Story is King

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Yesterday was the first day of the ACM Siggraph conference in Los Angeles, and the first of several keynote talks that will be given this week. Ed Catmull, President of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, talked about managing creative environments. One of the key points he made early in his talk had to do with the wisdom he came upon early in his career: "The story is the most important part of a movie." This seemed like an important truth to have discovered, until he gave it a little more thought. Movies ARE stories, he realized. Saying that the story is the most important part of a movie isn't wisdom, it's a tautology.

Immediately after Catmull's keynote, I attended another very interesting session, a panel presentation about the production of the movie Kung-Fu Panda. One of the panelists who spoke about his experience on the film was the director, John Stevenson. While talking about production schedules and character design, he prefaced himself by saying that story is king. He said it in an offhand manner, as though it was so obvious that it barely rated mentioning. Story was the first thing and the last thing that they worried about, the most important consideration governing all aspects of the production from beginning to end.

Listening to these two men talk about their medium and share a perspective that relates moviemaking to storytelling in such a profoundly fundamental way, I couldn't help but think about the video game industry, where story is so often treated as an afterthought. Of course, games are not movies, as we well know. But, as a proponent of games as a storytelling medium, I have to ask myself: is story in games the same kind of tautology as story in movies? Or are the differences between the media such that story will always be something extra that must be added to a game in a fundamentally different way than to a movie?

Hearing Stevenson talk about the process of developing the movie's story at the same time as the character models, environments, and technologies was something of an eye-opening experience for me. When I think of movies, I usually think about a traditional live-action development pipeline where the script is written and pretty much set before filming begins. Modern CG animated movies, clearly, are a different beast. More than anything, this reminded me of a talk I saw given by Ken Levine last spring at GDC. At the time, I was shocked at the way he talked about the story in Bioshock evolving and changing in significant ways until very late in the production cycle, even within a couple months of the ship date. Bioshock, at the moment, is one of the industry's most important examples of story in games, so the fact that the game was not built around an already-fully-developed story was somewhat disconcerting to me. Thinking about it in relation to Kung-Fu Panda, however, makes it seem more reasonable. In both of these media, this sort of process occurs because it can: unlike actors and live-action footage, digital models, environments, and technologies can be re-scripted and reimplemented as the scene evolves and changes. In the blockbuster environment in which Dreamworks and 2K operate, overlapping the writing and production is cheaper than having a distinct writing stage. It also allows the writing to be integrated into the iterative design process, which is something I hadn't considered before, but could be an important point in developing interactive media.

Don't look for any real in-depth analysis of these ideas here; I'm still in conference mode and my brain is stuck in an intake-cycle. But I'm eager to hear any thoughts you have to contribute to this conversation, if anyone is interested in taking these ideas further.

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