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GDC 2014: The Push to be Daring, Bold and New

Days 1 and 2 are filled with sessions pushing developers to be more daring in every aspect of their creative efforts.

GDC Days 1 and 2 have been filled with inspiring and thought provoking talks ranging from game design, to story development, music composition and more. Speakers tried to reach out to game developers to push them to make daring decisions regarding their projects in every aspect. Be bold, be new, come up with new tricks. Think of ways to inspire players and be different from everyone else. Day 1’s general motif was about creating a game that will elicit a natural response from the player.

In his presentation, “Building Player Investment,” indie developer Chris Cornell, creator of Save the Date, told the audience that the game industry was “running out of tricks.” He said we can actually learn a thing or two from cinema; directors and movie makers have a way of implying things and emotions instead of showing them directly. It allows the viewer to have a much more natural response to things that aren’t communicated in an extremely blatant fashion. Players become more easily immersed in a game when they are allowed to explore and learn things by themselves. Cornell urged that the player’s interpretation of the game and its story were more important than the actual stuff written and intended for the player by the creator; it doesn’t matter what the game means to the creator, it matters what it means to the audience.

A talk by Daniel Greenberg entitled Evocative Story Writing: Write Less, Reveal More directly compliments what Cornell had to say. He started his talk with something he has tried to teach to everyone he has come across in the industry. “The game world does not exist on the screen, but between the player’s ears.” Once again, the importance comes down to what the player actually takes away from the game. Greenberg brought up the master of still-documentaries, Ken Burns. He said that Burns was able to create moving and highly emotion-evoking films just through the use of still photographs; he didn’t need to show a bunch of action. Burns allowed the viewers to take in the story from the photograph. This had a much more lasting impact than most other films and games. Greenberg implored developers to trust that players will take what they are given and turn it into something meaningful and experiential. Developers can accomplish this through creating small stimuli that work their way subconsciously into a player’s mind, in turn creating strong but subtle emotional nuances. It all comes down to whether or not the game designers use basic design choices to help them make these stimuli. Tools such as color, wardrobe, physicality, gesture, cinematography, lighting, etc. Greenberg warned that just because these elements exist, does not mean they are necessarily working for you. You have to find creative ways that will work for what you want the player to experience.

For Day 2 I decided to attend a few music boot camp sessions because besides being a writer, I am an active musician and composer. After attending I realized what I learned not only translates to my career as a musician, but also to working in the game industry in general. In the first talk of the day, Peter Zinda, a sound designer from the Formosa Group, told aspiring sound designers that the best decisions you can make are ones that utilize all the tools at your disposal to make out-of-the-box, long lasting results. Though he spoke about the world of digital signal processing in sound, his ideas are meaningful within the context of design and game work in general. Designers have a range of tools at their disposal, whether they are photo programs, 3D programs, game engines or other software programs. They’re capable of creating some pretty amazing stuff, but that only happens when they realize what each tool can do. Their full potential must be explored. Once you gain knowledge on these tools, you can create better work much more quickly. It’s also beneficial to be looking for newer, interesting software that speeds up or enhances a process beyond what can be produced by the tools you already use. Essentially, just know how to use available tools and you will be surprised what you can actually accomplish with them. I learned that to make a force field sound from the noise of an old refrigerator running...go figure!

The last sound/music based talk I went to was with Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory, responsible for the music found in popular games such as Journey, Monaco, and the more recent The Banner Saga. Wintory’s talk was all about the choices we make and how they define what type of artist we are. Each decision we make, whether it be miniscule or large, separates us from any other artist. If we lack “creative courage” our work will lack meaning and will most likely be ignored. We synthesize through discovering and exploring and making choices from these discoveries. “Don’t straddle multiple realities.” We must fully commit to our artistic choices and decisions. Wintory suggested some ways to go about making articulate decisions by example of his more recent work with The Banner Saga. He found it useful to ask himself before he started writing, “What is the idea of the game?” He wasn’t concerned specifically with the characters or setting necessarily, but with what those things were trying to accomplish and show players.

Also, how do you play the game? What is the player interaction like? These considerations can take compositions and designs in two completely directions. These issues need to be defined first. Wintory stated that he does his best work with people he truly cares about. Truly great work comes when you personally invest yourself into a project. When you truly want the game and its creators to succeed, your best work will shine through. Though he wanted to inspire the audience to make decisions, Wintory didn’t want people to become afraid of making bad decisions. You actually learn and become better from these mistakes. “If you’re going to fail, don’t fail in a way that doesn’t matter.” Ultimately, figure out what the game and its creators as a whole are trying to communicate and explore the choices that will truly compliment the originator’s vision and the game the players will experience.

Days 1 and 2 provided me some pretty important advice not only concerning the topics at hand, but concerning the attitudes I should carry throughout my career. Everyone in the industry should always be thinking about the bigger picture and what the players and audience are going to experience. As soon as I figure out and define these things, I can create and synthesize amazing compositions and designs through exploring and learning about the tools I have and the choices I can make. Every choice should be a definite one. Every choice should be a meaningful one.


Nate Goncalo is an English/Communications major at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. He is a working musician and composer that currently plays in a successful New England-based band and has won multiple awards for his compositions. He is currently pursuing work in the independent game community.