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Spec Ops, FC3 Writers On Art, Treating Players Intelligently

Williams Vs Yohalem, Pt 2: Blood Dragon

When last we joined Spec Ops: The Line writer Walt Williams and Far Cry 3 writer Jeffrey Yohalem, they discussed everything from the problematic nature of modern escapism to Western culture's disturbing disconnection from real violence. Today: art! Or rather, the process of creating it using someone else's money when that's not really what they wanted in the first place. Also, we delve into the notion that gamers (often rightly) assume games think they're dumb, and how that factored into the receptions of both games' messages. In the process, the likes of Mass Effect, Shadow of the Colossus, the Sistine Chapel, and Dante's Inferno (the literary work; not the bizarre EA game) get ruthlessly dissected. NO ONE IS SAFE. Flee beyond the break while you still can.

RPS: There was an interesting phenomenon in both of your games. I think most people who played through Walt's game got the message, but they had to get through the first part where they really were like, “Oh, this isn’t just another shooter.” That was weird to watch in the initial media coverage. And then with Far Cry, I think a lot of people played it and thought you were glorifying all those tropes. A lot of people said that very derisively – “I didn’t get that message from your game at all. I just thought this was a game about powering up this dude and being super awesome and racist all the time.” Where do you think your respective processes broke down?

Yohalem: I don’t know if it was ineffective as a process, because the French and the British have really gotten the deeper meaning to the game. I get tons of emails from people who say they understand it. I know it felt like people weren’t getting it, but… The idea was to construct a surface presentation, such that if you play the game without looking beneath the surface, the surface is broken. It’s broken so fundamentally that it makes you disturbed. It doesn’t hang together. It’s like the façade of a building where there’s no building behind it.

If there’s anything I can say that I would do differently if I were doing this again, I think I would talk a lot more about what the game was trying to be before it was released. Everyone who I’ve talked to who knew it was a satire beforehand said that it was very, very clear when they played the game. Only people who didn’t know [were totally in the dark]. A lot of people didn’t know but still got it. There were some people who didn’t know who said, “Oh, it didn’t make sense, and then I replayed it knowing that and then it made sense.”

I was trying to hide it beforehand because I wanted people to have this experience themselves, and I still think that’s okay. I think the game disturbed a lot of people, and they take that out in anger at the tropes that are in the game. Some people say, “This game has every negative video game trope ever.” Yes, it does, doesn’t it? If that pisses you off, it should be a call that you want people to make games that are different.

In my mind they’re two sides of the same coin. People being mad at me and saying, “Oh, this is reusing all this stuff”… Well, keep saying that and game companies will say, “People want us to make something different.” Then if they say, “Oh, I get this, this is about where games are today,” it just leads to that call for people to do something else. Then that’s good too. I think that also, it’s not a critique, and that’s very important. It’s an exploration. If the player plays the game and says, “I love this! This is amazing!” then it says something to you about yourself. That aspect of the Rorschach is very important. If you’re disturbed by a game, to me it’s because of something in you. That’s exciting.

There are also references that happen when you’re making a game a lot, like you reference Dante’s Inferno or you reference Paradise Lost, and I intentionally did not put any of that in the game, because I think it’s important that the game be a democratic journey. All these secret things hidden under the surface and lines taken from other places, they’re all from mainstream culture. I was trying to democratize that analysis experience, so that anyone can analyze the game and figure out what’s going on. It’s not like, “Oh, you studied literature, so you can get what I’m talking about.” For me, analyzing literature is a game. It’s an exciting one. You go into this book and you think, “What are the many different things going on here in this work?”

I think as an industry we can do that interactively, where I live something, and then I say, “What happened to me in this experience?” There are resonances and all these ideas in our experiences at different levels. Then I can have conversations with my friends about it. One person on Twitter said, “Thank you. This game gave me an amazing conversation.” That, for me, is catnip.

RPS: But in the aftermath, you outright said you thought people didn't get it.

Yohalem: You know what’s very interesting about that? I never said that. So that’s based on a Penny Arcade article. If you look at that article, they’re not quoting me. A journalist said that I was unhappy about people not getting it, and then the quote doesn’t say that. Or, no, it was Penny-Arcade. I think it’s Penny-Arcade. But then that one line, which is not a direct quote, was blown all the way out. Someone took that line and did a whole article about it.

Basically, I felt like a majority of people got it. If there was a small group of people that didn’t… I was talking about that. I actually was very happy with the response. I was also saying it would be neat to see more discussion online, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t getting it. However people choose to interpret it, it’s up to them. I think that the writer is one person in the conversation. The work is the center of the conversation. If people say, “Oh, the writer was intending this, what do you think about that? Do you think it was effective? Do you think it wasn’t?” then great. Seriously, I’m thrilled with how everyone’s talking about it. I think that I’m one voice of many. If people say, “Oh, Far Cry proves that I love shooters that have a broken story and are just about punching sharks,” then OK.

Williams: Honestly, I think a lot of the press response that didn’t really get what you were doing with the metaphor, it kind of proves exactly what you were going for with the narrative. I think it showed how much we have allowed ourselves to accept that it’s what we put up with from a game.

Yohalem: They saw the broken game and they said, “Oh, this is just what we expect. It’s a broken game.”

Williams: Or the ones that are like, “This has all the negative tropes, but then I got to punch a flaming bear! That was awesome!” And they didn’t see that connection between the two things in their own experiences that they made with the game. Which perfectly sums up what you were going for on the narrative. That we simply are willing to say, “Fuck the things that make this bad, I am personally having fun within this world. It’s about me and what I’m choosing to do.” In one way that’s kind of cool. When you’re able to look at me like, “C’mon, guy, you obviously get it, you’re just not getting it! It’s right in front of you! You just said it, but you’re not getting it!” It’s cool to see exactly what you’re going for mirrored in those things.

Yohalem: I think that as an audience, there are certain levels of subtlety that we like to think that we want in games and that we can find in games. But I don’t think we’re ready to see them yet, because we’ve never seen them before. That’s really what it comes down to. We see things in some games that we consider to be subtle, and those things tend to be a bit more on the nose than we really think they are. Truly subtle sorts of things, we have a tendency to just miss them completely, because we’re so used to games feeding us everything.

I mean, my whole life, 20-plus years or whatever, I've been playing games. Even then, a game is still going to start by telling me what my little controller does. To be fair, some people come into a game for the first time and they don’t know that, so that’s why it’s there. But we’re still used to a game feeding us information step by step by step. It’s more respectful if you open the world up for people to find things on their own. That was always the goal, to create something that respects the player’s intelligence. Players, I think, are very smart, and they can come up with all kinds of ideas about games in addition to what we have.

Williams: But I think players aren’t used to us treating them like that. Players assume we don’t give them the credit they deserve, and so then they expect a certain level of things from us. When they get a game like Far Cry where you can punch a shark – “Hey, badass!” - they’re thinking that you’re treating them like every other dynamic shooter they’ve ever played. They’re not thinking that you want them to engage further with it, because no one else has asked them to do that.

Yohalem: Also, the shocking thing is that a lot of people who were most upset by the game, they never once suggested that they could have turned it off and done something else. I find that fascinating. They’ll say, “There’s no choice! You just have to go through this.” You could just stop playing. That never occurs to them, I think, and that, again, is the addiction thing. But, I mean, we have the power to say “no.”

Williams: That was something I brought up a lot when we were doing PR after the game came out. There comes a point in the game where the ultimate real choice of any video game is not the choice that we’ve given you in the game. It’s the choice of, “Do I want to play a game where I do these things, or do I not like to play that?” Turning off the game is a valid player choice. Some people got what I was saying. Some people did not. Some people said, “What are you talking about? What's the point if I just stopped playing?”

But it’s about looking at what you’re comfortable with doing and realizing that you’re simulating truly terrible acts. Even though they are simulated, even though they are not in the world that we are in, you are still choosing to do them over and over. Admitting to yourself that you’re not comfortable with that and that’s okay to be not comfortable with that. I don’t have to do this if I don’t want to. Totally valid, and it’s something that we need to begin accepting as valid.

Part of it comes in as you get older, just in general. Over the past couple years, I used to start to feel bad that I wasn’t going out more, partying and going out more with friends at night and on the weekends. I was staying at home and living a more calmed-down life. And then it occurred to me one day, “Look. I’m doing this because this is actually what I want to do. I’m not doing that because it’s not what I want to be doing. There was a point in time where I did want to do that, and then I grew out of it. My life changed, and it’s okay that I’m not still doing the same thing I was doing. I’ve grown and matured.”

We as an industry, and as gamers, have to come to that same realization that there’s nothing wrong with those things at certain times. There are always going to be younger gamers. They’re always going to be exploring games that are more simply entertainment-driven, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Yohalem: We’re not going to steal those games and replace them with mature ones. It’s not like those games are no longer going to exist.

Williams: Absolutely. It’s just that we have such a broad spectrum of experiences that we have yet to explore as a medium. We can start to do that now, particularly as creators are getting older and maturing and becoming different people and doing these things. We can make our medium so much larger and so much more inviting to all people who want to interact with every possible kind of experience.

Yohalem: One of the major inspirations for us, which has never been discussed – I find it interesting that it doesn’t get brought up – is Shadow of the Colossus. Another game that was very much about how you couldn’t turn it off. I think it’s very subtle in that game. I think creators and journalists get it. That game has this idea that you have to kill your own horse to beat the final battle. Then they brought back the horse, but I felt like that was a producer thing where they were like, “No, you can’t kill the horse! Bring it back!” But the part where you jump across the cliff and the horse dies, you think, “Why am I doing this?! I’m winning at all costs, but what does that mean? Why don’t I just turn it off?” That fascinates me.

RPS: But let's say you message that part or satire or what have you better. That's still only reaching a small subset of people who will play the game. The rest - unless the message is more overtly expressed in the game - will just assume it's another shooter with no underlying message. So how do we get past this point? How do we lead players to assume we're treating them as though they have some modicum of intelligence?

Yohalem: Well, the surprising thing about Far Cry, compared to Shadow, is that Shadow was understood to be a lot more hardcore by us, the people who play games all the time. Far Cry, the mainstream press really loved the game and got that it had a message, because they can just see it as, “I’m playing this game. Maybe I should be outside with my family and doing other things like that.” It’s the hardcore players who find it difficult to look at it that way because they play so many shooters.

I can feel this all the time. You stop seeing the things you’re seeing. It’s just, “I want to feel that feeling again.” I think the difference between a game, like soccer, and an experience like what we’re making is that the game will have certain rules that you’re playing with, and the more that people playing stick with those rules, the better.

Williams: Absolutely. Obviously, as a creator, I really support authorial intent in games. I actually don’t really know if player intent is something that is genuinely true, in those games. Even though we like to think that it is.

Yohalem: I know! Don’t you think we should tell them stuff? That’s the funny thing, it’s the illusion. We’re illusion-makers. There are some games that do [hinge themselves entirely on players]. Minecraft is all about the player. “Here is a box of Legos in the shape of a world. Go fuckin’ wild.” The interesting thing about Minecraft, though, is that it’s also a Robinson Crusoe curated fantasy. It’s about surviving on an island and what you can do, and then it gives you the box. I think that was core to its success. If it had just been a box of Legos, it wouldn’t have have been as interesting.

Williams: Even a game like Mass Effect, it’s a game that is… Whatever you think about the ending or whatever, the rest of it, with the choices the team has created these six variations on the same story. You get to pick whichever one you want. That’s not your intent. That’s six paths where you have fun. It’s basically, do you want to eat your pizza with your hand or do you want to eat your pizza with a fork and a knife? As creators, we have much more power and intent than we like to think that we do. Using that to its potential, I think it makes stronger games. More immersive games.

Yohalem: I think there are different types of people, but when I go home, what I want to play is your experience. I don’t want to play my version of his experience. The more I can see what he sees, the more I’m going to learn about life, and the more we’ll be closer together as people. I think as a society we’re trying to be understanding and empathetic. Issues with stereotypes come about because you don’t understand another person. If that person makes something that causes you to understand something about their experience, that, to me, is what I’m interested in.

Williams: I agree, 100 percent. I think that games, more than any other medium, have the power to do that. Because you really are inhabiting someone else in another world and going through their experience. When the whole Mass Effect 3 ending debacle happened, I was like, "OK, I get that you don’t like it. That’s fine. You’re allowed to not like something." But the idea of demanding someone rewrite it for you, I can’t even imagine that. I know what’s in my head. I know my story.

Yohalem: Yeah. Why should I want to see myself?

Williams: Yeah! I deal with that all day long. It’s exhausting! I want to see what you see, where you’re going to take me. The games I grew playing were RPGs, Final Fantasy. What I always loved about those games is that every time you picked up a new one, whether it was in the franchise or not, it was going to take you in an entirely new world that you had to completely rediscover all over again. That’s what always drew me into it. What am I going to find and learn this time, within this new place? That’s the way I see it now with other creators. Where are you personally going to take me that I’ve never been able to go before? I get that, from a business standpoint, you want to make a game that can be all things to all people so you can get all people’s money. I get that. That makes sense. And to be fair, we are very blessed that we get to make triple-A games. The only reason we get to do that is we’re spending someone else’s money. But that’s something players have to understand, too.

Yohalem: Say someone in the Renaissance commissioned a Jesus on the cross. If you were going to make a painting that is anti-Jesus on the cross, it’s hidden in the canvas because the person who commissioned it just wants a Jesus painting.

Williams: Absolutely. Things like the Sistine Chapel, that shit happened because Michelangelo had to pay some fuckin’ bills. That’s who was paying for things at the time. It’s a masterpiece of art, but it’s still a commissioned piece of artwork. That’s how artists work, when you’re working with bigger things. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when you do it, you have to work within that box to tell something. I also think that, right now, that’s what makes these stories very interesting that we’re able to tell. I’ve seen people ask, “Do you really think a shooter can be critical of shooters?” Only a shooter can be critical of shooters. Especially as an interactive medium.

Yohalem: Yeah. How can I talk about an experience if I’m not living it?

Williams: Yeah. Then I’m just being a hypocrite. Then I’m just being an asshole, to be honest. “How dare you play shooters!” said I in my platformer. With Spec Ops there were a couple of reviewers who thought it was an anti-war game. Which I get. There’s enough allusions to things like Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness that you can assume we were just making an anti-war statement.

But I’ve said it before, in no way was I making an anti-war game. Because I’ve never been in combat and I don’t think anyone on the design team has ever been in combat. We have no valid firsthand statement to make about what it is like to be in combat and we certainly don’t have anything to say about war. The game is about shooters because we all make them, we all play them, and we have real, earnest statements to make about them that are valid to listen to. Anything we said about war, ultimately, would have been secondhand, if the game was only about war. Things that we had read or had heard from other people. It would have been, while perhaps not inaccurate, slightly disingenuous for us to be the ones saying, “We’re the ones making the anti-war statements!”

No. We’re just adapting the experiences of someone who’s actually gone through it. But making it about shooters gave us, I felt, more of a real, valid platform to stand on and talk about it.

Yohalem: Right, because we did live that. That’s the thing. I grew up playing shooters and thinking about the way they make me feel. For me, the analogous experience in film would be playing Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Because she’s so into the system of being a star that she goes crazy. At the end, when she’s being led away, it’s like, “Oh, I’m posing for the camera.”

To me, what’s exciting about video games is, in something like Far Cry you’re living that. You’re feeling the system and going, “I love this! I love this! Give me more! Let me kill my girlfriend because I love this so much!” And then you’re Norma Desmond. I feel what’s going on inside her the way I never could have felt in that film. Because in that film you’re just watching this person and going, “Whoa. That’s not like me. She’s a maniac.” But what if you were? That kind of being able to feel those kinds of experience is so exciting.

So we can embed it in the work. There are a lot of clues. Maybe, like you’re saying, we should have leaned out, but it’s all there. Originally there was a speech at the end where Jason talked to the audience and laid it out. It basically says, “If you didn’t feel this way about the whole thing, here’s how you’re supposed to feel.” And then it’s not fair. If people feel like the game supports all these ideas that they have, then it’s like the game betraying them.

There have been a lot of articles that have found some of the hidden stuff. There’s a French text on the internet that goes through all of the higher order of meaning. And so if you look at the game and analyze it contextually, you will see all of this. It’s not fake, in the sense that this is stuff that you can read into it yourself, if you can find it. In my mind, as long as that stuff is there, then the meaning of the game is fixed. Then, if you interpret it differently, you have to support that interpretation.

RPS: That's another thing, actually. Earlier, you said you were trying to avoid making overarching references to academic works, so as to make your meaning accessible to all. But it's ultimately couched in references to Alice in Wonderland and Jane McGonigal and stuff like that. How is that any better?

Yohalem: Academic things to me are stuff from the 17th century or 15th century. When you go to university and you pay $150,000 to be part of this academic elite that uses a certain code of references. This happens all the time in academic literature. Every reference that I used is something that is available for free to the culture without having to have gone to university.

RPS: Certainly, but there are many that I think a lot of the culture hasn’t necessarily sought out - especially not in the way you connect them. So you’re not speaking in an academic language, but it seems like you’re speaking in your own.

Yohalem: I’m trying to create this type of game language system. I’m trying to pin it on existing structures, which is how you analyze literature. You take that and bring it down to a more accessible level. And so this is my first experiment in that. You always, always have to keep growing, or you haven’t done anything. There are tons of ways that I could build on that experiment, but I do believe it’s the right direction, because it encourages people into a way of playing with a story that I think is very fun when you get into it. What I’m saying is, I could have been more overt with the rules beforehand. That would have meant talking about it beforehand, like, “Here are the rules I’m playing with.” But otherwise, I just think that this ultimately is more exciting. It makes games more exciting.

Check back soon for the thrilling conclusion, in which we discuss Spec Ops' poor sales, whether or not this type of in-game criticism has any sort of future, and why triple-A gaming's lack of a people focus might be the root of many of these problems. Also BioShock, because BioShock.

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About the Author

Nathan Grayson

Former News Writer

Nathan wrote news for RPS between 2012-2014, and continues to be the only American that's been a full-time member of staff. He's also written for a wide variety of places, including IGN, PC Gamer, VG247 and Kotaku, and now runs his own independent journalism site Aftermath.