Playing the Story


Last week David Jaffe, the outspoken designer of tons of games including God of War and Twisted Metal, gave a speech at DICE about how games and stories are incompatible.  The coverage of the talk makes it seem pretty cut and dry: David Jaffe hates stories in games and thinks they are a waste of time.  IGN reported that Jaffe “made a compelling argument against stories in games.”  Even the transcript of the talk bears the headline David Jaffe explains why games shouldn’t have stories.

Any argument against stories in games is guaranteed to spark controversy, which Jaffe’s talk did.  There are so many examples of excellent games with great stories that it is easy to attack Jaffe for saying the two cannot be combined.  And hey, it’s an argument that has been waged across the internet tundra for years already, so it’s bound to drive hits.

But despite all the press, that’s not really what Jaffe is saying.  Rather than condemning stories in games, Jaffe is issuing a warning to game developers who dream of emulating their favorite films not to forget which medium they work in.

What Jaffe is actually talking about, I think, is a very specific group of games that are not just laden with cinematic story telling, they actually appear to be more interested in the story than the game itself.  He is complaining about developers who have been “seduced by the language of film” to such an extent that it impairs the core gameplay of their games.  I bet Jaffe isn’t a big fan of Heavy Rain or Metal Gear Solid 4.   The danger that he alludes to is the siren song of being a movie director, of having the chance to sit in the big story telling chair and then crashing into the rocks when we focus so much on narrative that we neglect the part where the player actually does stuff.

Boil this down and it’s not an argument against stories in games, it’s an argument that gameplay must take precedence over all other elements.

That’s an argument that nobody disputes.  Well, I take that back.  There are probably some “serious games” folks and some Facebook developers who place value in games that have no play.  But generally, the idea that gameplay is the core foundation of the medium is, I think, common sense.  The problem is that Jaffe seems to be casting narrative as antithetical to gameplay, and this is what causes people to bristle.  But really, the core message here isn’t “get rid of stories,” it’s “don’t trade gameplay for story,” and “don’t trade gameplay for the chance to act like a sexy Hollywood director.”  I think you could probably just generalize that and say “don’t trade gameplay for _____.”  Nobody is going to argue with you on that one.

The details, however, are full of little horned men with pitchforks.  What is “gameplay” anyway?  Are we talking about the mechanical mapping of button presses to simulated actions?  Are we talking about the formulation of tactics before the actions themselves are executed?  Is it the rules of the game, or the space for player expression within the rules?  Is the gameplay in Monopoly the act of selecting which properties to buy and develop or the art of wheeling and dealing?  Or maybe the rolling of the dice and placement of the figure?

Where is the line between the game system and its contextual content? If the gameplay of Clue is to collect enough information to reliably name the killer, why is the same operation not called gameplay in Heavy Rain?  Rock Band would certainly not be fun without its mechanical timing and rhythm challenge, but the mechanics alone wouldn’t be compelling without its excellent music catalog either.  There’s a novelization of ICO by an author that I like, Miyuki Miyabe, but ICO isn’t a story I want to read–it’s one I want to play.

Maybe these definitions are hard because we’re trying to pin a single word on a medium that is full of different kinds of interactivity and expression.

I had something of an epiphany a while back when, after years of studying Japanese, I finally figured out what the word omoshiroi (面白い) meant.  My dictionaries all defined this word as “funny or interesting,” and this definition always bothered me.  “Funny” and “interesting” are two completely different states of mind!  I think Backus–Naur Form notation of language grammar is pretty interesting, but nobody in their right mind thinks BNFs are funny.  I had a hard time using this word until it finally hit me that omoshiroi actually means “not boring.”  Anything that isn’t boring can be omoshiroi.  In fact, the word is defined not by a specific form of entertainment, but simply by its negation of banality.

You know what?  “Gameplay” is the same.  It’s the stuff that the player does while playing the game that is not boring.  I think where we get bogged down is in the idea that “gameplay” must mean “mechanics” or “rules” or “strategy” or any other single thing.  Gameplay is that which engages the player.  It might be timing our jumps correctly, or lining up a perfect combo, or deciphering who killed Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the lead pipe.  Gameplay is figuring out who or what Pyramid Head represents in Silent Hill 2.  It is managing relationships in Fallout 3, aiming fowl in Angry Birds, and sword fighting with insults in The Secret of Monkey Island.  Gameplay is pounding your finger into your controller and screaming at the top of your lungs to make Old Snake crawl through an irradiated tunnel to avert nuclear war.  It’s the meat of what games are, and it’s made out of all of the bits games have at their disposal, including narrative.  If it’s good, gamers are engaged and entertained and not bored.  And if it’s bad, playing is a waste of time.

Jaffe is right: don’t trade gameplay for anything.  But don’t let that stop you from making gameplay out of stories.

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8 Responses to Playing the Story

  1. Steve says:

    That was really interesting. Defining a game as omoshiroi is a bit vague but it seems to work. I normally take the position that a game has scores, winners, and rules, while anything else falls in the category of play. A kid kicking around a ball is playing while a kid playing soccer is playing a game. It’s a bit unfortunate that our lexicon is limited, causing me to sound redundant in that last sentence, but I think that highlights your point. The line between play and game is nebulous.

    Under the omoshiroi definition it becomes quite freeing when thinking about games. It reminds me of the movement in our culture to “gameify” things that are dull. Many schools now are adopting lesson plans that are designed to be like a game to the students, and credit card companies use reward systems that are like up grade/leveling up systems in RPGs. I think some politicians even use ARGs as part of their campaigns (if they don’t they should seriously start). But that leads me to question your closing sentiment.

    “Don’t trade gameplay for anything”, what if the point of the gameplay is to teach or some other goal?

    • Chris says:

      You still can’t trade it away. See also: loads of edutainment games that fail to be educational because they are not engaging because they are not fun.

      • Wilson says:

        This is intriguing. I very much ejnoyed playing through your games, but there were a few times where their simplicity was laid bare. It is, I believe, this specific simplicity that inhibits the concept of structural gameplay within your works. Of course, you could very well argue that this simplicity makes your games stand out, and I would agree completely, but I think this is the element with which most gamers find fault. Typically, a more traditional game includes more than simply clicking on an enemy to remove him.

    • Sele says:

      I don’t really innetd for my games to stand out; I just innetd for them to be as good as they can be in the way that is appropriate to them. That’s why some of my games like Alphaland or Phenomenon 32 are quite different in their gameplay and storytelling.I should also add that I’m generally very pleased with the reaction to my games, when people get the chance to play them; this article isn’t about complaining, but about explaining. Though I won’t deny that I wish more players were appreciative of the many ways games can function not just my games, but games in general and not so quick to dismiss what doesn’t follow familiar patterns.

  2. Michael says:

    A great article on the importance of gameplay. I do think Steve missed the point, however. The argument is not about separating playing from gameplay or making games sound more prestigious. Game developers should be less interested in labels and more interested in nurturing the beauty of what makes gaming “not boring”.

    If kicking a ball around is “omoshiroi ” for a kid, than there’s nothing wrong with that. It may not be as complicated and reward driven as soccer, but there are still elements of gameplay you can enjoy even by yourself (perv -___-)
    Storytelling is simply another weapon in a game developer’s arsenal, but it shouldn’t override the primary function of a game: to experience.

    PS. MGS4 was a great movie. Me and my peers call it MOVIE Gear Solid 4. That’s why MGS3 was a much better game (and had a better story to be honest).

  3. Steve says:

    Sorry if I sound like I missed the point, I was just dwelling on what I previously defined as a game in a broader sense. I think omoshiroi works very well for video games. The ball kicking example was just to highlight my previous school of thought.

    To the educational games, you have a point Chris, I was just approaching it from the main goal is to teach. But its been proven time and time again, kids don’t like those games because they’re boring. But when done right, they can suck you in just like any normal game. Like Typing of the Dead. Also I found an interesting article about companies that design video games for job training. They even say they have to make sure the games are entertaining otherwise the trainee loses interest.

  4. Emine says:

    The thing Sandra and I have always wentad to do in the MMO world is take one of these modest games, these Champions or Warhammers or Asheron’s Calls or whatever, and run them, and turn a tidy profit for many years. I don’t even work in developing and that’s such an appealing idea to me too, it’s more to do with grimacing and a feeling of unseized opportunities. Have been playing the unlimited trial of WAR recently and it’s actually quite fun, plenty of people in RvR and public quests, and the Forces of Destruction/Order does give a feeling of camaraderie and is inviting to new players. Some good ideas all in all, but still it’s cluttered with some uninspired design. Public quests which should be the jewel in the crown are a little lacking, being more social PvE than instancing or phasing is ever likely to be, especially when you’ve about 16 people clustered around what was designed for half that number, where’s the scaling? The disappointing fact is that if the uninspired bread-crumb trail of quest hubs was cast aside and PQ’s expanded and designed as a lead in to the RvR taking place in the middle of the map, it would be more engaging funnel leading to the core of the game and give the feeling of an army marching to engage an enemy, with skirmishes on the periphery.It probably goes back to your other point that VC companies are less likely to cast a critical eye over their game, take what works and expand it and casting aside what doesn’t work (although WAR seems to be getting too deeply cut at the moment, or rather complete zones left fall by the wayside), but more likely to just start on again on another game.