Meet the High Priest of God of War

Designer David Jaffe talks about the strengths and weaknesses of the video-game medium, and why his hit title needed a sequel

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Game designer David Jaffe, the force behind the popular and critically acclaimed God of War and the Twisted Metal franchise, is no snob. A longtime gamer, he'll jovially admit to playing -- and liking -- a variety of nonhardcore titles. His current list of favorites includes Scrabble-esque PC casual game Bookworm.

Interestingly, when it comes to talking about action-adventure titles for consoles, Jaffe is quick to point out what he believes to be the design flaws in God of War. He criticizes his own use of traditional game-design elements, such as cut scenes, to illustrate how future games (perhaps even God of War 2, to be released in 2007) might rely less on such tried-and-true narrative structures and instead employ more original storytelling devices.

And although Jaffe has been known to suggest that cinema actually might not be the best example for game designers and developers to follow to create more emotionally resonant games, he admits he's excited to work on the forthcoming film version of God of War.


  Equipped with an open mind, Jaffe draws on a spectrum of entertainment genres and gaming platforms to push game design in new directions. With God of War, Jaffe challenged himself and his team to create a truly "mature" game experience via erudite subject matter (Greek mythology) and themes of ambition and family, rather than merely relying on gory violence and the occasional sexual reference.

The game, first released in March, 2005, places gamers in the role of Kratos, a Spartan warrior, who seeks revenge on Ares, the titular god of war. The mix of brutal battle scenes, intriguing puzzles, and breathtaking graphics (including mythical creatures such as Medusa and Cyclops, brought to life) garnered critical raves and impressive sales (more than 2.5 million units sold, according to Sony Computer Entertainment America (SNE), the game's publisher).

Before taking off to the 2006 E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) conference in Los Angeles from May 9-12, where he'll preview God of War 2, Jaffe spoke with BusinessWeek Online's Reena Jana about the challenges of writing emotionally resonant plots for video games, building character development via game play, and what types of game design tend to be the most profitable. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation.

How challenging is it to build game characters with believable emotions that gamers become attached to?

God of War, for example, was intended to be a game that resonated with mature players. We wanted to speak to players on a certain emotional level by dealing with themes like family and ambition. How we went about that, though, was unfortunate. The game displays the weaknesses of the medium: the use of cut scenes and voiceovers to build characters. We didn't do anything in the interactive experience itself that was revealing of the characters. To me, the Holy Grail of game design is to reveal characters via interactive gameplay.

Would infusing video games with more emotional plots and characters make for better games?

I do believe that in the future, gamers will demand emotional resonance. I think the problem of less-emotional characters and stories is a result of a specific situation. In the early years of the gaming industry, mainly tech-oriented people joined in, rather than artists. The idea of art embedded in games is fairly new. Now, film directors are making games.

Realistically, though, I still have some big questions about the idea of more emotional or even more political games. I wonder if that's that best use of the medium. I mean, do people think about infusing emotion in other games -- you know, classic board games like chess and checkers?

It makes me wonder if video games are really about storytelling and emotion. I'm not belittling video games when I say that. But I think as an industry, we need to ask what video games are good at. They're good at competition, tension, fear. I think a lot of game designers have a knee-jerk reaction when they think of how video games can be improved, and their first idea is often to infuse them with a more filmic sensibility.

What's the secret to writing a game that will hold a player's attention for 10 to 50 or more hours, then?

It really depends on the game. I know the latest game-design vibe is letting people author their own games -- you know, like The Sims. I actually don't play things like The Sims. I appreciate them, but I like games that are authored. I love prepared adventures.

With God of War, we kept that idea in mind. What we did was write story in a way that can be remembered and digested by players who were going to see movies and watch TV and play other games in between the hours they played our game. Or they might not play it at all and do something else for a week before coming back to it.

Successful game writers, I think, know it's important not to swim in the nuanced waters of film or novels. We wrote in intentionally broad strokes. We realized there would be other stuff occupying a gamer's brain power during his or her life.

How would you advise designing a video game protagonist that's memorable, one that brings fans back for more?

The way I work with concept art is to create characters and animations that are immediately iconic. Sure, games for the new consoles have amazing facial animation. But you can only truly see that when you're not focused on gameplay. You're using 80% to 90% brain in achieving some goal or solving a puzzle.

This is how we designed Kratos in God of War. We had a very base concept. This carried over into how we developed his character. Here's a guy motivated by rage, anger, and unbridled animalistic power. I mean, I could have gone on and on creating a back story, figuring why he likes the color green, or what he was like when he was kid. But the truth is, even in the most successful mainstream movies and comic books -- the ones that resonate the most over time and last the longest -- center around iconic, basic characters. Look at Indiana Jones. He's actually a pretty simple character. The writers who created him made sure that they stuck to one or two core values when writing and developing his character.

Why do a sequel or prequel to God of War? For the obvious reasons -- like ongoing revenues? Or are there other design or narrative challenges that you could only address by creating God of War 2?

We felt we were in the middle of a bigger story…and we were simply interested in continuing the story. Honestly, I would've liked to build the sequel with another year and half of development. I believe there's a magic sweet spot in terms of the timing of a sequel's release.

In my opinion, the timing of a sequel can be bad for a franchise. Wait too long, then people forget about you. But the industry usually makes you pump one out every freakin' year! I'm grateful we'll have two years between God of War and God of War 2. After three years, you're in the zone of being no longer culturally relevant.

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