Friday, 24 February 2012

The Good, The Bad, The Jaffe

After nearly a month of sweat, dust and strong whiskey I can finally hang my boots up and call it a day with Rock Star San Diego's epic Wild Western Red Dead Redemption. It's been a long emotional journey across a dynamic and utterly spell binding landscape. The characters along the way have been just as memorable and the story has not only been exciting and deep in its own right but has also been a tale shot through with clever references and knowing nods to the dying West of Peckinpah and Leone. A thoughtful and exemplary videogame, but one which is also incredibly 'cinematic'. It's hard not to play this game without noticing the long shadow of cinema creeping across nearly every facet of Red Dead. This filmic quality is not a criticism and is partly the reason why this game is so successful, but it also points out the problems which the game faces.

It was interesting to listen to David Jaffe's speech at DICE 2012 whilst being in the midst of my romance with Red Dead. Jaffe's talk, whilst slightly meandering, seemed to come upon something important. What I understood from Jaffe's argument was that game developers - and publishers - were focusing too much upon telling stories through the medium and not enough on the mechanics of actual gameplay. So, while millions of dollars are being ploughed into developing the visual element of videogames the actual gameplay hasn't actually developed much since the nineties. While Jaffe's speech may have seemed (as it did to me at first) to deride videogame story altogether (his off the cuff comments about videogames being a rubbish story telling medium surely didn't help him), I don't think this was in fact the purpose of the talk. Instead he seemed to be saying that games need to focus on developing the gameplay rather than only focusing on the often non-interactive narrative and visual appearance.

Dueling in Red Dead Redemption
Avoiding the perennial scapegoat of Modern Warfare, we can look at a game like Halo to understand what Jaffe possibly means. The Halo universe isn't exactly on the scale of some literary sci-fi classics but it is relatively deep. There's differing races, galactic empires, an ongoing war, an ancient extinct race who built incredibly advanced technology, zombies...  The point is that whilst graphics technology has allowed the Halo series to visually develop far beyond the story telling capability of a game such as Quake our actual interaction with this universe remains very similar. Shooting baddies hasn't changed all that much.

And this is arguably the problem with Red Dead Redemption. The story of John Marston and that of his dying culture and the encroaching modern world is central to Red Dead as a game. But are these elements communicated through gameplay? Much of the game simply involves riding a horse and shooting people while much of the actual narrative in Red Dead is told through cut scenes and communications the player has no say over. So is it badly balanced? Are we being playing a game in which gameplay plays second fiddle to cinematics and cut scenes?

Perhaps, but what Red Dead seems to prove, to me at least, is that Jaffe's argument that videogames are not an affective form of story is wrong. Even though Marston's story makes substantial references to the Western genre - in films and books - I don't think it loses any power in being a videogame. And it manages to remain a very satisfying game despite being very story driven.

What Red Dead manages to do is to tell a great story whilst also immersing the player in an environment where the simple act of travel makes the narrative seem more engrossing. For example environmental effects - such as the sun setting - can utterly change the way you engage with the game. You may be heading out to collect a bounty and, as you climb the steep hill on which the bandit is camped, the sun sets behind you; the mood and atmosphere changes and you find yourself walking slower to enjoy the orange glow on your back as you move towards the impending violence. It verges on the metaphoric! But these instances also seem magically unplanned. Unlike John Wayne standing on the cusp of civilisation in The Searchers - which is constructed with purpose and meaning by the film crew - these cinematic instances often occur randomly in Red Dead (similarly you could have claimed your bounty in the dead of night - providing a different atmosphere altogether).

The Searchers 
This is no doubt what Jaffe was referring to in his talk when he spoke of 'player authored' gameplay. By wandering around the landscape in Red Dead the player comes up with these narratives themselves - I may aloofly consider the setting sun as a metaphor and so on - and so the game immerses us further. What Red Dead Redemption manages to do is to bring this immersive 'player authored' gameplay and merge it with an incredibly engrossing story which is told more directly to us. The longer I spend with Marston wandering the wilderness the more invested I become in the structured narrative. For example, the loneliness of wandering about (sometimes aimlessly) on your own for the majority of the game made the final section of the game feel more important. The restitution of Marston into a family and a home (a part of Marston's past we only know through dialogue) is given more weight because I'd never previously had a specific tie to any settlement.

Yet there are instances when gameplay and story don't quite work. There was a moment where I think its Edgar Ross makes reference to the fact that you - John Marston - have also killed people; the notion being that Marston, like him, has murdered and that they are both morally deprived individuals. What Ross (or whoever actually says this) fails to realise is that Marston's killed neigh on 900 people - perhaps even setting the record for most murders ever committed by a single man. Similarly Marston, though a family man, seems relatively unphased by the whole killing business. Whereas James Coburn's Garrett hesitates uneasily before the white picket fence in Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, Marston is happy enough to return to his family - even after murdering a small yet substantial number of the American population.

These are small, pernickety issues but they point out a possible problem with narrative continuity in a game which while trying to tell an engaging story also has to adhere to what we like to do in games - namely shooting people or gaining points. Red Dead therefore doesn't perfectly join the two elements of gameplay and story. But the story it tells is made more engaging because it is a story being told through the interactive medium of videogames. I think its shows that while Jaffe may have a point when he says that developers should focus more on gameplay, he's wrong to suggest that videogames are an inferior mode of storytelling. By making the open-world gameplay add weight to the structured story told through cut scenes, Red Dead shows that videogames offer a unique way for the viewer/spectator/player to become immersed in a fictional world and narrative.  


  1. A great read and I pretty much agree with all your points regarding RDR, which remains one of my favourite games of this generation. Don't forget to add all the dead horses to Marston's murderous tally! I lost count of the number of steeds I accidently shot or ran off a cliff.

    I'd like to think that developers aren't focussing too hard on storytelling as quite frankly I think VG narrative is still the one area that needs the most work. There are some notable exceptions, RDR for one, but try explaining the plot of a favourite game to a non gamer without thinking to yourself "this sounds awful". In particular, games still struggle mightily with endings, which actually happens to be one of RDR's strengths. I've lost count of the number of games in the last year alone that have offered up hugely disappointing finales, even when the rest of the narrative was quite competent.

    1. Thanks man. Yeh the horses did suffer a bit too. I think I felt worse when i killed a horse than an innocent man though. I know what you mean about narrative.
      I love games with stories but, like you say, they can sound a bit cliched when you explain them. RDR felt sophisticated though, especially the last part of the game - i loved the fact that it carried on where youd expect it to end.

      So yeah I agree that narrative in videogames does need more work - it was something that Jaffe kind of brushed over in the talk. As if, because games tend to have weak narratives they should forget it all together.

      But there can be a discontinuity between narrative and gameplay in some games (which seemed to be what Jaffe was getting at) and I think that it'd be interesting if developers addressed that (which some already are - the more I think about Jaffe's talk the more it seemed incredibly irrelevant). Like if in a FPS with a complex narrative it would be great if there was another way apart from simply shooting to engage with the story (another way apart from QTEs that is).