Interview: David Jaffe discusses the evolution of the most recent Twisted Metal game and the franchise

The Twisted Metal franchise, known for its over-the-top vehicle combat, is the longest-running in PlayStation history, having first been released in 1995 for the original PlayStation console and spanning ever PlayStation console since. Sony is set to launch Twisted Metal into its 17th year with a new iteration titled after its 1995 birthright. David Jaffe, co-founder of developer Eat, Sleep, Play and co-creator of the franchise, speaks to us about why the new Twisted Metal is closer to his original vision than ever before, what it has in common with Street Fighter, and how he hopes players will see the game in the same way that he views a guitar.

At first this new Twisted Metal was going to be called Twisted Metal: Apocalypse but you guys kind of scrapped that idea. What were your reasons for not coming up with another subtitle? 

Twisted Metal: Apocalypse as a title is very definitive, but we abandoned that concept for a handful of reasons. We realized what we were really doing was making, not just the best Twisted Metal we’ve ever made, but really the version that best reflects, and for the first time really achieves, the vision that we had just on paper and pencil, and just brainstorming in a car stuck in traffic back in 1993. 

Because of that, just calling it Twisted Metal really made a lot of sense. And on top of that there absolutely was a sort of conscious branding mentality of saying, “Look, we haven’t had a big, full-scope Twisted Metal on a home console in, really, over 10 years at this point.” To put something out and call it-I don’t know what it would be at this point-Twisted Metal 9, or 12, or whatever, we definitely didn’t want to turn people off who hadn’t been there for that 10-year period or who had never played it before. I mean, even if you look at the new Final Fantasy-not that naming it Final Fantasy XIII-2 is hurting them-but I think when it comes to a lot of people, at least my theory, is that if you haven’t jumped on and you see something like Final Fantasy XIII-2 or Twisted Metal 13 or whatever, you might be like, “Yeah, that ship has sailed for me.” 

There does seem to be a deeper emphasis on story and more development of the factions and, specifically, their leaders. Do the long boss battles in the Twisted Metal campaign help to forge relationships and intimacy between the player and characters and game?

You really are dealing with the people who are controlling-the bosses-Mr. Grim, Sweet Tooth and Dollface. We did less into the faction story; we talk about it a little bit, but it really is more about trying to humanize-try to build some human flaws and relatable aspects into these incredibly insane, dark, bizarro characters. Somebody online last night said Twisted Metal is a cross between Mario Kart‘s Battle Mode, a fighting game, a first-person shooter, and like, a really bloody, violent version of Twilight Zone. I thought that was just a wonderful way to describe it, especially sort of the “bloody Twilight Zone” part. We definitely have just sort of the over-the-top fun story the series is known for but we absolutely tried to connect the tissue between the history of the contest and who these people are and their human flaws and things like that. 

The series has become notorious for dark humor, pulp horror, and a certain kind of aesthetic. The new features add not only to the gameplay but also to that over-the-top sense of pulpy, dark fun. Is that the direction the new game is going to take or is there a bit more gravity to some of it? 

I-and I’m not saying this to be self-deprecating-genuinely think that there’s a large enough part of my brain that’s stuck at 14 years old and in junior high school. There’s a point where you outgrow that kind of stuff-the heavy metal album covers and muscle-bound superheroes-all the stuff I grew up with and I still love very much. And then you look back and there’s kind of a charm to it. So like, when you can control this guy who’s chained to the back of the ambulance and he’s screaming for his life and he’s covered with TNT, and you spear him into an enemy and it’s one of the most powerful weapons in the game, at first you get it’s a play mechanic, but I also see that, and would say Scott Campbell also sees that (we’re both kind of stuck at that age in a lot of ways), as a really cool thing. 

I’ll give you a great example: [for] the voiceover for this guy on a gurney, for the longest time, we would be getting back files where the guy would be like [imitating a goofy voice] “Whoa! Hey, what’s going on here?” It’s like, you’re playing up the cartoony wackiness of it and we’re kind of like, “No. You have to treat it like Saw.” As an observer, it’s funny, but to the people in the world, this is very serious. This is about a guy who has literally woken up from what he thought was going to be a bypass and he’s strapped to a gurney and he’s like, “Holy shit. I’m about to die.” It’s always this challenging gray area to explain this sort of thing because if you look at Twisted Metal 3 or Twisted Metal 4, which we didn’t work on, they very much played up the wacky and I think the game might seem light because of that.

The addition of Talon, the helicopter, literally changes your perspective by giving you more of a top-down view of the action. Can you talk about some of the design choices behind the helicopter and why you chose to go with that particular vehicle? 

The only reason Twisted Metal didn’t start with the helicopter back in 1995 was just because technologically we couldn’t do it all. For us, to know we launched this and we’re pretty proud of the fact that-even though we can know that we were one of the pioneers back when car combat was in fashion-to us we always wanted vehicle combat because what we saw in our heads wasn’t just cars on a road. Back then, we were envisioning playable action scenes like in Lethal Weapon 2, you know? So, of course we saw helicopters; we just couldn’t do it. So, to get it in this one, for the first time, has been a real thrill, because it’s what we’ve wanted to do for a long time. From a gameplay standpoint, how it changes-I mean, obviously, there’s a new axis of control-but we really wanted to build a lot more team elements into the game, for our team modes. You’re able to use your magnet to pick up your buddies, and you and your buddy can fly through the level and you’re both sort of going through downtown suburbia, guns blazing. You’re able to pick up anybody, the higher you take them and drop them, if they can’t escape the magnet, the more damage they take. 

You mention not just the fast pace but the strategic depth of in how you’ve balanced not only the vehicles but the specials and combos that you’re able to do. Could you go into some detail about how this new multiplayer will reflect both fast pace and depth? 

It’s great that we have a lot of people who love the old series and want to see it make a comeback. But we also heard a lot of people saying “Oh, well, is car combat still relevant, given the Call of Duties and the Battlefields of the world?” And what was interesting about that to us was that to us was that, Twisted Metal, certainly the new one, is a response to those games. It’s almost like, we love those games, but [Twisted Metal] is kind of like the things that to us are missing in those games.

[In] human shooters, you take two or three steps out of a bunker and get shot in the head by someone. You respawn, go find the battle, then you get two or three kills and you respawn-there’s a cadence, there’s a rhythm to that but I don’t know, we just didn’t like it. We still don’t like it. It just feels annoying to us. These vehicles range from 90 hit points up to 300, up to 700 hit points…and so you’re able to actually form relationships with people you’re fighting. You’re able to get into chases; you’re able to chase for pickups; you’re able to learn areas of the map as you can plant a bomb and then lead somebody into an ambush because you know they’re chasing you.

But the depth is really built into everything. After you dig that shallow end of the pool, really, we want it to be like Street Fighter where it really becomes deeper, and it’s like, “Wow, this is a game I can play for a long time.” And it’s competitive. We want it to be like a new sport, really. We want people to play the games on all the different modes and really feel-whether it’s a free-for-all mode, or a team-based mode (we have both in this game)-that this is a deep, mean little fucker. 

It’s interesting that you bring up Street Fighter, because there’s a game that lets you be creative with the rules and bend them to your strategies. 

You never know what players are going to come up with. It’s sort of like inventing the guitar-I can’t come up with all the songs you’re going to play, but six strings is enough to create.

– Lana Polansky