Even Jaffe Knows
Sunday, December 9, 2007 at 11:33PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Learning, Motivation, & The Mind, Story

There are two main approaches or schools of game design: Classical and Western. Classical game design involves building a game from the smallest unit, the core, and then building a game around that unit. Western design starts with a high concept privileging ideas over mechanics and gameplay, which often results in shallow fragmented elements in its core. In other words, classical game design is like designing a sports game where a limited set of rules can achieve a great variety of expression, possibilities, and emergence.

The most significant facet of the videogame medium is its interactivity. Understanding this is the first step to understanding the limitations of the medium. Many western developers are intent on creating games that tell stories without paying careful attention to this fact. How well written a game's text is, or how cinematic its visuals are can only support a game so much before it begins to detract from the interactive element of the game and, therefore, detract from the game itself.

In an interview series called Geniuses at Play: Game designers explain the laws of adrenaline and the science of fun, David Jaffe reflects on his games and his methodology for creating games such as God of War II. In his retrospection, he touches on some of the assumptions, and principles involved with the two schools of game design, videogames as a medium, and story telling in games.  

Jaffe: That's all we did in God of War. If you take the individual pieces of that game apart, with the exception of a couple puzzles I'm particularly proud of, there's nothing inherent in the core game that's really special or unique. It's just that we executed it really well and we had enough time and money and talent that we could throw enough of these minor elements at the player to create a major experience. But the individual elements, you can take the platforming in Mario and it's better; you can take the combat system in Devil May Cry and it's better; you can take the puzzles in Ico and they're better.

Jaffe describes the core of God of War II as not being "special or unique." He also admits the mechanics and elements in the game (jumping, fighting, puzzle solving) have all been done better in other games. Instead of working with the core of the game, Jaffe and his team focused on how the game was adding up to create the "major experience." Because the experience of the game was prioritized over the core mechanics (the interactivity at the heart of the game), experiencing the game on the minor level could have become shallow and boring. However, Jaffe had a unique approach to solving this problem.


Playboy: So you just pile on more monsters whenever you feel their attention is lagging?
Jaffe: Exactly. Of course, we tune and polish our games to the point that we still end up making really good, compelling games. But in an ideal world, I would like to have the game system itself be what keeps the player engaged instead of a number of simple things being thrown at the player one after another to keep them engaged.

Solution: Just throw a bunch of monsters at the player. Though this solution isn't Jaffe's ideal, the team was still faced with the task of tuning and polishing God of War II, which is a difficult task regardless of the game design school that is adopted. Jaffe expresses his desire to create a game according to the Classical design model. The "game system" that "keeps the player engaged" that Jaffe refers to is the core of a Classically designed game. Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the Mario brothers series and pioneer of the classical game model for videogames, has been known to express the importance of creating the core of a game that is fun. Once this is achieved, he says, then the rest of the game will be fun because it rests on a solid foundation.

Playboy: Do you think it's possible to create a visceral experience that also has depth or meaning behind it all, or at least some core mechanics you can be proud of?
It's definitely possible, but I struggle with that issue, because I always start with the end experience in mind. Today I'm working on a document for a new game, and I have a vibe in mind for the way I want the player to feel when he sits down and plays the game. It's a two- or three-line vision statement of what I want the game to feel like. With God of War I wanted the player to experience what it feels like to be 10 years old watching Raiders of the Lost Ark.


It's clear that Jaffe creates his games according to methods of Western game design. His games, as a result, have shortcomings that he expresses openly. The difficulties of creating games in the Western style is apparent. How can you play the experience of being "10 years old watching Raiders of the Lost Ark?" Feelings and experiences are abstract. Attempting to communicate such abstractions often leads to a break down in the way the director communicates with himself, the developers communicate among themselves, and the way the game communicates with the player simply because of the nature of abstraction. Such a communication barrier leads to the incorporation of game elements that don't support the core game as game mechanics are deemphasized. Developers often find themselves adding elements they've seen or heard in movies, or read in books because those elements evoked a specific feeling that is similar to the one they're attempting to create with their game. However, blindly borrowing elements from other mediums is risky. Each medium is different containing individual strengths and weaknesses. The lack of understanding of both videogames as a medium and the medium from with material is borrowed is the easiest way for developers to lose sight of their game during development. I can't play a game's story, special effects, sound, or graphics. Actions, rules, and mechanics make up the interactivity of a game and therefore are most important to the medium. On the other hand, Classical game design sticks to the the core mechanics. Classical game design can also be called Japanese game design because of the way the Western and Japanese designers neatly fall into each respective school of design. It's no coincidence that the three games Jaffe listed as having better core mechanics than God of War II are all made by top level Japanese developers.

Jaffe: I'm not a big believer in the idea of storytelling as a huge aspect of games. Certainly games can have stories and they can be successful in part because of the stories, but if somebody comes in and says, "I want to make a game about a guy who has this feeling" I'd say that guy should probably write a book or a screenplay instead.

The same instincts that are pulling Jaffe toward designing games Classically, probably shaped his views in regards to storytelling in games. It is a little ironic that Jaffe suggests writing a book or screenplay in this hypothetical situation because "somebody" wants to design a game around feelings when Jaffe had just described starting God of War II, as well as his other projects, with the desire to communicate an experience. Both are abstract. In short, Jaffe seems to realize the common pitfalls of Western game design, but is unable to fully escape them. Letting go of the Hollywood induced illusion of grandeur, experiences, and adventure of epic proportions that is often misplaced in the gaming medium can be quite difficult for someone who grew up being enthralled by movies like Indiana Jones as a child. It may be difficult for such a person to choose playing hop-scotch over to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. Designing games around limited actions is possible. Miyamoto designed Super Mario Bros. around a single action: Jump. And from that single action derived not only an entire game, but a widely successful game series.

I was profiled in a magazine with a number of other game designers and in the article they compared game designers with film directors. And for me, because we had just come out with God of War, they said, "This is the Ridley Scott for video games" because he had just done Gladiator. Which is ridiculous. And I felt like saying, "Please stop." I hate the idea that non-gamers are going to pop a game into a console and expect to have an experience that moves you like a film, because they're not. They're going to be looking at their inventory screen and they're going to be stuck trying to solve a puzzle and they're going to be trying to figure out, "Okay, if I stab the cyclops in the eye three times he goes into that motion and that's when I can use the medusa head on him." That's what games are right now.

Here Jaffe essentially explains that games are ultimately actions ("stab"), rules ("three times"), and mechanics ("if...when...use"). Though as graphics improve over time and games look more and more like movies (often imitating the form of movies directly), getting through the game and interacting with the game world or fiction is what the player will be focused on. It's what the player ultimately wants out of a game. In other words, you can't sit back on your couch and watch a game. You have to play it.

Jaffe: No. Because not only do they require a huge investment of time, they require a huge suspension of disbelief. When you play an engaging game like a SOCOM death match or Wii Sports or Calling All Cars, you're swimming with the current. You're not trying to do more than what the game is capable of. When games embrace the true capabilities and strengths of the medium, that's where you see your commercial successes. When a game tries to do more than the medium is capable of, you get some critical accolades and you get some fan boys on message boards who say you're a great artist. But you don't get big sales.

The videogame medium revolves around interactivity. This is a much more complicated concept than more passive mediums like books or movies. The game goes nowhere without the player, and the player can't do anything outside of what the game allows. This relationship is similar to the student-teacher relationship. How can the student learn if the teacher doesn't explain things or assist in anyway? Similarly, how can the teacher teach if the student refuses to obey any rules or follow any order? Just like how a teacher fits into a very limited range of actions, the gaming medium also has limits. If a game tries to be a book or a movie, it will fail if it forgets to be a game first.  

Jaffe: Guitar Hero benefits from the same thing. Everybody has, or most people have, the fantasy of being a rock star. There is a story there, there is a fantasy there, it's just that it's one that you bring to the table yourself. And that's much more powerful than, "Here's Billy, he's a guitar star wannabe." Who gives a shit about Billy? You have your own guitar hero fantasy, and the less they say that's going to clash with your own personal fiction, the better.

In the gaming medium, the story is what you play, not what the game shows you. In order to create a proper story in a game, the player must play through the events or fiction in that story. This means more than just running across an overworld to get to that next cut-scenes. Guitar Hero does it right. Even the core gameplay is shaped by the fiction centered around the "fantasy of being a rock star." We all know real rock stars play real guitars, and they hit every note in their solo's perfectly in time. Guitar Hero knows that the gamers aren't really rock stars. Therefore. with every color-coded note, a split second of leeway is programmed into the game. In this way, gamers can rock out without being stressed about hitting everything perfectly on time. This mechanic makes it easier to look and sound like a rock star, and thus the fiction (fantasy) of Guitar Hero is suspended.

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
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