In the third, final portion of the interview, David Jaffe muses about games as a medium and answers a few questions submitted by fans.
C& G Monthly: When it comes to talking points like respect, legitimacy, public or even academic approval, how do you think games compare as a medium with more traditional media such as fiction and cinema? Do you think games can even be considered a medium yet?
David Jaffe: Oh, I don’t know. I kind of don’t care. I don’t need the approval, I don’t need the legitimacy, I don’t need anyone to pat me on the head and say “You’ve arrived, you’re okay.” I love games, I think they’re awesome. I love some more than others. I will tell you that… and I don’t know if this is a reflection of the medium of film beginning to wane, or a reflection of so much corporate think that has affected the movie business… but I have found myself getting substantially less interested in movies and their storytelling than I used to be. And I find myself seeing games as more substantial and interesting and creative and satisfying. And so from that standpoint, the pure standpoint of “What do I think about games,” I find them to be the superior medium.
I wouldn’t have said that about five years ago, but so much has happened in the landscape of movies… I don’t know if it’s I’m almost 40 and I’ve seen so many f**king movies my whole life and it’s hard to surprise me… I don’t know what it is, I just know that these days it takes a whole lot for a movie to make me go “Wow, I love movies.” But I can play an average game more often than not, and it may not be the world’s best game, but I can still say, “ There’s something about this that has me turned on and engaged.”
Perhaps a lot of it has to do with the fact that all day long, I’m on iChat or video chat, the internet, and e-mail and Facebook… I mean, life in and of itself is interactive, but when you’re talking digital interactivity and how pertinent it is in my day to day… It almost feels like maybe that’s why games have now taken the head seat at the table. Because I can’t fathom anymore, on some fundamental level, not being able to interact with my digital world.
And so when I sit down to watch a movie, it almost feels quaint. But to be fair to that medium, when you do watch a movie that is able to do what a movie does well… and maybe that’s the real difference, movies that appeal to me now are much smaller stories, or more human stories, because I think that that’s what that medium does incredibly well. But when I go to see something like The A-Team, which I walked out of because I thought it was just terrible and I love action movies… Or if I go to see something like Iron Man 2 which I thought was okay, but nowhere near as good as the first, maybe it’s because that part of the meal is being substantially, significantly better prepared and served via the interactive medium these days. And so if I want to sit down and watch a movie that really speaks to the human condition, like Goldberg with Ben Stiller is probably the one I’ve seen most recently that I thought was a real human story… maybe games will one day be able to do that. Right now, they barely can scratch the surface on that… then I think movies are great. But since most of the movies I watch are action-adventure… I’d rather play Modern Warfare 2 than watch a shoot ‘em up in the theater these days.
CGM: So there’s no feeling from you that game developers should someday be regarded with the same respect as Ridley Scott or Frank Miller?
DJ: No. Anyone that feels that way, I kind of want to give them a hug, direct them to a therapist and… y’know… And I’m not being superior. In the past, I wanted that so much. It took a while to wake myself and think “Dude, what are you chasing? What are you going after here?” And so once you wake up to the fact that that’s utter bulls**t and… the desire for that speaks more of the person having the desire than it does of the medium itself.
CGM: And the games themselves? Do you think there’s anything they can or should do that other media don’t provide? Or is interactivity the only, obvious component?
DJ: Well, y’know, interactivity is kind of interchangeable to me. I always find it funny when people say “interactive game,” as opposed to a non-interactive game? But let me think, it’s a really good question, and it’s going to take a moment of thought…
I think… I absolutely believe, that pure play mechanics can evoke both more emotion and more intellectual curiosity, and valuable, thought provoking scenarios. Every once in a while you’ll get a flash of that, and that’s really interesting how simply hitting the input in the right way, or doing something with the avatar on the screen made me think about something, or made me feel, but those moments are so fleeting and it’s so rare… It’s hard to know if games are genuinely good at that, and we just haven’t quite learned the language of how to really master that, which is what a lot of people will tell you… Or if those things are more like happy accidents, but it’s really not quite what the medium is good at.
But I would say if I had to bet, I would say the medium could be better than any other medium to provoke thought and feelings… not the same feelings, not the feelings that you would get if you watch a tear-jerker, but provoke certain thoughts and feelings through our interactivity. But I’m not really sure about that though, because it’s kind of fun to talk about, and makes you sound smart, but the reality is, it happens so infrequently. And a lot of people say “Oh, that’s because the industry doesn’t support it,” and I’m sorry, that’s not true. There’s enough indie gaming, and there’s enough companies like Sony—not to toot Sony’s horn, but if you look at a lot of the innovative products that they’ve supported, they would be happy to jump on board with things like that. But a lot of it comes down to how strong the medium is in pulling that off. I’m kind of torn on that answer, but I would say that’s the first thing that comes to mind. It’s a half-baked answer, I’d have to think about it some more.
CGM: So those brief flashes of the medium’s promise, do you have any specific, personal examples?
DJ: The one I always reference is the one we were looking at for research when I was designing this game called Heartland…
CGM: We’re going to go back specifically to Heartland in a bit, but go on.
DJ: There was a flash game out, I think it was called September 12 or September 10, but you were in this Middle-Eastern marketplace, and you could drop bombs on the marketplace. And when you did that, obviously you killed a lot of innocents, and you would see mourners come over to where those people had died, and they’d fall to their knees, scream up to the heavens, and then they would start to flash. And a couple of them, I’d say 20% of them, after a few minutes, would transform from average pedestrians to terrorists, carrying guns and things like that. And it was a really interesting way to sell that message.
I don’t know whether it was anti-violence or anti-war, but this idea of… collateral damage. Maybe it was called September 12 and maybe it was about the fact that, “Look, yeah, we’re angry about September 11th, let’s go bomb somebody, but there are consequences.” And unless you can pinpoint target the exact people responsible, which I think would be great, I’m all for that… otherwise if you just start dropping bombs on people, you’re just going to perpetuate this problem. In a lot of ways, that was a stronger way to deliver that message than, for example, the last shots of Munich where you still see the twin towers. And it was very clear to me that what Spielberg was trying to do was say “This problem in the Middle-East, and all this does is create ‘an eye for an eye’ and it continues and continues.” And here are the twin towers, because I think the film was set in the 70s or the late 60s, and they’re standing now, but what’ll happen to them?
I think being able to have that experience and make it interactive, make you realize, “These are my choices…” I thought there was something pretty interesting, and pretty thought provoking about that. To the point that here I am, talking about it years after I first experienced it. So, was that a happy accident and was that the rarity? Or is that something games are genuinely great at, and we just haven’t really—because we’re not financially incentivized possibly—we haven’t gone that next step, and I don’t know.
CGM: On the flipside of the equation, what do you think games or their creators should be learning from the more established media?
DJ: On the one hand, my knee jerk is to say “We should pay our talent more.” And that may be true, it’s really hard to say right now. You’ve got these amazing companies, like Activision, for example, that make a lot of choices that don’t necessarily seem… talent friendly. But you cannot argue with their success. And from a pure business standpoint, it’s like, “Wow, Activision is a hell of a company.” You have to admire that. So in that regard, it’s hard to hold up the flag of, “Oh us creators should be paid more,” because the buying public has shown time and again that they don’t really care about the level of quality that the hardcore gaming fan cares about. And so that end, from a pure business standpoint, maybe it doesn’t make sense for them. The movie audience… well, maybe it makes more sense for them because movies are priced so inexpensively, you can take more chances as a consumer. With the movie audience, there is value to paying someone like Steven Spielberg, or Christopher Nolan a great amount of money if you’re Paramount of if you’re Sony, because they have proven, along with a lot of other talent, that they can bring people into the theater and make money.
But with the exception of hardcore fans, at the lower end of game designers, few people know who you are. I’m somewhere towards the bottom, some people know who I am. More people know who Cliff Blezinski is, a hell of a lot more know who Shigeru Miyamoto is. No one on that list, from me at the bottom to Miyamoto at the top, garners the kind of… Okay, there’s no guarantee, the gamer doesn’t walk into the store and say “I want that, because Miyamoto made it.” There are people who do that, but there aren’t enough to merit the budgets that need to be spent today to make games.
So from that perspective, I don’t know about that point. As much as I would like to think talent really matters, it kind of does look like maybe we’re in an environment where brand matter more. Maybe it’s because our products are so expensive that the customer really isn’t going to take a lot of chances. We’re asking for a lot of their money, and if you’re going to ask for that much, they want to feel pretty safe and secure in their investment.
CGM: I was reading your comments recently on the internet about “arty farty” games, but then you went on to make the distinction between those games and games like Ico or Flower–
DJ: Oh, Ico and Flower are two of my top ten games of all time. I was specifically talking arty-farty, pretentious, obnoxious… y’know, journalists and obnoxious game designers that just go on and on about this bulls**t… And y’know what, I’ll be the first f**ker in line to buy a game that moves me in an emotional way, on a human level, like a great movie. Whether it’s Saving Private Ryan, or Schindler’s List or what have you.
CGM: This is the part that interests me specifically. You do mention design, but then you mention emotion/story-telling when you made the comment. It’s like you were making a distinction between game design and emotion or story-telling which might not belong to games, but that games borrow from older media.
DJ: I think that’s more often than not the case. A game can have a great story, that kind of book ends it and whatnot, but I think the best games are the ones that are written really well by the nature of the interactivity. And there’s a conscious choice on the part of the game creators that basically the story-telling is the interactivity. So the craft part is having that knowledge to begin with, knowing how to craft interactivity that’s engaging and entertaining, and at the same time contributes to… maybe the experience is the best word, versus story.
CGM: Speculating about the future, what kind of experiences would you like to see games giving players? Where would the technology have to be to properly address that?
DJ: Well, at the far end of the spectrum, certainly I’d like to live long enough to be able to step into the holodeck. One of the reasons I love games so much is because of the fantasy escaping into really cool worlds that we don’t get to visit every single day. And something like the holodeck, if it actually works the way it does on Star Trek… I mean, good Lord… It’s like life, but it’s life as written by… well, in my case, it would be life as written by Michael Bay, and it would be different for someone else. But in terms of, say the next five years… I would like to see games toy with emotions evoked via mechanics. I think there is some gold, maybe tons of gold, maybe just a couple of nuggets to mine there. I think that would be really cool.
CGM: So you’re saying you’d like to see games take immersion a step further?
DJ: Well, not immersion. See, immersion is a tricky word, immersion and engagement to me are kind of the same thing. You can be totally engaged or immersed in a play system, it has nothing to do with the level of graphics or the level of… making you feel like you’re living in a fantasy world. And a lot of the times, that’s sort of the problem, that people get the two confused in terms of… you can have the world’s best graphics, but if the gameplay’s boring, after about five minutes the graphics wear off and you’re still bored.
So when I say “holodeck,” I mean literal immersion where the level of the AI is able to fold itself around your choices, in way that… it’s like an “authorship AI,” where you buy a holodeck program where, like I said, you want to have a Michael Bay summer action movie where you are the star, and as you make choices, the AI is smart enough to write that script that creates itself around you.
In terms of immersion today, I think it still comes down to gameplay, it comes down to “Are you engaged in what you’re doing and the choices that you’re making? Are you being rewarded and are you being challenged on that very narrow edge where it’s not too hard, but not too easy so you’re engaged?” There have been games that… the first I remember hearing about it was one of the Devil May Crys, that was supposed to, in real-time, adjust to get everyone to that sweet spot of not too hard, not too easy. I’d love to see more of that continue. But I don’t know, I’m not one of these guys… I mean, you can listen to people like Warren Spector, Sid Meier or even Harvey Smith talk about the future, and what games may be. It’s not self-deprecation, but it’s not something that my brain does. I think one game at a time, and what I want to make next, I don’t have a bird’s eye view analysis of it.
CGM: Getting back to the emotional engagement you were talking about, what about romance? That’s something that games have as a plot element, but very few attempt to make it a game element or component. Is it just too hard or subtle for the games to attempt?
DJ: Well, gosh… it’s like… it’s everything from the fact that romance is… well, what exactly is that? What level are you talking about? There’s the issue of “What is romance” and how do you try to model that in an interactive system. When you say “romance” are you talking about the butterflies in your stomach when you can’t stop thinking about someone for the first few months? Or are you talking long term relationship? There’s so much that goes into that word, “romance.” And even if you go in and simplify it, focusing on something like infatuation… I mean, I dunno, that’s where I get a little unsure about this whole thing. I don’t know if women would go “Oh, I want to play a game because it’s about romance.”
You can candy-wrap an RPG and make it about romance, and I don’t mean a dating simulation. You can do an RPG that’s all about a character who… you could do like, 500 Days of Summer the RPG, and it would totally work, because you could create metaphors instead of battling monsters and demons and trolls. You could have emotions that you’re battling, or you could have self-doubt, or a number of other things that you have to beat, that are given the guise of AI enemies, and your leveling is written about in such a way that you’re not just leveling up some random bar. You’re putting points into how romantic you are, or how considerate you are, or you trade your points for money so you can buy the girl gifts, but what does that actually do? Does she love you for your money, or your actions?
I think you could build a game around it, and I think it would be interesting actually, now that I hear myself saying it… It’d be kind of cool, I’d play that. I’d at least try it. So when you say “Why don’t they do it,” I dunno, maybe I will, now that I hear myself saying it, I’d like to make the 500 Days of Summer-style RPG. I think that’d be fun.
CGM: Okay, you heard it here first on C&G Monthly…
DJ: Maybe that’s my next game.
CGM: Let’s talk about games and politics. Topics like the No Russian level in Modern Warfare 2 and the troubles of Six Days in Fallujah’s release seem to indicate that games get into too much controversy when they tackle the subject. You had your own project, Heartland that dealt with the idea of a Chinese invasion of the USA and American ethnic Chinese being victims of nationwide paranoia. Are games just not ready for this kind of subject matter?
DJ: I honestly think that the problem with games right now is that game publishers get a really bad rep about this. It’s really easy to vilify the people who write the checks and say “Oh, they’re heathens and don’t really understand art” and all this bulls**t. And certainly in the case of some publishers, yeah that’s true. But I used to work for a company, and now my game is published by a company that green lit and supported Ico and Amplitude and Shadow of the Colossus, and Flower and Flow. Trust me, if I went to Shuhei [Yoshida] or Allan Becker and said, “I have a game that is about the politics of the Middle East,” they would not turn their noses up. They would sit on the edge of their seats and say “That’s what we’re all about, we love pushing the medium forward, tell us how to do it.”
So there are companies out there that are willing to support artistic gambles. I think that’s absolutely true in our medium more than any other. But I think the reality comes down to… it’s really easy to talk the talk, really easy to do interviews like this one where you’re doing it for a big magazine like yours, or a guy talking on a blog or a forum and talk about games in the artistic sense. And talk about games like they’re the next big emotional medium, blah, blah, blah.
But when you actually sit down, and you have the task at hand of trying to integrate that noble desire into interactivity, and whether it’s interactivity via a conversation tree or hitting the “x” and “triangle” button, it becomes a whole different kettle of fish. To the point that it may not be doable. And if it is doable, it hasn’t been done in such a way, or proposed in such a way that convinces anybody that this is worth doing.
Look, if I walked up to Sony and I had a really lush demo, and it elicited the kind of emotion, whether it’s visceral emotion, or emotional emotion, the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan or the curb-stomping in American History X, these guys would be on the edge of their f**king seats going, “Oh my God, let me give you money because you’ve just moved the medium forward and we want to be part of that.”
So it is absolutely not true to say the medium can do it and “Oh, publishers don’t like to be political and controversial.” It’s just the fact that so far… Look, I haven’t seen Six Days in Fallujah, I know Sony for a while was actually funding it, and then they decided not to, and then Konami was funding it, and I believe they decided not to as well… and, I don’t know what it is, but no one ever showed me anything in that game that made me go, “This is anything other than a first person or third person—I forget—standard shooter.”
And when I was walking the halls of E3… Y’know, we were doing Heartland, and we were trying to go for some emotional, interactive moment, not in cutscenes, but in the actual interactivity… And I saw a number of Homefront images, on the banners, that looked like they were going for something similar. I have not played it, I didn’t get a chance to get away from the Twisted Metal booth, so I don’t know if people at E3 were actually able to play sections of that game that were designed in an attempt to elicit those emotions. So if they were, that’s great, I imagine I would have heard something about it. But I don’t know if they’ve achieved it. Did you get a chance to play it?
CGM: No, I saw the demos, but they were focusing more on combat mechanics rather than the plot of Korean invaders laying waste to Americans and the consequences of that.
DJ: That’s what I mean. It’s pretty easy to have a North Korean enemy shoot an American. But when you talk about how to get politics and interactivity and emotion and interactivity… I think it’s really important before people continue to go down this road of acting like “Oh, it’s the publishers who don’t want to touch it, but boy if they did, we’d have art.” It’s more like, “No, that’s not really true.” There are publishers that are happy to touch it if you can actually show them it’s worth touching. But so far, nobody’s seen it.
CGM: So what was your motivation for working on Heartland back in the day?
DJ: Well, I wanted to do it. And I still think I have ideas on how to build that in via interactivity. I look at a game like the very first Deus Ex which I loved, which is one of my top games of all time, and there were just some moments in that game where you could make choices. And there were moments in that game were you really felt like you were living that life and between that game and the September 12 game that I cited, as well as some of my own ideas that sort of spoke directly to how to put emotion and politics into interactivity, I felt, and I still feel, that this was something I could take a pretty good swing at. I don’t know if I’d hit a homerun, but I think we could get on base, at least.
And it’s still something I’m going to want to do, it just so happens that there were a number of reasons I’ve documented elsewhere in the press that we just weren’t able to continue with that title. Which had nothing to do with Sony not being supportive at all. It just had so much more to do with, it wasn’t the right time, it wasn’t the right team to make that game, and the game we should have been making was a game like Twisted Metal which is what we’re doing now.
CGM: What about the gamers themselves? Has the audience changed?
DJ: I look at my kids. I have a four year old and I have a six year old. They’re game obsessed. They’re not game obsessed like “Oh, dad, we love Civilization,” but they can’t stop playing the shuffleboard game on my iPad. They play the PBS, public television kids’ games all the time. They like picking up the controllers for Twisted Metal and driving the cars around. And I see their friends, and kids love their games today as much as they ever did.It just happens that a lot of us who grew up playing games and loving games, we still love games. I don’t think it’s changed so much as it’s made it clear that now there’s a reason there’s an M rating and a T rating and an E rating. At least in America. Because there’s a lot of different people, a lot of different ages playing different kinds of games. I don’t think it’s changed in terms of what I like, there are games out there that are very adult and serious, or at least they try to be, whether its their violence, in which they tend to succeed on that level, or whether it’s in their attempt at a story, or emotional resonance. So I think that’s awesome.
CGM: Do you think that gamers might be more jaded or harder to impress now?
DJ: Not really. I mean, you’re always going to have the hardcore contingent that probably reads magazines like yours and websites like yours, and the NeoGAF guys… and of course they’re gonna’ want the best of the best and the cutting edge. They have their money to spend and it’s just as valuable as anyone else’s. But I think there are also people that are looking for something else. They’re looking for a party game, or there may be a guy who’s really into a game for the story, and may not care if the graphics are the most amazing. Or a guy who just bought a brand new HDTV and wants the coolest graphics.Everybody should be demanding when you’re asking for $60, or even $5 from them. But in terms of “are they more demanding?” Maybe a reluctant “Yes” from the standpoint that when we were kids, I don’t know how old you are, I’m 39… and when I was a kid, the very nature of interactivity was enough to get you excited. You’d play a piece of s**t like the Pac-Man port or the Donkey Kong port on the 2600, which was just hideous. But you were still high on the fact that, “Oh my God, I’m controlling something on my television.” And certainly that has worn off. So we look elsewhere for things to interest us or make demands on us, and these days it tends to be graphics.So I guess in that way, players are more demanding. But still, you look at some of the games that sell really well, sometimes they don’t have the world’s best production values, but they’re still entertaining. So maybe they’re demanding they get their money’s worth, but maybe where the average consumer expects that to come from isn’t always bleeding edge graphics. It might just be fun factor or a really good license that they like.
CGM: What about extremists in the gamer community? What’s your take on the fanboys?
DJ: The thing that always comes to mind when people talk about this is… I don’t know if you saw that Jimmy Fallon movie Fever Pitch… He’s this absolute sport nut, he roots for his team, I think it was Boston… But he’s crazy about the Boston Red Sox, and he goes into the bar one night and he sees some guy from the Red Sox sitting by a guy from a competing team that they just played. And they’re all friends, and they’re all hanging out, having a beer, eating dinner… and he just can’t fathom that that these guys would be friends. It doesn’t make any sense to him, they should be like mortal enemies.
And I think sometimes the hardcore gaming culture can… well, y’know, it can get a little silly, but I understand the psychology behind it. You invest a lot of money in your system of choice, and if you can’t afford all of ‘em you wanna feel like you’ve made a good decision. And then the game companies help with that. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, there is a culture to those companies that I think people begin to feel a part of, and the companies foster that. Like the Playstation blog, and you start to know the names within that community. I’ve had people go “Oh, you’re a famous game guy,” but I’m like, “No, not really. I’m known within the Playstation community.” Because people who buy Playstation games have been buying games that I’ve been involved with heavily since 1995, on the Playstation one. But in the same way, there are people who buy Microsoft games or Nintendo games that have no interest in anything that I do.
I think it’s cool that there are these communities that get fostered and stuff, but I do think there can be a mean spiritedness about it. More of that can be accountable to just human nature and the anonymity of the internet. I can’t speak of other media because I only go on movie and game and comic forums, and frankly I find the comic fans… even though they’re passionate and vocal, and maybe it’s because they’re older, because there’s not a lot of young comic readers anymore… the comic fans tend to be friendlier with each other. I’m not saying this is a rule across the board, but I do notice that. Film fans tend to be that way, with the exception of Ain’t It Cool News where they’re just… insane… but y’know… But game guys… they can get pretty f**king nasty. And mean spirited, and I’ve been on the receiving end of that. But you have to remind yourself that they’re probably just a bunch of f**king kids that are pushing your buttons and they don’t know any better. All they can afford is one system and they f**king hate you because you represent Playstation to them and it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to be rational and reasonable, they just f**king hate you because it makes them feel better, because they bought the Xbox. Or vice versa, it could be a Playstation owner making an Xbox owner feel like s**t.’ve noticed a lot of mean spiritedness that I don’t care for. And I look at it and think, “God, anyone posting on a game forum has probably, at one point in their life, felt like a geeky outsider.” I certainly have. And what are we fighting about? We finally found our tribe, why are we arguing with each other all the time? I mean, it’s kind of fun to get into scraps and s**t with people on the internet, feeling totally safe and not worrying about getting punched in the mouth.
CGM: Now for some fun questions from David Jaffe fans. First up, who would win in the fight of Kratos versus Chuck Norris?
DJ: Um, Kratos would kick the f**k out of Chuck Norris.
CGM: On what grounds?
DJ: Probably on the grounds that Chuck Norris is like f**king 60, and… I have a hard time letting a Republican win anything.
CGM: Will Kevin Butler make a VP appearance in Twisted Metal with his own car?
DJ: Probably not. I would be very much against that. As fun and frothy as Twisted Metal is, I still believe it has a brand integrity, a world integrity. And as much as I think Kevin Butler is really cool, and really funny and he was really nice when I met him at E3, last week, I wouldn’t want to see Twisted Metal become that sort of joke-y thing. I’ve had people before come up to me and say “Ooh, put a mail truck in Twisted Metal, or put a Pinto in Twisted Metal!” And, y’know, it is funny, and Twisted Metal certainly doesn’t take itself ultra-seriously, but I do think there’s an integrity to the fiction. And if you start going down that road, I think that’s one of the reasons why fans didn’t care for Twisted Metal 3, or Twisted Metal 4, because they didn’t really understand the universe and just assumed it was a big soup of silly ideas with cars. And I think the fans showed that really wasn’t the case. They didn’t care for it.
CGM: The last fan question… What is your current source of bitterness these days?
DJ: It’s not a bad question, I haven’t thought about it… I would say… it kind of sucks to be getting older. I don’t mind being older, I’m not one of those guys that cares about losing his hair, I love having kids, I love being a dad. I’m not one of these guys that wishes he was still 20. But I think there is a lot of truth to that idea, if you just knew then what you know now… About life, about women… you would have so much more f**king fun when you were 20. So I think there’s that sense of of… “F**k, that is backwards ass, man. You should learn all this s**t and then get to be young.” But, doesn’t work that way. So I’m not really bitter about it, more obnoxiously amused by it.