Sunday, August 4, 2013

Games Aren't Taken Seriously Because Games Aren't Serious


Several years ago, David Wong wrote an article about why gamers are still not taken seriously. He pointed out that even in supposedly "artsy" games like Bioshock, the majority of the game is spent mowing down enemies with guns."If you make a movie where 90 of the 100 minutes of runtime is people getting their faces blown off" Wong said. "--even if you fill the other 10 minutes with speeches about objectivism--every critic will use the same word to describe it: 'Mindless.'"

So it becomes interesting when I see the Gaming Blogosphere recently up in arms over Warren Spector's Column on how public acceptance of games is predicated by acceptance of games within mainstream publications, seeing critical game reviews in periodicals like TV Guide or something. He makes reference to "normal people" in his column, which bothered John Teti:

[Spector]...crafts a narrative in which an idealized “acceptance” leads to a beautiful community where “normal people” get to talk about games, and not just “gamers.” (I understand where Spector is coming from with this false gamers/normals binary—game enthusiast communities can be off-puttingly insular to novices—but it’s telling that a prominent game creator would use trollish language that characterizes his own ardent fans as abnormal.)
I'm going to take a big leap of faith here: When Warren Spector says "Normal people", he is not suggesting that gamers are abnormal. Rather, he is talking about people who are not educated of the specific way our gaming culture approaches playing games.*

* I wish to be clear that when I differentiate between "Gamers" and "Normal People", I am not suggesting that people who play games are abnormal. Rather, that such people inhabit a specific cultural niche belying certain understandings which a person not knowledgeable in the niche does not understand.

Modern Game-playing often requires an understanding of the elements which most games expect of their players, which we as gamers now take for granted. Some of this is as simple as the control systems used to play the games, while others are more complex, such as the idea that all enemies need to be killed in an area in order for the game to progress, or that only certain doors in a game world can be opened, while others remain locked or simply set-piece decor. If you can manage to get, say, my 70+ Romanian father playing Half Life 2, for example, he'd be wondering why 90% of doors are locked, while the only ones unlocked in this Dystopian society are those plot-relevant. If you got him playing Starcraft 2, he might be confused why seven single person Hellions take up more space--and cost more, than a single Battlecruiser. Gaming deals a lot in abstraction and simplification, in a way that Film or Literature doesn't have to--actors don't open every single door as they progress through a movie, and in literature a Battlecruiser would be the size of a fucking battlecruiser. As gamers, we have learned to accept these things as part of the games, and ignore what would otherwise break our immersion.

Similarly, there are also other elements of games that we have grown to accept, through constant repetition, as being a part of games. We have grown inured to killing large numbers of enemies with single headshots while ten bullets piercing our own various vitals cause little damage and can be quickly healed up with a rudimentary first aid kit. We don't question it, because for a lot of us, that's how games work. You jump on enemies to kill them in Mario, you shoot large amounts of people to progress the story in The Last of Us.

We accept it to such an extent, in fact, that we ignore it in our critical analyses of games. In their review of The Last of Us, for example, referred to The Last of Us as "The first instance we've had of gaming literature" a statement that seem to ignore that in most work of literature, one doesn't have to kill twenty people every time you want to turn the page. Indeed, a lot of reviews seemed to pass over the killing, as though it were only a punctuation mark to get to the supposed masterpiece of a story. One gets the sense the developers thought the same thing as well.

And while we're able to ignore these elements, the rest of the populace, the so-called "normal people", cannot. For them, it might seem very strange that we have to kill twenty people to progress through a story. It might seem strange that so many enemies are suicidally attacking Joel, even though in cutscenes all observable humans show themselves to be quite intelligent. Indeed, upon seeing those elements, it may even call into question for them the necessity of these killing sequences to progress the story.

And those normal people are right


Now The Last of Us is my pet talking point in this discussion, as I find it rather criminal to lavish such critical praise on the story while failing to provide even half of that critical focus on the gameplay, but The Last of Us is far from the only game to do this. Bioshock: Infinite, Max Payne 3 and the remake of Tomb Raider are all examples of games which have above-average storytelling* but average or below-average gameplay divorced from storytelling. For the people playing these games, the majority of the time will be spent in identical combat sequence after identical combat sequence devoid entirely of emotional depth.

* That is, above the average of storytelling in games. Max Payne 3 may have you slaughter hundreds of people, rewarding you for how creatively you end their lives, but at least it has the common courtesy to acknowledge that Trickle-Down Theory might not be viable as an economic policy.

Which becomes problematic when people fail to notice these elements when they complain about the lack of serious consideration of games by the public at large. In "No One Knows Who You Are, Video Game Criticism Edition", Maddy Myers stated, in regards to the exhaustion by many game critics at the lack of maintstream acceptance:

Why do you think video game writers get burned out? Could it be that they're sick of pushing thirty, or forty, and going to cocktail parties full of people who don't really give a crap about Shoot-Man: The Reckoning (even if it actually is a really good game that non-gamers should care about as a relevant cultural touchstone, god damn it)? Because if Shoot Man: The Reckoning were a movie, or a book, or a ballet, that same cocktail conversation would land just fine.
What game is Shoot Man? Is it critical darling The Last Of Us, the game where the player's primary input was shooting people in the face? Or is it critical darling Bioshock: Infinite, the game where the player's primary input was shooting people in the face? Show that to any cocktail party sometime. Give them a trailer, watch their eyes brighten in interest. Then watch that interest deflate when you put the controller in their hands and tell them to point and fire.

If Shoot Man were a movie, it would be a piece of B-movie trash that involves more deaths than dialogue. If it were a book, it'd be a pulp fiction novel with lurid descriptions of the lead's girlfriend's breasts. If it were a ballet, it'd be a cage match. The thing about those other mediums is that they have been able to consistently show even their high-exposure, blockbuster products to be capable of significant variation, both thematically and in delivery of the content. AAA games are still trapped in a world where the gun is the primary way to advance the story. Shoot Man is no cultural touchstone. Shoot Man is the symptom of a diseased industry, clinging so fervently to its old methods it perpetuates its own isolation, and then has the audacity to say something is wrong with others. Again, the problem is we have consistently deceived ourselves by thinking that the most prominent aspect of a game--the gameplay--is secondary to the narrative. But when Spector's "Normal People" see these games, they see the gameplay first and the narrative second.

Now Roger Ebert, bless his soul, doesn't know shit about games as art. That being said, his perspective provides a useful vision into what most people see in these games. Take, for example, his view towards the critical darling Braid, which a colleague of his introduced to him:
This is a game "that explores our own relationship with our encounter enemies and collect puzzle pieces, but there's one key can't die." You can go back in time and correct your mistakes. In chess, this is known as taking back a move, and negates the whole discipline of the game. Nor am I persuaded that I can learn about my own past by taking back my mistakes in a video game. She also admires a story told between the games levels, which exhibits prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie.
For all Ebert's ignorance on Games-as-art, he has a point. Where the majority of the so-called "art" of games exists in the aesthetics and in short text-bursts in between levels, how much is there to be considered art*? Ultimately, the game is still at its core a platformer with time-traveling elements, and no matter how much text is placed in-between levels, that does not change the fact that a majority of the game and the supposed storyline is spent jumping from platform to platform hitting Goombesque enemies and dodging cannon fire.

* Now when I say "art", I acknowledge that art is subjective, and if one chooses to read an analysis of the platforming mechanics in Braid, contextual or extra-textual, more power to them, I've done as much for other games (see my satirical Last of Us review). When I talk about art here, I'm talking about more frequently accepted, "common" works of art. Few people would consider a pinball machine to be art, many more would consider Mad Men worthy of the moniker. Both can be art, it's just a matter of what is a more culturally accepted form of art. 

Later, Roger Ebert contrasts Braid and several other games with Melies's A Voyage to the Moon. Again, while it demonstrates that Roger Ebert is erroneously approaching games in a manner similar to films, it also demonstrates one thing A Voyage to the Moon had which Braid does not: Consistency. At all times does Voyage's tone remain fanciful and optimistic. At no point does the film veer into that of a B-movie shooter or gore-tastic horror flick. Most popular games cannot say the same. Even our most popular, supposedly "artistic" games, such as The Last of Us, veer haphazardly between dark and dreary post-apocalyptic storyline and violent shooter fantasy, with most of the time in the game spent on the latter.

Now both The Last of Us and Braid have artistic value, that is not being debated. But both games are symptomatic of a trend in modern gaming culture which believes that by saturating the non-gameplay narrative with as much "seriousness" as possible, it is able to mask the lackluster violent-or-otherwise fantasy of the gameplay. This does not create artistic games. Depending on the perspective, it creates either mediocre games where progression is rewarded with a story distanced from the gameplay, or it creates a movie where progression is accomplished only by engaging with the violent mechanics.

Yet the majority of gaming culture, even those who decry games as not getting the proper recognition they deserve, do not focus on this dissonance, but rail instead against the people and groups that are looking at the aspects of games that gamers are ignoring. Gaming culture is making the same mistakes that countless other entities have made when they were on the wrong side of public opinion. They choose to rail against "the public" as out of touch or ignorant, rather than taking a critical eye to themselves, as the former option is easier, far easier than the latter.


In order to immerse themselves in the "normal" public eye, games need to stop making games for other gamers, but to begin making games for people, people who don't need an elaborate understanding of the myriad assumptions a gamer has in order to engage themselves in the story. Games in which the gameplay is directly correlated with the narrative, and not as filler material. Games which simulate experiences more significant than mere gunplay.

And there are games that do achieve this, if not in whole, then at least in part. Dear Esther is the example of a game which does not necessitate the complex understandings of gamer culture, where the only thing the player needs to know how to do is move and walk and listen. There is a sequence in Spec Ops: The Line where the player can feel the anger, fear, and ambiguity of soldiers that leads to a civilian massacre. The Lizard trial in Heavy Rain involves a tense sequence where the player has to navigate a complex series of button sequences in a way that mirrors the main character's anxieties as he prepares to chop off one of his own fingers. At these points, storytelling and gameplay are merged, both informing the other, and they are better for it. It is possible, but the majority of industry makers don't do it or even try it.

Perhaps designers are afraid of going beyond that. Perhaps, in this world where high graphical fidelity is demanded of them and every high-budget game made threatens to bankrupt the entire company if it bombs, they are afraid to go beyond the tried-and-true methods of game mechanics, which almost always involve gunplay. That's no sin.

But shit is it boring. Why have we gotten to the point where a shoot-out is boring? A shoot-out is one of the most tense, frightening moments of any person's life, and in games they're trotted out so often you see the player firing a gun more often than they breathe. How can we think games are worthy of serious critical examination when they still have such laughably disjointed content? 

I don't dislike Braid or the Last of Us for being ludonarratively dissonant games, nor the reviewers who enjoy them. What I do dislike are both the makers and the reviewers who hold them up as brave and innovative masterpieces of the medium, while both remain constrained to the same formulaic and at times morally questionable gameplay, and I dislike even more that they think the narratives of those games alone is enough to raise them to public acceptance.

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