Sony’s talented David Jaffe is the director of 2005’s acclaimed Greek-mythology-inspired game God of War and the creative director of the highly anticipated sequel God of War II, in stores next Tuesday (March 13). In this wide-ranging Q&A, Jaffe talks about the emotional cost of creating videogames (high); his own new game, Calling All Cars (downloadable later this month on PS3); and who he’d cast as the lead in a God of War movie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve said that God of War was inspired by your love for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Why are so many games inspired by films and not other games?
DAVID JAFFE: Well, that’s not the case anymore. God of War was inspired by my love of Raiders, but when I finished it, I realized that the real deficiency in using a film model for games is that games are never going to elicit the same dramatic power, from a storytelling standpoint, as films. Maybe in a thousand years, but certainly not in our lifetime. Once you try to do it, you realize that the game doesn’t have one fiftieth of the emotional resonance of film. And frankly, that motivates you to look in other areas for inspiration. So now I’m looking at games that I grew up with — and games that I played when I was a tester [at Sony ImageSoft] , like NFL Blitz and NBA Jam — for inspiration.
Is that defeatist though, to give up on the idea of an epic, Lord of the Rings-like game that deeply moves the audience?
I was wasting my energy. But you open yourself up to other options. Games create tension, camaraderie, and competition, and an adrenaline rush. So why not embrace what games are, as opposed to grafting on these emotions that, for me, so far, I haven’t been successful at doing.
But there are moments in your own games that have been successful at evoking an emotional response.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to do. I get what you’re saying — there are little blips on the radar that say, hey, this is possible. But from where I’m at, I’d rather put games out there that are 100% the whole package. Because why do all that work for a few blips of emotion? I’m much more motivated by the image of two or three people sitting around the TV smiling and having a good time playing each other.
Yet after God of War you began work on a game for Sony’s PlayStation Portable that was all about emotional storytelling. A few years ago, you told me it would be a game that might make players cry — the Holy Grail for some designers. The title has since been cancelled, but what was it about?
Heartland was the story of China invading America. It was a first-person-shooter where you played a soldier debating whether to stay and fight for America or go AWOL to meet up with your family. We were trying to put in a lot of gameplay that would evoke emotion. You had sequences where you’d go into homes and your commanding officer would tell you to shoot innocent Chinese-Americans. It was very dark and was meant to cause players to consider what it’s like to live in America and be an American today.
Hearing myself talk about it now makes me a bit sad [that we didn’t finish it]. But I wasn’t incentivized to make it, in a way that I could go to my family and say, ”You’re not going to see me for 90% of the time, but there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” There isn’t a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, at least the current way the industry is set up.
I know creating God of War was very tough on you — afterward you took time off and you read books like When Things Fall Apart, which details how to apply the principles of Buddhism to everyday life. Were you depressed?
Making God of War was very depressing, very difficult. Afterward, it has been a much brighter time for me. I’ve been able to lose weight, spend time with my family, and discover, career-wise, what motivates me. There was something during that period that became very tangible to me when I saw people playing games like LocoRoco or titles on the [Nintendo] DS. I saw the straight-up fun in games and I realized I wanted to explore that.
It’s kind of like [Preston Sturges’ 1941 film] Sullivan’s Travels. For a while I thought I was doing something that’s important to push the industry forward. And then you realize, no, you’re totally cool — go make stuff that makes people happy and laugh.
This month Sony will release Calling All Cars as a downloadable game over the PlayStation Network. It’s been described as basketball-meets-cops-and-robbers. Why did this idea appeal to you?
It’s exactly what I want to be doing — a small, sub-million-dollar game. When you hear actors talk about being in movies or TV, they often say they want to do TV because it is stable work and it’s a better quality of life. The PlayStation Network is sort of analogous to good TV for me. I’m still in there and I’m passionate, but I’m doing it at a scale that promotes a healthier lifestyle.
The PlayStation Network — and even Xbox Live Arcade and the Wii’s Virtual Console — opens the door to smaller, cheaper games. What does that mean for the industry, besides creating a way for you to keep making games?
Honestly it’s the most important part of the next-gen consoles. It’s not graphics, it’s not physics. Now the definition of what a game can be is up for grabs. The retail model has been absolutely shattered. Flow [a recent PlayStation Network game created by college students] would have never had a rat’s chance in hell of coming out in the retail channel. This will be seen in two years, five years, 10 years as a watershed moment for this industry.
There’s talk of God of War turning into a film. What’s the current status?
There’s a really good script written by David Self, who wrote Thirteen Days for Kevin Costner. I keep expecting them to call me and say it’s dead, but my fingers are crossed. We’ll be sending the script out to a huge-name director.
Any ideas about who you’d want to see cast as Kratos?
[Blood Diamond‘s] Djimon Hounsou as Kratos. Absolutely. You have to get past the fact that Kratos is Greek, but in terms of the way he looks and his acting ability and his physique — I can’t think of a better choice.