Jeffrey Yohalem has has won a Writer’s guild award for his work on Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and has been nominated for a Writer’s Guild Award and a Bafta for his work on Assassin’s Creed 2. Still, Yohalem is perhaps best known for writing 2012′s most controversial game narrative: Far Cry 3. While the critical reception of Far Cry 3 was mixed, Jeffery Yohalem defended the game to anyone who would listen, claiming that the game is a satire on videogames and the people who play them.
I caught up with Yohalem at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Rather than rehash these debates, we talked about the beliefs that guide his work, and the tension of wanting to change the world for the better through videogames, particularly in the shadow of the humanitarian works of others.
What are your religious or philosophical beliefs?
I’m jewish. I grew up middle class in Santa Fe in the public school system, and my parents probably could have sent me to a private school, but they never would have sent me there because they felt like public schools were a great thing, that America was this place where everyone could be educated, and that their son belonged in the public school system.
They worked on the handicapped legislation, they got ramps installed across the country, they were a big part of that. They’re ex-hippies, and they still believe in all of it. They didn’t turn corporate at all. They’re still doing good work as lawyers, helping poor people who have fights with the government or with the corporation that fired them.
That mixed with Judaism instilled my childhood goals. Judaism is very much about helping other people, and my parents really lived that. So from a very early age I felt like whatever I do it needs to make the world a better place somehow.
I went to a religious school and I learned Hebrew and studied the Bible and the Torah, but it wasn’t a big part of our family life. I’m named after Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote the Canterbury Tales.
My family was very much about pushing literature and interpreting. So we’d sit at the dinner table and interpret books. We didn’t talk about, like “How was your day?” or normal family stuff. We always talked about “what did you think when you read this section? Or what was your feeling about this?”
Did you always appreciate that, or did you ever get tired of it?
It’s funny, because a lot of the things that I didn’t like about it I find in myself now. There would be moments where it’s like “I had a terrible day, dad. Can we not discuss this book? Can we talk about my day?” and he always had trouble with that. The way we talked about our feelings was through interpreting other people’s art, rather than discussing them outright. So now whenever my sister or anyone gets emotional with me, I have trouble facing that without art on top of it.
So the beliefs you talked about, are those something that influence the way you write games?
Yeah. For me, the best books are guiding lights. Movies, tv shows – when I encounter a situation in my life where I don’t know what to do, I look to literature, film, TV and I say “how would so-and-so deal with this,” or “this is like a situation that I’ve seen in The West Wing.”
Do you have a role model?
I always try to live up to my father, because each year at Christmas he’s in the homeless shelter working, and I join him sometimes. He’s on the temple board in Santa Fe. He’s doing it to help the synagogue to raise money to get things that they want. I constantly meet people who tell me how amazing my father is.
I guess that’s kind of cliche, right? But I’m trying to live up to his example. And I’m doing it through art, ideally, rather than something like medicine or teaching.
I definitely feel that pressure that I’m doing something that is not what a doctor does. So if I’m going to work in this direction instead of outright helping people in that way, it was very important to me that doctors who come home from a hard day of surgery can play a game that I’ve made and it makes them feel better.
I feel like a game that creates more neurons – that actually teaches something that people don’t know yet – makes you feel warm and it gives you strength. Whereas I think a bad work of art that doesn’t teach you anything actually takes away time. You end up feeling like you wasted a piece of time that you can’t ever get back.
So do you think something like Bejeweled is ultimately destructive to play?
I’m on the fence about that. I would have said yes if you would have asked me that a couple of years ago, but I’ve seen people who say that being able to turn their mind off for small amounts of time really helps them. So if that’s the case, then okay.
But I I’ve lived through days where I haven’t turned my mind off at all because I’ve had so many things that I’ve had to do that needed to be done immediately, that I didn’t have a moment to breathe. And I ended up feeling extremely alive and like I was living life to its fullest by the end of it. The moments that I have been happiest have been the ones where I feel like everything I’m doing has value and connects me more with the universe.
That’s also the hallmark of good art for me. That it connects us – it brings us closer together rather than alienating us.
Do you get frustrated trying to use art to be helpful to people? It seems like, compared to working at a homeless shelter or being a doctor, you’re sure it’s going to impact someone in a positive way. Especially with some of the stuff you write, certainly it’s impacted some people in a negative way, or at least made them upset. I’ve experienced this in writing – you just don’t know how people are going to take it. If you’re a doctor and you heal somebody, they can’t argue with that. But it’s hard to have proof of that at least.
But I have friends that are doctors and they talk all the time about the complainers. They do heal their arm, but this person is complaining that they have this pain in their arm. They come in every week saying “there’s something wrong,” they x-ray, and there’s nothing wrong. Ultimately a doctor sometimes ends up feeling like they healed it, but not really. And that’s brutal.
If they play a videogame that’s about that issue, then they feel better. So in my mind it helps the doctor say “You know what, I’m not going to quit medicine because these people are attacking me. I’m going to keep going.”
But I do think we need cheerleaders. And that’s what art is. The people out there who are doing the really hard stuff, and who are going into war-torn countries and trying to help a struggling government that’s never going to be able to rebuild anything, who are in haiti and dealing still with the aftermath and the medical issues there – those people need to come home to something that’s going to make them feel like what they’re doing is valuable. There are moments where they go “I just want to quit” and then if you play something – if you watch It’s a Wonderful Life you end up feeling like, “Maybe I shouldn’t quit. I should keep going. I can do this.”
I think that those people are being rewarded and are doing great things on a level that I almost couldn’t comprehend. But at the same time I think that my little contribution to them is important. If I didn’t then I would probably stop. I would need to do something more direct. At the end of my life, I want to say “I did good work that helped people.” And if at the end of my life I’m saying, “I made a game that was super addictive and sold a lot of copies and no one remembers it today,” then it’s bad work.
How do you feel about games that address directly religious issues and philosophical issues?
I think it’s fine. For hundreds of years, paintings were just the the crucifixion or the 12 stations of the cross. So art and religion go together pretty well. The problem right now with games is that any religious themes that are addressed in them would be tied to the core mechanics. As games move away from violent core mechanics, then you could have a game that’s about religion. I mean The Master is a film about religion. And I think you could have a game about similar themes.
So do you feel like the violence in Assassin’s Creed hinders the religious message?
I don’t know if it hinders it. It just means that you can only talk about very specific things, and you can’t be super outright with it in the same way.
It’s funny because Far Cry 3 is about the social systems surrounding us in the modern world, including games and gamification. The one thing that I left out was religion. Every other system is – one of the characters represents every other system in modern society, except religion. And that was because for me Assassin’s Creed was religion. [laughs] So I felt like, “a whole game.”
You had covered it.
Do you attend a regular religious gathering of some sort?
I don’t, although there are moments where I feel like I really need to. But I go to Passover every year and I do Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana and sometimes I go to Friday night services. I’m still very close to the Jewish community in Santa Fe where I’m from, but I live in Montreal now and the synagogue is very far from my home and work. So it’s difficult for me to just walk in.
I miss it. I try to read philosophy a lot to make up for it. Right now I’m reading Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others, which is about how we take pictures of people suffering and look at them and try to pretend that they aren’t art and that they aren’t beautiful, when in fact we are attracted to suffering as beauty. It’s something humans are fighting. But it’s a part of us, that honest, upright citizens can lynch someone in the South. It makes no sense. That’s what is terrifying about people. So it’s a book about that.
That book is kind of like a sermon for me, where they’re talking about “This is how humans are, and we have to fight these impulses.” If we’re going to be moral we have to navigate a path through that world. I try to spend as much time as possible understanding that world so that I don’t lose my path.
You said you are involved in the Jewish community to some extent? How do they feel about what you do – about your work?
They’re actually just really proud of me. There are some moments where I’m like “Be harder on me.” I’m like “You guys, don’t you know that sometimes this is keeping kids from doing homework?”
So they don’t have any issue with videogames?
No. I think my parents have more of an issue than they had. I wasn’t allowed to have a console growing up. I played everything on PC. When we’d take plane flights, I would walk up the aisles and find a kid who had a Gameboy that they weren’t using and borrow it for the flight.
So have they come around a little bit?
Yeah, I mean they still can’t play what I make. I mean, they tried to play Assassin’s Creed and they could not do it physically, and then with Far Cry 3 I would never even bother. I mean, they’ve watched some videos of it but… I’m still working in some extreme stuff.
What I’m working on now is something that they will be able to play, and it’s something very different. And it’s because for me, Far Cry 3 was my statement: “This is where we stand currently.” Far Cry 3 is kind of about how traditional videogame stories are irrelevant.
If we want meaning, we have to loosen up on our mechanics a little bit. Like Journey does, where you’re just dealing with gusts of wind rather than huge, total, mind-consuming gameplay loops. And I think at that point we can have games that approach the mainstream more and deal more with meaning.
I know that there’s a huge segment in the gaming population that’s up in arms about that, because they think somehow it’s going to take away the other games. In my opinion it’s not. The other games will always exist. It’s just, there’s this other thing we can make that will be a different quadrant.
You’re talking about less of a violent mechanic…
Mechanics where your whole mind has to be focused on succeeding at that moment of gameplay. If your whole mind is focused on that and it’s about the addictive hook of doing it again and again, then either you mind goes to sleep and it’s just hypnotic flow, or you’re totally focused on what you’re doing to such an extent that any kind of… When you’re looking for subtext in a film, it’s because you’re sitting there watching and your mind has things to do. So then it finds the hidden meaning behind stuff; same thing in books. The problem with gameplay like that is that your mind can’t focus on multiple levels while doing that thing.
So you can progress in a game without having to zone in, basically.
And that’s kind of what you’re doing with your next game?
Yes, it’s in that direction.
If I make something like that, then my parents can play it. And then I think they’ll really appreciate it. I used to try to get my dad to play games with me when I was a kid. Like, “Oh come over here and check this out.”
That was my way of being together with people, which was bad. I actually had people come over and I would be like “Let’s solve this puzzle in Myst,” and they would be like, “Can we actually like, hang out?”
I didn’t want to hang out, because that made me uncomfortable. The game was my way of talking with them.
My dad only sat through The Last Express, which is this incredible Jordan Mechner game about the last train ride of the Orient Express before World War I. He liked Grim Fandango a lot. Things like that. He would decide within five minutes of looking at what I was doing whether it was worth sitting down and doing it with me or not.