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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