Deus Ex Creator Warren Spector on Storytelling and Ludic Freedom

Warren Spector

Video games should aim to engage players by offering freedom and “asking questions,” rather than answering them, according to Deus Ex creator Warren Spector.

Speaking to Gamasutra at GDC last month, Spector praised Dishonored 2 for privileging player freedom and ensuring that “playstyle matters,” which the veteran developer says is his personal game design philosophy. Furthermore, the “genuine interactivity” arising from open-ended design allows players to engage with the game world more fully, and “the more [developers] who do that, I think the better off we’re going to be, as a medium,” according to Spector.

The rise of open-world gaming and the prevailing dominance of sprawling RPGs in the AAA sector has been accompanied by a shift towards ensuring that players are able to experience games in the way best suited to the individual, yet Spector says that even many of these fail to truly engage players in a meaningful way because “many developers have been inspired by the mechanics of [Dungeons and Dragons]”:

“I would love to see us jettison — forever — character classes and you know, the character stats: strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, charisma . . . I mean, we don’t need that stuff. So it would be nice to move away from that. But also the content; look at the content of games, of many if not most video games, and it’s right outta D&D or Traveller. And we could do so much more.”

In addition to the established gameplay norms and settings, Spector is also highly critical of the way that developers tell stories. Too often, he argues, do developers follow the model set by other media and treat the player as a passive observer, providing answers and opinions, rather than using the interactivity inherent in games to ask questions:

“You know, we need to be asking bigger questions. And some people are doing that. Again, the Mass Effect games ask you to think about stuff, the BioShock games ask you to think about stuff. The key for me, as I said in my talk, was not to answer the questions . . . I find that the idea of asking questions, and having a dialogue with your players, much more interesting than just saying ‘here’s my story. Here’s what I think about Topic X.’ That’s way less interesting.”

Following the collapse of Junction Point Studios after the commercial failure of Epic Mickey 2, Warren Spector left the development scene to focus on teaching at the University of Texas. Early in 2016, however, he reversed this decision, joining OtherSide Entertainment, which is currently working on Underworld: Ascendant and System Shock 3, both of which promise to follow the tradition of emergent gameplay and non-linear progression set by Deus Ex.

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