Monkey Island Creator Ron Gilbert on Today's Games Industry, Art and the 'Freedom to Fail'

Ron Gilbert, creator of Monkey Island and developer of DeathSpank, today delivered a keynote at the Penny Arcade Expo. The speech covered his journey to become a game developer, then took a sharp turn to Gilbert's take on the industry today. "The games industry [has become] just that.. an industry," said Gilbert, a slide behind him showing a set of smokestacks.

After stating that the first Monkey Island was developed by seven people for $135,000, Gilbert decried the corporate mentality behind modern big-budget development, saying: "Big companies need to be safe. This is why indie games excite me."

"They have the freedom to fail."

Gilbert also took a shot at those that would question the artistic merit of the videogame medium, including film critic Roger Ebert, who once stated that the interactive and unpredictable nature of games undermines the art form.

"Games are art that is meant to be lived, not viewed," said Gilbert. "What Hollywood fails to understand is that games are an art form; they are not toys."

"The worst way to tell a story in games is by a series of cutscenes interspersed between action [scenes]," he added.

The designer predicted that massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft and EVE Online offer a glimpse of the unique storytelling potential in videogames.

"Art will be experienced not by a single person, but by millions," he said, explaining that the emergent nature of MMOs allows for the possibility of stories to be written by those same millions.

Gilbert ended by saying that the passion of videogame fans is the real force driving videogames to become the most important artistic format since film.

"Thank you for making games important, because god knows I have no other marketable job skills," he concluded.

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From The Chatty
  • reply
    September 4, 2009 2:56 PM

    I disagree with his argument that cutscenes are the worst way to tell a story in games; I've seen several industry devs and journalists make similar claims and I think the stance that storytelling should be solely the result of the player's actions or otherwise emergent is equally narrow-minded. Each approach works better for a different subset of games, suits a different audience, and can be done well or poorly. Most games seem to find a middle ground between the two, anyway.

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      September 4, 2009 3:07 PM

      I don't think that's exactly what he means. A lot of games force all of a game's story into the cutscenes and use the gameplay to travel from one scene to another, without doing any actual storytelling in them.

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        September 4, 2009 3:31 PM

        Sure, but I fail to see why that is inherently a bad thing. It is perhaps an overused method and a bit more variety would be nice, but that really isn't a good reason to demonize cutscene storytelling.

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      September 4, 2009 3:07 PM

      I agree, I think it's one of these things where there is no clear yes or no. C&C(1) worked well because the cutscenes were like rewards for completing missions (similar to other games from that period), FF7 used cutscenes to immerse you into a more movie-like experience, similar to Wing Commander 3. HL2 on the other hand had only 1 cutscene (in episode 1 or 2 I think) which didn't work at all IMO, and was a lame way to recap the story. The game was best when things were happening around you.

      For example, I loved the cutscenes in StarCraft, most were just funny or cool, some gave me goosebumps, I didn't care at all that they didn't represent what was actually elements of gameplay. I just thought wow awesome and looked forward to the next one (similar to C&C) Of course it was a) cheaper and b) less out of game in Broodwar when they changed cutscenes mostly to in engine scripted scenes (as they did in all following games) but I still wished there would've been more of those incredible rendered movies, telling more about the world.

      I guess my point is, If they are done right, cutscenes can be REALLY immersing, moreso than events happening in the actual game engine.

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        September 4, 2009 3:27 PM

        I miss the Wing Commander series :(

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          September 4, 2009 4:28 PM

          Ditto. It was the first game I bought one my old 286 and had me hooked on the series for quite some time.

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      September 4, 2009 3:36 PM

      I agree and disagree.

      I think it comes do to this:

      Player and teaching a child share one important aspect.

      DO > Show > Tell.

      If a game tells a player about something that happened long ago, it has the weakest impact on said player.

      If I show a player what happened long ago, it has a stronger impact.

      If I let them experience the past and PLAY it, it will have the strongest impact.

      I think games like God of War get it right in most cases. They'll steal the camera away fly over and show you something, it's brief and BAM you have control back. That camera movement usually sets up something the player wants or needs or should look out for. Then it's up to the player to actually play.

      Cut scenes in games should be fast and to the point and if done correctly totally work. But done incorrectly they do nothing but interrupt gameplay and or bore the player.

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      September 4, 2009 3:53 PM

      No, cut scenes are the worst way to tell a story in a video game (well, second worst; reading pages of text is the worst). I don't even think that's arguable. Their awfulness varies from game-to-game, but given the means of presenting story to players in an interactive medium, cut scenes (and pages of text) are the worst.

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      September 4, 2009 4:12 PM

      Cutscenes stop video gaming narrative from evolving by using movie narrative instead. This is ridiculous.

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      September 4, 2009 4:30 PM

      cutscenes do not tap the full power & unexplored potential that interactive media has, by falling back on them as a safeguard in mainstream games that sell tons we are roughly teaching growing talent in the industry that it is okay to use them and copy the format...and also setting up expectations in the fans too

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      September 10, 2009 6:09 AM

      Regardless of whether or not cutscenes have a place in story telling, I think we can all agree that Metal Gear Solid 4 is the perfect example of how NOT to use them.

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