Twisted Metal Game Director David Jaffe was one of a few speakers selected to give a presentation at DICE this year. Jaffe’s vulgar language and lack of self-censorship have placed him in the media hotseat many times over the years, most recently with an admittedly tasteless fellatio joke during a GameTrailers interview at the Twisted Metal launch party.
At DICE Jaffe’s controversial topic focused on why developers should not try to tell stories in their games. That might come as a bit of shock from the director of the original God of War, an epic tale of revenge whose complex narrative helped give the intense action sequences a compelling context. It also flies directly in the face of what Jaffe’s fellow Eat Sleep Play members told GamesBeat in regards to why certain characters and features were cut from the upcoming Twisted Metal game, which launches tomorrow on PlayStation 3.
Is Jaffe an abrasive genius, or a contrarian troll? You can judge for yourself from the unedited transcript of his talk below.
David Jaffe: Hey, you guys. Um… So, y’know, I don’t need slides, I don’t have any PowerPoint, I’ve been real busy the last few days offending women. That takes up a lot of time, so I apologize. But really quickly, I wanted to say, before I jump into my talk… My mom is watching on GameSpot, and everybody says, “Well, Jaffe, you cuss a lot.” And she says to me, before I get off the phone with her, “Well, watch your language,” and I say, “You know, you taught me…” I grew up… She cusses like a sailor. So if you guys would do me a huge favor… She’s 80 years old, living in Alabama, could you guys, on three, please say “Hi, Bobby!” She would get the biggest fuckin’ kick out of this. So I’m gonna count to three, if you would indulge me, I would appreciate it, so here we go. One… It’s “Hi, Bobby,” I don’t know why she’s called Bobby, it’s not her real name, but here we go, one, two, three.
[crowd yells “Hi Bobby!”]
I’ll tell you, y’all just made an old lady orgasm. That’s fantastic, thank you for that. So now, my talk… Oh, I gotta get water, I was supposed to have water… My talk is, um… Can I get water, whenever they get a chance? My talk is actually a warning, about why we shouldn’t tell stories with our video games. I think it’s a bad idea, I think it’s a waste of resources and time and money, and more importantly I think it actually stunts, and has stunted over the last 10 years or so, the medium of video games. Sort of at our own peril.
And to be clear, I’m not talking about player-authored stories, and if you don’t know what that means, it’s kind of a buzzword these days amongst designers, but basically, a player-authored story is something… I mean, the best example these days is… Skyrim and Arkham City are wonderful, but you can also go down the chain of scope to a game like Angry Birds. A player-authored story is basically where the mechanics and the interactive is so compelling and so engaging that the player, by the very act of playing the game, creates a narrative in his mind. His play session is the story that he has created. And sometimes that gets shared on the internet, sometimes… I mean, if you play a game like Skyrim, I believe, you can literally, over the course of a weekend, create a novel-sized tome like Game of Thrones, literally of that quality sometimes. But even if you play, like, “Where’s My Water?”, it really is, whether you share it with friends or share it in your head or even if you’re not conscious of it, I think those kinds of stories are the heartbeat of our medium, and they are to be protected and supported and applauded. They’re wonderful.
And also… A lot of people hear me say this and they think I’m talking about a return to sort of old-school, Atari 2600 days. Abstract visuals and pure play mechanics. And I’m not talking about that either. I’m a huge believe in IP, I’m a huge believer in… I think our industry actually… I’m amazed every year when I look at the games we make, and I realize, I think, that our industry is probably the best and most vibrant IP creation medium that’s working today, in terms of the characters we create, the worlds we create for us to explore, for players to explore. And the context, and the stories, and the cutscenes. I’m not opposed to any of these things. I think when they serve as a nest, to protect and to house the actual gameplay. In fact, I think you really shouldn’t be making a game, no matter the scope, if you don’t have an IP. Because it’s important for branding, but more importantly, or maybe it’s really the same thing, it really is the first way that a consumer or a gamer connects emotionally with the product. So I am absolutely a big believer in IP.
I’m talking about two things. I’m talking about games that have been intentionally made, from the ground up, from the design document or the log line up, with the intent purpose of telling a story or expressing a philosophy or giving the player a designer’s narrative. That can sometimes be the entire game, or that can sometimes be a brilliant game, like Arkham City, which is one of my… I struggled when I was voting this year, between Arkham City and Skyrim… Where even a game like that, that is filled with opportunities for player authorship, sometimes goes a little bit, in my opinion, off the rails, and forces you into an area of storytelling, but not game-playing.
I’ll give you a really good example, at least, that worked for me, or didn’t work for me, that illustrates this point. If you played it, and I imagine everybody in this room has played that amazing game, the opening of the game is… If I remember correctly, you’re Bruce Wayne, you’re chained up, you’re a prisoner, you’re being sent to Arkham City, which is Gotham, but it’s been turned into a… You know the story. So he’s being led through, it’s beautifully executed, beautiful art. And you’re chained up, so you can’t do anything. All you can really do with the controller is look up, down, left and right. And the story is being told, and it’s… In my opinion, it was probably done in the service of the story, which is a great story. But I feel that in that case, we lost, or we… I didn’t make the fuckin’ game, but you know, we as game developers… They lost sight of the gamer mentality, of what they bring to a game and what they want from a game, and they let the desire to tell a story take over. Because ultimately, if you’re thinking at a pure mechanics level, it’s really not a lot of fun. You get home, you’ve spent 60 bucks, hopefully, not a buck at fuckin’ Redbox, you’ve spent 60 dollars on this thing, and you get home, and you sit down, and you go through all this stuff and you play it, and you’re like… All you can do is this, this, this, and this.
[Jaffe bobs his head up, down, left, and right.]
Now, a design argument can be made… Well, because right afterwards, Bruce Wayne breaks out of the chains and now he can fight. You could argue, “Well, yeah, we did that because when the chains broke, we wanted you to have a gameplay sense of all this ability rushing at you.” And I can appreciate the argument. But I think that the stronger probability is that that was just a good story setup, and they gave you a little bit of interactivity. And I think it came at the expense of the opening of that game, which then, crazily enough, is filled with brilliant, amazing opportunities for player authorship and wonderful in-game storytelling. So, now, look… There’s a lot of people who will tell you I’m crazy. Again, not just my mom is watching on GameSpot. I guarantee you, the comments are filling up. “Jaffe’s a fuckin’ idiot,” right? Because there’s a vocal community, and I don’t know how big they are, on the other side of this argument, that will tell you, “Cinematic storytelling and gameplay, that is the future.” And that’s why I called this “Chocolate and Tuna Fish.” Because a lot of people think it’s chocolate and peanut butter. They think, “Oh, take the movies and games and mush ’em together, and suddenly we’ve got the next big thing.” But I do think it is chocolate and tuna fish. They don’t fit. I don’t think they fit.
And I know… There’s a great book, I’m sure some of you guys have read it, called Reinventing Comics, by Scott McCloud. And in that book, he talks about… There’s a panel, actually, of a guy called Rube Goldberg, who… If you’ve watched The Goonies, or if you’ve played The Incredible Machine, he’s the cartoonist who pioneered these machine-creation cartoons, that was what he was famous for. There was a very similar conference to this for cartoonists back in the day, and this cartoonist came up to him, in this panel, with this… This was history. He was talking about how… “I feel that comics can be… They can tell stories, they can express philosophy, they can resonate.” And Goldberg was like, “You know, comics are knock-knock jokes, they’re vaudeville, you’re insane, don’t waste your time, don’t waste your life.”
You never want to be the Rube Goldberg of this argument, because you don’t want to be on the wrong side of things. I got into games because I wanted to merge movies and games, I thought there was a great opportunity to do that. But ultimately I started to realize that it didn’t work. I’ll tell you why I don’t think it works, first, and then I’ll tell you why I think it’s dangerous. I don’t think it works because… The first kinda hint of this for me a short-story teacher I had about 15 years ago. She said something that always stuck with me. She said that a great… Even a good story, a story that simply works, is one where you can… It’s a self-help book. And that doesn’t mean it’s a self-help book like you buy at a bookstore, and it doesn’t even mean… The reader shouldn’t be aware that they’re reading a self-help story. But it’s a story in which you can recognize your own humanity and get tools for living your life.
If you think of Indiana Jones, it’s certainly not a self-help movie, but he, or Rocky, is a character that we recognize our own vulnerability in. We also recognize the value of tenacity, of getting back up when you’ve been knocked down. You watch that movie, or you watch a film like Terms of Endearment, or Revolutionary Road, something that’s very sad or tragic, and even though you haven’t necessarily had those experiences, the nature of watching that film feeds your ability to say, “Hey, I’m not alone in the sadness in my life.” It gives you that energy to go back into the world.
To me, it’s almost like life is a freeway, and when you’re living your life, it’s akin to a simulation. Games are simulation. So if you get off the freeway to watch a movie, or to watch a show, or read a book, you’re taking a pit stop from life and digesting this stuff. You’re bringing this stuff into your life, and then you get back into life, and you use this, on an unconscious level in most cases, to make your life better.
But when you play a game, I think it’s more like living life. It’s not like watching a story, right? If you’re playing a game or living life, it’s like, “How do I go to the store to get all the ingredients I need to make the cake?” Or “How do I do what I need to do to put myself politically in the right position to get this promotion?” Or “How do I get this girl to go out with me?” Right? How do I do all these things? It’s very similar to resources management, spatial relation, interpersonal politics, trying to figure out… You know, I have these three objects, how do I get up to that cliff over there? If I’m Lara Croft or something like that? The brain is doing, in those cases… I think it’s much more similar, if not exactly, to what the brain is doing when you are living your life. That’s why I think that kind of pushing story language into life, or into games — which to me is the same thing, I don’t think the brain really distinguishes — I think it’s problematic and it doesn’t work.
I’ll give you another example. When you listen to Steven Spielberg, who’s one of my favorite moviemakers, talking about Private Ryan, he talks about the Normandy scene, which is very famous obviously. He says, “I didn’t want to use a dolly, I didn’t want to use a crane, I didn’t want to have any music from John Williams, I just wanted it to be guerrilla-style filmmaking, almost like the documentarians back in the day filming this for the newsreels, so it would be the closest to putting you actually on the beach.” But even with that desire, it’s not anywhere close to the same, and it’s not anywhere close to the same because you just have this… By the nature of watching it, the very nature of watching it, and the very nature of a director making choices, and the nature of you having a historical context of not just World War II, but your own life, you have this sort of omniscience, this… To get all Eckhart Tolle-ish, you have this kind of “Is-ness” of the situation. You’re above it, and you’re aware of it. You have enough brain ability to take in the lessons of it and the morals of it and the emotions of it.
But if you actually imagine yourself at D-Day, you’re probably not thinking of anything other than “How the fuck do I get to that rock?” If somebody came into this room right now and started spraying gunfire with an Uzi, we might think about our kids, we might think about our spouses, we might think about a lot of things, but the primary thing we’re going to think about is, “How the fuck do I get to the exit and how do I get out of here?” To me, that is how you think if you’re playing a good game, where they’ve made you actually care about your life, whether at a meta level or a moment-to-moment level.
And so I think… To me, when I realized that, it was sort of the beginning of going, “You know, this really doesn’t work.” But then it became even more important for me to question… “Why do I want it to work in the first place?” And not just me, but why are so many of us on this path to care…that games can be more? And I’ll talk about the “more” in a minute, but I want to talk about why I think this started. If you go back, and it’s kinda debatable, but I think they say the first game was about 4,000, 5,000 years ago. Some people say it was Parcheesi, but I think it was earlier that Parcheesi, but let’s just agree that it was millennia ago, was the first recorded game that was created. And all through millennia, you don’t see the people who created poker, or bowling, or the people who said, “Hey, we have to every couple of years change the rules in the NFL in order to adjust the game for modern times,” or what have you. None of them are saying, “Hey, you know what, let’s make a field goal worth four points, because that’s a reflection of the human condition.” They’re doing it because it makes the game better. It makes the game more competitive, it makes it more fun to watch, which is ultimately better business, and it makes it simply a better game. And so I started thinking, where did this come from? You don’t have a history of people making games all these years, trying to bring drama and human emotion to games, other than the fact that when you play a game, there’s human emotion in the nature of playing it.
I think it started in the early ’90s, really, when I started getting into games, and it started with two things that happened around there. One was CD-ROM, which was shipping games on CD-ROM, and that gave us two things. It gave us really elaborate cutscenes, and if you were lucky it gave you professional voice actors to do voices for your characters. If you weren’t lucky there were shitty actors. But you still had V/O in your games for the first time. So we were starting to see more cinematic trappings in our games. At the same time, you were seeing consumer-based 3D, whether it was the first PlayStation, or whether it was Alone in the Dark on the PC, early 3D graphics cards. And suddenly we could detach our camera from that 2D side-scrolling plane of Mario, or from the isometric view of Jungle Strike or Crusader: No Remorse, or the top-down locked view of Ultima. Suddenly we had all these beautiful cinematic camera angles, not just in the cutscenes but in the actual real time.
And I think we found ourselves kind of seduced by the language of film, the power of the language of film, going down this road where we were surrounded by the trappings of this. We started to think that… The expectations of film, we started to put them on games. And because they looked like movies and they were starting to feel like movies, we thought they needed to provide the same experience as movies. In that, I think we lost a lot of the fundamentals of what makes the medium special. Now, again, people disagree with me. And they’ll disagree with me real hardcore, like there was this lady… I really like her, she’s great, she wrote this great book called Smart Bomb, she was at GDC… It’s always GDC, or in EGM, I love EGM but they print articles about this, or on the internet ad nauseum, about how games should be more. “Developers are stunted adolescents,” is what she said. “You guys should be making games about the human condition, politics, why do movies do this, where’s your Citizen Kane,” and blah blah blah blah blah.
It’s like, you know what? I say that’s fuckin’ bullshit, and I’ll tell you why it’s bullshit. I have the front line… I worked for and with Sony for 16, 17 years. Sony innovates in a lot of ways, okay? But one of the ways… In ’95, I remember being at the first E3 and seeing some of the logos and the promos for PS one, and it was all about how this is the new artform. This is the new medium. And they take that shit seriously, and here’s how I know it, because this is the company that published and supported Parappa, and Heavy Rain, and ICO, and Shadow of the Colossus, and flOw, and Flower, and Journey, and when I was at Sony Santa Monica we were the studio that initially greenlit and supported for a long time L.A. Noire, and we were also the studio that supported Six Days in Fallujah, which if you don’t know was supposed to be sort of the world’s first documentary video game. It was really about war, but it was supposed to be emotional, and more of a genuine sense of what it meant. It was a more important game.
And some of those games that I just mentioned are brilliant games. There’s no doubt. Only a fuckin’ fool would look at ICO and say it’s not a brilliant game. But I will tell you something that you will think, “Why are you talking about yourself, Jaffe?” I’ll explain in a second, but let me tell you something about myself. I cry at almost everything. Okay? So I cry… There’s a commercial every Christmas where the mom takes the cookies out of the oven and the narrator says… I’m gonna cry right now because I’m thinking about it. She says, “Childhood quickly slips away.” I have this little fuckin’ kid… Oh, fuck you all, I can’t help it! Okay? Because I have little kids and I love them so much. And so… It’s like, “God, that makes me so sad.” Hallmark cards make me cry. I love political debates, right? I adored The West Wing, I love Meet the Press, I love listening to people talk about philosophy.
So the point of sharing this with you is because I am open to receive. I am susceptible to media. It’s not like I’m some cynic asshole, like, “Fuck, I’m not gonna cry at Terms of Endearment.” It’s not that. I love that stuff. I love being affected by media. And I’m like… Well, if a guy like me is so open to this, why in the world are these amazing games, some of which that I just mentioned from Sony, that I was on the front lines watching some of these be made… As much as I love them, why are they only evoking emotion and storytelling one-fiftieth, one-one-hundredth of the fuckin’ cookie commercial that airs every Christmas? It doesn’t mean they’re not brilliant games, but there was something weird about that. It started me thinking, even more… How much of this is an ego portion, on the part of us game-makers? Why do we feel the need to do this?
This is what was the clincher for me, which was, I said… A lot of these people will say, “Well, I have something to say. I have a story I have to tell.” I started thinking, “You know what? If you really… If you got something inside of you that’s so powerful, a story you’ve got to express or a narrative you have to share or a philosophy about man’s place in the universe that you want to get out to the world, why in the fuck” — and I use that term, Mom, wherever you are, intentionally — “why in the fuck would you choose the medium that has historically, continually, been the worst medium to express philosophy and story and narrative? Why wouldn’t you write a book? Why wouldn’t you make a movie? Why wouldn’t you go on a blog? Why wouldn’t you run for fuckin’ office?” Instead, to me, it’s the equivalent of being one of the world’s best chefs and instead of working at a four or five-star restaurant, you choose to ply your trade at McDonald’s. It doesn’t make any sense. And that’s when I started thinking, “There’s gotta be something more.”
I get it, because I came into it with that same intent, that same desire. There’s an ego part of it, there’s a desire of all people to want to express ourselves, to be important, to be relevant. Especially when you’re compared to the movies all the time, because the movies are not just a powerful medium, but the behind-the-scenes shit is glamorous. I’m not saying that’s everybody in this room, or every developer, every gamer. I can tell you, I was susceptible to it. You watch the behind-the-scenes stuff and say, “Fuck, they paint those guys to be really important, they have something to say.” It’s all bullshit, we know that now if we’ve been in this industry, it’s all PR. But ultimately you kinda buy into that. So I get that. But then it struck me, I got kinda frustrated, because I said, “You know, we are important. We’re extremely important. If you look at the biggest successes of this medium, it’s not the story-based stuff.” It’s Modern Warfare multiplayer, which is a global phenomenon. It is Skyrim, it is Guitar Hero, it is Angry Birds, it is Madden, it’s the stuff that embraces what makes the medium special.
When you actually think about that, and you think about how fucking disrespectful we are to what we give to the world, it gets you a little angry. Because we do noble work. We are saying important things. We’re entertaining the world, and it drives me fuckin’ crazy that we chase after this need to be “more,” according to these GDC folks, when I think we’re already so much. People will say, “Well, Jaffe, why does it matter to you personally?” And it matters to me because… They say, “Well, you got to make Twisted Metal. Twisted Metal’s a pure mechanics game, it’s pure gameplay for the most part.” And I get it. I’m not sitting here saying, “No one should ever go off and try to expand the medium.” They should, all the time. I think that’s wonderful. If someone really thinks they want to do this, then they should go do it.
But I think we need to adjust our thoughts, I think we need to change how we think about what this medium is, and get off the path of “This is movies,” or “This is the next generation of storytelling,” and get back to “These are games.” And in doing so… Where we haven’t done so, we’ve kinda let the gameplay muscle atrophy, we’ve let our skills and abilities and our… Evolving the actual medium that makes this medium special, I think we’ve let it go. I think it matters, also, more so, I know it’s not just developers here, but it’s executives… It matters almost more to the executives than it does to us developers, because you guys need to get a bullshit filter. And you need to get one before you waste any more money. Because here’s the deal. It is real easy to bamboozle y’all. It is so fuckin’ easy to sit in a pitch and talk about, “I want the realism and the grittiness ofBreaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy, and I wanna put it on a spaceship, and I wanna make it feel like Tarantino, and I wanna speak to the human condition,” and you walk out of that meeting and you’ve given him a green light and you feel like, “Yeah!” You can fuckin’ see that in your head. But you can’t fuckin’ see the game in your head, you can see a trailer to a movie that doesn’t actually exist.
And you better start learning gameplay language… Well, I’m not gonna say “better” like you’re gonna die, but I think it’s good if you learn gameplay language because then you can do one of two things. You can either… It doesn’t have to be mean-spirited. I would never want that. But then you can actually sit with a developer who’s saying this and say, “You know what? That’s cool that you want to do that. Tell me how. Explain to me…” Unless the goal is just the IP, like I look at a game like Assassin’s Creed, which I really like, it’s like… If you’re coming in as a developer saying, “Look, we get that the gameplay is this, the IP is this, we’d love to merge them where we can…” But if you come in with a cognizance and awareness of actually what the product is you’re making, great. And if you’re an executive that knows how to suss that out and ask that, that’s great.
But what you don’t want to do is have a developer who doesn’t fuckin’ know how they’re going to do this. They romance you with the promise of something more than it ever will be. Or not more… I even slipped into it, right? It’s not more, but different from what it ever will be. And then it ends up not being that. I think that’s really dangerous.
And the last thing I’ll say on this is, I think the guy who really has it right, and I think he’s one of the smartest designers working in games, is Harvey Smith. He did Deus Ex, which is one of my favorite games, and it basically really speaks to player authorship. In stories via gameplay. The guy just wrote a novel, and he’s also making a very heavily player-authored game right now. Here’s a guy who I think gets… “This medium is good for this, this medium is good for that.” Play to the strengths of the medium. I think we need to understand the medium, I think we need to play to the strengths of the medium, and in doing so we’ll make much better games, and we’ll make players a lot happier. That’s my talk. So thank you, and if you…
I don’t know why you would have questions about that, but if you do, I’m happy to answer them. Anybody? I can’t see anything so I’m assuming the answer’s no. Thank you guys very much, I’ll see you guys tonight at the awards. Thanks a lot!