You’ll only find that out through listening to what they say in the game, the characters themselves, or reading the cell phone, looking up in the skybox and reading where Amy, the girl, has written notes to the kid and he’s writing notes back. Hers are upside down because she sits in front of him in class. She’s turned around writing in his notebook. You start to think, “Wow, there’s a whole fiction here. Not just in terms of the kid’s life that’s reflected, but the characters themselves are self-aware.” They’re not aware of this kid being in high school. They’re just aware of the hand, which is like their god. It created them and can destroy them at a moment’s notice. But it’s also a mechanic you can call on in the game, using the hand to kill your enemies.
The inspiration behind all of this is to make a wonderfully fun deep competitive online multiplayer game, but it just naturally, once we realized it was about this kid’s drawings — it very naturally took on a life of its own. It told its own story of who this kid is, versus just being — we could have stopped there and said, “It’s a kid’s doodles.” But it was more fun to write a story and figure out ways to embed that in the gameplay. That’s a really long answer. Thanks for coming in!
GB: [A live action video of a classroom shows, from the main character’s point of view]. How much of that video you showed is in the game?
Jaffe: We shot about 12 of these. We’re actually opening day one with just the first two. We have a lot of them, and since we’re looking at this as a service-based game, we’ll roll out new ones as the days go on. There’s one where he’s in detention. There’s one where him and this guy Fincher, they don’t get along all that well. He’s kind of the bully.
Some of that story, even though there’s no performance — we don’t have them going into storytelling, like actors, because especially when they’re addressing the camera, that can come off as cheesy unless you do it exactly right, and we’re still a pretty small game. We can’t afford to go out and hire amazing actors who can directly address the camera and not feel like old-school Sega CD. But all of that—again, another example of that world-building in places that I don’t think you’d expect it. At least I’m hoping you don’t expect it. I hope players come for the meal, which is the gameplay, and if they’re really into it, it’s like, holy cow, there’s a whole little world here to discover.
GB: Can we take a look at gameplay briefly?
Jaffe: Let me drop you in first. Play a bit of the training. I want to talk about the humor of the game and my joy and concerns about the game’s humor. I’m okay if you put humor in quotes. It’s very subjective. We did a lot of focus testing on the humor, because every time we did focus tests I thought they were going to say, “Jaffe, you gotta pull the humor out. You gotta take the frog out.” And I was fine with that. I thought the frog was funny. But I got that maybe a lot of people wouldn’t think so. But every time the focus tests came back they said, “We love the humor, don’t touch it.” This will also help you get a sense of the mechanics before you jump in.
GB: Are you targeting more than high school students? Is it just anybody who appreciates the style?
Jaffe: I don’t think we’re officially targeting high-school kids as a title. I don’t really think about that, which is why I was more than happy to put it through focus tests and ask, “Do people think this is funny?” Play a bit of this. I won’t talk, because I want you to digest it and get an idea.
Where it’s going — one of the things I think is really cool about this game, all the characters are unique in how they navigate, move, and control. I wanted to give you a sense of how much variety and mechanical depth there is. All the characters have pros and cons against other characters. We’re definitely looking at a game that’s more like Smash Bros as inspiration for how much the characters can do and how long it’ll take players to learn and master each character. Hopefully the players who are really into the game will quickly realize that if you’re just running around with a machinegun and shooting — it’ll take more than that for you to do well.
I also wanted to show you the humor of the game, or the “humor” of the game. There’s this weird line we’re trying to walk. A lot of people, on the surface of it, are going to think — taken literally, I think there’s a self-awareness we’re trying to get across. The best example is here. There’s an announcer you’ll hear in a moment. He intentionally sounds like the kinds of announcers you hear back in the Midway arcade game days, the ‘90s era of games like HYDRO THUNDER! and all that stuff. It takes a while, but if you play enough games you start to hear him having conversations with his mother, who he still lives with, or he’s thrilled to still be working in the industry. This is the first job he’s had since the arcades collapsed.
We’re intentionally over the top. We’re trying to straddle this line between what a kid in high school would find stupid humor, over the top humor, bawdy vulgarity, but at the same time sort of wink at it. We get that this stuff isn’t necessarily where the target is anymore, but to us — maybe because some of us grew up there, we just started working at the time — we’re still connected to that time. There’s a sense of charm to it, I guess? I don’t know if people are going to get that, but I wanted to play this, because it reflects the best version of that.
GB: So some awareness of video game history?
Jaffe: Awareness of game history, but also of — it knows that it’s doing juvenile humor, bathroom humor in a lot of ways. It’s aware that it’s not the height of comedy, but there’s something I think is charming in that. This is a line we put online for the website. In the game there are all these buff coins that spawn. It gives you extra ammo or a faster fire rate.
GB: Would you say it’s a Pixar kind of humor, where there are jokes for the kids and jokes for adults?
Jaffe: I don’t think so? It’s not really meant for kids. We’re not thinking of it that way. We’re not that sophisticated. [laughs] The gameplay is. I’ll stand on the mountain and shout about how sophisticated I think the gameplay is, how much nuance and variety there is, but as far as the humor, no. We’re just doing stuff that makes us laugh.
What I’m waiting for is people on NeoGAF saying, “That fucking announcer is ripped from the ‘90s. What are these guys, living in Midway arcade-land, Ready 2 Rumble and stuff?” But again, what I love about it is, if you actually play it — that’s a two-minute soliloquy that plays during gameplay when you pick up one of these coins. He has probably 40 of those, where he just goes off about his personal life and how he’s gotta go to the bathroom, but he’s not going because he’s a pro and he’s gonna sit here and take it. How he lives with his mom, but he wants to go on a date with this girl. It’s just like, “Why is the announcer in this game having a therapy session with me?”
I think that stuff’s really cool and really funny. Absolutely terrified of how it’s going to play in the world. But again, to Sony’s credit, ever since I started working with them in ’95, they’re just like, “Find a north star. Follow your north star.” I love that about this game. I think it probably has the most spirit and personality of any of the games I’ve worked on. It has a voice. Whether it’s a voice that reviewers or gamers embrace, I don’t know. But it’s genuine. I’ll give you that.
If we go into the game itself, which is where the meat of this lies — this goes through the various specials for each character. They’re all very different.
GB: The frog is always with you?
Jaffe: He’s kind of the mascot. He’s with you in the training and in the shell. There’s a whole history of him that observant players, going back to the Hero Brian idea — they can discover his true motivations. But on the surface — I kind of wrote him in the voice of Niles Crane from Frasier. He’s this elitist British frog who hates you. “Yeah, I’ll train you. I can’t stand you, but sure, we’ll do this.”
Again, it’s designed to be more like a brawler than a shooter. It’s not like you play Mortal Kombat and suddenly your version of Jax is better than mine. You just play well because you’ve learned the ins and outs of the character. We want that same philosophy to apply in Drawn to Death.