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GDC Online: Bushnell On Future Opportunities In Game Storytelling

“It was a dark and stormy night,” began Atari co-founder and industry vetetran Nolan Bushnell, kicking off the narrative summit at GDC Online 2011 by displaying a few slides of global villains and damsels in distress, and concluding with the concept of a hero that saves the day.

“Now you know how to tell a story,” he quipped, to laughter and applause.

When Bushnell helped lay the foundation of the modern video game industry he faced a climate that was challenging for anything even resembling storytelling. In 1969, video game arcades “were basically mechanical slide projectors. This is what passed for a ‘game’ in the arcades back in the early days.”

“All the video games prior to about 1977 … were basically very fast, single-purpose signal generators,” he continued. “They used MSI, if you wanted to add another moving object you had to enter four new chips and solder them in a funny way, and it was one computer … one circuit board per game,” he recalled.

It wasn’t until Pitfall on the Atari VCS that Bushnell felt it was becoming possible to tell stories. “Could I call it narrative? I don’t think so… but out of oaks, smaller trees can grow.”

Simple narratives, like Mario saving the princess from Donkey Kong, or “bad alien monsters” in first person shooters like Doom, began to emerge from more primitive game forms. SimCity allowed players to explore the growth and decline of environments; Bushnell praised Will Wright’s tendency to give players tools that encourage them to build along a narrative arc.

But as games became more sophisticated, a problematic conflict for storytelling emerged. When players have to make choices in an immersive experience, players end up having to switch back and forth between the state of being a voyeur and that of being an actor, in Bushnell’s view.

This breaks belief, he adds. “When you’re watching a movie the objective is you lose your body and become immersed… as a bystander. But the story that is unfolding is one that’s presented by the director and the author and the screenwriter,” he says. “Every time they ask you to make a decision, it’s like pushing you back into your body. They destroy… [the belief] that you are observing this narration unfolding.”

In order to bridge that schism, Bushnell believes that game designers should release their tendency to be very authorial. “In order for it to be rewarding, you have to let go in a certain way and allow the individual to write the story.” He also praised minimalism in animation and graphics in order to make the power of narrative more evident.

Bushnell recently learned how much fun it can be to be immersed in a story one is crafting oneself: “It turns out I wrote a science fiction book this year,” reveals Bushnell, who says he tries to attempt something new every year. He bought books on writing and storytelling and decided to give it a try.

Before long, he was hooked on writing what he describes as a “rollicking romp through the future with some cool people and really hot chicks” (which will be out on Amazon December 1, incidentally).

“I could hardly wait to get up and find out what my characters were going to do that day,” he says. He found the drive surprising: “Having the enjoyment of reaidng while doing the writing… I would have never expected it.”

His experience of writing also reinforced his belief that creativity is not about having great ideas, but about owning them: “Everyone who’s had a shower has had a good idea,” he says. “How many times have you heard ‘that was my idea?’ No, it wasn’t — that wasn’t your idea at all, because your idea is really about… getting ownership.”

Trying to be perfect, especially in the current business climate, can kill creativity, too. “It turns out that perfection kills you. You really don’t want to be perfect. If you’re perfect, you’re too slow, and in the online world and even on cellphones, your ability to upgrade and change and modify is huge. When you force yourself to perfection, it really slows you down, and you may be spending all your time on a game that just sucks. And you want to learn that as quickly as possible.”

Because Bushnell’s vision of the future holds many more opportunities for storytellers.”I don’t believe there will be another major console,” he states. The cost to platform holders to have essentially a battle over who can be more photorealistic just isn’t worth the potential benefit, in his view. He expects the PC market and mobile space to continue to gain steam and strength.

Cloud gaming innovation also presents an enormous field of opportunity, for episodic storytelling in particular, he says. “If you think of Seinfeld or Friends, they have a set and a bunch of characters and then they run scripts through them. So in some ways, Elaine, Seinfeld, Kramer — they’re basically an entertainment engine,” Bushnell suggests.

“And we will find that games, if you build them like an engine, and run scenarios through them and take some good authoring tools, I think there will be the equivalent of Seinfeld and Friends in the video game industry.”

As a final piece of advice, he says those who want to create must embrace failure: “Everybody here is going to do a really crappy game,” he said. “I have designed games and the first time I played it iI said, ‘Boy, this really sucks.’ If you’re not crashing, youre not trying. You’re not pushing the envelope enough. Remember Angry Birds was the 52nd version that they did.”

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