David Jaffe wants to use game play to tell stories, and he isn’t afraid to fight the press
Keeping David Jaffe’s attention isn’t easy. I had scheduled an interview with the God of War and Twisted Metal director before it was announced he was leaving Eat Sleep Play, the company he co-founded with Scott Campbell, and trying to pin down a time to meet and speak had proven difficult. Jaffe is a whirlwind of thoughts, phone calls, and waves to passing people. Numerous times during our discussion he picked up the phone to say hello to someone, state he was in the middle of a meeting, and he would then hang up the phone and jump back into the discussion without missing a beat.
David Jaffe has a Mario Bros. ringtone on his phone.
We sat on a deck outside the Red Rock Resort and Casino in Vegas. He rubbed his hands together every few minutes—it was getting cold outside—and his face was cloaked in shadow. He peppered his speech with “fucks” and “shits,” but he didn’t seem to mind; he is either not willing, or not able, to censor himself when it comes to speaking with the press.
I asked what’s going on with Eat Sleep Play, since the press has many different versions of the story already. Was he fired? Did he quit? Jaffe brings up the layoffs first, and it’s clear they sit heavily in his mind. “I have kids, and the idea of sending these people home to their children, that will kill you,” he said. “That was very bad, and I’m still very not happy. And then people were like ‘Jaffe got laid off,’ but no.” He’s staying on with the company until March to work on post-release tweaking and tuning for Twisted Metal, but after that he’ll be leaving Eat Sleep Play to start his own company to work on… well, he doesn’t know yet, although he has a number of ideas that he’ll be developing in the coming weeks.
A large part of the split was Jaffe’s realization that working on games remotely was no longer a viable option. He would work on stage design and other high level parts of the game and send the data over to Utah, and then he would get early versions of the levels back to try. He had designed every Twisted Metal game this way, but the industry has changed. “Games have gotten so big that this was the first one I felt that I don’t want to do it this way anymore,” he said. “There’s a surface that’s very overt, and many people only see the surface and they say it’s big and dumb and stupid, but we mean it when we say it’s a fighting game with cars. There is a very deep end of the swimming pool. To build that remotely, after a while, the energy just spent communicating instead of sitting there with the programmer, it was just too much energy spent on communication versus design.”
This dissatisfaction with designing games remotely, tied to the fact Eat Sleep Play co-founder Scott Campbell and Jaffe were not “drinking from the same well” creatively, led to Jaffe leaving the company.
Jaffe was in Vegas to deliver a talk at the D.I.C.E. Summit about the tension of story versus game play, and it’s a subject he seemed eager to discuss. “I’m a big fan of player-authored stories more than ‘let me take you by the hand and show you my story.’ There are much better mediums to do that in, I’m not sure why we feel the need to do that in this medium, because those are resources syphoned away from what makes [video games] special. I love using the medium to express things that I feel and the team feels. If I had a story I needed to tell, I’d write a book,” he explained. This isn’t idle talk, he claimed he’s not interested in writing a novel, but the more he reads to his daughters the more he’s interested in writing an “action adventure fantasy comic book thing” for young adults.
That’s his main argument: each medium has different ways of telling stories, and video games are a very specific art form. “Video games have an interactivity and a language all their own. To respect that is to be honest with ourselves with what it’s good at and try to evolve that, and bring that to the table,” he explained. “That’s why we’re special, not to kid ourselves to think we’re movie makers. We’re not.”
He talked about the games that do it well, such as Skyrim. We discussed our favorite online games, such as Battlefield 3, where the free-form combat leads to players telling each other their favorite stories about what happened on the battlefield. In many cases those stories, the sort of emergent narrative that comes from pure game play, are more compelling than what is offered in story-based games.
He bounced around, talking about games that deliver this subtle blend of mechanics and play that lead to organic narrative, before he brought up Angry Birds, and put it alongside Skyrim as a game that does this well. “It’s you being so invested and immersed in the interactive mechanics that you can’t help but feel so sucked in that it becomes a narrative. It becomes a narrative after the fact. That’s my problem with applying filmic narrative to interactivity.”
“I think we kind of got off track in the 90s and we began to think of ourselves as film makers at the expense of being game makers,” he said. “I still think so many games are trapped in that dead end and they don’t realize they’re trapped there. When I can walk away from a game like Battlefield and feel that I have lived a story, and then I have a story to tell, I’m going to tell you something really cool. But when I play a game and I feel like I’m being told a story and they wrapped it in a video game… why didn’t they make a movie? Why didn’t they write a book? It’s clearly what they wanted to do.”
Jaffe has a history of getting into it with those who report on games, and he’s not scared of arguing with the press on Twitter. I asked him if he feels that he has an adversarial relationship with the press.
He shook his head emphatically. “I like the press quite a bit. I think I have an adversarial relationship with bullshit. I have an adversarial relationship with people who want to call themselves journalists but are karmically evil. I have an adversarial relationship with people who don’t read and just look at a headline and jump to a conclusion without being aware the headline has been twisted and spun in order to manipulate that individual. I have an adversarial relationship with people who do that, and then the next day review a game and give it negative insults because ‘these guys are just trying to make money, and DLC’ and dude, you’re worse than anybody… you guys, for your own commercial gain, will slit your mother’s throat. You will take something someone said that they didn’t say or they did say and you’ll remove this and move this around just to get a click… and you’ll then have the gall to accuse a publisher of wanting to do an online pass, and you’re a mercenary asshole. At least the publisher is kind of honest with what they’re doing. I have an adversarial relationship with assholes, let’s put it that way.”
This is the way David Jaffe speaks, all the time. Rapid fire thoughts, punctuated with near-constant profanity. He doesn’t pause, nor does he stop to think of words; it just flows out of him in one long passionate speech. The only honest way to write up an interview, if you’re not doing straight transcription, is to quote him in huge blocks. It feels like a comma would be dishonest.
Still, he is one of the most available developers in the business and does an amazing amount of press. I told him that I often feel bad for him in interviews, as it often seems like reporters are just there waiting for him to say something crazy. It’s as if they’re mentally pushing him to dance for the cameras. “I make a conscious choice not to give into the cynicism of thinking the press is just waiting for someone to fuck up… let’s assume it’s really high, and out of every ten reporters I talk to, eight are waiting for me to fuck up to get yellow journalistic bullshit on the top of their site,” he said. “You’re going to die one day, and you’ll have contributed nothing to the world except you’re an asshole. Fuck you, I don’t care.” He sees being candid and as honest as possible about his games to be part of the job, and it’s hard to imagine being in an interview situation with a PR person there to try to “handle” the interview. It’s refreshing to speak with someone in the industry who is so comfortable sharing their own narrative, although it does often lead to trouble when it comes to those quotes being used as stories.
Defending against accusations of misogyny
After the interview, Jaffe and I begin to walk back to the elevators, only to find Kotaku’s Editor in Chief Stephen Totilo taking pictures in the show’s small art gallery. Kotaku had recently published a story that attacked Jaffe for a remark made in a video about oral sex, and the story was clearly still on Jaffe’s mind; he cornered Totilo and began to argue about whether or not the story was appropriate, or even truthful.
Jaffe became even more upset when Totilo had to get out his smartphone to check the story in order to offer a defense. “You’re the editor of the site!” Jaffe exclaimed. He had talked to the reporter after the fact in a long, 30 minute conversation that Jaffe said she had agreed to run verbatim on Kotaku. The fact that the follow-up story was merely a few quotes only added to his anger, and he said he would release the conversation on his own site. “We sat there and looked up the definition of misogynist together!” he said at one point. “She didn’t know what it was!”
Jaffe then turned on me. “You should be recording this. This is news. You want to be a fucking reporter? Report this.” It was an odd situation to be in, and Totillo had remained calm in the face of Jaffe’s whirlwind condemnation of Kotaku as “a fucking tabloid.” I regarded both of them for a second, and pondered whether I should get involved. “Don’t fucking look at him,” Jaffe said to me, “You should be recording this.” I reach down and thumb the “record” button on the DSLR hanging around my neck. Here’s the recorded part of the conversation.
After this… conversation? Argument? Jaffe and I discussed the politics of sex in relationships. I said that references to blowjobs are often loaded, although oral sex doesn’t always have to be a power play. Jaffe nodded at this, and pointed out that he never stated anything he was accused of in the piece, and his anger came from someone assuming things about his character based on a single quote.
It’s hard to get a feel for someone’s character from a video, and I’m not going to hazard a guess about how or what Jaffe feels about women. What’s clear from our time together is that he loves games, and is passionate about the titles he helps to create. “There’s like 35 maps in this game! There are 17 cars! If you like Twisted Metal, this is packed with value!” He told me earlier in the conversation, when we talked about the game. “I have wonderful memories of childhood, but my parents struggled with money, so I understand the value of a dollar. It was a big deal when my father took me to Service Merchandice to buy me an Atari 2600 game.” I remember the same things, and I grew up in a house where you only received one, maybe two, games a year. It was heartbreaking when one of those games was bad. “You want to treat your customer like the kid you were,” he told me.
Maybe that’s why David Jaffe is such a fascinating personality. He has kept all of the best, and some of the worst, aspects of being a child.
I reached out to Stephen Totilo after the show to see if there had been any fallout from the argument. “[Jaffe] and I saw each other the next day at the D.I.C.E. red carpet, and I asked the red carpet wranglers to give David the option to not speak with me instead of just sliding him down the interview row right to my spot, as they did with many of the people on the carpet. I wanted to respect his desire not to be covered by us, if that’s what he still wanted. He chose to talk to me. He said he’d read my e-mail and the impression I got was that he didn’t agree with the stories but wanted to continue to have a working journalist-subject relationship,” Totilo said. He also stands by both stories, and pointed out Kotaku is comfortable ceasing coverage of anyone who doesn’t want to work with the outlet.