Writer's note: This piece was originally done for an outlet. For one reason or another, though, it was killed. Because I liked it a lot, and because it's been sitting in my Google Docs for a while, I decided to post it here in its entirety.
In the nearly 25 years since David Jaffe joined the game industry, he's been involved with several games many consider great, influential and over the top. They're often in your face, hyper-violent and fast-paced — not unlike Jaffe himself, who talks quickly, shifts topics often and curses in turn.
He's famous for being opinionated and vocal, even if those opinions aren't always popular. He speaks out when many don't — sometimes, he admits, to his detriment — against the press covering him and even customers buying his work. In this way, he feels like one of the game industry's only punk-rockers — a statement that makes him laugh, saying you'd think otherwise if you knew what kind of music he actually listened to.
“It's just what I know. It's not a conscious choice,” he says when asked if he thinks it's important to be an outspoken voice in the game industry. “My way of seeing the world is as valid as anyone else's. I don't think [it's that] the industry needs this voice. ... I would never [assume] that our industry would improve if developers talked more in a way they're not talking now. I don't think there's any evidence that that would be the case. It would just make for more entertaining articles.”
I recently talked to Jaffe to get his thoughts on, well, David Jaffe. We wanted to know just what it is that makes the original God of War director tick. Where does his famous — or infamous, depending on who you ask — personality come from? Also, now that he's shipped his most recent independent project, Drawn To Death, what's next for Jaffe, and what does he think about his career thus far?
If there's a takeaway from our chat, it's that Jaffe has both changed a lot over the years and not changed at all.
"Hey, I call bullshit on this"
Jaffe says he's never been someone who likes authority; that he's never been someone to “blindly follow” another just because of a title.
From a liberal-leaning family, he traces this mindset back to his childhood growing up in the southern state Alabama, where, especially at the time, there was quite a bit of racism. There he found that having friends of different ethnicities and sexual orientations proved to be a point of contention for others in the community.
"[My nature] probably comes from, 'Hey, I'm growing up with all these people that a lot of people in my community are telling me are bad and it's clear to me that that's not the case. So go fuck yourself,'" he says. “'Just because you're a principle of this school, or just because you're a cop, or just because you're a teacher, just because you're an adult, who gives a shit? If you can't explain why it is that you're saying what you're saying, it's just a lack of genuineness to me.'
"Growing up, I was never interested in, and I had very low tolerance for, that 'Just because I said so' [mentality].”
And this can be seen in his games tonally, he tells us, saying when he puts out a game it has a "huge part" of himself in it. For example, Kratos, the antihero of the God of War series, which he helped create, spends multiple games hunting down and killing the Greek gods of Olympus because he feels wronged by them, that they've abused their powers. Like Jaffe, Kratos rebels against the powers that be.
And for Jaffe, the powers that be these days are sometimes video game journalists using their platform, he feels, to blindly insult games, rather than offer constructive criticism on how they could've been better.
One such instance occurred in November 2016 when Jaffe tweeted at Easy Allies host Kyle Bosman after Bosman made what he felt were mean-spirited jokes about Drawn To Death without having spent much time with it. Bosman's show represents the "cynical, mean spirited crap I hate about game journalism," he tweeted. A month later, in front of hundreds of people during a panel at the 2016 PlayStation Experience, Jaffe called Bosman out by name, once again voicing his frustrations with the host's comments.
“There's a lot of protection that certain people assume is there because of certain roles that they have,” Jaffe says, not particularly about Bosman. “And if we're speaking specifically in video games, I think even the creator-journalist relationship is one where [some] journalists get really upset ... when you come after them when they give a review for your game that you don't like. And I have zero problem going on Twitter and using the tools that are available to me to go, 'Hey, I call bullshit on this.'”
"I wasn't really bothered by his reaction at all because it was a comedic segment," Bosman told me. "Even though his language was personal I didn't take it personally. I can't be mad if someone doesn't like my dumb jokes."
“I don't want to sit and seethe in silence,” he continues. "I'm like, 'You know what? No, mother fucker. If you're going to put this out and you're going to be so unprofessional that you're clearly not going to slip deep into this game, but you're still going to call yourself a critic, but you're still going to work for an outlet that somehow has [gotten] itself into the aggregate of Metacritic, then you sure as shit better believe that I'm going to at least use the one avenue available to me to push back.'”
He says he recognizes this oftentimes paints a cartoon-like persona of himself where he's this hyper-angry character who can't take a bad review. Which, he says, is not the case. If he reads a review he thinks evaluates a game fairly — he points to Polygon's own review of Drawn To Death, which scored the game a five out of 10, as an example — he's receptive of what the writer finds fault with, hopefully learning how to improve in the future and often agreeing with where the writer feels his studio went wrong. Despite this, he also says he recognizes the outside world is more apt to remember him lashing out than it is to remember him appreciating what he thinks is a well thought out, but negative, review.
"That's the price you pay," he says. "And clearly I'm willing to pay it, because I haven't changed."
And in this regard, Jaffe says he's thankful for tools such as Twitter, Facebook and personal blogs. Outlets where he as a developer can speak directly to the players of his studio Bartlet Jones' games, bypassing a journalist as a middleman.
That's not to say, however, that just because they buy his games they're not also susceptible to his scrutiny.
In recent years, game developers have found themselves the victims of racist, misogynistic and homophobic-fueled threats from video game fans that either disagree with the stance a game takes in terms of its own inclusivity, or if a game ships not up to par with their own expectations, amongst other things. And while developers or publishers sometimes address these issues, it often comes in the form of a company statement that never seem to dig very deep. Jaffe, however, sometimes takes it upon himself to draw very deep lines in the sand against this type of behavior.
In 2011, when he noticed a fan criticizing the use of rap music in the then-upcoming Twisted Metal reboot, saying they bet there was "a black guy on his team that [needed] pleasing," Jaffe posted a video responding to the fan with a vow: "If you are genuinely a racist person, and you don't like black people … I do not want your fucking money."
For Jaffe, ignoring this type of behavior just doesn't sit well with him.
"I think there's more money to be made and more success to be had if I probably just shut the fuck up. But, that's fine. So far that clearly hasn't been as important to me as not shutting the fuck up," Jaffe says. "For me personally, if I make a quarter for every copy of Twisted Metal on PlayStation 3 and you say 'Hey, out of all these quarters made, there's 22 percent of people who are racist assholes,' I'd rather you had your quarters back."
In these cases, Jaffe is as vocal as he's always been known to be. He's still someone who won't take a seat just because he's told to. If he's got something to say, he's going to say it as loud as possible. However, compared to when he rose to prominence in the early 2000s, some pretty massive things in his life have changed.
The false allure of the front of the line
Jaffe is not in the public eye as much as he's been in the past, especially during the height of the first God of War game. A lot fewer headlines brandish his name these days. You could argue he's less relevant to the game industry at large. And, if that is the case, he says he doesn't care.
Which is something that's changed dramatically for Jaffe over the years, he says. He used to be very concerned with his own relevancy and popularity, and one even gets the sense he craved it coming up in the industry. "If you're a consumer of video game journalism today, you probably look at it from the outside and you go, 'Man. it must be so fun to be these guys or be these girls," he says. "They get to go to E3 and they get all this attention. They get interviews and they get to go to the front of the line.'"
Being the figurehead of something like God of War, Jaffe went to the front of plenty of lines. But not all that glitters is gold. He references Kanye West's song 'Good Life,' where the performer says, "Havin' money's not everything, not havin' it is."
"There was a time where I felt like I really needed that when I was much younger," he says, adding he's glad he was able to see the other side to learn from it. "The minute you have it, you're like, 'Oh. This doesn't really give you anything.'
"I'm not going to complain about it, but it doesn't make you happier. It doesn't make your life better. It doesn't make you better at your job. It doesn't make your friends like you more. It doesn't make you a better parent."
So these days, his interests are far more focused around his work than his reputation. "I don't chase relevancy in terms of the way it's defined on NeoGaf or something," Jaffe says. "For me, you're only one game away from you're next hit or your next bomb."
And Drawn To Death wasn't exactly a hit. As he tells it, the game's garnered a "hardcore" group of fans — one he constantly interacts with on his Twitter and Periscope accounts — but in comparison to other series he's been apart of, God of War and Twisted Metal, for example, it's a lot smaller of a base than he's used to. When asked where he believes he fits into the current game industry, Jaffe changes the subject, reiterating his own relevancy or reputation isn't something he's concerned with anymore. Rather, he's more focused on just making his games, fostering their communities and learning from the past's shortcomings.
He says his own interest in deep mechanics came at the expense of Drawn To Death's accessibility. As he sees it, his team has become really good at building the deep end of the pool, "obsessing over the ways these mechanics interact with each other and the nuisance and the depth of the game." But he knows a lot of people — including reviewers, he adds — will pick the game up and play it as it presents itself: as a standard third-person shooter. He admits his own shortcomings with representing the game's depth, saying his team's talking about how to fix this in the future. Bartlet Jones needs to get better at building the shallow end of the pool, he says.
And so, moving forward into the future, Jaffe says that's his focus. He and the rest of Bartlet Jones are working on their next project, and they're still supporting Drawn To Death. Take a look at any of his social media accounts and you can see him interacting with the game's fans, as well as offering his opinions on the game industry, movies, politics and whatever else he sees fit. He's not looking back. He's not concerned with how he stacks up to other gaming auteurs. Instead, Jaffe just wants to make games and foster communities around those games. He wants to make games with shallow ends and deep ends that can appeal to large audiences.
"So, in the sense of relevancy, or where you're position in the industry is [as] a reflection of how well you're communicating with a big enough audience, I think that's very important to me," Jaffe says. "It's not that I'm interested in being relevant and being on Polygon's 'Most Important Developer' list. I don't really care at all about those sorts of things.
"If you're talking about in the realms of Neil Druckmanns and Cliff Bleszinskis and Player Unknowns, [I'm] probably not anywhere in that stratosphere anymore," he says. "Probably much more in one kind of like a Kevin Smith realm, where's he's got his fans and people really dig what he does, but a lot of people are like, 'Ah. That guy hasn't made a good movie since Clerks.'"