First Person

First Person
David Jaffe, David Cage and Videogame Stories

Dennis C. Scimeca | 16 Feb 2012 12:00
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Last week at the DICE summit in Las Vegas, David Jaffe delivered a talk in which he argued that videogames shouldn't attempt to tell stories. The short version of his argument is that there are better media for sharing philosophies or life lessons, and videogames should instead focus on the mechanics they do so well. His argument is interesting in the context of what David Cage said at GDC in 2011 about traditional mechanics and how they take away from the ability of videogames to tell stories.

Jaffe is afraid that by trying to emulate the cinematic techniques of movies in the pursuit of creating emotionally important videogames that game developers are allowing their muscles for mechanical design to atrophy. To a point I think he's right. The line between interactive movie and videogame is pretty thin. But perhaps there's another way to look at it, which goes along with what Cage said at GDC about drawing off the experiences of our real lives for inspiration in the stories we tell in videogames.

I was on a medical mission trip in Jamaica last week. I didn't stay at an expensive, all inclusive resort, though I saw plenty of those on the way back and forth to the Anglican Church in the town of Port Maria where our mission team did its work. I was out in the country among people who mostly spoke Jamaican patois (a mix of English, French, and Afrikaans), in neighborhoods where even the nicest houses were little more than one story buildings with a years old coat of paint and corrugated metal fences, and where the people who lived there might get paid the equivalent of $15 American for a week's work.

I made friends with people who lived in shacks with no electricity or running water, and who looked at my iPhone like it was from another planet. In their eyes, I was the alien. When I went to visit a primary school, I noticed a few kids poking my arms, potentially because they'd never had a chance to touch a white person's skin before. The same thing happened to a few other people who visited that school. I was confronted with strange food. The monetary system baffled me for a few days, as everything was priced in whole dollars, and item prices could be many thousands of dollars.

In his DICE talk, Jaffe talked about his belief that the way our minds operate while tackling videogames isn't much different than the way they operate while tackling our real lives. My experience in Jamaica very much speaks to his point. I navigated that strange, new world in much the same way I navigate the virtual worlds of videogames. When the mission team arrived at our lodge in the town of Ocho Rios, I walked all the paths to figure out how the place was laid out, which is precisely how I tackle new levels in first person shooters.

When we were brought to the function hall at the church where we worked, the first thing I did was walk around the place in a clockwise circle from the door we'd entered through. I walked through every doorway I could find until I reached a dead end, and then backtracked and continued on the circle. That's precisely how I handle dungeons in games like Dragon Age or Fallout, always clockwise, always following paths to dead ends to make sure I don't miss anything.

When I got back to the United States I landed at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City. Walking around the gleaming white terminal, surrounded by shops with expensive goods I realized how alien a world that might seem to someone from Port Maria in Jamaica. The reality we live in is filled with strange, new worlds for us to explore, and videogames are uniquely suited to simulate them for us. The trick is to design engaging mechanics that work in the real world and don't depend on fantasy, which was part of David Cage's point at GDC.

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