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GDC Speaker Spotlight: Telltale's Dave Grossman On Authorial Control

Telltale Games' director of design and adventure game veteran Dave Grossman recently shared his thoughts on player choice in game design, noting that designers need to strike a balance between complete player autonomy and complete authorial control.

Grossman has more than 22 years of experience writing, designing, and directing story-centric games, including classic LucasArts titles such as The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, and is well-practiced in telling stories through games.

At next month's GDC Online, Grossman will host a lecture in the Game Narrative Summit dubbed, "The Hand of Fate: Authorial Voice in Game Design," in which he will discuss the relationship between the developer and player when crafting interactive stories.

In anticipation of his talk, Grossman spoke out on the importance of balancing player freedom and creative control, and what implications this balance can have on game design.

What sort of tactics to you use to convey a story when players have control over the pacing and flow of a game experience?

Dave Grossman: Writers in other media use pacing and sequence of events to great effect, and it can be kind of disorienting to work in games, where a lot of control over those things is given to the player. Fortunately, there are plenty of other tools one can apply to create drama, tension, and story, including things you'd find in film like sound design, lighting, and camera work, and some elements that are particular to games, like play mechanics and the overall structure of challenge and reward.

Also, it's worth noting that players don't generally have absolute control over pacing and flow -- the game can exert influence on those as well, maybe a little, maybe a lot, and how a designer arranges that is part of what I mean when I'm talking about authorial voice.

How do you balance the control of the authorial voice with player autonomy?

DG: Carefully, I hope. We're talking about interactive media, so both the author and the player (or players) need to take control of some aspects of the experience. The challenge for the designer is to figure out which things to control strongly, and which not to. Some of the tools available are inherently subtle, some are not, but all are useful in various contexts.

The balance is probably not unlike being a parent, where you typically want to establish some clear rules, provide opportunities and context, and intervene where necessary, but if you try to manage your child's actions too closely, you'll both go nuts.

Is there an ideal balance between player autonomy and authorial control? Are there certain problems that arise in games that tend toward one of these extremes?

DG: I don't believe there is a single ideal balance for any particular game or type of game, more like an optimal range, with a fair amount of options in both degree and character that will affect the drama of the game. Where you want to be within that range depends on what sort of experience you are trying to create. Designers should want their hands to be felt some of the time, and the meaty questions are when, how, and most importantly, why? Take too much control and players will resent it and lose interest, take too little and they'll be lost and unmotivated and again lose interest, but there's a nice place in the middle where players feel free to do what they like while the designer shows them a good time.

What can game designers do to define their creative voice in a game?

DG: To me it comes down to thinking of yourself like authors in other media do, having some goals for the work in terms of what it should express -- narratively or otherwise -- and being familiar with a range of tools that can be used on an interactive experience to express those things, hopefully without causing it to be too confining to be enjoyable. Unless that's the experience you're trying to convey, of course!

How will your Game Narrative Summit talk address authorial control in games and what do you hope attendees will take away from it?

DG: There will be some philosophy about the handshake between the author and the player, a little comparative analysis of existing games for perspective, and a look at some of the tools in the bag of tricks. If everybody in the room comes away with a little inspiration and a tactic or two that they hadn't considered before, I'll be happy.

Additional Info

GDC Online will take place Monday, October 10 through Thursday, October 13, 2011 at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas, and will continue as the leading worldwide event dedicated solely to discussing the development and business trends surrounding connected games -- including casual titles, MMOs, virtual worlds, and social networking games.

For more information on GDC Online, please visit the official GDC Online website, or subscribe to updates from the new GDC Online-specific news page via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS. GDC Online is owned and operated by UBM TechWeb.

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