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Warren Spector on his history of player choice: it’s not the mouse trap, it’s how you get the cheese

Warren Spector on his history of player choice: it’s not the mouse trap, it’s how you get the cheese

Disclaimer: Disney paid for air and ground transportation, as well as a two-night hotel stay.

It doesn’t matter if your hero is a cop in the dystopian future or Mickey Mouse, Warren Spector creates games in which your actions have a persistent, tangible effect on the virtual world. This has been Spector’s signature since 1989, starting with Ultima 6. Since then he’s worked on everything from Thief to System Shock, but each of of his games are about one thing: people expressing themselves through play.

“No one else in the world may see it, but it’s very clear and conscious on my part,” Spector told the Penny Arcade Report. “It’s about you showing how clever and creative you can be in solving game problems. It’s not how creative I am or anyone on my team is in creating combat situations that, you know, ‘You have to kill everything on this level to unlock the door’ or ‘There’s a blue door, find the blue monster, kill it, get the blue key and you can unlock the blue door,’ or ‘Arrange the soup cans in a particular order on these shelves and it will unlock the door next to the shelves.’ That’s what most games are about, or were about.”

“It’s changing nowadays, thank God.” He smiled and shook his head, as if he was disappointed that it had taken this long to get to that point.

The dark ages

Games featuring choice and consequence are popular now, but publishers steered clear of adding such a complex, game play-affecting mechanic in the early years of of Spector’s career. He felt frustrated by what he perceived to be a stagnant industry that wasn’t pushing itself. “Twenty years ago, my buddies and peers at Origin and Looking Glass, we used to look at each other and go, ‘Why isn’t everybody making games like this? Why are they still making these stupid puzzle games or these stupid kill everything that moves games? Why are they doing that?’”

Spector would answer his own question as Ion Storm began playtesting Deus Ex. He was proud of the fact that he’d created a game that could track and remember players’ actions so efficiently, which would in turn make the world feel more organic, but what he had also done was intimidated the hell out of people.

“When we started playtesting that, even core gamers, they would get to the first sort of obvious choice point in the game, and they would be paralyzed by choice. They would say, ‘Oh my gosh I can see that if I go over there I’m gonna fight, if I go over there I’m gonna sneak. I don’t know what to do! I got a real choice to make!’ They would stop,” Spector told the Penny Arcade Report. He had to resist the urge to tell players how to progress, which is the one thing he never wants his puzzles to do. It could be frustrating, he explained, but at least now he’s not the only one creating such experiences.

“Now, you look around and Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Fable, Grand Theft Auto, Bioshock, Dishonored now, the list goes on and on and on of games that are kind of like those old Ultima games, or the old System Shock games, or the old Deus Ex games,” Spector said. “Everybody’s finally figured out that’s cool. Everybody’s caught up and there are more games for me to play!”

Chicken noodle soup for the gamer’s soul

The way Spector looks at a problem is almost backwards, at least from the typical perspective. He works his way out from the center of the maze or erases walls to make his own way out. “Games to me are about choice and consequence. It’s about me setting up problems, or my team setting up game problems, like you have to get through that door. Why do I care how you do it?” he asked. Spector gave an example from Deus Ex.

“You have to make a choice; you can blow the door off its hinges, you can pick the lock, you can sneak through the air vents to get to the other side of the door. What’s important is you get to the other side of the door, not how you do it,” he said. “Most games, what’s important is how you do it, which I think is really dumb.”

I asked if all video games couldn’t be described the same way. It might be my choice, for example, to not jump on a goomba’s head, or head down pipes to collect coins. “Ah-ha,” he said in a tone and with a look that could only be described as Willy Wonka, if Willy Wonka was a game designer.

Spector continued his scenario. “Now, once you’ve made that choice, if you’ve blown the door off its hinges, that door should be gone forever. It should make a lot of noise, which should attract a lot of bad guys who you will have to fight. If they are attracted from over there to over here, that means they won’t be over there when you get there.”

He explained that while many video games offer choices in the way I illustrated, they weren’t persistent. If you left a room or a level and came back, all of your choices were wiped from history. That’s not the kind of game Spector builds. His games are complex, and they have consequences. They remember.

This persistence isn’t just seen in classic games, the concept shows up in Epic Mickey 2 as well. Mickey uses two weapons in the game: paint and thinner. Paint is a creative force, thinner is a destructive one. The more you use thinner in the world, the less colorful, empty, and ruined it may be. You could use thinner to dissolve a rock that’s hiding fireworks, and then use those fireworks to blow up a fan, for example. Or, you could paint in a watch, which will slow down time, allowing you to slide past the fan unharmed. It’s up to you, but your decisions will change the game’s world.

“It’s important for my soul to do games like this,” he said as he smiled.

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