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Recently at PAX Prime, Game Trailers held a panel with Ken Levine, Todd Howard and David Jaffe, in which Geoff Keighly talked to the trio about their inspirations and what makes games different from other mediums such as books and movies. As usual, David Jaffe, creator of God of War and Twisted Metal, had some interesting opinions. The panel would have been pretty boring if it weren't for Jaffe who stirred up some heated back and forth when he made the following comments:
"The amount of emotion for me personally, that gets elicited by most video games...is so miniscule...I like the idea of games being games and movies and storytelling being its own thing...If I wanna cry or be emotional I'll just go watch a movie because it's better at that... I'm all for games that are about narrative and experiences...but I want the whole experience to be about what's happening in my brain as a player. I don't wanna watch your f**king movie, I don't wanna watch your cutscene, I don't wanna see your f**king set-piece, just to say 'Look at our f**king set-piece.' No...My brain is active when you give me a challenge or something to explore, or something to discover. It's not active when I'm watching your cut-scene...Would I ever make another [big budget] game?...Yea but I wanna do it if we can figure out a way on the team [that] the gameplay is the story and the story is the gameplay. They have to be married and intertwined, or I'm not interested. I'd rather make an iPhone game."
Jaffe is essentially saying that he believes video games have a bad habit of separating the mechanics and gameplay from the actual story experience. In essence, a game will tell you to stop playing and thinking while it presents a big story moment such as a cut-scene or set-piece. He is right. That is essentially how most games do it. That is the standard that has been set for telling a story in a video game by such games as Half-Life, Uncharted, and even to Jaffe's own admittance, God of War.
What Jaffe is talking about is the visceral, raw emotion elicited from a game. The excitement of getting that high score in Pac-Man CE DX, or going on a tear in COD and earning an attack helicopter, or that nervous, delicate excitement one might feel just before finally getting that last trophy needed for a platinum. Jaffe's argument (if I understand him correctly) is that, if games can elicit this kind of excitement from gameplay, then there should be a way to elicit an opposite but equal kind of emotion from gameplay, such as sadness or melancholy.
So if gameplay and story should be more intertwined, how can this be achieved? He doesn't give too many examples, but one that he does give is the original Deus Ex. (I doubt he likes Human Revolution with its frequent CG cut-scenes.) That game presented its story through conversations with other characters and every decision the player made contributed to the outcome of the story. Decisions on the battlefield even contributed to the outcome of the plot, so while the player was enjoying the stealth and action, the plot was forming around them, not the other way around.
Are there any other games that do this? Has a game's mechanics ever made you cry? Well, of course, in fact the control scheme in Deus Ex: Human Revolution has made me throw my controller in anger on several occasions. But I don't think that's what Jaffe had in mind. OK sure, there are games such as Limbo, Bastion and Ico that use minimal cut-scenes and story intrusion to elicit that kind of response, but it is those limited cut-scenes and audio cues that give the game context to tell the story which in turn gives the game emotional weight.
Without this context, games would simply be Angry Birds. There needs to be some kind of context whether it's GlaDoS speaking in the background, the conversations with other characters on the long rides in Red Dead Redemption or the excellently produced cut-scenes of Uncharted. However, I will agree that games don't do as well at eliciting emotional responses from their stories as they do eliciting them from gameplay. However, where I differ from Jaffe is that I don't believe games could elicit a sad emotion in the same way they elicit an excited emotion.
A game isn't going to make me cry because I got a high score. It isn't going to make me cry because I beat a final boss. Human drama, something I can relate to, something that brings forth a painful or happy memory; that is what will elicit that kind of response from me. Do games do this as well as they could? No. However, instead of going deeper into that I will simply state that I think games are headed in the right direction on this front.
Another argument could be made that people who aren't gamers aren't going to be playing big, complex games and that games such as Angry Birds and Plants Vs Zombies could try to integrate story and emotion into the gameplay in simple ways such as Bastion's use of Rucks' constant narration. This could bring those emotional responses into the smaller, mechanics intensive space present on the iOS platform. This would be a great way to add depth to that dollar priced iPhone game that your co-workers secretly play on their coffee breaks.
Then again, why bother? David Jaffe admits that he has no more interest in trying to elicit an emotional response from the player. He wants his iPhone games to be free of the constraints of story. He wants his video games and movies to be separate. I would argue that video games can do both. Right now is an exciting time in gaming, with a wide array of experiences available ranging from one dollar games such as Fruit Ninja (on the phone) to downloadable's like Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, to huge-budget epics like Skyrim. Gaming has diversified and expanded to fit a wide array of tastes and prefences. The silver lining in Jaffe's comments is that there is room in this industry for both points of view. What could be so bad about that?
If you want to hear the first part of the panel, head over to Game Trailers and check it out. It's pretty entertaining. Share your thoughts in the comments. Do you think Jaffe has a point? Do you think I mis-interpreted him? Did Deus Ex: Human Revolution make you cry too when you tried to aim down the sites and instead you just kept sticking to walls? Because it sure pissed me off!