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DICE 2012: David Jaffe’s Rant Against “Story Games”

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. 

 

 

Highlights: 
  • 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 can relate 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.
Response: 
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 naïve. Harsh? Let me explain. What Jaffe posits is actually very true–for a certain type of video game. Not all 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, Heavy Rain is almost entirely an interactive film, whereas Mass Effect heavily implements traditional game systems while keeping a heavy focus on its interactive story. In any 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. Parcheesi doesn’t 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. Take 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 of Mass Effect‘s story is LITERALLY IMPOSSIBLE in any other medium. This is also the reason why a Mass Effect movie would be a very lacking product if it followed the story of the games (not necessarily bad; the Mass Effect story could certainly be told in an interesting way, but it wouldn’t be the same 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 is 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 simply watched a character perform these actions before the twist, the effect is dramatically 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.

Jason Ragatz

Follow me @RaggySays

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3 Responses

  1. jacques says:

    With all due respect, I disagree with a few things said. Or maybe it’s only just one. Well, I tend to ramble, so I’ll only focus on one, the most important one, to me.

    Any GAME should, first and foremost, be about the gameplay. If the gameplay is poor, it’s hard to suffer through it, even for a great story. On the contrary, you can ignore a crappy story for great gameplay. Naturally, it’s best to have both: a great story fit into great gameplay.

    As a writer and avid reader, I’ve read very few books where I’ve come away thinking, “This would make an epic video game.” There have been some, to be sure. But the best books tend to lend themselves well toward other forms of non-interactive media, such as movies or television. I mean, despite numerous attempts, how many good Lord of the Rings games are there?

    On the reverse, there are plenty of games that I would love to read as books, if only because I know there’s so much more story that could be added in.Valkyria Chronicles, my favorite game this generation, has an amazing story. But I feel like there could be so much MORE done to it and WITH it in printed format, even while telling the same story: because the story is no longer confined to a single character here or there, or a handful of points of view, because time can be taken to detail a specific scene and thus immerse the reader in it in a way that immortalizes it far better than even PLAYING through it could.

    Just imagine how chaotic it would be, for example, to have the Game of Thrones game follow a similar format to the Song of Ice and Fire novels. Hell, even if it didn’t follow the SAME format, it’d be impossible to put all the information, all the story going on at the same time, all the characters and their motives and emotions together in as coherent a fashion. Could a movie? Likely. A TV show? Doing good so far. A comic? Based on other comics, without a problem.

    But having the player direct the actions of characters makes it difficult to put the story FIRST in a game. And if you have a really great story, yet someone must struggle through awful mechanics and gameplay aspects to get it, then the reception and immersion of the story suffers.

    I BELIEVE this is what Jaffe was saying: make gameplay the priority. Ideally, they should compliment each other, so that the gameplay effectively delivers the story without losing enjoyability(is that a word? It is now). It’s far too easy to do it the other way ’round: making gameplay that fits a story is as simple as having a person go from point A to point B and things being told to them, or shown in cutscenes, et cetera.

    Your bringing up Mass Effect and BioShock are good examples of where the story is best told as a game, but isn’t that what he would have referred to under the second bullet as a “player-authored” story? As opposed to a more scripted format, like an Uncharted or Final Fantasy, the story in these games is largely based upon the player’s actions. The player is the primary catalyst for the story- and if not primary, then highly critical- moving the way it does. But such things hinge on the GAMEPLAY: the actions the player takes being taken into account, systems or equations or whatever that weigh and balance these actions, the very ABILITY to choose different actions and have different outcomes, in the first place. Without good gameplay, these changes instigated by the player would just seem forced, instead of the natural outcome of the player’s actions. Without gameplay in place that makes it FEEL right, the story changes just wouldn’t… FEEL right.

    Yes, story is very important. It’s why my favorite genre is the JRPG, why I own more than 50 of them, why I’ve put 150+ hours into at least half of them. But I couldn’t spend all that time enjoying the stories of these games if I didn’t also enjoying PLAYING the games, themselves.

    And for that, you need good gameplay. In the end, a game is still a game, and a game needs good gameplay.

    Let’s put it another way: there is no story behind Tetris or Pac Man. No story driving Galaga. A great game can exist with little to no story. But a game with little to no gameplay isn’t much of a game at all. This… truth…?… should be an indicator of which is more important to the medium of gaming.

  2. Raggy says:

    As I said, certain types of stories are better for a passive medium and certain types are more suited to an interactive medium. The reason most books probably wouldn’t turn into great games is because they ARE passive, linear stories. A Song of Ice and Fire was not intended to have branching paths or the reader’s input, and therefore is not suited to the game (now, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t craft a good interactive story using the Game of Thrones IP). The reason a game makes you want to read a book is either a) it isn’t executed very well in the game, or b) the foundational fiction rich enough to enable good stories in both interactive and passive media, but as complementary stories.

    I totally disagree with the notion of gameplay OR story coming first…at least in the sense of a good “story game.” “Mechanics games” don’t need story, or need very little, because that is not the focus of the experience. But a good story game needs to weigh gameplay and story EQUALLY and develop them together; that is the only way to ensure they fit together, rather than trying to squeeze one into the other’s mold. Gameplay is the signature element of the medium, but every other element is just as important.

    As for my Mass Effect and BioShock examples, ANY game has a certain degree of “player-authored narrative.” However, the specific moments I cited are NOT examples of this, other than the specific reaction you might have as the player experiencing these events. But the same twist happens to every player that plays BioShock, and if different players chose the same dialogue branch they’d lead to the same variation of the story in Mass Effect. These are directed, crafted experiences, that leverage player interactivity in very interesting ways, but the stories are still stories that someone wrote and play out in a very specific way, if in slightly different flavors. As for Uncharted, that is a franchise that goes more toward the “interactive film” extreme, which isn’t necessarily trying to be a “game” and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s a very particular type of experience that the designers wanted to make and a very specific experience they wanted players to have, and just because it has fewer traditional game systems doesn’t mean its any less great a piece of entertainment.

    This is why I say “gaming” is a misnomer, because modern video games branch so widely that not all of them even fit the definition of a “game,” but that’s okay! All media have different flavors. In film, there are you standard hour-and-thirty-minute affairs, your protracted dramas, your documentaries, your short films, and hell, even TV is technically the same medium simply delivered in a different way. There is nothing wrong with having a

  3. Raggy says:

    ..wide variety of ways a medium is utilized, and gaming so unique, so new, so wide open.

    I just think for me, what attracts me MOST to gaming, is that having interactivity creates the opportunity for an entirely new type of story. Sometimes that story sticks closer to traditional media, and those are all good fun. The ones that really utilize interactivity in a unique, meaningful way as a central element in telling the story are the ones I want to play.

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