Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
19 March 2007
Jaffe on Storytelling
While I'm a week late to the party, there was a bit of talk last week about the role of storytelling in games. Peter Molyneux kicked things off with his grand dream of emotional attachment to NPCs but, more interestingly, David Jaffe made some noise about the difficulty of storytelling in games. The gist of his argument is thus:
God of War was inspired by my love of Raiders [Of the Lost Ark], but when I finished it, I realized that the real deficiency in using a film model for games is that games are never going to elicit the same dramatic power, from a storytelling standpoint, as films.

Now, I'm not going to step in and proclaim that I know more about the development of games than David Jaffe. Because that's not true. However, I'm not entirely comfortable with the comparison to film. It's by trying to imitate another form of media that you run into so many problems to begin with. Look at the mountains of book-to-film adaptations that are never quite as good as their literary predecessors. It's fine to indulge in a spat of film-envy and decide to want to create the "Indiana Jones of games", but it's an unachievable goal because Indiana Jones is a trilogy of films. Movies, games and books are all different forms of expression that have their own set of rules. Storytelling is, also, not the only way of conveying an emotion or being artistic. Jaffe is right when he says games can't evoke the dramatic power of movies, but games have an emotional power of their own. Which he then goes on to address:

Games create tension, camaraderie, and competition, and an adrenaline rush. So why not embrace what games are, as opposed to grafting on these emotions that, for me, so far, I haven't been successful at doing.

I can agree with this statement, in part. There is, naturally, a centric flaw with the genre that serves as an imposition for traditional, expansive narrative. While the author and the director can meticulously allow for every detail, the game designer has to accommodate the fact that the player will fall down the same hole fifteen times or forget the key in the room he passed two minutes ago and have to backtrack for it. That wonderful dramatic piece of music you're hearing as your run down the corridor before a boss certainly loses its impact when you're doing it for the sixth time.

The trouble is, tension, camaraderie and competition are just a few of the emotions that I think gaming is good for. They come as standard with the territory. What about pride, guilt and shame? Exploration? What about fear? I think these are harder emotions to work with, sure, but precedents have been set for all of them. They can appear in the unlikeliest places, too: the successful, infinitely regurgitated EA cash-cow Burnout combines the fear of driving 200mph into oncoming traffic with the adrenaline rush that comes along with not getting smashed into any number of bits. A game doesn't need a scintillating narrative to produce an intense emotional response and it's a shame to see such a prominent design figure state that attempting to include more emotion in games is simply a bad time investment, "why do all that work for a few blips of emotion?" Perhaps it's just time to stop trying to recreate films as games and instead focus on what emotions the gaming genre can do.
--Martin at 23:30
Comment [ 3 ]

Comments on this post:

Interestingly, Jaffe did reveal some details of his aborted PSP game "HL". He had hinted at wanting to "make the player cry", and expanded on that by explaining that the game was set in a Chinese-invaded USA, and that the player would be commanded to shoot innocent civilians.

That certainly seems to encompass pride, guilt and shame, but he canceled the project because he couldn't achieve that.

I saw Children of Men the other day, and I can't remember a film that affected me so much. Specifically, the various action sequences where much more intense , immediate and involving than any game I've played.

In many ways it was filmed as a game would appear - handheld camera which was always with the protagonist, and most interestingly, the camera is a physical thing that is really there rather than a distant abstract window into the film's world. You, the audience, are not passive viewers, but are placed in the role of documentary cameraman.

If games want to compete with films on their own turf, the bar is very, very high, even for genres in which games are supposed to be well suited.

By Anonymous Jeremy Fitzhardinge, at 20 March, 2007 18:21  

I totally agree. Films make you feel by making you believe. Games make you feel by making you do.

The reason that game designers get hung up on storytelling isn't because stories make you "feel." It's because stories are about ideas, and the most popularly prestigious medium for conveying ideas right now is film.

But Film has had over 100 years for its medium to mature. Film (as a medium) has mostly realized its potential. That's not to say there are not interesting exercises in film still or nothing new to be done, but it's less about developing the language of film than manipulating it to get desired results. Games are still developing and exploring their language.

Game designers are trying to run before they've learned to walk, let alone have an understanding of why they should run over walking, crawling, or just staying where they are.

We'll know the language of games has matured when the toughest design decisions aren't, what genre is this going to be in, or what features will it have. Rather, what ideas will be expressed through the player? Then, how do we use the language of games to achieve that? This should be the challenge of designing a great game.

By Blogger Mordrak, at 21 March, 2007 08:26  

Sorry for the double post, but I'd also like to throw out there the other reason designers "look up" to film is because its the only other "new" medium out there. Film is kinda of like video games' big brother. It's also easy to make comparisons because the development of film language is pretty well documented.

By Blogger Mordrak, at 21 March, 2007 08:37  

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