Interview with Jeffrey Yohalem, Game Writer for Assassin’s Creed & Far Cry 3: Re-thinking Museums From the Outside

Occasionally this blog will look beyond the world of museum-based learning to explore what we can learn from those outside looking in. This interview will focus on commercial game design – specifically those multimillion dollar beasts that rival movies at the box office and compete amongst youth for their time and attention. In the past I have collaborated with Jeffrey Yohalem but this was the first time we had the chance to sit down (in the AMNH’s Hall of North American Mammals, under the gaze of goats) and explore what video games might teach us about digital media and museum-based learning.

Growing up in Santa Fe, Jeffrey discovered his passion for gaming early, penning several scripts for action/adventures from third grade onward. He continued writing in college, studying literature at Yale University and submitting a game script as his senior thesis. Beginning his career as an intern on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, he secured a job at Ubisoft Montreal, cutting his teeth on Rainbow Six Vegas 2 before moving to Assassin’s Creed II. Jeffrey went on to win the Writers Guild Award for his work as Lead Writer on Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood and is currently the lead writer of Far Cry 3, which was just released.

Barry Joseph: Please introduce us to Ubisoft and describe your role on a major project like Far Cry 3?

Jeffrey Yohalem: Ubisoft is one of the top videogame publishers in the world and I work at their largest studio in Montreal. For Far Cry 3 I acted as the lead writer. So I’m part of the core team that makes the game. I help create the backstory of the game world, the characters, and write the script (what the characters say in the game).

Barry: For those who don’t regularly play video games, how would you describe Far Cry 3?

Jeffrey: It’s about a group of twenty-somethings on vacation who are kidnapped by pirates. One breaks free and struggles to save the others. But the game is also an allegory about the struggle of Gen Y in the world today and about gaming’s allure as a form of escapism.

Barry: So in many ways, Far Cry 3 works both at the level of gameplay AND as a meta-game, a game about the experience of playing games. Do critics and players get that and, if it’s lost on them, does that concern you?

Jeffrey: As with all works of art, the player brings his/her own mindset and experiences to Far Cry 3. It’s about having a dialogue. Several pieces of the game challenge players to examine their own perceptions, but even if they don’t engage with the work on that level, it’s designed to be one hell of a ride.

Moments are intentionally disturbing or exaggerated, intended to shock players and point out the exploitative nature of videogames, much like Cronenberg’s film A History of Violence did for the cinema.

Barry: While the following terms might be new to my readers, Googling “ludology vs narratology debate” brings up over 8,000 results. In essence, ludologists (“ludology” being the study of games) argue that what is unique about games is not the way they represent the world but the rules and systems and procedures that drive them. Narratologists, amongst whom you tend to make your camp, look to the unique ways games support new forms for narrative. Many of your games offer a critique of ludologists, Far Cry 3 just being the latest and most explicit: it is designed to force the player to think critically about their obsession with violent game play. Please say more about why you have taken such a strong position in this debate.

Jeffrey: Far Cry 3 is really designed to tell a story using the gameplay itself as the centrepiece. Jason, the protagonist, wants to save his friends, but the player wants to explore and shoot pirates across the Never Never Land of the island. The player transforms Jason. What the player does on a minute-to-minute basis in the game, the player’s performance as Jason, and how that makes him/her feel, is the focus. It’s up to the player to come to his/her own conclusions, but I hope that the journey takes players to new places inside themselves.

As artists, we have a chance for the first time to directly share the experience of someone else. Storytelling has been moving in this direction since the beginning of human history, since the cave paintings in Lasceaux. Now, through interactive experiences, players can live the emotions of the buffalo hunt.

Games have an opportunity to democratize acting for the masses, in the same way that film democratized theatre. It used to be that if you were from a small town in Ohio, you didn’t get to see the new plays on Broadway. Film changed all that. Everyone could watch. Games can do the same thing for acting, bring the thrill of being a world-class actor into our living rooms.

Barry: So let’s switch to games for entertainment to games for education. Or, rather, how games – whether designed for commercial purposes, educational, or some combination – can teach its players specific content matter. Growing up, what did playing games teach you?

Jeffrey: I used to play a lot of adventure games, which took place in the cities of ancient civilizations, like the Aztecs or the Mayans. Whenever I encountered a test question in school that related, I always knew the answer, as if magically, because of the game. Even in high school, several years later, I could still recall facts I learned about US history from a game called Day of the Tentacle. In general, adventure games also taught me to never give up. That if you face a locked door, there’s always a window to climb through or a key to find that will get you in.

Barry: Noted scholar James Paul Gee argues that all well designed games are excellent models of a learning system, as videos games use a wide-range of tools and procedures to teach the player the skills and knowledge required to progress through the game and ultimately win. Please talk to me, as an educator, about the learning toolkit you draw upon when designing your games.

Jeffrey: A well-designed game teaches a different skill with each mission and then combines the skills as kind of a test of what you’ve learned. The whole game should be about learning. Ideas should never repeat, but always evolve.

Barry: The games you design offer rich, immersive worlds for players to explore. How can we at museums compete, whether in our exhibit halls or in our educational programs?

Jeffrey: Focus on strong, personalized teaching. Lead us through the experience in a linear, focused way. The modern world is bombarding us with noise. if you want to teach, you have to create a space in which we can focus on key messages. Surprise us with those messages, look at the general knowledge of the pop mainstream world at that moment and teach us something we don’t know.

If you want to give us a personalized experience, use smartphones, tablets or future-tech augmented reality like Project Glass to create an overlay on top of the exhibit experience, allowing us to display or hide key facts about what we’re seeing, or tweet about them.

Create an atmosphere, a space which feels good to the senses, a mysterious and/or an exciting space.

Game displays at the side of an exhibit don’t really work, neither do audio guides which require me to key in a number. In the modern world, this kind of tech is just more noise. Apple has figured out that devices need to anticipate our needs, no understanding of tech required.

Tech should feel like a luxury that personalizes our experience, not a distraction or something that requires work to understand.

Barry: If Ubisoft opened a museum division, and put you in charge of redesigning the visitor experience at the AMNH, what would you want to keep and what would you want to change?

Jeffrey: I’d focus on making the museum the best curator of up-to-the-minute scientifically-endorsed facts about Natural History in the world, within a designed space that creates a mood. Think about what Hollister did for the clothing store, it created theatrical spaces that transform the experience of shopping into a trip to another world. At the same time, I’d create special exhibits about exciting ideas which contradict currents in the mainstream, exhibits which surprise people.

Up-to-the-minute science would be created through the use of transformative tech, like Project Glass, to update displays. Education programs would use game design to create fact searches throughout the museum with surprise rewards.

The AMNH has the fantastic beginnings of atmosphere already: the main halls and the dioramas, the whale room. We would build on those features to amplify the sense of spectacle and mood, and create something fresh and surprising.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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