Jesse Schell on the future of storytelling [GDC]

Jesse Schell, former Disney Imagineer and current professor at Carnegie Mellon University, is what you call a forward thinker. Nearly every talk he’s given in recent years has been about where he thinks games are headed, and how they’ll influence the world around us. His talk at this year’s GDC was no different. He discussed, amongst other things, what he considers to be the future of storytelling in games. In typical Schell fashion, it was compelling, it was optimistic, and best of all, it was bold.

“What would it take to create a game that would make people cry?” According to Schell, this is a question EA asked themselves 30 years ago, and one we still ask ourselves today. In all, there’s still a lot of work to be done in this area. In terms of emotional impact, games are quite a ways behind books, films, and plays.

To follow up on that, Schell posited another important question: “Are we going to have a Shakespeare of games?” In his opinion, the medium’s problem with verbs is what’s holding us back from that. Developers have running, jumping, and climbing down, but more focus should be placed on talking, asking, negotiating, and other such elements of storytelling. “We’re really good at the below the neck verbs. We got those.”

The other issue is tragedy. Our ability to interact with and often affect the outcome of a story puts us in a position where tragedy is certainly possible, but it’s kind of a double-edged sword. “If we’re doing interactive Romeo and Juliet what happens? She dies. Well I better go back to the checkpoint…”


Image courtesy of Jesse Schell

Lastly, in Schell’s opinion, is the problem of unification. Or, more specifically, the lack thereof in game stories. “We create ridiculous stories with zombies and monsters and time machines and we always set it up that no matter what there’s gonna be a happy ending.” A lot of games feature stories that are simultaneously nuts and predictable, which isn’t exactly the best combination when it comes to telling a captivating story.

Telling better stories

Schell went on to discuss the components of a game – aesthetics, story, technology, and mechanics—and the difficulties of weaving them together in a meaningful way. If you’ve ever played a game with a severe disconnect between its story and gameplay (Uncharted is a good example), you know what he’s talking about. It’s one of the biggest issues creators face when it comes to telling a good story in a game, and Schell thinks one possible solution would be a change in mechanics or technology.

One such shift in technology could come in the form of emotion detection. This is something we’re on the verge of figuring out, according to Schell, and once we get there characters will be capable of figuring out how we feel while playing a game, such as whether we’re surprised or frustrated or frightened.


I can’t believe I found an excuse to include this image in an article

To broaden things a bit, Schell discussed an increased level of interaction with characters in games. Here he cited Hey You! Pikachu. The technology wasn’t perfect, but that was fine “because Pikachu was a disobedient little cuss.” Siri offers a similar form of interaction, and also has a distinguishable personality.”We are just at the cusp where this is going to start to be a useful way to interact with games.”

The story so far

“Mario’s a cool character, but he frustrates the hell out of me.” He frequently asks us to enter our name at the start of a new game, despite the fact that we’ve been playing with him for 30 years. This makes it hard to feel truly connected with him, despite how nostalgic of a character he is for most players. Schell is confident this will change in time, and that we’ll reach a point where we maintain an ongoing relationship with a character across several games. In response to this change, Schell mentioned, the term “avatar” will likely shift to something like “virtual companion.”


Image courtesy of Jesse Schell

Schell sounded extremely optimistic about all of this, as well as the future of games in general. He’s certain we’ll have a Shakespeare of games, but that it probably won’t come in the form of a well-told story. “Our Shakespeare is not gonna be so much a teller of tales… but a crafter of characters.” These characters will bring the drama necessary to create a moving story, and possibly even become our life-long companions. “Think of a world where the best way to get to know your ancestors is by inheriting their virtual companions.”

And now that I (or really Schell) have blown your mind, I’ll leave you alone so you can process everything.

Content writer

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