High budget titles like Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed and indies like Bastion and Braid are able to tell effective stories and create characters and plotlines you care about. Not everyone agrees with this recent shift however, and speaking at DICE 2012 in Las Vegas, Twisted Metal’s David Jaffe says that this newfound focus on story is actually hurting games.
He says that games driven by a specific narrative are ” a bad idea, waste of resources, of time and money, and worst, I think that it has stuffed the progress of video games, to our own peril.” Rather, he says that gameplay should be able to tell a story by itself and should be “ so compelling and engaging that the player by the very nature of playing the game … is the story.” He credits the recent Elder Scrolls: Skyrim for achieving that, and objects to games “with the intent purpose of expressing a story… or giving the player the designer’s narrative.”
Jaffe blames movies for this recent shift. “I think we kind of found ourselves seduced by the language of film…and we started to put the expectations of films on games … we lost a lot of the fundamentals of what makes video games special.”
You expect me to be angry right? To join the rest of the mob mentality currently riding at such angry speeds against Jaffe. Except, you should know who I am. I’m the guy who writes every single week about how “cinematic gameplay” doesn’t exist and how it’s destroying the industry, how player/protagonist dissonance is losing our medium’s unique quality of interactivity and (more importantly) just how the modern ‘story’ in video-games is wiping out gameplay itself. David Jaffe has been my favourite game developer for a long time, and a lot of his D.I.C.E talk is simply re-affirmation, but for once, I believe him to be utterly right in every single right.
This critique corner won’t be about Twisted Metal, but it will use it as a framework for the argument I’m setting out about the apparent ‘story versus gameplay’ dilemma that faces modern game developers. See, it seems gamerkind as a whole wants better stories and emotional experiences like Red Dead Redemption… which apparently revolutionize ‘interactive storytelling’ according to many media outlets. I’m not here to call anyone out but Rockstar Games in particular have gone from the kings of emergent gameplay to the killer of interactivity, thanks in large part to their reduction in interactive elements into a fine point of cinematic pastiche.
See, Jaffe nails it. He’s probably the only mainstream developer I can think of who is reflecting this change, this call for more interactivity. The market right now is aiming itself towards ‘blockbuster’ rather than ludus florentis as it were. Developers have been suckered in and it seems gamerkind themselves are quite… more than happy to have this intake of just the same old stuff. Red Dead Redemption is a powerful experience, no doubt at all about that, but it is not interactive storytelling. It is not an excellent video-game, and if it’s one our most treasured titles then something is clearly wrong with us as the apparent ‘leaders’ of a new medium.
I have no problem with ‘cinematic games’. Uncharted 2 was my game of the year back in 2009, without Blade Runner influences then Human Revolution wouldn’t be so fantastic and (quite frankly) I lap up Rockstar Games’ materials along with the likes of Alan Wake. But they’re illusions, veneers masking that lacking feeling inside of us. Whereas we can connect emotionally to the protagonist, we can’t connect emotionally to the situation at hand because it’s not happening to us. We don’t feel the same compassion Marston has for his family because those are years and years of bonds put together. A game like Half-Life 2, however, builds the relationships to the player at the same time as Gordon Freeman meets these people. You feel a part of something, you don’t feel like a ‘participant’ but a ‘player’.
I have a feeling that this dissonance between player/protagonist combined with cinematic influences has been so well liked, so well received and in fact praised upon by journalists and gamerkind alike for one specific reason. We have been so psychologically trained that any new medium elements into our entertainment diet is confusing, scary or otherwise not worth pursuing or fighting for. Video-games are the first non-linear form of entertainment on the planet, and that’s probably the most exciting artistic exploration of the last fifty years. David Jaffe understands this, he gets it, he knows the likes of Elder Scrolls are building ‘player-weaved’ narratives, and he gets that gameplay should be able to stand on its fight. He gets it because it’s right.
We have been conditioned as an ‘audience’ to experience video-games in the same way we experience television or movies or a book. We’re not used to ‘playing’ anything, we are merely an audience rather than a player. It’s a psychological underbelly to our very intake of media, but it’s not healthy. I can understand why you’d cry at Red Dead Redemption but I’d like you to cry even more, know what I mean? I read stories of people being wrapped up in Mass Effect‘s characters so much that they cry if their team-mate falls in the Mass Effect 2 suicide mission. It’s not that uncommon, and Mass Effect puts you in the role of Shepard rather than the character of Shepard. It’s where your interaction matters, where gameplay is the story.
The article in question mentions the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Bastion, both fantastic games (Bastion being leagues ahead though), but they both share the same trait. They’re not weaving their story into the gameplay, their mechanics aren’t an apt reflection of the world and the characters and the emotions and the story. Bastion actually succeeds to some extent but I believe the likes of Mass Effect to be leading the herd in this respect. Team Ico being the leaders on an international scale, though we’ll have to see what they do with The Last Guardian.
It’s why I can understand why ‘Jaffegate’ has occurred, why everywhere I go there are just hordes and hordes of ‘flamers’ and outright immature angry little men screaming at this proclamation. That no! No! Don’t take away our story! We love our story! Gameplay? Who cares about that! If it’s one thing I disagree with Jaffe on is the whole “story versus gameplay” conflict always existing, I think gameplay equals story and vice versa. Twisted Metal is a story about blowing cars up, and in the game you… blow cars up. Simple as that. As a video-game, it tells a better story than Red Dead Redemption does. Obviously, as a whole, Red Dead Redemption is just the better ‘story’.
But that’s what ‘story’ in the modern game does, it gives context for our gameplay. I can’t help but feel this is probably one of the worst game design decisions that has been passed through generations. Shouldn’t gameplay, interactivity itself, be a motivation for our gameplay? It’s a video-game at the end of the day. I believe games to be a marriage of interactive and non-interactive elements, but not obtuse amounts of cutscenes and such. I’m not necessarily suggesting ’empowerment’ being the key focus of interactivity in video-games, but just a ‘drive’ to play rather than watch, be a player rather than an audience member. That sort of thing.
Perhaps I’m waxing too strongly, perhaps Jaffegate really doesn’t matter. I’ve written books on both storytelling in video-games and video-game journalism, which is seriously inflating this bubble of hate way too far. I think Jaffe himself nails absolutely everything wrong with video-games today and, quite frankly, I wish there were more like him. I will never be a Jaffe, I will never be a ‘great’ writer (maybe even not a half-good one) but I just wanted to spill some brainthoughts about this. Game critique corner usually dissects an element about an actual video-game but, today, I just wanted to criticize the industry and community in general.
I haven’t played the game yet though, I hear it’s kinda fun.