As he prepares to launch his first game in five years, the outspoken veteran talks inspiration, 'Zelda' and the lack of emotion in 'God of War'
As he prepares to launch his first game in five years, the outspoken veteran talks inspiration, 'Zelda' and the lack of emotion in 'God of War'
David Jaffe, the gregarious and opinionated 45-year-old game director behind PlayStation classics like God of War and Twisted Metal produces a large cardboard tube from his bag with a big grin. He starts unrolling gigantic scrolls of paper across the table – each of them three or four feet long – all plastered with doodles of game characters and their stories. "Before I show you the game, I just want you to see much thought we've put into this," he says, pointing to hand-written backstories and detailed sketches of absurd weapons, like a lizard that's also a flamethrower and a monkey that throws its own poop. "We hope that players will first come to the game and feel like it's an imaginative shooter," he says, "but ultimately what we want them to discover is that there's a lot of depth here. A lot of room for the player to discover all kinds of stuff."
His upcoming multiplayer shooter-brawler, Drawn to Death – which is exclusive to PlayStation and will be free for its first month on PlayStation Plus when it's released on April 4 – is his most distinctive and personal work yet. Set within the pages of a teenager's high school notebook, the game takes everything from those scrolls of paper, all scrawled in ballpoint pen, and brings them to life in 3D. It's vulgar and juvenile and silly – and will no doubt be widely criticized as such – but behind all the farting, dick jokes and buttholes there's some sensitivity too, if you care to look.
Blasting his way through a match, Jaffe opens up about accepting who he is as a game designer, the importance of family, and why he finds it so annoying when games are lauded for non-interactive storytelling.
So, this thing is pretty unique. How much of this is really an expression of what makes you...you?
A lot of it is, y'know. I've been surprised during every game I've worked on that it's not until I'm mid-way through that I start to put the threads of the theme together. So for this, where the backstory is all about a kid from a broken home – well, my parents were never divorced, they were as happily married as anyone is happily married. So no, this isn't literally about me, but it is about family.
God of War ended up being about family, and even Twisted Metal, bizarrely, was about family. If you look at Sweet Tooth, he has a daughter in that last game and he has a son – they're all fighting. But with Drawn to Death, this game is all about family. The kid's brother is in here, his stepfather is in here. He's dealing with his family issues. All throughout the sky boxes and written on the walls are things that are relevant to his situation.
All the lore is in the environments themselves. Have you ever tried to do this before? Were you inspired by any other games that have tried it? I guess Overwatch proved that you can tackle stories in a different way.
My inspiration for this was actually my kids playing Minecraft. The thing that stood out to me was that they were always talking about this character called Herobrine. Since back then Mojang may have actually done something with it – I really don't know – but early on there really was no Herobrine. He was just a myth. I loved the fact that my kids would be going online and they'd be looking for videos like it was for a Bigfoot sighting or something. It wasn't anything you saw in cutscenes or anything like that, there wasn't anything in the lore that went out of its way to explain itself – it was just this idea that if you were a fan of the game, there was enough of a desire to learn about the world and the fiction and the lore. I love that the reaction was 'let me go look for stuff.'
I'm never gonna be the guy that makes something like, y'know, Zelda Breath of the Wild. It doesn't have enough voice in it for me. As much as I love it.
The idea in Drawn to Death was to actually build that in consciously. You see the character talking about his scumbag dad, you learn a little about why his parents got divorced, or you kind of explore a bit and you see messages from the girl he really likes – where she's doodling in the notebook while he went off to the principal's office. All the storytelling is done through stuff that's hidden in the background.
Sure, we have this surface vulgarity, like buttholes and monkeys shitting, but stuff will really pay off if you're more observant. What I dig about it is that it's like when you were 15 or 16 – when you were on that verge where vulgar stuff is funny but you're old enough to be dealing with some very real, emotional shit in your life. Honestly, this game, in terms of mechanics, world building and just as an expression of spirit is probably the game I'm most proud of since I started making games. And that's, what, probably 20 years.
More than God of War or Twisted Metal?
Yes. But it's also the most polarizing game that I've worked on.
But that's you though, right?
I think I just have to accept that it is, yeah. When I was a kid I wanted a creative career that was the equivalent of Spielberg who was just able to cast the widest net possible. I never wanted to be, y'know, a working professional creative that was so niche that the level of expression didn't reach a lot of people. I think now I'm certainly somewhere in between. I'm never gonna be the guy that makes something like, y'know, Zelda Breath of the Wild. It doesn't have enough voice in it for me. As much as I love it.
You sound a lot like Kevin Smith and things he's said about his own film career.
Pre-Tusk, right? I don't wanna be Tusk or Yoga Hosers or whatever the fuck that is. I think there's truth to that. You have to accept what you are and what that is.
So this is the most true to you that you've been?
I think there's two things. I think I'm most proud of it because underneath all this surface stuff, or whatever the message of the game is – there's a really rich, deep mechanics game here and that's what I love most about the medium. There's a feeling you get when you're playing a competitive game, when you get your head around a certain series of systems and how they work together. When you're on a battlefield with a player and you don't know if you're going to emerge victorious or not, that's a great feeling. When you win, you feel so smart and so clever. You feel really good. I love being able to work on games that deliver that. I'm super proud of that. I would also say that I'm proud that there's a voice to this game that whether you love it or hate it, I love that it's a voice that can't be denied. You have to have a reaction to it. We're not trying to be provocative, we're not trying to push buttons, it's just the shit I like. As much as there's an attempt to try and tackle some very basic political ideas in the game, or as much as there's an attempt to tell the story of this kid dealing with his mom and dad's divorce and stuff, there's also an attempt to tell stupid, funny butthole jokes and I think that shit's funny.
When you asked how much of this is me? Y'know, my parents never got divorced but I just realized – I got divorced. So maybe this is me thinking about that. I've never really dealt with any kind of divorce fiction in any of the games I've made, though.
So is it an expression of concerns about your own relationship with your kids as they get older?
My divorce was an amicable split. My kids are 13 and 11. I will say though, I'm a pretty fucking great dad. I'm very engaged, I've always been engaged and I spend a ton of time with my kids. I think the harder part is that as they get older they don't want to spend as much time with you. It's not that you're a bad person, they just have their own social lives – they have things that they'd rather be doing. I took them to Dave & Busters this past weekend because it was something we always liked to do and it was clear that we were all just over it. They're just a little too old now. Now, the next time they go to Dave & Busters and enjoy it will probably be when they go with someone they're romantically interested in and it'll be more like a date during high school. Us going as a family just didn't feel like it used to. So for me it's not being worried about whether my divorce affected my kids...you just never fucking know until they're in therapy and you find out that whatever they're dealing with was your fault.
This medium can potentially reach the same heights as a wonderful musical or piece of literature or a great movie. It's never going to get there if we keep celebrating the games that simply do student film quality storytelling and get called masterpieces.
A lot of people still get hung up on genres, but the big meta archetypes for games are really those that deal with narrative versus those that deal with mechanics. Do you think long-term popularity and fandom tends to come more from games that are strongly systems-based?
Absolutely. Hearthstone, Madden, Call of Duty, Dark Souls. The games that travel and sustain over time and really utilize the very best of the medium are the systems games. They're the ones that are most successful. Guitar Hero, Mario Kart, Towerfall, Zelda.
Even though Breath of the Wild initially presents like a narrative game, it's got more in common with a survival and systems-based game.
It's a big sandbox. I like it a lot. I've played about 12 hours of it and it's fucking great. What I would say frustrates the crap out of me is that sense that so many of the games that get so much love journalistically tend to be those games that I looked at after God of War and thought 'I don't want to do that any more.' They don't really represent what the medium does so well.
So was God of War a story game or a systems game for you?
I tried to do both, but I think we succeeded more with our systems than we did with our story, I guess. Some people say they like the story, right? I'm proud of it and everything but I just think that games can be utilized as an artistic tool and a communications tool. When games are celebrated for doing so by using things like cut scenes, they're riding on the coattails of other mediums. It sucks. To see journalists lauding that and saying that's amazing and artistic – I just think 'no!' You guys should be pushing back and saying that this medium, through interactivity and systems, can potentially reach the same heights as a wonderful musical or piece of literature or a great movie. It's never going to get there if we keep celebrating the games that simply do student film quality storytelling and get called masterpieces just for expressing their story that way.
It's about a guy that accidentally kills his own fucking family. There's drama there, but percentage-wise we didn't even generate the level of emotional response that you see from a Hallmark commercial at Christmas.
Were you ever really trying to tell a story in Twisted Metal? It was always mainly mechanics, right?
Yes, but Twisted Metal Black was me going 'OK, I wanna focus on story and world and all that.' Then God of War was me wanting to make an adventure story. After I finished it I realized I gave my all to that game, but we don't elicit the kind of emotional response that other things do. It's about a guy that accidentally kills his own fucking family. There's drama there, but percentage-wise we didn't even generate the level of emotional response that you see from a Hallmark commercial at Christmas. That was when I thought that I either have to find a way to express this stuff through mechanics, or I need to pivot to focus on what I think the medium is built for – which is systems.
Have you been mulling Drawn to Death for a while? It seems to have a lot in common with Twisted Metal because it's as much an arena fighting game as it is a shooter.
We've been calling it a hybrid shooter-brawler. I've been hesitant to use the words 'fighting game' because there's some hyperbole there that I don't think we've earned.
It's a bit like Power Stone in some ways.
Brawlers, yeah. Power Stone, Smash Bros. I think we can proudly say that we're from that DNA as much as we are from a game like Twisted Metal or Quake or whatever. I think the minute you say 'fighters' there's an expectation of a level of complexity of character that we're not coming close to and I wouldn't want to try and sell it like that. Power Stone is a good touch point.
So did you set up your studio, the Bartlet Jones Supernatural Detective Agency, specifically to make this game?
I really wanted to make this game. We set up Bartlet to make cool games, but I'd had this idea and we needed a company in order to be able to do it. I needed to find a group of people who believe in this and support this and can improve on it. Bartlet came out of that.
We would love to be a developer that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the Blizzard games, or Psyonix with Rocket League, or these guys who just made Disc Jam. That's a phenomenal mechanics game. To to be in that company – if people would say that Bartlet Jones games have a lot of personality, and great mechanics, that would be great. Lore and story – I love that stuff, I love it, but in a game like Drawn to Death I think that stuff is in its proper place. It doesn't shove itself to the front of the line and yell 'pay attention to me.'
What does success look like for you these days?
For this game?
Any game, but sure. This game.
[At this point, a Sony PR person interjects with "we're not talking about numbers at all."]
62 million copies!
This game to me is the first one I've worked on that's meant to be a service-based game. All the launch day content is very robust. Tons of weapons, costumes, all that stuff. But ultimately success to me is...well, I'll give you a long answer: I love theme parks, right? What I love about them is that they're always updating and they're always changing. Now it's Halloween, now it's Thanksgiving or Christmas or whatever. You see that in the experience that you have. So success to me is having Drawn to Death build enough of a passionate community that falls in love with the mechanics and the world, and then allows us to sustain production so we can keep going as a service for three, four or even five years where we're still making levels and modes and characters.
It occurred to me that it's very similar to launching a TV series. You don't know if you're going to be on the air in a month, let alone three seasons in. So we're walking around hoping for the best and expecting the worst. That's what success looks like though.
Ubisoft are looking at all of their games like this as well. If you look at something like For Honor or Rainbow Six Siege, they're both approaching things the same way. You're competing for time as much as money these days.
Rainbow Six is a great example. We have to think about serving and satisfying every kind of player so that they're getting the content that keeps them having fun. Hearthstone is another game that I love. Even though I'm not active in the Hearthstone community – I don't post on forums about it or anything – to me there's just a joy to it. It's almost like comfort food for me. I love being able to log on at the beginning of every month and open up a new chest based on how high I've gotten in the rankings. I love it when Ben Brode puts out a new video of things like a new expansion. For this game I'd love to be able to build that same kind of excitement and anticipation from fans. I want to redo levels in Christmas lights and have Santa Claus flying through sky three times a day and if you shoot him down, it unlocks an awesome skin. As a game developer it just makes me think what fun that will be if we do it. I don't want to say that and have people say 'ha, ha Jaffe you only lasted for a month' but that's my dream. That would be so cool.
So are you looking at rolling content out like in Hearthstone?
We don't know yet. We know for now that we feel really good about what we're launching with. We're launching with PlayStation Plus as a free game for April, so we know that the first month's players will be getting it for free. Beyond that, my guess would be that there'll be a blend of things that will be both free and paid. One of the most expensive things we make are levels – they take the most of time. For the longest time it was a problem when multiplayer games would try and sell levels because you'd split the user base. What I loved was being inspired by Mario Kart 8 where at the end of each round you vote on the next level. When I saw that, I thought 'holy cow, we can sell levels now' because if I put up a level that I've purchased – and we do want to sell some premium levels that have amazing art and effects – well, that doesn't split the user base with the way we let you choose levels now. It's all inspired by Mario Kart 8. You may not own a level, and two other people in the match may not own it, but I own it so you guys can all still play it if I put it up for a vote.
So, this is the first game you've shipped in five years?
Yeah, Twisted Metal was 2012.
What's changed the most in five years since you last put a game out?
There was a point, and I don't know exactly when it was, but it was a time where games were coming out that weren't connecting with me and I just couldn't get behind them. I started to worry...actually worry's not the right word. There was a time where I did start to wonder if I still knew what the audience wanted. What was very comforting to me was remembering that I never really thought about the audience to begin with. Twisted Metal and Gears of War were hits. Then there was Calling All Cars which wasn't a hit, but for all three of them they were just games that I wanted to make.
I've always had the fortune to work with Sony – for lots of reasons, but the big one is that they give developers the ability to go after the things that excite them. I've always had the good fortune to work with them like that, so there are just things that I want to play and I want to make. So when I thought about that, I realized I just shouldn't worry about it and make shit that I like.
So...Drawn to Death is going to come out on April 4th, I have no idea how it's going to review. I have no fucking clue. There are days where I think that the reviews are going to get it and appreciate how smart we're being and the Metacritic score will reflect that. Then there are days where I just think I'm smoking crack to think that, the reviewers are going to look at this thing and think it's juvenile, they're going to think it's stupid and we're going to get a fucking 40 Metacritic rating. But what's changed is that as important as those numbers are to us – if you look at Rainbow Six Siege or you look at Marvel Heroes – when a community finds a game that they connect with, and if that community is big enough to sustain development, that's a relationship that forms.
If you go back to my TV analogy – we don't have to be like the number one show in America, but if we're in the top 40 and we make money back for Sony so they don't feel shitty about their investment and we can have a good nice long relationship with the fans of Drawn to Death, then that's good. I talked about this at a PAX speech I gave a few years ago – when you make something, and somebody gets it and likes it, it doesn't matter if it's the game of the year or the shit of the year, there's a connection that forms and you understand that they get you and they see you. They're responding to what you like and laughing at the stuff you like.
I just want one Christmas. We have such great Christmas ideas.
People used to identify as gamers and they'd hop from game to game. Now, it's all about staying in one or two games. Games like Blizzard's are taking up so much of people's' time that it's getting harder and harder for new game to chip away at that.
It's wonderful. Well, it's also horrible. But it's wonderful. It's hard to break through, but it's wonderful. I don't know anyone on the Hearthstone team, but it's kinda like your favorite show now. It's comforting, and I think it's really neat that I can have that kind of relationship with a game.
You know what? The other thing that's changed is the role of games journalism when it comes to getting the word of what your game is out to people. Years ago, I would have probably spent three days rehearsing the fuck out of what we're going to show you. At this point, because of things like Twitch and YouTube and social media and streaming in general – people will find stuff. I've been watching Disc Jam, which really had no hype. It reminds me a lot of Rocket League in a way. To see it constantly popping back up to the first page of NeoGAF is continual evidence that if a game works and people respond to it, they will work with you to get that part of the news out. So for Drawn to Death you've just got to play it and see if it works for you. I'm less worried now about working with games journalists to get that stuff across, and I think it's more interesting to have these sorts of conversations. As a consumer of games journalism, I find it more interesting. I'm going to play what people are telling me is awesome on Twitter.
Back in the old days, with magazines like EGM, it was all about the review crew and what score you got.
Sushi-X, man. I tell you, my one regret was that God of War got 10, 10 and 9.5. I was so mad. Well, I wasn't mad, I was thrilled, but there was some real power to that. I do get sad that in America our magazine culture is just kinda dead. It's like I was saying about Hearthstone, there was a comfort to it. It was fun to sit on your couch and dive into a magazine.
l, y'know what motherfuckers? In 1995 there was a fucking game called Twisted Metal and every character that was in that shooter was different and had its own special weapons and they were unique and they were all fucking hero shooters.
So, do you sit on your couch now and play Hearthstone on your iPad instead?
I play at lunch every day on my PC. I don't really play on the iPad. I have, but I like it on my laptop.
Do you watch streamers and stuff?
No. As much as I love Hearthstone, I think it's a horrifically balanced game at times. There have been a handful of times where I've been like 'fuck it, I'm done.' But it just keeps calling me back. Right now there's that whole thing with the fucking golems. I'm like 'fuck you.' There's no way. Sometimes I'll play a hand so skilled and then I'm just like 'here, just fucking win. Just take the game.' It's horrible. It's lame. You should feel ashamed of yourself for playing that. It's just bullshit. It's like when they had those 'get in here' guys, and the 'my blade be thirsty' guy. I mean come on. Fix that shit, Blizzard. All that said though, I adore it. I adore it.
What about Overwatch?
I didn't vibe with Overwatch.
A lazy comparison for Drawn to Death is going to be Overwatch though, don't you think?
I think we'll get that. I don't think it's accurate. I did play Overwatch enough to know that. Y'know it's funny, people will probably say that though. Whatever...y'know what, I'm old, you're old. We're entitled to complain about things, right?
Yeah, I didn't stick around this long not to be able to moan about things.
It's like people complaining with fucking Paladins, they're saying 'oh, it's a hero shooter, it's like Overwatch' and then 'Jaffe's going to be ripping off Overwatch.' But people are just like 'well Overwatch just ripped off MOBAs.' Well, y'know what motherfuckers? In 1995 there was a fucking game called Twisted Metal and every character that was in that shooter was different and had its own special weapons and they were unique and they were all fucking hero shooters. The only reason I don't say that is because we only existed because we were fucking inspired by Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter. This idea that Overwatch came along and said 'we can have unique characters in a shooter' – I mean, Overwatch is brilliant and it's wonderfully executed – but it's funny how people just think that came out of the ether and was like they made that shit up.
Fighting games have always had some real magic going on.
Isn't it interesting that you see it there in Overwatch, and you see the DNA of fighting games finding its way into so many other genres? Just like for a while we continue to find the DNA of RPGs showing up everywhere including, like, fucking Call of Duty with it's meta system that was revolutionary. It's interesting that these core, fundamental genres have become aspects that make these new games really interesting.
Back to that Overwatch comparison though, I've never cared as much and as little about how this game will be received. I care so little because I'm incredibly proud of it and it's what I wanted us to make and how can you complain about that? I care very much because it's personal and I'm proud of it and I want people to like it. And to understand it. It's a scary place to be. That's every game you make, but this one because it is what it is – you're going to love it or hate it. There's nothing in between. It's like the first day at school as a new kid, you really hope they fucking like me.