Design. Innovate. Communicate. Entertain. While the Game Developers’ Conference (GDC) has grown increasingly commercialized, the annual DICE summit remains a game conference about a certain type of person in the game industry: the developers. It’s a place where developers can get together from all over the world and just talk about what they do without the pressure that they need to sell something. A big part of this summit are the presentations that are given by some of the most esteemed, successful people in the industry as they discuss some of the concepts and philosophies employed by their respective studios and teams. Not how to squeeze a few hundred more polygons out of the hardware or how to manipulate shaders within a popular engine, but rather the overall process of game development, the philosophies that define these companies and contribute to their standing out.Â
- Says pushing stories in games is a dangerous idea that wastes resources and stunts the evolution of game design (Jaffe also makes clear that it is still very important to have a crafted IP, but his basic argument is that the player-authored story is what should be focused on and the designer-directed story is what is the “problem”)
- Says trying to tell a story loses sight of what the player brings to the experience. Jaffe also says that since the advent of 3D visuals and voice acting, there has been a concerted push to merge games and cinema, which is what he is arguing against doing.
- Jaffe says primary reason for this disconnect is that usually a good story is an experience that we canÂ relateÂ to that explores the reasons “why” certain things happen, whereas games are more like real life in the sense that they are about the “how” things happen.
- As a primary example, Jaffe cites that games in general (including board games, sports, etc.) have existed for millenia and only in the past 10 or 20 years have people been trying to infuse games with story.
- Jaffe also calls video games “historically the worst medium to express story” (referencing the above bullet point) and questions why anyone who wants to tell a story would choose to make a game rather than a book, movie, or other “proven” medium.
- Finally, Jaffe dismisses the need to be “more,” that is to be something more than film or what games are, and instead designers should embrace the unique qualities of the medium to make better experiences for the players.
First, let me preface my comments by saying that David Jaffe is an incredibly intelligent man with a proven track record of success in this industry. I should also disclose that what personally attracts me most to video games is the medium’s storytelling potential, which has only begun to be tapped. That being said, I think his comments are totally, categorically wrong, and–even worse–extremely short-sighted and naÃ¯ve. Harsh? Let me explain. What Jaffe posits is actually very true–for a certain type of video game. NotÂ allÂ games can or should have a story. “Mechanics games,” in fact, embody the very term “game” more literally, and for those particular experiences, yes, the mechanics should trump any need to tell a story. Where Jaffe completely misses the mark is that not all games are like this, nor should they be pigeonholed into such a categorization just as “mechanics games” shouldn’t be forced to adopt storytelling techniques. It completely depends on the type of experience the designer wants to craft for the player. Part of the problem with this is that video games have grown beyond the definition of the term “game”–a game is, by definition, an activity governed by a set of rules designed to weed out a winner. Typically, “story games” are not about “beating the game” or “beating the AI” or “beating this level”–they are about the entire experience. Fun is not necessarily the primary objective of these games (that doesn’t mean they can’t or don’t try to be fun, but that’s not what it’s about). Therefore, “video game” is simply not a term that accurately describes the product anymore. Again, there is nothing wrong with games that have a set of rules and that try to generate fun or try to let the player simply experience something on their own terms. But you can’t simply dismiss the other wing growing from this medium, which is not a “game” but an interactive story.
Some games take this to more of an extreme than others–for example,Â Heavy RainÂ is almost entirely an interactive film, whereasÂ Mass EffectÂ heavily implements traditional game systems while keeping a heavy focus on its interactive story. InÂ anyÂ form of art, it is probably the most arrogantly ignorant thing to say, “you can’t do this” or “you shouldn’t do this.” Why not? There are plenty of problems and issues with “story games,” but as Jaffe said these techniques are really new and these experiences are only beginning to be possible–designers are still figuring out how to make it work! Going back to the “game” discussion really quickly, Jaffe’s comparison of video games to Parcheesi is exactly the problem I am talking about. ParcheesiÂ doesn’tÂ have voice acting, life-like graphics, the ability to use sound, etc. It’s all about the rules, the players, and the fun. This is simply not true of games that are trying to tell a story. In the early days of cinema, filmmakers were hearing similar criticisms–“this is cool, this is nifty, but you can’t really do anything substantial with it. REAL stories are told in books.” I don’t think anybody is making that argument now.
When Jaffe asks why a storyteller would ever choose games over movies or books, he is, again, totally off the mark. Yes, certain stories are better suited to a passive medium such as books or movies. And yes, that is a concept that some designers struggle with. But to blanketly say that ALL stories are like this…well, let’s just say that I am extremely disappointed that such a brilliant man can be so short-sided on this topic. SOME stories are BETTER told in the game medium BECAUSE of games’ interactive nature. TakeÂ Mass Effect…a HUGE part of the magic of that game is the ability for the player to craft their own version of the story, where they can make plot decisions both major and minor and see what ripple effects those decisions have. This quality ofÂ Mass Effect‘s story is LITERALLY IMPOSSIBLE in any other medium. This is also the reason why aÂ Mass EffectÂ movie would be a very lacking product if it followed the story of the games (not necessarily bad; theÂ Mass EffectÂ story could certainly be told in an interesting way, but it wouldn’t be theÂ sameÂ story or experience as what is possible in a game). Another, more high-brow example that explores PHILOSOPHY in a way that ONLY AN INTERACTIVE MEDIUM COULD isÂ BioShock, which explicitly leverages the fact that the player is consciously performing certain actions as a key point in the story’s signature twist. If the player simplyÂ watchedÂ a character perform these actions before the twist, the effect isÂ dramaticallyÂ different when the twist comes around. Again, the feeling generated by the plot-twist is made possible ONLY by an interactive medium. I apologize for the long-winded, somewhat erratic response, but an attitude like the one David Jaffe pushed in this speech is far more dangerous than seeking to do something that has never been done before.