the 2nd game, it really was a departure for the series in terms of story relating to the gameplay.

Sheldon: Yeah, the fiction of Max Payne, and a lot of games, is usually standing on wobbly legs due to the nature of the underlying game simulation. The first one became a little silly for me, too, actually, since every story tidbit had to end with: "I couldn't trust anyone. I had to kill everything in sight." Because that was what the gameplay consisted of. We faced similar problems at Secret Level with America's Army: Rise of a Soldier. A saying in the military is that war is "hours of boredom, moments of terror." There was a joke going around internally that our game resembled "hours of terror, moments of dialogue." That isn't to slight the game, though; I think every game that tries to convey a serious message or story runs into that issue. Building an underlying simulation of reality (the game) is still so hard that it can't approach the subtlety and nuance that a simple prose story can.

As for Max Payne 2, I haven't played through the entire game, so I wouldn't want to comment, but I admire the developers' ambition and style.

Jonathan: Fair enough.

Sheldon Pacotti - Lead Writer
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Old 07-04-2006, 06:57 PM   #2
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Jonathan: 2.) Perspective

Jonathan: The first-person perspective is an incredibly powerful narrative device, provided that there's the appropriate graphic fidelity and, like you said, the proper simulation of reality go along with it.

Sheldon: Hmmm ... tricky one. I've heard it said that a game should never take control away from the player. So a first-person game should never cut away to third-person to play a cut-scene. That's the approach that Half-life took and, as I understand it, Crysis is going to take. I think that's an admirable and can be incredibly powerful, because the player is completely immersed in the story. At the same time, storytelling, over the millennia, has evolved very sophisticated ways of dealing with time and space in order to create an emotional effect. Film, too, needed to develop analogous techniques before it was fully mature. I think that there is a lot of room in games to experiment with heterogeneous perspectives in order to create an effect.

Simple example: The way overheard conversations are handled in XIII. A comics panel opens up (a sub-window), and the player sees a scene happening in another room. The player isn't yanked out of the game world, yet there is visual storytelling going on.

Jonathan: That's very interesting to me, because usually it's the gameplay that takes the player out the game space, not the perspective - when the A.I. behavior is repetitive or if the appearance of a place / situation doesn’t comply with logic.

I think I have to disagree with Valve's approach that says: The perspective never changes, but at the same time, the character never speaks.

Sheldon: Interesting point. As a writer, I sometimes experience the same feeling during development. Things are going into the game from all directions, and it's really, really difficult to make sure that they mesh, especially when it comes to gameplay, which is much more abstract than, say, an art style.

I remember on the first Deus Ex coming across a piece of art that had diagram of a device on it and a label for a machine part that said "Flux Capacitor." Being a pointy headed writer, I wrote up a bug on it, not wanting the fiction of the "Deus Ex Universe" to be broken by an allusion to a Michael J. Fox movie. I have no idea of the art was ever changed, but that's a very low-level example of what I think plagues game development. Too many creative people are creating content and no time to review and structure it. I think bad movies are the result of similar problems (based on what little I know of the movie business). Good directors are the ones who can keep everyone moving toward a common vision.

Jonathan: Do you think that by having the player become the main character really contributes to the immersion?

Jonathan: As I understand it, characterization doesn't really impart on the immediate situation, which is what immersion is all about - it's a situational thing where the player takes control of the decision-making ability of the character, regardless of if he is the dude or he's just in those shoes momentarily (or she). There’s a distinctive buildup of concentration, and everything outside of the immediate situation falls away.

In essence, it’s about living the moment with full awareness and control of the self.

Sheldon: Yeah, I don't know. Almost every other medium manages to immerse its audience, and none (okay, few) of them give the audience any control over the characters. I think there are a lot of ways to immerse a player in a world. But I do agree that most straightforward (and probably most powerful) way is to give the player control. I guess my one reason to hold back and not give too much importance to that fact is that we're very good right now at giving the player control, at least with regard to killing things and blowing stuff up, but we're not so good at everything else that surrounds and enhances gameplay.

Thinking of Spore with regard to that ... and Will Wright's approach to design in general. His mantra is to give the player gameplay "verbs" that have semantic meaning in themselves. I think maybe that's partly what you're getting at. Let the player live something, or build something, and you're done. We don't need to give the avatar a name and a red beard.

Sheldon: I agree that this is where games need to go. However, and maybe it's just the writer in me that wants to remain relevant to the 21st century, I have a strong interest in taking all of the window dressing of games (visual storytelling, character, dialogue, etc.) and bringing it in closer to the gameplay. So that a game can be a truly cinematic experience, and still be a game.

Jonathan: I just realized something.

Jonathan: I just realized that HL2's approach to perspective adds to the illusion of the vistas Valve created for the game; it's the environs. But in terms of telling a story, it doesn't provide the kind of overreaching feedback that written responses and scripted events tend to do.

The principle recipient of not switching the perspective is overall environmental immersion, not situational (for the record).

Not being able to respond to characters / situations blows.

Sheldon: Yeah, we had a lot of discussions after Invisible War about how to make better use of the third person. We were making political games in which the player decides the fate of the world, yet our delivery of key story events (oftentimes) came in the form of scrolling radio text across the top of the screen. In the future we wanted to show nations falling, cities burning, jets screaming across the sky... I just think, after five years of trying to cram narrative through the eye of a needle that there is a role in games for the visual techniques and styles of film. But, as we've mentioned earlier, it's not an easy problem, figuring out how to tell a story visually while also allowing the player the control to move through it.

Sheldon: I see your point about not being able to speak in HL. It's an interesting design choice, which perhaps strengthens the fidelity of the overall 3D world, but leaves the player watching it from afar. We were very loathe in the Deus Ex games of giving the player dialogue choices. We did it only when the player could impact the story or affect the gameplay. I could see simply not allowing the player to make dialogue choices at all (i.e. make decisions though game actions). But I do think that it's valuable, for storytelling reasons, for supporting a franchise, and so on, to emphasize a main character's identity in as many ways as you can. For Deus Ex, we gave JC Denton a voice and a visual representation in the game. In Riddick, even in first-person mode, you see Vin Diesel's shadow cast on the ground in front of you. I'm rambling a bit now, but I have to agree that the decision to never break out of the first-person perspective may create more challenges/problems than its worth.

Jonathan: Exactly, and I suppose it's permissible in HL2 because beneath the skin, it’s a FPS, while Deus Ex is a first-person RPG.

Sheldon: Right... It's hard to generalize too strictly, since different games have different needs.

Jonathan: 3.) Gameplay

Sheldon: Gameplay... well, I'll go back to buzzword/phrase "meaningful gameplay." I have a friend who has a Ph.D. in physics, has been devoting himself to breaking into the movie business, and has finally started getting some exciting opportunities. What he wants most is life, though, he's told me, only half-joking, is a panther in WoW. (Or is it a tiger?) The magic of a game that succeeds on every level is that you really care about being able to kill X types of monsters or ride a mount that travels Y km/hr.

To get a little more electron-microscope on you, I'd say that the credible enemies in the opening areas of WoW are a big key to hooking players. You fight scary wolves! Very different from the garden snakes, rats, and spiders of other MMOs I've played. And the underlying math of the combat is probably not so different from other games. But maybe I'm still talking about fictional dressing and not actual gameplay.

Related Interviews:

Come back tomorrow for the concluding half of this live interview with Sheldon Pacotti
The Invisible War Dilemma
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Old 07-04-2006, 07:11 PM   #3
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Is it... is it over?
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Old 07-04-2006, 07:12 PM   #4
Evil Dead
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Nope, it's long. 2nd part tomorrow.

Don't worry, it's done. Just too long.
• • • • Games of Arkane with Raphael Colantonio
• • • BioShock with Ken Levine: 1/2, 2/2
• • Deus Ex Series With Sheldon Pacotti: 1/2, 2/2
• Thief Series With Randy Smith: 1/2, 2/2
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Old 07-04-2006, 07:13 PM   #5
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Alright, I was just expecting a "To Be Continued", or something. Good work so far!
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Old 07-04-2006, 09:42 PM   #6
Panda Love
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Kick ass. How do you get these interviews? Where did you get their email addresses?
I can tell you, with no ego, this is my finest sword.
If, on your journey, you should encounter God, God will be cut.
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Old 07-04-2006, 09:52 PM   #7
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Liquidize is an Internet stalker.
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Old 07-04-2006, 09:55 PM   #8
Soul Reaper
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Good job! Though you might want to talk less and let him talk more.
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Old 07-05-2006, 03:26 AM   #9
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I like the style of it, the interview is more like a conversation. I get the feeling that in conversation type interviews you are getting more out of the person you are interviewing. It is like you spark their thoughts and get them to be more open.
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Old 07-05-2006, 01:09 PM   #10
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It's interesting to see his point of view on things, but he dosen't quite get it on what makes a good director either imho.

A good director's "vision" is just something compelling enough to give everybody working on the team a vision of their own. If the vision of their own contrasts with your personal vision that is inevitable but you HAVE to let each person do their thing in their own fields.

His actions on the 'flux capacitor' label are dead opposite from what a good director should do. When writers start telling artists what to do and artists start telling programmers what to do and programmers start telling marketing people what to do then you will end up with a game that is the lowest common denominator.
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