Interview with Warren Spector on System Shock 3, Deus Ex Trilogy, Mickey Mouse, and Immersive Sims

Dave Aubrey

Warren Spector is arguably one of the most beloved and respected writers and designers in the games industry today. With a long gaming history stretching back to the 80s, Warren has written for and helped design some of the biggest games in the industry, in addition to a few cult classics. From Deus Ex to Thief, to System Shock, all the way to Epic Mickey, Warren has had a hand in many legendary titles.

Warren gave a talk at the recent Reboot Develop Blue 2019 conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia, where he shared insights about his writing methods and spoke a little bit about the upcoming System Shock 3. After his talk, we sat down in an airy meeting room, and he was happy to deal with my inane questions, even after a busy day. We spoke about his original plan for a Deus Ex trilogy, the truth behind JC Denton's name, working with Mickey Mouse, seeing Deus Ex and Thief picked up by another studio, and much more.

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The industry has changed drastically since Warren Spector first entered it and his insight on the changing landscapes and the way players interact with digital worlds is fascinating. You can read the full interview below.

In your talk, you spoke about designing antagonists who are relatable and can give players moments of pause, or even outright agree with them. How do you strike that balance when you're supposed to be designing a villain?

Warren Spector: Well, that's the secret sauce. And it's very hard. The key is that phrase that I put up all around the office; 'never judge the player,' it's a thought process as much as anything else. It's about slowing the pace down, letting the players actually stop, see a challenge, make a plan, execute the plans, see the consequences. That's the pacing of my games, okay. And when you have that stop and pause, that's a moment when you can hear characters talking. You can hear them describing their beliefs, their feelings, what they're doing. And then the player, not the character, and not me, but the player can decide; 'hey, what that guy just said, really makes sense.' You know? That's one way to do it. The other thing you can do is simply commit to not saying 'This guy is evil,' you know? Like, I wish I could talk more about System Shock 3, but one of the things that are really important to me is to give SHODAN, our villain, some real motivation, and in System Shock 1 and System Shock 2, she was just an insane AI; 'why do I do what I do? Because I am mad, of course.' And that seems pretty weak. So giving her understandable motivation is still very dangerous. But maybe she makes sense in System Shock 3. It's the way any author would treat their characters, treat your characters with respect. Don't paint them in black and white, give players the opportunity to stop and listen or pay attention, or find things in the world that imply motivations on the part of your non-player characters. And then don't judge. Don't ever say this is right, this is wrong.

And how do you feel about developing your protagonist? Will it make it harder for the player to project themselves onto the protagonist if the protagonist is already a well defined, developed character?

WS: That is why I never develop my protagonist. It's important to me that we do not layer on so much backstory and so much character that players can't inhabit the body of the hero. They have to become the hero - I'm going to choose my words carefully, or I will get myself in trouble. But I don't find it very interesting, either as a player or as a developer, to manipulate a puppet, I'm not a puppet show guy. We have the opportunity in this medium to let you see the world through your own eyes and interpret what's happening in the world, using your own brain and making decisions that are logical to you. And so we have to exploit that. And part of that, one of the things that go with that is not saying this is Joe Blow, you know, who's an ex-CIA agent, he hates the color green, and he shoots first and asks questions later. No. I mean, it's got to be the player in the body of the hero. And we took that so far, maybe too far, in Deus Ex we actually had to direct the voice actor Jay Franke, that poor guy, who did the voice of JC Denton, we actually had to tell him: 'no emotion in your voice, no inflection, nothing,' which is why JC Denton [adopts monotone voice] talks like this. And he never shows any emotion because he just started, he doesn't mumble, but he just talks monotone. And it was because we never knew what the player was going to be doing specifically. And we couldn't predict whether the player was going to be happy, or sad, or scared, or angry. And there's nothing worse in terms of pulling people out of the experience than the player being angry and upset and adrenalized, and then the character says; [adopts high-pitched "Mickey Mouse voice] 'Hey, nice to meetcha!' So we had to keep the inflection at a minimum in the voiceover. That's how far we were willing to go to ensure that the players inhabited the body of the character.

Is it more difficult working with an established franchise? For example, Epic Mickey? Mickey Mouse isn't exactly known for being the stoic type.

WS: Yeah, what we did in Epic Mickey, that was a little different, obviously. Up to a point, it was different. Disney has these things called the standard character guys, they've got one for every character, an enormous 10-pound book...

The Bible of Mickey Mouse.

WS: Exactly. And they've got it for every character in the history of the company. And we were able to get the one for Mickey Mouse and his friends. And in there, there's everything from the official colors, you know, the colors you have to use, to biographies for characters. And in Mickey's case, there was a list of, what was it, 16 character traits? And I looked at those and I said; 'No, you can't express that one in a game. Nope, that's going to take too much control away from the player. And yeah, we can let Mickey have that character trait and that one,' and we came up with a shorter list of things that were still true to character, but weren't so coercive, that the players couldn't insert themselves into the character. So we tried to strike a balance on that one. But it's absolutely true. With Mickey Mouse, it's not like you can give Mickey a big gun, although it's funny, because I found a comic strip, from 1935 I think it was, where for about three months Mickey tries to commit suicide because Minnie's gone off with another mouse. And there are countless cartoons where he actually has a shotgun. So Mickey with a gun is not that far outside the realm of possibility... But I didn't want to go there.

If you had made Mickey spray ink with a gun, then you might've been able to sue Nintendo for Splatoon.

WS: Ha, yeah. Yeah, Splatoon was a great game.

What would you say makes an immersive sim distinct from so many other RPGs?

WS: I think it's a variety of things. One is it doesn't count on character stats to define the character. It's not about roll playing, it's about the role-playing. It's about how you interact with the world which is different from most RPGs. It has nothing to do with arbitrary character classes. It's about how you behave and interact with the world. It's typically not driven by scripting, most simulations are, some would expect, driven by simulations, and interlocking systems, simple systems, and rule set that combine to create interesting things. Well, what we're all about is emergent behavior. It's about players being able to interact with the world that has a language, the world communicates to the player 'here are the possibilities, here are the performances that I am giving you.' And then the player goes, 'okay, here are the tools I have, how can I use the world to my advantage?' And that's a very different idea than, you know, Clerics can't wear armor, and the Barbarian has a strength of 18, I mean, I've been in that world, I've made games like that. We have better tools than that at our disposal. Tools that are unique to video gaming. And I think the immersive simulation is all about exploiting those unique tools.

How long have you been working on System Shock 3 now?

WS: A while, that's for sure. It started out as just me, you know, writing up a bunch of docs, that was about two years ago. And then I brought on my leads, art director, design director, tech director, and then later on a producer, and we sat at my house (one of my houses, I own three houses with a library, and a gallery, and a house I live in). The library had enough space that we set up shop there. And we did some really quick prototyping and wrote a bunch more docs. That was about nine months in, and then we started growing and really entered pre-production. Yeah, so how long we're working on System Shock 3, that's about two years. But, really working on the game? No, no, no. Probably about a year, a little more.

When you finished up System Shock all those years ago, did you have plans for a sequel?

WS: Honestly, I was kind of ready to move on to something else at that point. Yeah. So I didn't really think much about it. I thought we had dealt with SHODAN. But I just want to make a game, finish it, and let players move on to the next one. But that's not the world we live in anymore. So I wish I had a longer cooler answer. But no, honestly, I wasn't thinking about System Shock 2 at the time.

I'm guessing the same answer goes for Deus Ex too?

WS: Deus Ex was a little different, actually. Just to contradict myself completely. When I started thinking about that game, I, planned out is a little too strong, but I had an idea in my head of three games. I wanted to make sure that the world that we're creating was rich enough and deep enough that they could support many stories. And so I had a trilogy in mind. And we made the first one and it was astonishing because, I've said this before, but every detail changed from the time I started thinking about it to the time that the team and I finished it, but it was exactly the game I wanted to make. And then on Deus Ex: Invisible War, the sequel, by the time we got around to working on that, my studio for a variety of reasons, Ion Storm, had grown to the point where we were working on two projects. Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows. And so my role, I essentially moved up a level, and said to Harvey Smith, 'you're the lead designer on Deus Ex, you know this world inside out, you're a better designer than I will ever be. You're going to be the game director on the new Deus Ex game' and to Randy Smith, 'you know Thief better than I ever will, you're a great designer, this is your chance, step up to be the game director on Thief: Deadly Shadows. And I'll look over your shoulders and nothing's going to go in the game I don't know about, I'm gonna review and critique but they're your games, your teams, go.' And Harvey, in this case, made a game that had nothing to do with the trilogy I had in mind, and probably for the best. And we never got around to doing the third game, which probably wouldn't have worked given the way the second game played out from a narrative standpoint. But on Deus Ex, I actually did think through multiple games before we got started.

Is there anything you can tell me about your original trilogy plans? I know it's been a while.

WS: Yeah, in retrospect, thank God we didn't do it. It's kind of stupid. But the interesting, kind of stupid, thing was at the time I was intrigued by the Arthur C. Clarke quote about, you know, 'science that's sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.' And so what I wanted to do was get JC Denton basically ascends to God or Godhead, and in one of the endings in Deus Ex, you can kind of see the roots of that. And I wanted to get him off the planet, to a world where magic really exists. And he's the ultimate, epitome of science and there's a world where magic actually works, and what happens when those come into conflict? And thank God we didn't do that because it's basically a terrible idea. But that was kind of where I was headed with it. Yeah, but would have destroyed the franchise.

Actually, I've always liked something that invokes the biblical.

WS: Biblical stories are powerful. JC Denton, right?

...Oh, I can't believe I just got that.

WS: Well, there are a variety of reasons why he's called JC Denton.

Any of those that you can share?

WS: The team had their reasons. And the fact that it's possible for JC to make big sacrifices at the end, you know, for the sake of mankind. There's an obvious reference there. But one of my best friends in Austin is a guy named Brad Denton, he's a wonderful writer. Everybody should go look for Bradley Denton's work. Blackburn, Lunatics, Laughing Boy, go read these books. But anyway, he's really the most helpful person in the world. Behind his back, now he'll know but, behind his back, I call him Helpful Guy. And to myself, when he volunteers for something really crazy I just mutter to myself; 'Jesus Christ Denton, what are you doing?' So, JC Denton was kind of an in-joke about that. As I said, the team had their reasons, I had my reasons. It all sort of worked in the context of the game. So JC definitely did.

There are so many unique things that you can do in the gaming medium, like with immersive sims, what is different about your approach when writing more traditional books or even DuckTales?

WS: Other media are completely divorced and completely different from games. The big thing for me when writing comic books, when I got to write the DuckTales stuff and writing the novel, The Hollow Earth Affair, the big thing for me was, it was me at a keyboard, an empty hard drive, and a blank screen. And if you like the stuff that I did, it's because I did it. And if you hate the stuff that I did, it's because I suck. And when you're working on a game, even the early games I worked on, when we had 10 people, I wasn't part of the guy in a garage era, I came on, frankly, two generations after that, there was Space War, and Ralph Baer, and all those 60s guys. And then there was Brian Fargo, Roberta Williams, and those folks. And then there was me, and other people from my generation. And so, by the time I got around, tenfold people my team was a big team. And my last project, Epic Mickey: The Power of Two, we had 200 people internally, and 800 people around the world. And as much as I love making video games, you get pretty far from the down and dirty, in the trenches, details, when you have a team that big. So there's something nice about sitting down at a keyboard, empty hard drive, and a blank screen, saying 'this is just me. Take it or leave it,' so there's that. And then certainly there are lessons that we can learn as game developers from other media. But they have their own rules, I've got a lecture about that, too. I may actually dig that up and spiff it up and give that lecture at the Nordic Game Conference next month. But anyway, they have their own rules, and you have to follow their rules and their own conventions, and they're just different. So you have to get yourself in a different mindset. You know, they're not about empowering players, they're about making a statement, me saying what I think. And the games are completely different for me.

Is it strange seeing franchises that you worked on being picked up by other studios, going in a different direction?

WS: You know, it's funny because I think people expect me to be angry or upset about Deus Ex going to Square Enix, and Thief going to Square Enix, which are the two obvious examples. But it doesn't bother me at all. I actually think it's kind of cool. It's kind of like; 'Oh, my baby's growing up and leaving home.' I didn't play the new Thief game, honestly, so I can't really speak that, I've heard it was more sort of superhero-y than the original games, which were about Garrett, who's not quite prepared for the challenges he faces and just wants to be left alone. Kind of the classic antihero. So it sounds, in my completely uninformed way, it sounds like they may have missed the point of the character and the gameplay. With Deus Ex, I finished Human Revolution. I think they did three or four things that I would have done differently. But at the end of the game, I kind of sat back and said; 'Yeah, I had a Deus Ex experience.' You know, they gave respect for what we were trying to do and did a good job.

It was also cool that I got to play a Deus Ex game where I didn't know all the secrets.

To finish up, is there anything that you can tell me about System Shock 3?

WS: Okay. Hear me choose my words carefully. It won't require prior knowledge of the earlier System Shock games, because we want to grow the audience beyond just the core fans. But if you are a fan of the original games, there'll be some things in there that I think you'll find appealing. There were some survivors in the first two games that we don't talk about too much. So maybe we'll learn what happened to them. SHODAN is coming back, of course, but this time we're going to kind of make her a complete character, with believable motivations. And you'll see her change and grow over time in logical ways. Citadel Station is going to come back from the first game, except maybe not in the way people expect. We're going to continue to try to capture the vibe, the combination of the shooter with light role-playing and survival horror, and stick with that. Going to tell a story in that traditional System Shock way where there are no living characters, and you have to piece what happened and what you need to do together from video logs and emails and messages from some folks off-site, just like the original. Beyond that, I should probably not say anything.

Well, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate the chat!

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