Epic Mickey Creator Wants to ‘Shame’ Doom and Unreal Makers: Why He’s Not Wrong

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A screenshot from Epic Mickey 2 by Walt Disney's Junction Point Studios.

I never got around to playing Epic Mickey, and that’s a shame, because I’ve played nearly everything else by game design luminary Warren Spector. I don’t think luminary’s too strong a label, though his output’s dwindled in recent years. My favorites are still the games he was involved with in the 1990s: Ultima VI: The False Prophet, Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, Shadowcaster, Wings of Glory, System Shock, Thief: The Dark Project.

He’s probably best known for Deus Ex, in 2000, though that one never really worked for me. What can I say? System Shock spoiled me.

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Spector’s been less active in recent years, the exception being Epic Mickey for the Wii in 2011, which earned modest accolades, apparently selling well enough to justify a multiplatform sequel as well as a 3DS spinoff, both due this November.

The reasons I mention him is this: At Gamescom in Cologne last week, he said some stuff to Eurogamer Germany about the state of gaming and made reference to John Carmack of id Software (Doom, Quake, Rage) and Tim Sweeney of Epic Games (Unreal). The gist: The games industry has violence and boy toys down pat, but it’s been in a creative rut forever.

“I’ve been actively trying to shame some of my fellow developers, specifically John Carmack and Tim Sweeney,” Spector told EG (Eurogamer’s translation). “Can you imagine what games would look like if those two guys spent as much time working on non-combat AI as they do on rendering? Can you imagine what games we would have if John Carmack decided he wanted to create a believable character as opposed to a believable gun?”

It’s kind of hard to imagine anyone doing that these days, when, according to GameStop, you find stuff like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2Borderlands 2Madden NFL 13 and Halo 4 topping “most anticipated” lists. That’s what lists like GameStop’s have looked like for as long as I’ve been writing about games: military-football-sci-fi-sequel-shooters. Games that, love ’em or leave ’em, you know were green-lit by publishers because they print money. Games bankrolled by cynical producers with no qualms about pandering to a demographic that’s been stuck in a loop for basically replaying Doom for decades.

I’m not saying those sorts of games can’t be well made. I admired Halo 3 and Madden NFL ’09. I was into World of Warcraft, StarCraft II and Diablo III. I can name at least two enjoyable Call of Duty games, e.g. Call of Duty 2, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. But I’ve always known, playing that stuff, that I was looking more at gaming’s past than its future.

“Think about what we do,” said Spector. “Think about our controls. We have a controller that has a bunch of buttons on it. That maps really well to, I’m going to press this button at this millisecond which will cause a pixel to move on the screen and create another pixel. We do that really well, and that maps really well to pulling a virtual trigger on a virtual gun. It’s easy for us to do that.”

Easy to build realistic weapons in games like gas-powered semiautomatic rifles and over-the-shoulder RPGs. Easy to transplant power-fantasy rulesets like those in Dungeons & Dragons to games where you’re some nobody yokel who’s really the savior of the world. Easy to play as an affable swashbuckler in a game like Uncharted, yet callously slaughter hundreds if not thousands over the course of a single game.

What does it say about us as gamers, that our pinnacle achievement, based on what sells, is that we’ve perfected the art of the power-fantasy kill?

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But then no one’s figured out how to do “believable characters” in games yet, and even if they had, how do you fold “believable” into a game that’s still classifiable as a game? Imagine designing a ruleset to accommodate a Turing-plausible virtual A.I. Imagine coding around that sort of unpredictability. Games depend on a certain amount of authorial control, whether it’s the “you go, I go” ruleset of something like Tic-tac-toe, or the way, even in games as open-ended as Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto IV, that the narrative doesn’t advance unless you do X, Y or Z first.

At best, doing “believable characters” in games today involves making significant compromises, designers cribbing from other genres (mostly film) to head fake our emotions.

Like: The deathbed sequence in Hironobu Sakaguchi and Mistwalker’s Lost Odyssey. Or the golf club in Ken Levine and Irrational’s BioShock. Or what happens when you feed Monster frogs in Vander Caballero and Minority’s Papo & Yo. Or most of the story told by David Cage and Quantic Dream in Heavy Rain.

Even BioShock‘s most famous sequence is totally scripted, remembered if anything more for its clever narrative twist. What’s the difference between watching a character deliver a series of chilling deathblows, say, and reading that same sequence in something like a comic book? (See Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, in particular the chapter “Blood in the Gutter.”) What’s the difference between tapping the gamepad a few times to advance the story in a game, and hammering the “play” or “fast forward” button on a TV remote?

That’s how so much of game design works today. So what if someone with the technical wherewithal of a John Carmack or Tim Sweeney, who — instead of fetishizing photorealistic gaming — turned their attention instead toward crafting better characters and progressing the age old “shoot”/”don’t shoot” or “kick the puppy”/”don’t kick the puppy” problem?

In 2006, I interviewed Spector for a Computer Gaming World story about artificial intelligence. I think this answer to my question, “How can games better implement non-confrontational/non-violent A.I.?” sums up why we’re still asking questions like this six years later.

My “thinking” is that our ability to create compelling non-combat A.I. is pretty puny. The issue is creating characters that behave in ways that, given the context of a game or scene, elicit an appropriate emotional response in players. Take the guns away and we lose the most easily elicited emotion — fear — and we’re left with…not a lot. How do we make progress in the non-confrontational space? Beats me — maybe someone in a garage somewhere is solving the problem even as we speak. If I knew how to solve this problem (and it’s a huge problem for gaming — one that is really holding us back as a medium of expression and communication) I’d be making a very different kind of game!

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