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GAME MASTERS: Warren Spector, the film critic who became a game designer

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It would be difficult to point to Warren Spector and say, “Game Designer.” If there is any sort of popular mental image of what a designer might look like, Spector does not fill it. Now 56, Spector is Steven Spielberg without the baseball cap. He’s your beloved, yet somewhat formidable college professor, underscored with a faint southern accent.

Spector has made some of the most lionised videogames in the history of the medium: Deus Ex, System Shock, Wing Commander, and Thief. On Thursday last week, he was featured ‘In Conversation’ with Paul Callaghan, director of Melbourne’s Freeplay festival, at ACMI as part of their Games Masters exhibition.

While his videogames are extraordinarily famous, it’s perhaps less well-known that Spector trained as a film historian, and was planning on becoming a film critic until shifting into the videogames industry. In fact, Spector’s Masters thesis, a history of Warner Brothers cartoons, in many ways could have foreshadowed his eventual return to cartoons, decades later, with his Epic Mickey videogames for Disney. Indeed, it felt at Games Masters like Spector was now very much a higher cog in the global Disney creative machine, with ‘minders’ from Disney escorting him around ACMI and carefully watching on as he was interviewed.

But throughout the conversation with Callaghan, the influence of Spector’s early life as a critic returned again and again, if not directly, then obliquely.

“I always make games in response to other games,” said Spector. “One of the things that’s frustrating to me is I’m not a blank slate designer. I look at what Tim [Schafer] does, and I look at what Will Wright does, and I look at what Jenova Chen does, some of the people who I think are just brilliant designers, and I’m not like that.

“What I do is I take a like bit of Neverwinter Nights, and a little bit of Mario and mash ‘em together, see what I come up with, and hope that I come up with something new by combining things that don’t belong together. The other thing that I do is that I play a lot of games. I play a couple of hours of every game that comes out, as close as I can get anyway. I finish very few.”

Spector’s frustrations with these games, he said, are key to his creative process. “I find myself saying, ‘Wow, why did they do that?’, or ‘Why didn’t they do this other thing?’ and so that frustration is the thing that drives me to make a particular game. Deus Ex came out of frustration with Thief, a game I absolutely adore, and which I worked on.

Epic Mickey came out of frustration with games I also love, the Mario games and the Zelda games, because I looked at those two genres, the platform game and the adventure game, and I saw amazing graphics that changed dramatically over twenty years, and I heard the sounds that had come so far, and from a design standpoint I thought there hadn’t been any progress at all. How can you keep making the same games over and over?”

This is all not to mention Spector’s commanding views on the state of the videogames industry. Towards the end of the evening, Callaghan steered Spector into somewhat more controversial territory, asking him about his recent, and widely publicised criticisms of this year’s E3 expo.

“I was pretty appalled by what I saw at E3,” Spector said. “We crossed a line. When you’re fetishising violence, and slow motion blood sprays are not mature content. A lollipop-sucking, sexualised teenage girl with a chainsaw is not mature content. A woman whose character is defined by rape is not mature content … When I hear whooping and hollering about that, and the gaming press and gamers getting all excited about that, I want to go slither into a corner and die.”

The broad and often fascinating discussion with Callaghan took in a range of topics, from the design specifics of Deus Ex (“players were paralysed by choice”), to his life designing games (“making a game is constantly learning about yourself”), to pacing (“Valve games are all flow, it’s amazing”), to morality systems (“I have contempt for games with morality metres”).

By the end of the evening, I couldn’t help but wonder if in fact Spector had ended up becoming a critic after all. He might not be writing for Cahiers Du Cinema, and his chosen medium might have shifted from film to videogames, but the critical and analytical framework from his film history training has obviously found other ways of expressing itself. Warren Spector is a critic who makes games.

I managed to put this question to Spector at the end of the night, during audience question time. Does he think he might have become a critic after all?

“I never thought about that!” he laughed. “I hope so. It’d be nice to think that all my games are kind of meta-analysis, or meta-criticism in a weird sort of way. Oh my gosh, that’s awesome!”

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