David Jaffe and the Language of Interactivity

"If you're really a fucking artist, and you've got something to say, then you fucking pick the right medium to say it in," says Twisted Metal creator David Jaffe. He tells Gamasutra he wants his upcoming game Twisted Metal to play to video games' greatest strength -- interactivity.

Though he's recently announced he's planning to leave Eat Sleep Play, developer of the new Twisted Metal game -- due this week for the PlayStation 3 -- David Jaffe has poured his creative energies into the project and will continue to support it through launch before establishing his new studio in San Diego.

It's clear from talking to him that this game represents his current vision of what's possible in the medium. Strange that an update of a 1995 game -- complete with a scary clown that drives a killer ice cream truck -- could do that. Or maybe not, as Jaffe explains below.

Interactivity, he says, is the core of what makes the medium tick, and all of that storytelling that's shoehorned in, well, that doesn't have much to do with what video games are really capable of, or should be used for.

"A lot of people say, 'Do another story game like God of War,' and I would love to, but at that point, I'm like, 'I'll just write a book,'" Jaffe says below, in an interview entirely dedicated to his thoughts on interactivity and the true power of the gaming medium.

You had the big success of God of War, you took some time off, you worked on [cancelled PSP game] Heartland for a while, but you lost inspiration. Then you moved to [PSN game] Calling All Cars, and then Twisted Metal. What was important to you that you learned over the last several years?

DJ: Well, it's a big, big lesson. I got a better understanding of the language of games, and what makes games special, and what makes the medium special.

And just because I've learned that lesson doesn't mean I feel I'm good at it, or great at it, or even average at it yet, but I think that after going through God of War, there was a realization for me as a designer, and a player, that it wasn't speaking to the medium as respectfully, powerfully, and intentionally as I think I would want to speak to the medium.

And a lot of people hear me say that, and they heard my DICE talk, and they think what I meant was I want to go off and make iOS abstract Tetris games that are just pure abstraction. And it's not that. I still very much believe in IP. I believe in context -- both the commercial value of context and what it does to the user.

I think the biggest thing I learned is I don't want to try to make movies through games. I want to try to make experiences that speak respectfully and powerfully, using the language of interactivity. You hear a lot of people talk about the "language of cinema," and there is a language of interactivity, and there's a necessity to understanding interactivity.

And I think with CDs, the advent of CDs for game storage, and then high end graphics and voice actors and all this -- cutscenes -- games kind of got off on a bit of a wrong track that was very appealing, but it wasn't necessarily the only track we should have got off on. And I think that's what the lesson taught me. I want to get really good at the other track, and I don't want to try and make a cinematic game. I want to try and make a great game, if that makes sense at all.

So the obvious question to that is, how does Twisted Metal fit into that philosophy? Because it seems like a throwback, in certain ways.

DJ: No, it's not. It is, and it's not. The way I think of Twisted Metal is, it's kind of the shallow end of the pool and the deep end of the pool. The shallow end of the pool is where I think a lot of people would look at it and say it's a throwback, because at its first initial glance, it's old school. You're blowing stuff up, it's chaotic, it's fast.

Obviously with PS3 and new technology, we've been able to take that core fantasy and express the surface level a lot better. And obviously we've thrown in internet out of the box, blah blah blah, necessary and fun.

But for us, starting with Twisted 2 and going into Black, some of it was intentional, some of it was accidental. Watching us as players, and watching the fan base that was small but very vocal and passionate, we really did begin to realize that what made the game special was the multiplayer -- tactical, strategic, meaty, nutritious gameplay.

In this new one, we have built so much more depth into this game that we know a lot of people aren't going to pick up on it... You know, that's our fault. Everyone that doesn't pick up on it, that's a failure on our part. But we do think that more people than ever will pick up on the fact that there's a lot of depth here. It's depth that happens at 200 miles an hour, but it's not just the surface of blowing shit up, it's fun for a couple days, and you're done. It's tactical, it's strategic.

It's not chess. We're not that presumptuous. It's a fighting game. It's a shooter. It's meant to engage your brain in trying to make really cool choices about what weapon you use when, what sidearm you couple with your car. What enemy you're fighting determines what weapon and what tactic you want to use, and what mode you're playing, and what level.

And I can and will, if you're interested, go into it all... I can talk your ear off about the nuance and the depth of every single weapon having multiple functions, but it really is a surface throwback that's intended to express itself through technology, to express that fantasy better than ever before. But at its heart, it's a reflection of what we in love games so much today, which is basically trying to create a game that speaks the language of games, which is super deep and interactive.

Every year I do this, Sid Meier's quote of "a game as a series of interesting choices" becomes more and more of a mantra to me, and more and more of a just brilliant, brilliant quote to me, because this game really reflects the best we've been able to do once we understood that that's what really a game is, to engage the brain more than anything else. That's what we're trying to do with this.

I can understand your point about diving into pure game mechanics and that being the point of the medium. That makes sense to me.

DJ: Yeah.

But does it have to be done through the medium of combat?

DJ: Does it have to be? No, of course not. Not at all. But in this case, we chose to express it that way. I think Skyrim is another great example of a game that does the same.

Skyrim, everyone talks about it in the same way that you watch a great actor, and then they're a character you believe in, and then you meet him in real life, you're like, "Holy shit. You're nothing like that." It's like, "Well, yeah, I'm an actor. I'm a professional. There's a craft here that you're not supposed to recognize."

Well, a lot of people look at Skyrim and they say, "Oh, the graphics" -- or the music or the sound effects -- "that's what makes it immersive." And sure, that's true to an extent. It is a combat game, there's fighting, but it's more of a simulation of an experience. So is Twisted Metal, but it's more of a simulation, like, live this character's life.

In [Skyrim], your brain is engaged in so much stuff that still speaks to what we're talking about, which is the language of interactivity. Walking through the forest, going "I need to get this shit back to the armorer, so I can sell it, so I can make money, so I can go on this side quest I've been trying to earn enough shit to go on successfully, but I can't go much faster because if I pick up another item, I'm going to be going really slow, and I'm going to get my ass killed going through this forest, getting back to town. How do I deal with that?"

The fact that your brain is engaged, and it's a wonderful engagement, is not that different than the brain in Twisted Metal going, "Okay, I need to kill these three guys in Last Man Standing. I'm going to plan a remote bomb," which in this game, yeah, you can sticky it to someone like a sticky bomb, but if you plant it on the environment it does three times the damage, and if you allow it to cook it does more damage, and if you can lead the enemy into that space, altogether you're going to take out three guys at once.

So, "Shit, I'm about to die. They know it. Let me go over there and make them think, 'Oh shit, you saw me. Let me run.' And let me fire some weapons backwards while they're chasing me so they use up their shields, and lead them into this narrow alleyway where I've planted this remote bomb. Suddenly, we go through the alleyway, I shield, I take them all out because they've set that up and I've had a payoff." My brain has just had a shit-ton of shit firing, going "I feel fucking good," and I'm speaking to the player, and the player is being communicated through the language of interactivity.

Versus going, "Let me show you the movie I want to make." I think that's great. Those games are wonderful, but for me personally, you ask me what I learned, it's that there's a purer way to those pleasure centers of the brain to really speak to the player and make them love games, and it's about choices.

It's not about using cinematic techniques to express that. It's about using interactive language to express that. I'm saying this because it's Gamasutra, and I know your readers, they know game design and stuff. So, hopefully this isn't too "What the fuck are you smoking, Jaffe?" That's kind of where my brain's at these days.

Twisted Metal

It seems like you're also talking about tactical complexity.

DJ: Absolutely. Yeah.

Is that what you think is at the core?

DJ: Choice is at the core. I was using the remote bomb as an example of something that's kind of our take on sort of that Skyrim situation where it's like "Okay, this is kind of a deep scenario."

Contingent decisions.

DJ: That's right. You can have quicker, simpler choices of... In Twisted Metal, "Do I run or do I not run? Do I fire this missile, or do I fire that shotgun?" Or the shotgun, everybody knows in games or in life -- it's real life -- you get closer with a shotgun, you're going to do more damage. But even in Twisted Metal, if you get close enough with a shotgun to the driver-side windshield, you get a point blank. So even a simpler choice like that, all that's built in from the surface, shallow end of the pool down to the depths.

Now I've never done a game, and Scott [Campbell]'s [co-founder, Eat Sleep Play] never had a game that's had this much, and it's been hard to do. I'm not saying we've successfully done it. I'm just saying that this is what we love about games now, and this is what we believe in. It doesn't mean I'll never... I totally want to do a story game next, but I want to do it through mechanics more than cutscenes.

So, are we good at it? I don't fucking know. But I know it feels honest. It feels right. Versus... a lot of people say, "Do another story game like God of War," and I would love to, but at that point, I'm like, "I'll just write a book." I might not be good at writing a book, but that's that language. There's already a medium that does that really well. I'd rather, if I'm just going to try to hold your hand and say "This is the story I want to tell", use the medium that exists that's better at it.

I remember way back when you were talking about Heartland originally, you talked about wanting to do a game that people would feel emotively. You were hooked on that. It sounds like you've really walked away from that.

DJ: No. Yes and no. Yes, I've walked away from it. This all has to exist in the context of the market. Chris Crawford, at the first GDC I went to, he compared a lot of games today and their promises to toys, where it's kind of like you'll buy a toy fire truck, and you take the fire truck out of the box, but you're really just playing with the box. I forget exactly how he phrased it, but the gist is the promise of what games offer is never really delivered.

If you read the back of the game box, it will promise you that you get to live this great adventure. But in essence, you're really dealing with mechanics -- which is great. And I'm not saying of the box should be like, "Look! A game of resource management!" You need to live within the world you live in, and appeal to a level that the people can understand.

But with a game like Heartland, if I could find a way, or if the team could find a way, to take play mechanics and trigger different emotions than what have been triggered -- in a genuine, honest way -- then I'm all over it.

I've never been able to come up with that ... if you really think about it ... And this may come out all wrong because it's hard for me to articulate...

Okay. People always look at movies and say "I want my game to feel like that movie." The problem is, in my thinking about this, a movie is what you do when you're taking a break from the simulation of life.

So, you sit there, and your brain is in a place. Like, if you've ever taken a writing class for fiction, they'll tell you the best stories, the stories that resonate, are really how-to manuals. Even though they parade around as knights in space, it's "how do you apply these lessons to your life", and that's why it speaks to you.

So, it's kind of the pit stop of life to go, "I want to read a book. I want to watch a show. I want to have the nutrition of the self-help how-to of how to make my life better, and then go back into the world and live."

Well, a game is a simulation of going out into the world and living, and your brain is in the same place that it's at when you're living life. So, the idea of trying to speak to a player when that part of the brain is active: "But I'm in a simulation! I'm not in the space to take in a lesson or an emotion."

So, even if you could create a game that was a hundred percent accurate simulation of being at the D-Day landing, that would feel totally different than sitting in a theater watching the opening of Saving Private Ryan. It's just different. And it's supposed to be different.

But a lot of people chase after creating the movie feeling through their interactivity. And I'm kind of saying what I've learned... If you can create emotions like sadness in interactivity, but it's a genuine emotion, it's not like, "watch this cutscene and then carry that with you into the gameplay", and you'll say, "Oh, I feel something." Well, yeah, but you don't feel anything because of the gameplay.

Does it make any sense?

Yeah. But do you feel like you have access to all those emotions?

DJ: When you're playing? No. And I don't know if games are capable of that. And so for me, I would rather make a game like Twisted Metal that allows us play with the strengths of the medium and respect the medium. And if the next game out, we can also come up with a way to make you use the medium, but also feel different emotions, holy shit, that would be great.

But if my only goal is to make people feel emotions and that's what I really want -- I want to make them feel sadness, or I want to make them think about man's place in the universe. Think about that. If you're really a fucking artist. If you're really a fucking artist, and you've got something to say, then you fucking pick the right medium to say it in.

But if you're sitting there going, "I want to say this, I want to say this," and games have never indicated, and your game has never indicated, that the medium is capable of saying that that well, then why are you making a fucking game?

So that's all I'm saying. I'm not saying that if we come up with a way to express new emotions through gameplay, we don't want to do it. I'm just saying that so far I haven't seen it. And why waste our time making something? That's kind of ego-driven to me. It's not driven from a respect of the medium.

But you're not saying don't do it, too, if you think you can?

DJ: If you can do it, do it. That's awesome. I can't do it yet. Maybe I'll never be able to do it. But if somebody came and said "Make a game that wants to make you cry and make you think about war" like I was saying Heartland was supposed to, but it's only going to succeed within a percent of what a movie can do -- or make a game like Twisted Metal that when it works, if it works, can totally fucking work as a game -- I'd rather make a game: Twisted Metal. And then if I have a talent as a storyteller, I'll go off and make a fucking movie or write a book.

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