Recently, I was shown a video of a presentation by David Jaffe, a video game designer famous for directing the Twisted Metal and God of War series. In this presentation, Jaffe made the provocative claim that game designers were spending entirely too much time on story and would do well to reduce or even eliminate its focus on cinematic features within games.
I listened to the rest of his 22 minute speech and admit that he made interesting points about the video game medium. His main point was that narrative was coming at the expense of gameplay. To a certain extent, I agree with his assessment. There are a number of video games out there that have placed story well ahead of gameplay and they have suffered for it. Brink, for instance, made my list of the most disappointing games of 2011 because its gameplay was not in the same league as the premise for its story.
If this were Jaffe’s only point, there would be no need for a blog post—a congratulatory Twitter post would have sufficed. In reality though, Jaffe made one point that got under my skin, and is one I feel is important to address. He claims that video games are not movies.
Actually that’s not his only point. He says that game developers who want to tell stories, should do so in literature or cinema, because it is the responsibility of creators of media to play to the strengths of their crafts. I agree with his reasoning, but I disagree with his prescription that developers should make movies for their visions instead. I believe Jaffe is not giving enough credit to the value of video games.
Undoubtedly, there are some stories that are better told in some forms of media than others. A self-contained romance or educational documentary would do well in a book or on film. A long-form character study probably belongs to the realm of television. But what about video games?
David Jaffe rightly indicates that video games are good at allowing the player to invent his or her own story, making the experience memorable. He does not seem to think that that strength plays nicely with traditional narrative, but there are two reasons why it actually does fit nicely:
- Video games can allow and encourage physical exploration in the setting the developers have crafted. Such exploration is impossible in books and movies. In a detective novel, you only “see” what the author describes. In games, you have a lot more freedom. To some degree, this is a limitation for video games. If you want a tight and crafted narrative, then yes, a book might be a better avenue, but if you want something a bit more open-ended, then video games are second-to-none.
- Video games allow for direct player engagement in ways that movies cannot. Sure, game developers could make “choose your own adventure” books like Goosebumps, but the moment you put that book on a computer screen, you have a text-adventure, which is really just a primitive form of video game. In this regard, the line between literature and video game is blurred. Simply put, if you want to engage your viewer by forcing him or her to make a decision or have some authority in your creative vision, then your best option is to make a video game; movies and literature do not have that reach. Then again, as I said before, video games can be weak in this respect as well; if you want to craft a story that players cannot influence, then you should make a movie, so that the viewer only sees what the director intends.
David Jaffe’s speech is important and even if you don’t agree with it initially (his speech is front-loaded with provocative material), it does provide a good amount of food for thought.
Games represent a special form of narrative because of their open-endedness and interactivity. Just because some players find the experience to be distracting from the “game” elements of a game, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a large audience who find the narrative experience coming from games to be rewarding and worth pursuing.
That’s all for today; stay tuned for more essays in the near future.