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May 6, 2012 8:23 AM   Subscribe

There’s no nice way to say this, but it needs to be said: video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb. And they’re not just dumb in the gleeful, winking way that a big Hollywood movie is dumb; they’re dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way that a grown man in latex elf ears reciting an epic poem about Gandalf is dumb. Aside from a handful of truly smart games, tentpole titles like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Call of Duty: Black Ops tend to be so silly and so poorly written that they make Michael Bay movies look like the Godfather series. Taylor Clark's Atlantic profile of Braid creator Jonathan Blow has prompted some strong reactions. Are videogames dumb? Is hard to make them not dumb? Are most things dumb anyway?
posted by Artw (179 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
90% of everything is crap.
posted by MrVisible at 8:30 AM on May 6, 2012 [8 favorites]


Skyrim was beautiful but dumber than I expected, as if someone had poured a giant budget into the Apple II title Shard of Spring.
posted by steinsaltz at 8:32 AM on May 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


Yes. Yes. Yes.
posted by koeselitz at 8:32 AM on May 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


To this I say ... So what?

If a chimp reads Shakespeare, does it make him smart? If Einstein loved vegging out in front of the tube with a tub of popcorn, did we lose the Unified Theory of Everything?

Would games be better if they were smarter? Sure. Does it really matter? So what? Why is this even a worthwhile question?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:38 AM on May 6, 2012 [15 favorites]


Like everything, most video games need better writers.
posted by vibrotronica at 8:38 AM on May 6, 2012 [21 favorites]


They make it sound like a bad thing. If I want something smart I'll read Nabokov. I don't necessarily want to play Pale Fire (though if someone made that I would definitely try it). Sometimes you just want to kill some zombies/aliens/nazis/dragons/etc. It doesn't need to be complicated for it to be enjoyable.
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:38 AM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Like everything, most video games need better writers.

Can I just say that, with a few exceptions, that Fallout: New Vegas had one of the smartest, most inventive scripts of an RPG since like the old Baldur's Gate/Planescape days? I was seriously impressed with how they tied together the DLC and kept the tone light and satirical.

Also is there a single word, possibly German, that means "Painfully earnest but excruciatingly dull" cause I got my paws on Mass Effect finally and ......yaaaaah.
posted by The Whelk at 8:41 AM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


And of course the problem of integrating story *into* game-play rather then having what amounts of to an interactive movie (again, looking at you Mass Effect).
posted by The Whelk at 8:42 AM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


I read this a while back. I'm not a gamer of any description, and haven't been for at least ten years, but my main reaction was that this is kind of a dumb article because it contains sentences like this:

It’s tough to demand respect for a creative medium when you have to struggle to name anything it has produced in the past 30 years that could be called artistic or intellectually sophisticated.

...which is just dumb. Dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way that overwritten puff pieces of somewhat interesting but painfully self-important intellectuals are dumb.
posted by brennen at 8:42 AM on May 6, 2012 [39 favorites]


(Where by "this" I mean the Taylor Clark profile.)
posted by brennen at 8:43 AM on May 6, 2012


Braid was so silly and so poorly written that it made Michael Bay movies look like the Godfather series.
posted by IjonTichy at 8:44 AM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Is there a German word for I'm-vaguely-ashamed-of-my-wealth-but-hey-look-at-my-$150,000-car?
posted by chavenet at 8:45 AM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yes, it's "Mercedes AMG".
posted by Edogy at 8:47 AM on May 6, 2012 [12 favorites]


*looks up briefly, returns to Angry Birds*
posted by jonmc at 8:51 AM on May 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


So this guy develops games during a time when small teams and even single people can develop whatever game they want to, distribute it easily on multiple platforms and sometimes make millions of dollars... what the hell does he have to complain about? Go work on your Myst remake and keep your mouth shut.
posted by Huck500 at 8:52 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Pale Fire: The legend of Zembla
posted by ericost at 8:53 AM on May 6, 2012 [12 favorites]


There is also an excellent response over at Brainy Gamer.
posted by Sibrax at 8:54 AM on May 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


Skyrim was beautiful but dumber than I expected, as if someone had poured a giant budget into the Apple II title Shard of Spring.

Skyrim was just about exactly as dumb as I expected, which is to say about as dumb as the previous couple games in the franchise, which is to say less dumb than a lot of games but still inherently constrained in its ability to be not-dumb by the other ambitions of the title.

So, for example, it has a smart subsystem in its use of context-specific NPC dialogue (and the execution on that front is better than Oblivion's, at least), but those subsystems become dumb as a part of the whole after you hear the hundredth sob story about an arrow in the knee. And it has a smart subsystem in the way that its NPCs will react to unethical/disruptive behavior with everything from critical comments to calling guards all the way to violent self-defense, but that gets dumb at the barriers in behavioral modeling where, say, physically putting a basket on a shopkeeper's head lets you loot their entire store without a problem because they can't see you stealing.

Another way of looking at this is that a game, like any work, can be pretty easily taken to be as dumb as the dumbest part of it. Look at how divisive opinions on flawed works break down: the Star Trek fan who forgives the non-science and just-so resolutions of the weekly episodes can find a lot of adventurous fun or morality-play what-if interest or characterological satisfaction in a series that they see as being about those things primarily; a non-fan who thinks the blatant disregard for science in a purported science fiction series is a deal-breaker or that the too-often goody-goody plotting or deus ex machina resolution of conflicts is a fundamentally corrupt core of the serieses thinks the show is unforgivably dumb.

I love Batman, but Batman as a franchise is in some ways unutterably dumb. There are parts of it you can't really fix and have it still be Batman; even when you try, you swap one dumb for another.

And you can argue that the dumb doesn't matter, but you can't really make it go away once it's there. Depending on how you feel about what Star Trek is, you can argue that it's impossible to make it not be dumb in those specific ways and have it still be Star Trek. Which may be good or bad, depending on your priorities and your feelings about canon.

And so with video games. I think Burns is right on the point with this:
Another way of saying this is: it is extremely difficult— maybe impossible— to come up with a story and characters that, when placed within the context of most current video games, don’t feel inherently silly.
You can't take the Mushroom Kingdom out of Mario; I complain as a lifelong fan that the Princess needs to get herself a fucking security force that knows its ass from its elbows and that Mario is a wide-eyed imbecile, fantastical parkour skills aside. It's hard to be "smart" about a plumber in fantasyland rescuing an absentee princess/girlfriend for the nth time by applying cartoon violence to hundreds of inexplicable baddies. The Mario franchise is excellent in a lot of ways but it's also terribly, terribly dumb in some ways, many of which I'll happily forgive as What The Game Is and others of which I find actively frustrating. Other people think the games are great; others still think they're just nothing but dumb.

Mostly you can't take the arbitrary violence out of shooters and beat-em-ups. LA Noire was interesting, all else aside, because there was so little of the expected GTA-style open-world violence. Gun fights were rare and plotted, fistfights likewise; almost all of the really seriously ethically problematic stuff was railroad plot stuff that the player had little agency in if any. It was actually a lot more like a smart detective flick than most games, whatever else it did right or wrong. But it was also a weird and sort of stilted game to play, a point-and-click adventure that was pretending not to be one, and it didn't seem to set the world on fire as a model for building games different, of getting away from the "he's a man alone in a city that doesn't like him, and he's got to clear his name, and ALSO SHOOT ONE THOUSAND PEOPLE AND DON'T GET IN TROUBLE FOR IT, OKAY" whiplash of gun-centric games.
posted by cortex at 8:55 AM on May 6, 2012 [44 favorites]


Whatever. I have to eat this elf corpse to gain sleep immunity.
posted by fnerg at 8:55 AM on May 6, 2012 [34 favorites]


If your aesthetic sense is so addled that the only possible way for something to be "smart" is for it to have character development, as Clark seems to be arguing here, then sure, video games are dumb. Also, Beethoven's symphonies.

It's more likely that video games are better at different types of smart than middlebrow literary novels. Tetris (for Gameboy in particular) is a brilliant game, and easy to defend as a "smart" game, but it's true that it's not going to show you something about the human condition.

Then again, neither does Braid, which is at its weakest when it tries.
posted by Casuistry at 8:55 AM on May 6, 2012 [15 favorites]


I don't struggle at all to name artistic and beautiful and thoughtful games that have come out recently. L.A. Noire, for example, was imperfect but incredible on so many levels. Red Dead Redemption was truly special.

(Just two examples. Yes, I'm an unabashed Rockstar fan.)

But my bigger problem with this author's perspective is that it's a stuffed-shirt fancy-pants way of looking at things. For many people, I think games are first and foremost entertainment. I can't speak for all gamers, but I work at a very intellectually challenging job. I think and read and problem solve all day for 12 hours. When I get home, killing dragons with my elf, or shooting bad dudes and playing capture the flag, or playing a silly football game- that hits the spot, and often provides ways to spark the imagination and interact with people.

In short, the author sounds like the worst kind of self-important jackass who can't recognize why people enjoy certain things, and laments that they are all morons because they don't all stand slobbering with joy over the same esoteric and long-winded things he likes.
posted by Old Man McKay at 8:57 AM on May 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


Aaand boy, did it taste terrible.
posted by fnerg at 8:58 AM on May 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


What the editor cut from the Atlantic piece.
Levelling me a withering glare, as if to underline the message of my insignificance, Blow pops a cassette (“the sound is warmer than vinyl”) of Kris Kross’s greatest hits into his deskside Akai tape recorder. Muttering almost subvocally along to the beat, Blow beats a path to his ‘kitchen’ – in reality a ragged crater carved into the stone floor. Recumbent inside are coals still aglow from last night’s traditional hangi. “I prefer stone to most materials,” Blow explains. “It stands the test of time. Wood? Too weak. Titanium? Too artificial…”

“-how about plastic?” I interrupt.

Blow stops moving. With cobra-like speed he whips around, his free hand (the other is using a hand-made bronze shakeweight) lashes out, striking me a resounding blow across the cheek. It will leave a mark for a week, and in the days to come I imagine I feel the individual whorls and pores of those talented fingers compressing the skin of my cheek, distorting it, making it something new – something better. (Does talent possess the power of osmosis? I will ask myself hopefully as I trace my boorish fingers over the welts left by his. I can only hope.)
posted by Drastic at 8:59 AM on May 6, 2012 [53 favorites]


Do people have fun to impress anyone? I give absolutely zero shits about anyone thinking that anything I enjoy is dumb.
posted by EatTheWeak at 8:59 AM on May 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


Nice post jumping off from an interesting article, Artw. Thanks.
posted by mediareport at 8:59 AM on May 6, 2012


What is wrong with dumb? Genius is just a species of the genus of dumb.
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:01 AM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Casuistry, you should probably check out the blog at Dinofarm Games.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:03 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, most things are dumb. Even some things that have an amazing reputation when they are lost to us, turn out to be dumb when refound (Menander, I'm looking at you. See also the Roman poet Gallus - all it took was finding ten lines and entire careers that were built upon his genius as an inspiration for Virgil's poetry had to be rapidly reconsidered.). But, that said, thank god for dumb things. The film Driven (not Drive) is one of the dumbest things I've ever seen. It has - I kid you not - a random synchronised swimming scene in the middle. Why? No bloody idea, and I bet not even Stallone, who wrote the film, does either. However, that film is a cornucopia of wonders, and I have stuck it on many, many times just to cheer myself up. Its magnificent disregard for logic, sense, and intelligence is unbelievably comforting to me. It takes real effort to make something like that, and I salute that.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:09 AM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


This feels like a red-herring article. There are enough smart and artistic people getting involved in games that I'm not worried about them being dumb.
posted by hellojed at 9:09 AM on May 6, 2012


Vibrotronica:

"Like everything, most video games need better writers."

Oh, I agree.

But specifically, they need good writers who understand the medium in which they are writing. Video games are not movies or books or graphic novels; they have a story-telling capacity of grammar that is unique. If you get people who understand that, you get really compelling stories -- I continually hold out Valve as a studio where the writers have a grasp of their medium. If you don't have that, as the say, you're gonna have a bad time.

I'll join the chorus of presumably smart people who don't mind dumb games -- I like me some first person shooters because I use my brain enough as it is, and at the end of the day I just want to make headshots. But these can be well written too -- see Half-Life series -- and they can have smart design, which is different (but no less difficult or important) than smart storytelling.
posted by jscalzi at 9:13 AM on May 6, 2012 [9 favorites]


Video games are dumb! Except mine.
posted by carfilhiot at 9:15 AM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


> If your aesthetic sense is so addled that the only possible way for something to be "smart" is for it to have character development, as Clark seems to be arguing here, then sure, video games are dumb. Also, Beethoven's symphonies.

Not a reasonable comparison. Beethoven's symphonies don't have characters. Video games do, but they use them very badly.

From the second link: "Tom Bissell notes that great art is "comprehensively intelligent," meaning that it's intelligent in every way available to it." Beethoven's symphonies have that property - games don't. Even games that have aspects of intelligence have aspects of teh stupid too.

The reason why is fairly obvious, IMHO. Film, music, literature and theatre all came from a cultural, artistic matrix where the bullseye was "an intense emotional and intellectual experience"; video games came from a technological, gaming matrix where the bullseye was "playability and technical sophistication". Unfortunately, the cost of video games rapidly grew past the point that an individual "auteur" could create something that had mass-market appeal.

There's a secondary phenomenon that individual video games have a comparatively short lifespan. People still read books and listen to music that are centuries old - but even games that are five years old seem slow and primitive. There's little point in targeting "the ages" as an audience for your video game when it's almost certain that in 20 years no one will be playing your video game.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:16 AM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Would games be better if they were smarter? Sure. Does it really matter? So what? Why is this even a worthwhile question?

It matters to me as a gamer, certainly, the same way it matters to me whether other sorts of creative work that I enjoy are as smart (or more generally as good) as I'd like them to be.

I've been watching the later installments of the Hellraiser film franchise lately. I've always liked that universe, but I didn't know they'd churned out so many straight-to-video entries over the last fifteen years. And the movies are dumb. Not dumb as in "right, like there's really a hell dimension where everybody is a gross-out caricature in leather frocks"—like I said, as a fan a person can forgive a lot of stuff as just part of the nature of the work—but dumb as in "this is a badly written script, shot poorly with z-list actors".

And in a sense it doesn't matter that they're badly written and cheaply executed, because there are better horror flicks out there if what I want is just a well-made horror flick. But at the same time, I really like Barker's conceit with Hellraiser, I think some of the work done in the franchise is actually really quite good. And it bums me out to see it not always be that good, to see a lot of it phoned in where Pinhead is instead of a surprising new sort of horror character circa the original Hellraiser just a prop who shows up to signify that Yes This Is A Hellraiser Film, pop out a quick "time to play!" or "I have such sights to show you", and blam, cheesy horror trope resolution and roll surprisingly cheaply-rendered credits.

And so, games. I'm okay with them being dumb, because I like playing them more than I dislike them being dumb, at least insofar as there are so many games available that I can pick and choose for the right compromise of good vs. dumb. I play lots of shooters, and I think the premise of basically every shooter is unutterably dumb, but most of the shooters I play don't take the idea of me shooting people very seriously and certainly don't try to make me feel like an awesome ethical person for doing it. Tribes Ascend is a hoot and also has no plot; Team Fortress 2, likewise. OTHER TEAM INCOMING; SHOOT THEM UNTIL THEY SHOOT YOU; REPEAT. That's all. No baggage, we're just a couple dozen nerds on the internet playing a game of tactics.

But then something like Just Cause 2 comes along, and that game is also a tremendous amount of chaotic fun but it's wrapped up in the notion that you are a tough-as-nails duder working for the US government and murdering hundreds or thousands of brown people who work for a guy the US government doesn't like. And the game makes that guy, that son-of-a-puppet-ruler, a cartoonishly ridiculous bad guy (the final set piece of the game has you jumping from one ICBM to another while having a mid-air gunfight with him because he has decided to Nuke The First World), but you're still some dude running around an island nation murdering tons and tons of people. It's terribly stupid, and it doesn't stop the fun mechanics of the game from being fun but it sure is great big hanging weight of stupid and problematic around the neck of that otherwise fun game.

I don't know if you could make a Just Cause game that wasn't stupid like that. It might not be Just Cause at that point; this is a guy whose skillset is blowing things up and shooting people with lots of weapons. But you can sure make a similar sort of game that alters the character premise enough that what he's good at isn't shooting people, and it matters to me that this isn't something that happens more.

The core mechanics behind shooting shit are so polished at this point, so well-known as a way to make a game that's fun at a pure gameplay level, that convincing an entire industry to step away from the Filling Bad Guys Full Of Bullets Until They Die thing is a daydream. But there are basically zero non-dumb plots that involve being Captain Gunmurder, Ethically Redeemable Hero.
posted by cortex at 9:17 AM on May 6, 2012 [9 favorites]


I think a lot of it is that most current forms of video gaming are still firmly rooted in the very first video games, some of which were on 4-bit machines, or on analog circuitry that doesn't even have a direct correspondence to the digital world. (analog has no analog, heh. :) ) We're still doing the same stuff we were doing thirty years ago, just with better graphics. So of course the games are kind of dumb, because dumb games were all you could do in a few thousand bytes.

I mean, as pretty as it is, and as sophisticated and deep as the gameplay can be, Team Fortress 2 probably counts as a dumb game, because you're still just shooting people. There's lots of strategy, and many skill levels to reach, but at the most fundamental level, it's still Midi Maze from the Atari ST. Find bad guys, and shoot them.

But I'd argue that the better story-based games have reached the level of many movies or books. I was much more affected by, say, The Longest Journey than most movies I've ever seen. That was the first game that genuinely made me cry. And anyone who says The Longest Journey was a 'dumb game' deserves mockery and humiliation. He might not like the game style, but it was most emphatically not stupid, not on any level.

The thought also occurs that Braid, which as far as I know is Blow's only entry so far in the gaming universe, was also a stupid game. It's still just Mario, but with a time-rewind mechanic. Everything he did had been done before, he just mishmashed them into something slightly different. He also added some hopelessly self-indulgent tripe, which he seems to believe offered some kind of special insight into life, and then called that 'an intelligent game'. Putting freshman-level philosophy into Mario does not make the Mario genre any smarter.

I'd call TLJ superior in every respect as far as being "an intelligent game" goes.

So, I guess my argument boils down to this: to some degree, he's right. Many (most?) games are pretty dumb. But at the same time, he's not in any special position to criticize.
posted by Malor at 9:18 AM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Most of the innovation in game design happens in "manual games" (ie. table-top games). The reason is simple, manual games don't require a massive budget and tons of employees. And the rules are 100% transparent and open for change by anyone, unlike video games which are black boxes.
posted by stbalbach at 9:20 AM on May 6, 2012


Well, okay, I should retract one thing: some of the early puzzles in TLJ were pretty contrived and artificial, so you could call that part of the game 'dumb'.
posted by Malor at 9:21 AM on May 6, 2012


The thought also occurs that Braid, which as far as I know is Blow's only entry so far in the gaming universe, was also a stupid game. It's still just Mario, but with a time-rewind mechanic

People say this in every braid thread, and that is simply not the case. It is a puzzle game. Mario is not a puzzle game.

You might as well say that Portal is basically Doom with teleporters.
posted by empath at 9:22 AM on May 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


I love this guy and what he is about but from a distance he seems almost non-stop judgmental, and lacking a basic curiosity about the things he abhors.
posted by scunning at 9:22 AM on May 6, 2012


Casuistry: "If your aesthetic sense is so addled that the only possible way for something to be "smart" is for it to have character development, as Clark seems to be arguing here, then sure, video games are dumb. Also, Beethoven's symphonies."

It is really funny that you went with the Beethoven example. Beethoven was one of the pioneers of the leitmotif (a musical fragment used to embody an idea or person), and is pretty much unparalleled in his skill in musical development. While it wouldn't be idiomatic to say that "Beethoven was better than any other composer at developing character in his instrumental works", it would be understood, and among the music theory folk, it would be relatively uncontroversial. Now The Beatles on the other hand...
posted by idiopath at 9:25 AM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


For me, smart design trumps smart storytelling hands down, which very much is about being part of the medium instead of bolted onto it. Braid, for instance, had very smart design in its puzzling aspects, making the player visualize and construct a three-dimensional mental model of all the moving pieces. (The third dimension there was time, dig it.) As a "story" its most effective moments was a great moment involving the flow of time to invert the nod to Mario. On the stuffed-shirt hand, there were clumsy bolted-on blocks of text that were trying way too hard to be smart and evocative. Now, sure, insert tastes-vary quotes here (probably want to use gustibus est etc, because Latin is smart), but that element of the writing was a check the writer's talent could in no way cash--but apparently thought that he could.
posted by Drastic at 9:26 AM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


There is also an excellent response over at Brainy Gamer.

Well, "mainstream stuff is always dumb" isn't really much of a response, and at one point he writes, "Often I think he’s right" about the GUNSGUNSGUNS deluge, but pointing out the lack of even a mention of Portal or Minecraft gets at something useful and the "Smart Game" catalog that resulted looks interesting, for sure.
posted by mediareport at 9:28 AM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


He's critical of games, I don think he hates them, except for MMOs and social games. He was extremely critical of Half-life 2 and Bioshock in one talk, but it's more from a place of 'this could have been better' and less 'this game sucks'. I think a lot of that Atlantic profile did a disservice to him, because he typically makes more moral judgements about games than intellectual ones. He doesn't like games that manipulate people to play them, or games that are addictive just for the sake of milking more hours of playtime from you, and he feels that if a game takes up 20 or 30 hours of your life, it should at least be rewarding or valuable to you in some way and not just a time sink.

He also thinks that game designers should pay more attention to the meaning of games as expressed by the mechanics rather than the narrative.

If you listen to his talks, they're a lot more inspiring and less negative than the impression that profile would give you.
posted by empath at 9:30 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


My favorite part is the bit from the post:

they’re not just dumb in the gleeful, winking way that a big Hollywood movie is dumb; they’re dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way that a grown man in latex elf ears reciting an epic poem about Gandalf is dumb.

In other words: "The big dumb explodey movies I like are cool because they don't even try to be smart and Michel Bay is awesome, amirite? Stupid geeks, though! LOL! When they try to be serious, it's so stupid."

Like ... it never occurred to him that the scorn heaped on failed art might be a factor in why more people don't try to make art.
posted by Myca at 9:31 AM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Part of the problem as I see it is that we now use one phrase, "video game," to refer to at least three or four really different things.

Before Id Software showed the world that a personal computer could render at least half-assed virtual reality, video games were abstract. Brilliant video games were defined by game play. Battlezone was brilliant for its day because nobody thought first person play was possible, and Wolfenstein 3D because nobody thought first person was possible without special expensive hardware, but neither had very exciting game play. For game play you went for inventiveness -- Space War, Breakout, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Tempest, and most other 80's arcade games all played completely differently and most like nothing else you'd ever seen.

Then came the First Person Shooter. I played through Wolf3D marveling at the then-cutting edge graphics. Then Doom came out, and I played the first level. Sure the graphics were better, but it was still running around and shooting at things. Thirty years later we have graphics processors in laptop computers that dwarf the mainframe computers of 1985 and we're still mostly running around shooting at things.

The problem with these elaborate first-person video games is that there's not much else you can do; impressive as they are compared to Battlezone computers aren't yet rich enough to really make a completely immersive world, the controls are clunky compared to real bodies, and the AI sucks. So games turn into a sort of pick your adventure with skillz, which is very hard to write because unlike a normal movie you have to anticipate, code, and render multiple plot paths. In order to limit the number of these routes you tend to have to guide the player into a limited number of possible situations at each decision point, and it gets obvious you're doing that. GTA was so successful mainly because it had the closest thing to an immersive world where you could do anything that has ever been made (at least without massive multiplayer input) and still it was running around and shooting at things. You just had a lot of leeway in which order to shoot them.

or tl;dr, no it isn't quite Snow Crash yet.
posted by localroger at 9:31 AM on May 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


Localroger - That's a thought - Videogames got stranded in the Uncanny Valley.
posted by Artw at 9:36 AM on May 6, 2012


Old Man McKay: read my mind. Red dead redemption was a breathtaking experience for me. I hadn't played much games in over a decade, but my son had an Xbox 360 and a friend lent us RDD plus a ton of other stuff. I would wake up every morning at 5:30 before work and play until 6:30-7:00. I fell into such a deep place with regards to Marsden and his life. That was to me the type of artistic poignancy that Blow said he hopes to create in his games. I did not feel that way about Braid, but I figure it's just a difference in tastes. But RDD was like Tolstoy for me. I was so affected by his plight, his chances for redemption, the people in his life. And that music! It was perfect. I heard it the other day and almost cried. Everything really came together in that game. How much more do I like riding a horse than driving a car? I got LA Noire full of optimism and it was a frustrating experience. I think the detective game is a very difficult genre still. It was much better than some detective games I had played but it was still like connecting the dots a lot of the time. I think the face recognition stuff was meant to be that which could transport the player into the seat of a real detecting experience but in end it just tried to manufacture a kind of intuitive reasoning that was just reduced to something which the player couldn't access easily. Or I couldn't.
posted by scunning at 9:38 AM on May 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


> "The big dumb explodey movies I like are cool

Stop right there. There's no evidence, absolutely none, that that's what he means. He's not denying that there are huge quantities of terrible films as dumb or dumber than any video game.

The issue is rather that cinema has all types of films, from My Dinner With Andre to Transformers, whereas gaming occupies a much narrower niche.

> Part of the problem as I see it is that we now use one phrase, "video game," to refer to at least three or four really different things.

I don't buy that either. The category "video game" is narrower than the category "movie", which extends from Holy Mountain to Carebears 2 to documentaries, abstract video, and beyond. I note also that you actually only exhibit two categories of videogame, FPS and non-FPS... not that there aren't others, but it's simply a narrower field, so far, than movies.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:40 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


"video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb" - Quite succinctly explains why I find them boring.
posted by Ardiril at 9:41 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tetris (for Gameboy in particular) is a brilliant game, and easy to defend as a "smart" game, but it's true that it's not going to show you something about the human condition.

All efforts vanish away. Toil continues unabated until death. You can stay around for longer or shorter, put in more or less effort, but regardless of anything you do the end state remains the same.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:44 AM on May 6, 2012 [28 favorites]


There's little point in targeting "the ages" as an audience for your video game when it's almost certain that in 20 years no one will be playing your video game.

People by and large abandoned silent films when the talkies started coming out. We're at the talkie stage in video games.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:45 AM on May 6, 2012


Also when you obsess about things, you'll see the falling pieces imprinted on your eyelids for days at a time even when it does no good. Tetris is all about the human condition!
posted by Drastic at 9:46 AM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


I bet this discussion would be different if instead of dumb it was "what if the video game industry's target demographic weren't almost exclusively adolescent boys?"
posted by munchingzombie at 9:46 AM on May 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


they’re dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way that a grown man in latex elf ears reciting an epic poem about Gandalf is dumb.

That's only dumb if you dismiss "unabashed, unironic love of what fiction can inspire" as dumb.
I was like "I'm so excited about the Harry Potter movie! I get to see Luna Lovegood and I'm gonna cry at the end!" And then I really liked the movie because it was funny but it was also sad and it didn't tell destructive lies about teenage sexuality like some other movies I've seen recently... and Ron Weasley has gotten so buff... I mean, Hank, the movie was great, but the 30 minutes before the movie started was what I love about being a nerd. Because nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff. We don't have to be like, "oh yeah, that purse is ok," or like, "yeah, I like that band's early stuff." Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can't-control-yourself, love it. Hank, when people call people nerds mostly what they're saying is "you like stuff" which is just not a good insult at all, like, "you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness." -- John Green
posted by tzikeh at 9:48 AM on May 6, 2012 [11 favorites]


These days I probably play more sit-down games from over a decade ago than I do recent ones... Not quite 20 years, but there's folk who do that.
posted by Artw at 9:48 AM on May 6, 2012


The Atlantic article is talking around an auteur theory for games.
posted by Brian B. at 9:50 AM on May 6, 2012


> I was like "I'm so excited about the Harry Potter movie! I get to see Luna Lovegood and I'm gonna cry at the end!"

The point is that movies cover a much wider intellectual gamut than video games, not that "movies have to be grown-up, intellectual things to have value".
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:52 AM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


From a preview of Jonathan Blow's upcoming game, The Witness, where the player wonders around an enigmatic uninhabited island, solving puzzles:

The game’s mechanics are taught to the player in a seamless, welcoming manner. The first 20 minutes of the game were a carefully choreographed dance that taught me everything I needed to know. This grasp of design is why people listen when Jonathan Blow speaks.

I was given about 30 minutes to play the game. Blow himself left the room while I explored the island. “Games are funny. Especially puzzle games,” he told me. “The psychology of puzzle games is that it works way better when people are not being watched while they play.”

It took Blow a few demos before he worked this out, and now he finds it uncomfortable to be in the same room with the players. “When someone is sitting in front of a puzzle, they’re trying to figure it out, and before they’re even thinking about the puzzle there are mechanisms going on their head about being watched by other people,” he explained. “If it’s an action game it’s not that big of a deal, but if it’s about how smart someone is? It’s like an evaluation of them as a human being.”



So I mean it's basically Myst with the special added quest feature that if you don't finish it or take too long finishing it, you will always feel very self-consciously inferior as a human being when talking to pretentious hipster gamers.
posted by Bwithh at 9:53 AM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


absorbing v challenging.

Okay, role-playing is cool. Run 'em down and shoot 'em up all the same. Squishing frogs v slot machines.

Dumb? So what? If you want a puzzle get one. How does that challenge the need for speed?

I quit messing with this stuff back in the days of Silent Service and Zelda (the first one). The old arcade games were neat. I even got to fly that desert storm helicopter game for a mere cuppla hundred dollars in quarters.

When I played Silent Service I drew up a range card so that I could slip by in front of the convoys on the surface, undetected. I refused to torpedo northbound cargo ships because I'd read that POWs were transported to Japan on them. I loved to surface amid a convey and fire all my bow torpedos in one spinning barrage, then submerge and run like hell, in case I missed any of the sub killers.

Me and Link were soulmates. I couldn't believe my good fortune when I found the secret to the second level of the game--the hidden one available only after you killed the Boss. After that it went downhill.

My son was a Mario Bro Ace, in all of his manifestations. I degenerated into bald-faced shootemups like Defender and bizaare shootemups like Quix. You get the idea. It wasn't long before I had to be dragged away from the controller, a drooling, unshaven hulk.

But I am better now. I play only slot machines these days.
posted by mule98J at 9:53 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


The point is that movies cover a much wider intellectual gamut than video games, not that "movies have to be grown-up, intellectual things to have value".

Except I was referring to his comment that a grownup reciting a poem about Gandalf is dumb, which he used as a direct parallel to how videogames are dumb.
posted by tzikeh at 9:54 AM on May 6, 2012


Knowing Blow’s outspoken reputation, I expected a sort of fire-breathing techie-Limbaugh, wreathed in nerd rage. Instead, when I entered Bissell’s condo, I saw an intensely serious-looking man performing a slow tai chi sequence in the living room.

If I ever get rich and famous enough to have a reporter visiting me at my San Francisco hilltop condo, I'm going to be performing slow Tai Chi movements as he enters (what, did the reporter just let himself in?) because once you're in the realm of big money and have the reputation as cerebral, why not push it all the way into the zone of Complete Fucking Cinematic Cliche?
posted by jayder at 9:56 AM on May 6, 2012 [29 favorites]


This part from the Magical Wasteland piece seemed kind of revealingly evasive and false to me:

The people who make games are not, themselves, dumb. Some of them may be emotionally underdeveloped, and very publically so, but for every negative example there are hundreds of intelligent, reasoned, well-rounded people who make video games for a living, whom we haven’t heard of because they don’t blog or Tweet or sit for press interviews. And artistic legitimacy matters to many of these people. There is no shortage of game makers who would like to prove that games can be complex, intelligent, nuanced and everything else we associate with goodness and highness in the arts. Which is to say that if games are “dumb,” it’s not for lack of trying to make them not dumb. So if it was really possible to make a finely-tuned, action-packed big budget video game that is also “smart” and not “dumb”, I want to think that we might have done so already.

Is there really that much evidence that this is true and not wishful thinking? It's easy to grant that many people in the video game industry are not dumb about many subjects (3D graphics optimization, physics modeling, competitive game balancing, etc.) but how many of them are really not dumb about aesthetics? How many people who are in charge of making video games really do find Balzac or Beckett more interesting than Tom Clancy, or genuinely understand what makes, say, "better" than, say, Predator? If this were the also-very-familiar discussion about why Hollywood churns out "dumb" products we'd certainly be talking about how taste and aesthetic depth don't rise to the top of the studio system, and about how the studio brass think it's easier and safer to sell masses of predictable crap than it is to take risks on new ideas. Why doesn't the same argument apply to the games industry, which is to outward appearances even more conservative and imitative in its creative choices? Games look from the outside like they're mostly made by people who don't know how dumb they are; where's the evidence this isn't so?
posted by RogerB at 9:56 AM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


There is a much wider range of non-FPS games than there is of FPx games. Before FPS you might have Breakout, Battlezone, Asteroids, Centipede, Tempest -- games so little like one another that each new one was a whole new experience. Today games like Angry Birds and Minecraft are like that.

But when you try rendering a virtual human world, everything is channeled into a very narrow range. And the reason you don't have games like My Dinner with Andre, or even The Other Side of Julie, is that there's no point; what do you do with the game controller?

The state of the art permits two basic ways to use a rendered world. You can do a battle, where all the actors have a fairly limited number of duties to perform and AI can handle them (though even then not always convincingly). You can do some other types of puzzle. But what you can't do is a conversation, whether planning a strategy or a seduction. The box just can't do it.

So what you end up with is battle and puzzle scenes where your freedom of movement is pretty wide, interspersed with mini-movies that you might be choosing based on what happened in the others but which are individually fixed.

Those are the two things you can do with a virtual reality game today. And it's rather obvious and sometimes jarring as you switch modes, from a fight or search to the controller freezing and the actors taking over to propel you to the next play opportunity.

Of course it's in the limited choice set-pieces where you can employ the larger language of movies to tell an involving story (apprently RDD is about state of the art for this). But games are games and people expect play opportunities, so you've got a limited opportunity to use that. You've also got to keep it all consistent with the limited graphics and animation available when you're animating it on the fly in the fight sequences. And it really does get very expensive to create all the set pieces if there are a lot of paths through the game, plus making sure that they can all interconnect no matter what choices the player makes. So there's really a very narrow range of what is possible once you've decided to build a game set in a virtual version of RL. Pixel rendering isn't the problem. It's what happens when you try to go through a door the game designer didn't think you'd go through, and what if you want to say something other than what the game designer put in your mouth during a conversation.

Meanwhile, the minecraft guy is writing a game where you'll have to program an obsolete 16-bit computer. That should be different.
posted by localroger at 9:57 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tetris (for Gameboy in particular) is a brilliant game, and easy to defend as a "smart" game, but it's true that it's not going to show you something about the human condition.

Neither do most great songs. I like pure games like that more than almost any other kind of game, but I really like what the indie gamers are doing by taking a fairly pure game mechanically and wrapping it in a meaningful shell, especially when the gameplay and visual and narrative design all reinforce each other. I'm thinking of world of goo, the binding of Isaac, braid, etc. They are all games that would fundamentally work with just abstract placeholder art, but the finished product adds layers of meaning and context.

So I mean it's basically Myst with the special added quest feature that if you don't finish it or take too long finishing it, you will always feel very self-consciously inferior as a human being when talking to pretentious hipster gamers.

That is exactly the opposite of what he says. He doesn't want to watch people play because he doesn't want them to feel bad.
posted by empath at 9:58 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


From TFA:
In fact, when Roger Ebert famously declared in a long (and poorly researched) essay that video games can never be art, gaming’s intellectual champions could point to only two popular titles that might refute his claim.
While (mostly) I agree with his premise that almost all video games are dumb*, the quote above is just plain not true. Braid and Flower were the suggested games that Ebert responded to in his post, not all the games suggested (not even close).

*And also with Cool Papa Bell who says "So what?"
posted by yeolcoatl at 9:58 AM on May 6, 2012


The pullquote about puzzle game psychology being all about not being watched lest you be intellectually judged is something it'd be real easy to characterize as telling here. A big part of why I loved Braid as a game was playing a big chunk of it with a friend, putting our heads together, abortive and productive suggestions when one of us got temporarily thoroughly stuck. "Wait, wait. Go over the left. Right, and jump and then rewind and...nevermind. That does nothing to help. Don't listen to me, I can't be trusted!" and a minute later a "Wait! I can be trusted now! I AM THE WIZARD OF SPACE AND TIME!" and lots of laughter and shared aha moments.

I guess it comes down to playing games with people who aren't sitting around intellectually judging each other. What we on this planet call "friends."
posted by Drastic at 9:59 AM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Far be it for me to criticise anyone's time sink. For me there are more (self)important things to do with my time. I sometimes think video games are used as training tools for next gen's cannon fodder. The next big environmental disaster could be addressed as a MMORPG with players cleaning up oil spills or rebuilding after an earthquake or tornado, somehow doing good while gaming just isn't as satisfying as head shots.

The article seems trollish to me. Dumb is incendiary language designed to denigrate the creators and players rather than describe the actual game. For me time sucks need to be engineered into productivity.
posted by pdxpogo at 10:01 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Video games as "dumb" also ignores the fact that a game is inherently interactive, and many video games that are "dumb" when played normally have tremendous potential for "smart play" as soon as players get creative. The speed running/time attack, competitive, machinima, and modding communities are all examples of how a "dumb" game can be transformed into a game of creativity, strategy, and/or other forms of smart thinking.

Movies are passive. A "smart movie" (almost always) spoon feeds you it's smartness. The smart comes from the writers, actors, and director, not from the viewer. Games are interactive. A "smart game" requires you to inject your smart into it. The smart in a game can come from the creators, but smart also comes from the players. In many cases (probably not most, though) A dumb game is only dumb if the player limits themselves to playing it in dumb ways.
posted by yeolcoatl at 10:12 AM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't think it's really a problem that a lot of video games are "dumb". As this thread makes clear, a lot of people get enjoyment out of that. A lot of people are satisfied by the current state of the gaming world.

But not everyone is. I'm not. And, sure, I have pretty weird tastes. I don't like FPS or RTS. I pretty much exclusively play video games on a PC. My favorite game is Civilization. My favorite imaginary game is Spore-before-it-came-out-and-broke-my-heart.

Here's the thing that really bothers me. It seems like the diversity of video games has been shrinking, not growing.

I remember when I was a kid/teenager and it seemed like new games, that were fresh and interesting and unlike other things were coming out fairly often. Stuff like Ascendancy and Chaos Overlords. And Maxis! Maxis was making everything--SimAnts, SimLife, SimTower, SimWorld. Now what does Maxis make? Maxis makes the Sims. Endless expansion packs for the Sims. And maybe once every five years a new version of SimCity.

So I don't think it's bad that there's games that don't require a lot of certain kinds of engagement--games that are like action movies where you get to be the star. I just wish it didn't seem like there are only a few types of games still getting made, and everything is just some version of that. I want more games that are quirky and new.
posted by overglow at 10:21 AM on May 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


Why is it that people are willing to concede basically the whole deck to "Design is Art" (I'm looking at you, typography nerds) but refuse to apply the same standard to games?

For example, consider a game like The Binding of Isaac. Superficially, the game's overtly religious themes and grotesque sensibilities create a very strong impression of what the game is "about," and an armchair critic might alternately praise its allegorical qualities or denounce it as puerile blasphemy. You can, however, strip it entirely of these decorative trappings and still have a working game. In fact, The Binding of Isaac is an exceptionally well-designed game under the hood, which is more than a feat of mere engineering because that design is precisely what makes the game engaging for hours and hours. Good game design elicits and sustains powerful emotions independent of story or the artistic style of the game's assets. And if you look closely at the various shortlists for "best games of all time," they almost without exception excel under the hood as well as over it.

Good game design is hard, and just as most games are not sophisticated from a narrative perspective, most are mediocre from a design perspective as well. On balance, I tend to agree with Blow about the general state of the industry (snob that I am). But in heaping praise or scorn, I think more reviewers and critics needs to acknowledge that games have to succeed on many fronts at once (audio, video, narrative, and game design), and that all of these fronts are necessarily part of the game's overall artistic merit.

Either that, or we stop indulging the Design people by agreeing with them about how elegant that new design for a bar stool is.
posted by belarius at 10:32 AM on May 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


The issue is rather that cinema has all types of films, from My Dinner With Andre to Transformers, whereas gaming occupies a much narrower niche.

Video games have variety in genre and tone as well, most of which Clark thoroughly ignores in the Kotaku article. No mention of foreign or independent games. His argument, in effect, is "Mainstream publishers' big tentpole games are (generally) dumb." Which: fair enough, but so what? I could make an argument that "Movies are dumb," and build this argument solely pointing to summer blockbusters (while ignoring independent/foreign/small studio film), but what point or purpose would this argument have?

I would've thought it would be pretty difficult to write an article on Jonathan Blow while at the same time remaining so ignorant about the indie games movement, but, well, there you go.
posted by kagredon at 10:33 AM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm in a hurry, but did anyone make the argument yet that games have about as much to do with story as photography have to do with interior decoration? Story is great and all, but games are about the experience of an entirely different type of world than the world of narrative fiction. Games are a like, but different, fictional system, a closer relative to the novel more than the movie. And for games, stories, be they visual, expository, etc, are all much more like the styling, the prose of a novel, than they are like the game equivalents to plotting, pacing, dialogue, characterization, etc.

In games, meaning is produced through the choices made in the context of the mechanics of the game. When you consider that the beating of a game is just a series of button pushes without relation to the game, as in those perfectly automated runs of Mario, your heart sinks. The magic is gone. But what was lost? In Mario there is very little story, but there is yet a great deal of meaning. The experience is not, after all, incomprehensible. It does mean, something. But where the meaning, the experience of play, comes from is from the game itself. The turtles being jumped on, the goombahs, the relations of mushroom to plumber, fire-flower to spike shells. You could strip the game of all its images, make it look like VVVVVV, and the game would lose little if any of its experience. Adding fancy rich 3D graphics adds little more than what was already there. The story, quite in contrast to mister game auteur, is not the frame upon which the game hangs; but a mechanic of the game. The story hangs upon the game, like a good suit, and a suit help no man's charm once he begins to speak.

The story finds meaning only through the play mechanics, the play of the player, the choices the player has made. The only time that a story is perceived as frustrating is when the story betrays some integral rule of the game, either by promising something can be done when it cannot, or showing something done which cannot be done. There are plenty of times where it breaks the rules of our reality, but the only real sin of game writing is when the story breaks the rules of the world in which it is told. This is really the only time the writing in a game can be dumb. When the story is inconsistent with the choices, and the context of mechanics in which those choices are made, that is the only time when the writing is dumb.

But this is only an instance of when a game is truly dumb. As if you think people get angry when a story, a minor game mechanic, contradicts the game, then you've seen nothing, cause wowwo do people get angry when core game mechanics are contradictory.

So, I agree with Braid creator. We need less dumb games. But what made Braid clever, smart, intelligent, witty, was that the game mechanics, and the puzzles, were so beautifully designed. They were so consistent. But the story, in all honesty, was not even dumb. Except for that one last level (which was fantastic), he told the entire story "of the game" outside of the game. But everything else, all the text, was but flavor text.

He is like the artist who names his paintings clever witty names, and prides himself on that, but such art speaks nothing about his capacity as a painter. But, he is such a great painter, why does he spend all his time on all the clever framing? Why does he feel compelled to denounce other painters for not caring enough about the titles of their work?

Great, now I'm late. Thanks metafilter
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:37 AM on May 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


i assume now that i should have read the article and i was attacking blow unfairly

whatever, no time for both opinion and truth, this is a busy world gotta go
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:38 AM on May 6, 2012


This is just to say
I have played the game
on the computer
that you were thinking
was dumb in the puerile
and you are still bitter
while I
am full of cold
sweet plums.
posted by Mittenz at 10:44 AM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


but it's true that it's not going to show you something about the human condition.

Neither do most great songs.


Yes, they do. From my corner, that's pretty much the definition of greatness in a song. It moves past what we normally expect from a song (something to dance to, tap our feet to, wash the dishes to) to expand our sense of who we are, what we are, what it's all about. But maybe you just make different demands of songs than I do.

As for gaming, I'm a pretty extreme outsider in that I don't game. Two reasons mainly. A. I was born in 1959, so didn't really get any quality (digital) games when I was a kid. B. I'm a writer and already find enough reasons to procrastinate, thank you very much.

But I love tracking discussions about gaming, because I see them leading somewhere quite significant. That is, what I'm hearing is akin to a bunch of twelve year olds getting very serious about the latest game of capture-the-flag they just played -- comparing their various adventures, suggesting how the next one might be even better, etc. Which isn't to condescend. This is how gaming will evolve to a level where it becomes an art (ie: something that can lift an entire culture); by its players taking it SERIOUSLY, demanding they get more than just a few adrenaline kicks for the many hours invested.

I mean, it's hardly a new idea to suggest that gaming (the digital kind) is barely out of its infancy -- kind of where movies were in about 1930, when SOUND was just starting to enter the picture. Which, it's worth noting, didn't suddenly get rid of dumb movies. But it sure opened the door more and more smart ones.
posted by philip-random at 10:46 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Mario is not a puzzle game.

Actually it sort of is. There is no randomness to the levels. Speed runs bear this out.

Anyway, most modern games are just machinima with boring, warmed-over mechanics separating the scenes. I would watch MGS4, even though (or perhaps because) its plot is no doubt ludicrous (if the previous games are anything to go by), but spending three or four hours with it has pretty well convinced me I will never finish "playing" it.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:50 AM on May 6, 2012


How many people who are in charge of making video games really do find Balzac or Beckett more interesting than Tom Clancy, or genuinely understand what makes, say, 8½ "better" than, say, Predator?

Probably not many ... But that's a reductionist argument to make. Balzac is always going to be better and more fulfilling, more aesthetically valuable, than cheap, pulp fiction? Sure, it is. But you may as well be demanding that I eat my vegetables.

So what? What does "better" mean, anyway? For that matter, what is "good" art? Moreover, what is "good" art in a commercial, profit-driven environment?

Look, theater is as old as man, and movies are largely an extension of theater tropes. Movies have been around in their commercial form, largely unchanged in their fundamentals, for a hundred years. It's all still cameras, costumes and a script. Charlie Chaplin could step out of a time machine onto the set of a Michael Bay movie, and he'd still pretty much know exactly what was going on. "The green screen is the backdrop? Got it. OK, let's shoot this fucker." So, it's completely unsurprising that movies-as-art is better understood and appreciated.

Video games change format, genre and methods and levels of interactivity every hour.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:51 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


The first game man invented was mathematics, it had a shitty story and a learning curve steepness matched only by Go. Neither are all that dumb, although critics of math argue that there is no win condition therefore is not a game, but others say that neither does Sim City, and that game is alright
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:51 AM on May 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


Still oters argue that society itself was the first game, archaeologists remain uncertain as to whether or not proving that society is also a game is within the rules or not
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:54 AM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


The first game man invented was mathematics

I dunno, I'm pretty sure we came up with Knifey-Spoony first.
posted by cortex at 10:57 AM on May 6, 2012 [8 favorites]


It's really frustrating that, whenever someone mentions this--even in a much more polite or less inflammatory way--everyone in the conversation trips over themselves to do rhetorical acrobatics which basically boil down to, "So what? Dumb is fun!"

And no. It's not. Dumb is stupid. It's boring. Not everything needs to be an intellectual exercise, and most videogames probably do work better by engaging emotions and intellect through interactivity more than traditional narratives, but please, Videogame Culture. Let this notion that anti-intellectualism is somehow noble die.
posted by byanyothername at 11:03 AM on May 6, 2012 [10 favorites]


Actually, knifey-spoony, or the knifey-spoony conjecture as it was once know was the foundational gesture in the establishment of a mathematics of measure.
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:06 AM on May 6, 2012


The "stronger" a story is in a game, the less of a game it is. Mario didn't have much of a story. Tetris has no story. Angry Birds has a couple sentences worth of background story that makes no sense at all. A story in a video game is just there to set the thematic mood.

Obviously some of the bigger games these days have long, drawn-out "interactive movies". I purchased a major PC game in a long time, and I was really surprised by the all the cinematics and "interactive story" elements between the missions in single player. But really it was just a pretty window dressing. The only "story" in the actual game is the one that emerges from you playing - which are so much fun people actually make money showing top level games and talking about them on youtube.
posted by delmoi at 11:07 AM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think there's certainly reason to be hopeful for the medium. Indie developers are producing wonderful stuff these days, no reason to think that won't continue to evolve.
posted by the collander at 11:10 AM on May 6, 2012


And they’re not just dumb in the gleeful, winking way that a big Hollywood movie is dumb

That's just far, far too much credit, right there. I can imagine Hollywood winking amongst themselves as they feed moviegoers pablum, possibly. Let's take a look at the highest grossing movies of all time; in fact, let's find out what the fifty highest-grossing movies are - and just for lulz, let's exclude anything that didn't start life as a movie that's based on books or other franchises:
1 Avatar $2,782,275,172 2009 [# 1]
2 Titanic film currently playing $2,161,048,188 1997 [# 2]
...
7 Toy Story 3 $1,063,171,911 2010 [# 7]
...
9 Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace film currently playing $1,026,274,404 1999 [# 9]
...
15 The Lion King $951,583,777 1994 [# 15]
...
23 Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs $886,686,817 2009 [# 23]
...
26 Finding Nemo $867,893,978 2003 [# 26]
...
29 Inception $823,576,195 2010 [# 29]
...
31 Independence Day $817,400,891 1996 [# 31]
...
34 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial $792,910,554 1982 [# 34]
...
37 Star Wars $775,398,007 1977 [# 37]
38 2012 $769,304,749 2009 [# 38]
...
42 The Matrix Reloaded $742,128,461 2003 [# 42]
43 Up $731,342,744 2009 [# 43]
...
50 The Sixth Sense $672,806,292 1999 [# 50]
So, of the top 50, that leaves us with less than a third. Now: How many of those are, to put it mildly, dumb? Half? Maybe more?

Most art is dumb, and people seem to like it anyway, because it's entertainment.
posted by mhoye at 11:11 AM on May 6, 2012


I'm constantly amazed by how defensive people get when video games get criticized. Dumb things can be fun, it's ok to like them, but there's a whole world of ideas and expression that is rarely explored in the medium. I think that's sad, and I think it's sadder that people often seem less interested in that exploration than in having their hobby validated.
posted by cdward at 11:20 AM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


there are no dumb activities, bad books, stupid hobbies. You can read Twilight thoughtfully, watch Nascar intelligently, sit and do nothing actively, you can be mindful in all things. No one is dumb, nothing is stupid, but there is a difference between an attentive, deliberate engagement, and a mindless inattenive one. The only real living anti-intellectualism here is the dogma that there are lower and higher entertainment materials, as if the matter with people is the matter they attend to, there are only lower and higher engagements with those materials, and one can engage in thoughtful reflection in all things. But that is their choice. Which I suppose is frustrating to wouldbe educators, those elite whom attempt to make people attentive by stuffing their minds full of things that are associated with attention, engagement, but it always remains their choice. As for us who dare pay attention, dare be engaged, we have the whole world of our experiences to relate this to that, and this to itself For an intellectual the world is rich with treasures, so the rally cry goes: Beanplaters unite!
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:21 AM on May 6, 2012 [8 favorites]


But you may as well be demanding that I eat my vegetables.

So what? What does "better" mean, anyway? For that matter, what is "good" art? Moreover, what is "good" art in a commercial, profit-driven environment?


Are you suggesting that the "So what?" position — that is, just shrugging those questions off as unanswerable — is preferable to actually caring about what the answers might be? Are you also analogizing caring about aesthetic quality to being forced to eat vegetables? (It's pretty telling that this analogy depends on the gamer being infantile, not wanting to eat what adults eat.)

Because if so, this is pretty much the exact definition of "dumb" under discussion. "So what?" is not a defensible position when other people do care, for good reasons, about the question you're dismissing.
posted by RogerB at 11:23 AM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Pixel rendering isn't the problem. It's what happens when you try to go through a door the game designer didn't think you'd go through, and what if you want to say something other than what the game designer put in your mouth during a conversation.

Well, that's the thing, right? The essential difference between narrative arts and games is choice. Choice within a circumscribed world. A game, any game, is a bounded world. It has rules and you have to work within them; the essential experience of gaming is figuring out what the game wants you to do to accomplish the goal, trying different things and failing. The second-level pleasure of gaming is figuring out how to succeed by doing something that the game designers quite clearly didn't want you to be able to do, or didn't think you'd be able to do. Like plunking the basket over the shopkeeper's head, as someone mentioned above. First you figure out how it works, and then you break it.

But a good story operates by first giving you the feeling that anything is possible, and then showing you that only one thing was. Every time you turn a page, it should be with the feeling What will happen next? and every time you read the page it should be with the feeling Of course.. That's where the meaning comes from, in a narrative --- when the author shows you the character's decision, shrinks all other possibilities down into that one path, that's how you build up the meaning of the world: Is he a coward or a hero? Will she betray them or sacrifice itself? What are these people really like? We come to understand these things by witnessing the action, and if the author's good, then what these fictional characters do, how they explain themselves and what they feel, strikes a chord in us, and seems true to life. In a good story, all paths seem possible but only one is true.

A video game can't create meaning quite the same way --- because if the character has a real choice, then the story would have different possible meanings, and the story would have to fork. To have true freedom of choice, there would have to be infinite story, which isn't possible. And so you end up with the weird hybrid you have now --- little boxes, in which the character can preform a limited suite of actions, from which there is only one exit. Where, as the article points out, your character spends two hours viciously killing people and then enter into a cut scene where you're supposed to be a normal human and not a psychopath.

Each breaks the other --- the core pleasure of a game, figuring out the rules and then breaking them --- undercuts the core pleasure of narrative, witnessing fate working itself out. And the forced path of narrative undercuts the supposed freedom of the game.
posted by Diablevert at 11:24 AM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Because if so, this is pretty much the exact definition of "dumb" under discussion. "So what?" is not a defensible position when other people do care, for good reasons, about the question you're dismissing.

What precisely are those reasons? I mean, say all videogames starting today were all 'smart'. What would change? Why would it be important?

I think it's very hard to even define what a smart videogame would be, much less why one would matter.

Or is this whole thing a bunch of intellectual masturbation, so that some people can define themselves as being better than others?
posted by Malor at 11:31 AM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


A video game can't create meaning quite the same way --- because if the character has a real choice, then the story would have different possible meanings, and the story would have to fork. To have true freedom of choice, there would have to be infinite story, which isn't possible. And so you end up with the weird hybrid you have now --- little boxes, in which the character can preform a limited suite of actions, from which there is only one exit.

You know, this isn't at all true. Many games offer a fairly large range of possible actions and consequences. Hell, Chrono Trigger, way back on the bloody Super Nintendo, was intended to have 16 endings, although they ended up having to cut three because they just ran out of space. (physically, as in number of bytes available .... they were literally managing memory down to the last byte in CT.)

So, for these more complex games, a good chunk of the game is exploring choices and narrative consequences. I haven't played it, but I understand The Witcher 2 takes this to a whole new level, where even minor choices, ones that don't seem important at the time, can have major ramifications in the later game.

No, they can't do an infinite number of branches. If they could, it wouldn't be a game anymore. It would be indistinguishable from real life. And branches do need to be pre-planned.

But I'd say that getting 16 stories is better than getting just one.
posted by Malor at 11:36 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fuck all this video game nattering. Where do I go to hear the live performance of the Gandalf epic?
posted by benito.strauss at 11:36 AM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm constantly amazed by how defensive people get when video games get criticized.

I think it's in large part a reaction to the tendency for video games to get lazily criticized. I've read good solid criticism of games in specific and the medium in general and I find that valuable, just like I find value in thoughtful criticism of other creative work I'm interested in, and that's all great, but there's a whole lot of dumb, malformed knee-jerk criticism out there as well.

And video games as a creative form held in generally low esteem make for an easy target, and lazy people pick easy targets and shoot poorly and think they're on to something. And that gets tiring in its own right, like hearing someone shit on rap because they don't know shit about it and haven't made an effort to and consider their vague, unstudied dislike for the form to be all the justification they need to make up dismissive stuff about it. I think there's plenty of things to meaningfully criticize about hip hop as a genre and a cultural/creative milieu, and you'll find people who are really interested in it as a genre who are willing to make and address those criticisms, but that doesn't make it any less annoying when people who don't know shit talk shit.

So too with video games. And it gets tiring, as a fan or a participant in the form, to constantly run into that drive-by stuff from people with basically zero investment in the subject and no stake in whether what they're saying even makes sense. And so people lose their patience with it. People who know games can be dumb, like games that are dumb, and understand the problems that come from that dumbness. It's possible to both have a nuanced and healthy attitude toward where dumbness plays into something you like and to be reasonably annoyed at some of the recurring, limp "video games obviously suck" volleys that tend to come into the discourse when people with clues encounter people without.

Which isn't really a commentary on this thread, but insofar as it's worth commenting at all on how people get defensive in general about some video game criticism, it's not something to be amazed by considering how consistently the criticism itself is gallingly stupid.
posted by cortex at 11:38 AM on May 6, 2012 [11 favorites]


The story, quite in contrast to mister game auteur, is not the frame upon which the game hangs; but a mechanic of the game.

I think that Blow would actually agree with you to a certain extent. The article does say that he doesn't think that games can be considered outside of playing them.

Regrettably, we live in a world of mediocre mass entertainment, but that's the nature of the beast isn't it?
posted by atrazine at 11:40 AM on May 6, 2012


What precisely are those reasons? I mean, say all videogames starting today were all 'smart'. What would change? Why would it be important?

What would change would be the emergence of a new medium for real, mature art, a new venue for the development of culture, a new outlet for the human intellect and imagination. What would change would be that we'd be able to play games for the same reasons we involve ourselves in other art forms — for instruction as well as delight, for adult intellectual and emotional rewards as well as the brain-off entertainment we mostly get from games now. (Contra Clark, I myself think we experience moments of this promise all the time as game-players, even in the middle of the most seemingly "dumb" games, and that that's actually why the general dumbness is so especially galling — not because the medium is really 100% dumb, but because the moments of aesthetic promise are so fleeting and the dumb stuff so interminable. Ars may be longa and vita brevis, but unskippable cut-scenes are longa still and in-game epiphanies brevis-er.)

Basically, it would be important because good art is important. This is a necessary premise in a discussion about aesthetic quality — that "good"/non-"dumb" literature and film and visual art are important and that we should prefer they be made rather than exclusively wanting "bad"/"dumb" art. If you don't share the premise because you see aesthetics as "intellectual masturbation" (or prefer to eat only junk food rather than being forced to eat vegetables) then it's quite natural that none of the ensuing discussion will be important to you either.
posted by RogerB at 11:46 AM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


As an elementary school kid in the late 80's and early 90's, ..Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, heck, even Mike Tyson's Punchout. Those were all educational experiences. I had to think about shit - examine past mistakes, overcome disappointments, and develop strategy. Not to mention memorization and wayfinding. I WILL say, that most video games are shit. It's only the good ones that that I'm talking about.
posted by thisisdrew at 11:51 AM on May 6, 2012


lupus-yonderboy: Not a reasonable comparison. Beethoven's symphonies don't have characters. Video games do, but they use them very badly.

Beethoven symphonies, as idiopath points out, have things that have been read as similar to characters -- the first movement of his Fifth symphony is often read as being "about" what happens to that famous opening motif and the many adventures it has along its way. But at the same time, there's a difference in genre, and you don't expect a motif to grow in quite the same way you expect a character (in literary fiction) to grow. And you don't dismiss the symphony because it doesn't map up to the expectations of another genre, and you also don't dismiss some other piece of music because it isn't structured with the same expectations that make Beethoven's Fifth as interesting as it is.

Similarly, not all video games have characters, and some of those video games are smart and interesting and engaging and worthwhile for many players in all sorts of ways. But many video games do have characters -- but their function within games is apparently quite different from what the function of characters in novels or in movies. For example, one common use of characters in video games is as an obstacle, something your character needs to get past. This is something that we expect from video game characters, and a smart game might take advantage of that expectation and exploit it in an interesting way. There are smart games that do this. (Braid's famous final scene, for example!) But a player who wants such a character to be as "fleshed out" as a minor character in a novel is missing the point entirely.
posted by Casuistry at 11:53 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know about this. There's a lot of dumb games, yes, but there are also some extremely smart games; there are some games which have such depth and complexity of plot I can't imagine them ever having worked in any other medium. And sometimes, if a smart game has dumb aspects, it needs them because gameplay wouldn't work otherwise. For instance, in those games where you shoot like a hundred dudes and nobody ever brings it up again, how else are you going to make a sandbox shooter with a plot?

The main problem with dumb games is that a lot of games are dumb when they don't have to be, either because they overuse trite cinematic (or rarely, gaming) cliches or for reasons that make no sense at all. Dragon's Age was a good example of an otherwise intelligent game that had some profoundly dumb moments. I think a lot of game-writers could use a person who has no other job to except to read the plot over their shoulder and smack them in the back of the head every time they write something aggressively moronic.

However, I think games would have to get massively more stupid before they started to approach the intelligence level of say, the average movie. Even dumb games don't approach the sheer magnitude of stupidity of something like 2012, and very few games overuse cliches as badly as movies do.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:53 AM on May 6, 2012


The Atlantic is dumb.
posted by polymodus at 11:59 AM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Portal and Portal 2 both pull off two unique things: remarkable game physics with genuinely funny comedy. I can think of NO other game that had me laughing out loud while playing it.
posted by zardoz at 12:00 PM on May 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


The only real living anti-intellectualism here is the dogma that there are lower and higher entertainment materials, as if the matter with people is the matter they attend to, there are only lower and higher engagements with those materials, and one can engage in thoughtful reflection in all things.

That's true, but there are things which just don't support that kind of engagement. Many things which are often considered lowbrow can be deeply engaged with, and the Nascar superfan watching a race is tapping into layers of meaning and relationships that a casual observer doesn't even know are there. Is that true of the Twilight books though? If we say that only the level of engagement can be classified then surely we can judge art by reference to how often it allows or even forces us to think at multiple levels.

And so you end up with the weird hybrid you have now --- little boxes, in which the character can preform a limited suite of actions, from which there is only one exit.

I think many of the moments where I've felt dumbest playing a game have been on the boundary between open world elements and elements which have to be scripted. When you have the feeling that you can go anywhere in this vast place called Skyrim, it is jarring to have a town guard repeat the same line about arrows and knees over and over again.

And so you end up with the weird hybrid you have now --- little boxes, in which the character can preform a limited suite of actions, from which there is only one exit.
posted by atrazine at 12:00 PM on May 6, 2012


Or is this whole thing a bunch of intellectual masturbation, so that some people can define themselves as being better than others?

I think this gets right to the heart of it - not that anyone thinks they're better than you, but the fear that someone might think they're better than you.
posted by cdward at 12:09 PM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


It strikes me this conversation is poorer for considering dumb and smart on a single continuum. This seems to lead to people presenting say Balzac as an example of smart and (say) Micahel Bay's films as example of dumb, and all action films get lumped in with dumb for being populist and the intellectual stuff gets put in with smart. But considering games in this way is not fruitful. They are not likely to be on an intellectual par with Balzac (or at least not for some time) so that terminates the conversation. But in reality we can look at populist entertainment across a range of media and see that it is entirely possible to have a range of smarter and dumber options even within a fairly narrow genre. So Battlestar Galactica for example can be regarded as smart within its genre, while other SF shows are less so. BSG will not be Proust but it still offers additional value over and above its dumber SF competitor. Taking this perspective then smarter games is simply the appliance of higher production values to expand the quality of playing experience in a wider range of games than is currently the case.

What would smart represent in this context and why would we want it? Well is this not what we want in every genre? If we watch a new action film do we not want it to do something new? Something that we have not seen endlessly in the action films we have already paid for? This does not have to be some intellectual challenge, it could be but it could also be as simple as taking a new perspective on blowing up some shit, if blowing up some shit is the entertainment we want on a particular night. We need to demand this of games as much as we do of other media.
posted by biffa at 12:11 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I bet this discussion would be different if instead of dumb it was "what if the video game industry's target demographic weren't almost exclusively adolescent boys?"

And yet oddly, one of the biggest gaming populations is casual gaming on Facebook and the like, which is predominately middle-aged women.

Alternatively, events like Burn Jita are glorious examples of the human condition.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 12:12 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Whoever thinks such classics as Tetris, Asteroids, Starcraft are not all some of the finest works of art made in the last fifty years is looking at the medium entirely the wrong way. Even under the most pragmatic definition of art, they are art. Those games provided solid metaphors for serious aspects of reality. Aspects that cannot be contained in words, images, any other medium. Literature can contain the human experiences of grieving for your stillborn child, paintings can capture what we do not wish to see, or never saw before, but games do something else: they allow you to experience things far more abstract: spatial constraint, inertia, strategic economic investments, even the chaos of human collaboration such as is shown in a game of transformice or Love. It isn't not art because it can't do what other arts can; that is precisely why it is an art at all! Sculpture can't get you dancing, games can't make you cry, but no other art form can make you experience such abstractions as ir/reversible time and the necessity of failure like Braid can. If games aren't art because they can't do what a movie can then a novel isn't art because it can't do what a poem can. And we all return to chalk and stones, as all of reality has been expressed in caves.
posted by TwelveTwo at 12:13 PM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


People play games to unwind and remove themselves from reality. Not everything people do for pleasure is smart or sophisticated.

Besides, I think you are over stating the issue. No one is arguing that, in general, games are smart or a sophisticated way of spending time.

Although, the game PEZ, a mind bending puzzle, may make you rethink your generalization.
posted by quanti at 12:15 PM on May 6, 2012


A game is smart when it makes you have fun in an unexpected way. Braid makes an excellent case: It's super fun and mind-bending to play, but the supposedly 'serious' element--the writing--is embarrassingly bad. This doesn't make the gameplay any less sophisticated and artistic. It's a category error to want games to be something other than unexpectedly fun.

It can also be u.f. to blow up zombies and shoot a ball at a basket, provided you don't have to stop every five minutes to read bad poetry.
posted by Zerowensboring at 12:22 PM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think that's sad, and I think it's sadder that people often seem less interested in that exploration than in having their hobby validated.

I had zero impression that this article was written in the spirit of cultural exploration. None. If you can point to the paragraph that gave you the impression that this was the case, however, I'd be glad to reconsider.

How I read that article was, "most of your hobby is stupid, and most of the time, you're stupid."
posted by mhoye at 12:22 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


My point is, no art forces you to do anything. Grappling with it, wrestlin with Proust, that is all you.And I would argue, but typing on a phone is a bitch, that reading Twilight deeply is as hard as reading Proust, if not harder, for it provides no hints. But, in my third sluggish rereading if the series, i believe the book is captures the psychotic nature of a solitary life of imagination. The madness, wrongness, incoherence of the book's conclusion is the biggest, and only clue in making sense of what looks from the outset as a mess of scenes, and repetitive mantralike dialogue.
posted by TwelveTwo at 12:24 PM on May 6, 2012


Brilliant video games were defined by game play.

Respectfully, I didn't think Zork or most of the Sierra games are defined in those terms.
posted by mhoye at 12:38 PM on May 6, 2012


Zork was a spelling and reading game, really a keyboard trainer in all honesty.
posted by TwelveTwo at 12:48 PM on May 6, 2012


For instance, in those games where you shoot like a hundred dudes and nobody ever brings it up again, how else are you going to make a sandbox shooter with a plot?

That's the trick, isn't it? Because it's a shooter. You shoot things. The things are ideally a little bit clever in how they act, and the easiest clever thing to stick into a story is a human being, so you shoot human beings. And there needs to be a lot of things to shoot, so you shoot a lot of human beings. And the game is not, generally, the flashback to why you're being executed by the state for mass murder, so the game has to not care all that much that you've done that. Which creates a serious narrative problem.

And there's a few ways to approach this:

1. Justify the shooting. The humans you're killing are Bad Guys. Maybe they're an invading alien force. Maybe they're an invading human military force. Maybe they're the defensive human military force of a Very Bad State, or the private mercenaries of a Very Bad Organization. Maybe they're civilians who live in the wrong country or neighborhood. All of this has been done; it's rarely been done in a way that feels particularly solid. Your best best is to render the things you're shooting at as unknowable, uncompromising Others, so aliens is a decent bet since there's not as much room for empathy there. But a lot of games just sort of leave it at "they're bad and also probably trying to kill you". Shooting lots and lots of people is the only solution to a problem that must be solved. Go get 'em, tiger. Lots of room for dumb here.

2. Make the shooting silly. Serious Sam has always had a wonderfully Fuck It All attitude toward its content; it's a game that's explicitly about shooting giant waves of anonymous, ridiculous baddies. And it works as what it is. Going silly with it can basically free you up from a lot of the ethical tarpit of trying to have a serious character/narrative that involves a ton of murder, but it's obviously necessarily constraining to the kind of stories you can tell. Seriousface wartime manshoots like Call of Duty are right out.

3. Make the shooting abstract. Get rid of the idea of shooting humans or humanoids entirely; preserve the "hit moving thing A with ballistic/hitscan device B" mechanic at the core of shooters but make them about something else. No more murder problem, but suddenly you have to come up with a different setting than person-shoots-people. Maybe it's literally abstract, maybe it's Nerfhammer 40K or lasertag, maybe it's a Super Mario Sunshine thing where you're trying to wash down a dirty surface or paint things. There are lots of potential options here, but they all require creative work at a "what is shooting what with what and why" level not required of your basic manshoot situation.

There's options. Some work better than others for solving different sorts of problems. But there's an awful lot of traction for "it's war, go shoot those bad people before they shoot you" because, I think, it's just awfully expedient and in market terms pretty reliable. And for big, conservative AAA game publishers, expedience and market reliability are the main problems that the money at the top is concerned about. And so manshoots it is.
posted by cortex at 12:49 PM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Are videogames dumb? Is hard to make them not dumb? Are most things dumb anyway?

I'm going with D) All of the above.
posted by Rykey at 12:50 PM on May 6, 2012


Sturgeon's Law was once an explanation for crap.

Now it's an excuse.
posted by Legomancer at 12:52 PM on May 6, 2012 [9 favorites]


Interesting article.

I haven't really loved a game since Shenmue. There have been a couple of games since that I think I would have loved--Shenmue II, Fable, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus--but I never seem to have the right system for them. I have a Wii, because when I game I usually play retro games or casual fitness games. Anyway, I like games to have rich stories which also challenge me intellectually but don't require a lot of button-mashing; I'm willing to grind up to a certain extent, but I need intense story pay-off. FFVI and VII worked for me. Every FF game past VIII, not so much. I loved Sierra games, and Maniac Mansion, and text-based adventures on our C64 when I was a kid and I really rarely find something that works for me. Video games aren't for me, is usually how I end up feeling.

Anyway, I think I'm going to go download Braid, is what I'm saying.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:04 PM on May 6, 2012


Cortex, I think there's another way to approach it; just ignore the issue entirely. Everyone knows it's a shooter, so nobody should be surprised when you shoot a ton of dudes and nobody cares. It's like trying to justify why everyone is singing in a musical; unless you are from Mars and have never heard of a 'musical' before, why would you ever ask that question?
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:05 PM on May 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


I played Braid and was impressed that they were able to create a game with so much sorrow and regret. I think it was an achievement, but it ended up feeling maudlin, basically repeating the over-intensity of feeling of violent shooters only in a different emotional register. But reading this profile of Blow, I'm a little bit more hopeful that maybe he can make a video game into art. He seems to be at least asking the right questions: what is unique about the medium?

I don't think its fair for him to fault the game community for being unwilling to explore Braid's hidden depths. The game wants you to solve a series of puzzles, which means interpret the puzzle until you unlock the correct answer, which means ruling out all the wrong answers. Even if there are multiple solutions, they aren't simultaneous. One solution excludes all the others, and all wrong possibilities. So is it any wonder that we'd approach the meaning of the whole game as a puzzle for which there is a single answer?

This is a way of approaching metaphor as if it is something to be defeated by reducing it to clear meaning. But if the way we interact with a game (figuring out a puzzle) encourages a kind of reductive interpretation, maybe that means that playing is interpreting, and the player is really an interpreter, or critic. So the question is not just whether games succeed as art, but whether players succeed as art critics.

And it gets tiring, as a fan or a participant in the form, to constantly run into that drive-by stuff from people with basically zero investment in the subject

Judging from the reaction to Blow in the gaming community, the only thing worse than criticism from people with zero investment in the subject is criticism from someone whose life work is the subject.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:14 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


*throws arms in air, gives up and goes back to Paper Mario*
posted by byanyothername at 1:14 PM on May 6, 2012


Cortex, I think there's another way to approach it; just ignore the issue entirely. Everyone knows it's a shooter, so nobody should be surprised when you shoot a ton of dudes and nobody cares.

Oh, I think that's an approach to game world design, certainly. But if the topic here is partly the dumb incongruity of having a bunch of shooting of people happen in a game where you're not supposed to think of yourself as a terrible person, it's not an approach that provides much of a strategy to improving the situation.

It's like trying to justify why everyone is singing in a musical; unless you are from Mars and have never heard of a 'musical' before, why would you ever ask that question?

Anyone encountering musical theater for the first time asks themself that question to some degree or another, because it is a weird incongruous thing. And there are easy answers (foremost of which is that musical numbers are fun to watch and hear), but they don't address the weird incongruity so much as shrug it off. And you can shrug it off and just accept that that incongruity is inherent to a form that people enjoy for its own sake, or you can look critically at why it's incongruous and play with justifications or reinterpretations of the form. And you can get good musicals from both approaches, and bad ones.

But a musical asks us to accept the weird notion of people singing and dancing instead of talking when they want to express themselves. A shooter asks us to accept the weird notion that it's totally fine to murder hundreds of human beings and be the hero. The nature of the requests inherent in those forms differs significantly, and how it affects how we look at the stories being told is necessarily different. So in either case you can shrug it off, but what you're shrugging off is a bit different.
posted by cortex at 1:19 PM on May 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


cortex: "I complain as a lifelong fan that the Princess needs to get herself a fucking security force that knows its ass from its elbows and that Mario is a wide-eyed imbecile, fantastical parkour skills aside."

I so wish I could make this into a ringtone.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 1:21 PM on May 6, 2012


1. Justify the shooting...
2. Make the shooting silly...
3. Make the shooting abstract...


4. Make you a Batman villain. Viz, Saint's Row 2/3.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:33 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not a reasonable comparison. Beethoven's symphonies don't have characters. Video games do, but they use them very badly.

Some videogames do. Not everything is an RPG.

I've got a theory (which is mine) that videogames are best when the story and all the traditional storytelling crap is kept to a minimum and there's just the gameplay. GTA is at its best when you're just driving around killing people, nobody really needed a backstory to Quake or Doom and the only narrative in Football Manager is the one I put into it myself, as the manager leading the glorious quest of Plymouth Argyle to the Premierships.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:36 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tetris: All efforts vanish away. Toil continues unabated until death. You can stay around for longer or shorter, put in more or less effort, but regardless of anything you do the end state remains the same.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:44 AM on May 6 [13 favorites +] [!]


WELCOME TO RUSSIA COMRADE
posted by Sebmojo at 2:06 PM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


As with Atlantic-style complaints about genre literature, the heart of the criticism is bad characters and dialogue. When Chabon or Murakami or Atwood are cited, the Atlantic folks will back down a bit and say, fine, 98% of genre literature is unartistic. The difficulty with modern video games is that there aren't similarly established artworks and authors to point to. This is actually a little surprising to me -- I'm a bit surprised that no Soderbergh or Cronenberg has done a video game with impeccable acting and writing, even if the gameplay (like the SF ideas in high-end genre lit) is a bit lacking. The problem, of course, is that unlike fiction (but like movies), video games need three things for high-art realism: good writing, realistic characters, and faces. Even LA Noire really only elevates the latter into cartoons (which, it should be said, often have exceedingly expressive faces), and even then, the dialogue and characters are really only at the Law-and-Order level -- fine, but not great. Getting all three of these right is a huge challenge, since probably only a half-dozen movies and TV shows manage it every year (from the point of view of Atlantic-style judgments of high art).

What's new, I think, is that video games are even trying for such a thing now. The strongest objection to the Atlantic piece -- and the reason such things weren't being said as much in the 80's, say -- is that earlier video games had nothing to do with dialogue, character, and faces. I think almost everyone here agrees that, in their own way, Pacman or Super Mario Bros were high art; certainly many of the established arbiters of high art agree with this. What's new is this descent into the uncanny narrative valley (as others have pointed out), where games now are being judged by the standards of movies and novels. Even harsher, games are also still being judged by the earlier standards, so that were Soderbergh to do a great writing-acting-faces game, he would still probably be criticized by the game critics for having produced boring gameplay. No wonder there aren't universally acknowledged great modern games, if they have to simultaneously live of the standards of Altman, Faulkner, and Miyamoto! Obviously there are games with great individual aspects -- gameplay (Super Mario), writing (many IF games), faces (LA Noire, maybe) -- but as long as games that attempt to do it all cost tens of millions of dollars or more, it's unlikely we'll get very many "great" games. That said, I won't be surprised if in the next decade there is at least one or two that are great enough to get written up in the New York Review of Books, or that when a 20-something-year-old son forces his English-professor mother to sit down and play it, the latter actually agrees that it is great art by the full Atlantic standards. But when it comes, this artwork will in some ways have to be even greater than many great movies; I'm looking forward to it.

In the meantime there are plenty of great games that do only subsets of this, which is fine, and I'll keep enjoying them. But like all great art, at some point they start worrying about you if you spend hundreds of hours looking at a Rothko, just as I think people who spend so much time on Angry Birds, Tetris, or Pacman are a bit misguided, regardless of the artistic achievement of those games. And I myself can't stand wooden dialogue, acting, or cliches above some threshold frequency -- which threshold seems to keep rising, ruling out more and more genre fiction to boot -- so even adequate writing, acting, and gameplay is something yearn for as my second-hand PS3 continues to gather dust. If it didn't necessarily involve shooting and murdering, that would be a plus too...
posted by chortly at 2:18 PM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


So far, Jonathan Blow has made exactly ONE good game. It seems a little premature for him to look down on the rest of the industry.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 2:27 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Basically, it would be important because good art is important. This is a necessary premise in a discussion about aesthetic quality — that "good"/non-"dumb" literature and film and visual art are important and that we should prefer they be made rather than exclusively wanting "bad"/"dumb" art.

You know, it's funny, RogerB, how every time someone advances arguments of this sort, where there's a line between 'good' and 'bad', they somehow, mysteriously, always end up being on the 'good' side. This makes you better than the people who like "bad" art.

Your condescension is all over what you write, with your references to 'junk food'. A very large component of your argument is about being superior to others, not about video games at all.

Your taste is impeccable, superior, and therefore you are a Better Class of Person, not like us plebes who slum about with current video games. I can just imagine you wrinkling your face in disgust, while you polish your monocle.
posted by Malor at 2:29 PM on May 6, 2012


Basically:

"I'd like games with better, more meaningful stories" -- a gamer who would like to see the genre improve.

"I'd like games that qualify as Art" -- someone who wants to be in the club of Superior People, able to look down on the proles with a curled lip.
posted by Malor at 2:32 PM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Anybody who looks at games and judges them in terms of whether they would make good movies or novels is a fool anyway.

Gameplay is what makes a game, not story. If a story is needed to get the most out of a game for the player, then it needs to be good, yes, but other than that discussing the story is like discussing the camera work in a movie: interesting in itself as long as you don't forget you're only criticising a tool, not the finished product.

Video games are in that awkward stage that all new media have to go too: they're obviously popular enough and important enough that they deserve critical attention, but the critical apparatus to do so is still in its infancy. So they're judged on the criteria of other, older, more established media and of course coming up short.

An article like this fits this moment perfectly, as critics both inside and outside the industry grapple with creating the critical language needed to "judge" video games properly
posted by MartinWisse at 2:35 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


byanyothername: It's really frustrating that, whenever someone mentions this--even in a much more polite or less inflammatory way--everyone in the conversation trips over themselves to do rhetorical acrobatics which basically boil down to, "So what? Dumb is fun!"

And no. It's not. Dumb is stupid. It's boring. Not everything needs to be an intellectual exercise, and most videogames probably do work better by engaging emotions and intellect through interactivity more than traditional narratives, but please, Videogame Culture. Let this notion that anti-intellectualism is somehow noble die.


"Dumb is fun!" != "smart is stupid." If someone enjoys something you consider "dumb," it doesn't necessarily mean that that person is anti-intellectual--any more than someone scarfing down food you think is crappy is therefore anti-food you think is great.
posted by tzikeh at 2:52 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bioshock and Red Dead Redemption are two games I'd probably rate as my favourites.

Both are wonderful stories, but both are smart games, with a lot of meaning behind them, examining philosophies and themes ... anyone who says that games can't be smart and enjoyable I don't think is looking at (or playing) the right games.
posted by chris88 at 3:06 PM on May 6, 2012


There’s no nice way to say this, but it needs to be said: Braid is dumb.

And it's not just dumb in the gleeful, winking way that a transgressive piece of art is dumb; it's dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way of a grown man standing before a class in a tweed jacket, with elbow patches and a neatly trimmed beard lecturing about proper literature is dumb.

Looking at the enormous library of truly smart and innovative games, going all the way back to the beginning with Zork, Civilization, SimCity, moving on to the 4X games like Master of Orion, to modern classics like Wii Sports, Portal and Minecraft. Aside from those, Braid was an exercise in art school arrogance.

Braid was so silly and so poorly written that it made Brian Levant movies look like the Citizen Kane.

Now that I'm done with that, let me tell you how I really feel.

Braid has done more to damage the video game industry than any other game in history, and yes, I'm counting Custer's Revenge in that list.

If I could think of one game to put on the site "Stuff White People Like", it would be Braid. Because that's what Braid is, it's a game every affluent Game Studies graduate student points to and nods their head knowingly, possibly while sipping a good Pinot Noir at a faculty dinner party.

Braid has brought forth the full vengence of the Narratological School of Game Studies. Trying to shove games back into a branch of the narrative space of literature. By throwing in art evocative of traditional watercolor paintings, it's obvious Braid is trying to hard to be liked.

Comparing Civilization or SimCity or any other game to Van Gogh or Shakespeare we're going to lose every time. Not because these games aren't great, or that they aren't art.

They're just an entirely different form of art.

And I'm sorry that's going to disrupt the traditional academic world and the professions people like Roger Ebert have built for themselves analyzing other artforms. But that's the way disruptive technologies work.

The independent game developer community is alive and well, and with mobile development being cheap and easy, we're entering another cycle of brilliant innovation in fun.

So maybe I was a little hyperbolic above. But I'm just returning some of the venom thrown towards the game development community by Proper Artists and Art Critics. I actually liked Braid. The time mechanic was novel and he made brilliant use of it in his puzzles. But I'm sick of people trying so hard to be accepted by the traditional art community. Like any new school of art, we should be a reaction to the previous school. And gaming's strength is its true interactivity and ability to pull the participant in.
posted by formless at 3:09 PM on May 6, 2012 [12 favorites]


Yeah, I can see that. I think that is probably a good stance to take. Anti-Braid, not because the game is bad, but it right now functions as a symbol of things that needs to be discarded as juvenile aspirations for Games to be the Everything Art. The Art that can do everything. Can make you laugh, cry, inspire you to great deeds, etc, etc. I recall that movies tried to do this once, and before that, theater. Movies tried to be Literature + Photography + Painting + Theater + Poetry + Performance Art. In the end, we all discovered it too was limited, it wasn't the Everything Art. The Last Art. The Art to End All Art.

And so, Braid inspires them that they can make up for their uninspired games with inspired atmosphere, story, other stuff. Style over substance. There are dozens of tiny indie games coming out with clever subversive meta jokes and rich story, but they are all, effectively, the same game. Often, they'll defend themselves, or associate somehow with Braid, or worse, Portal (i am so tired of antagonistic narrators). So, yeah Formless, down with Braid. What we need are dozens of tiny indie games with the same story, or no story, but are, effectively, different games.

Although, thinking about it... The movement among designers for faster and faster development cycles, and the success of molyjam is already helping, this may not even be a problem anymore, this argument might be being served to all of you long after its expiry date. Which is not a surprise, look it is The Altantic, our text based time machine to the past!
posted by TwelveTwo at 4:00 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


To be frank, this conversation makes me sick. I'm not wringing my hands, this is not a figurative expression. Games will not stop being dumb until game makers face the fact of what these games are about. What are you entertained by? In this thread, and in every thread like this one, half the people claim that, e.g., dumb games where you shoot zombies in the head are fun, and that anyone who says otherwise is a stuck-up, arrogant hypocrite who can't face reality.

A lot of games are about destroying human-shaped targets. That's all they are about. In the last couple of decades, big-name games staple on a story that tries to ignore the fact that the game is really about destroying human-shaped targets. The player mows down wave after wave of generic, faceless attackers, and then there's this small handful of "face" characters who are immune from violence and interact in some kind of contrived little plot. Of course, it's ludicrously silly. It's completely incongruous! The game designer expects some cardboard cutout to evoke emotions in me during a brief 30-second break from a wall-to-wall bloodbath? Why should this character be any less expendable than the 5000 I've just shot in the head?

Zombie games are the best example. Why is it a given that it's satisfying to shoot zombies in the head? We accept the fact that they were once people, too. The idea of being pursued by the reanimated corpses of dear loved ones should be horrifying, not fun. Yeah, you need to cut a path through the horde of the undead to achieve your objectives, but what makes those objectives worthwhile? And a lot of the times you must kill or be killed. That's a potentially interesting thread to explore: the nihilistic notion that you can't save yourself without getting your hands dirty. Where are the games that are about that?

Remember Night of the Living Dead? One of the founding entries in the zombie movie genre? The one where the characters try to escape from the undead, and then fight the undead, and then some of them succeed, and then… remember the ending? The one with the, you know, that part? Didn't it make you feel funny? That movie was schlock, but it was also art. But that's not what zombie games are about on any fundamental level.

On a fundamental level, where you spend 95% of the game time, zombie games are about head shots. They're about cutting up human bodies with chain saws and dismembering them with lawnmowers. They're about shotguns tied to baseball bats. They're not about the horror.

Why is it fun to dismember human-shaped targets?

The counter stance is that it's "natural" to enjoy base things, violence is hard-wired into our brains, there's no escaping it, get over yourself, Poindexter! Yeah, violence is natural. Some primates practice infanticide. The male will kill offspring that are not his own. It's natural. In some evolutionary contexts it makes sense. But we are not animals. We are not animals. We should not try to be animals.

Would you want a gorilla infanticide simulator? Would you find it fun? Would it help you unwind after a long day of work?

Humans also direct violence at children. Violence against children is a running thread throughout history. Lots of children and infants are abused every day; many are injured, some are killed.

Do you want a shaken baby simulator? Why or why not? What would make this violence, out of all possible violent scenarios, fun or not fun?

In the past, ordinary people used to unwind by watching public executions. Ordinary members of the public would watch criminals get hanged, burned, drawn and quartered, their guts stuffed with straw, their limbs torn off by horses. Perfectly ordinary people, perfectly innocuous entertainment.

Would you go? Would you think less of someone who went for the spectacle?

I want more horror games. Not that puerile horror of Splatterhouse and Carmageddon and Doom, but the horror of violence. Like in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange: you spend half the time observing — savoring! — the hero's violence, then you spend the second half observing acts of visceral violence directed at the hero. A Clockwork Orange is a great movie. Sure, it's torture porn, but if a lot of video games are too, why hide that fact? Why not face it?

Not to put Neon Genesis Evangelion on a pedestal, but do you remember that scene with Shinji and Kaworu and the looooong pause? I want a game where you push the button yourself. Maybe push it and hold it down. Make it a quick-time event!

I want a zombie game in which you are pursued by the reanimated corpse of your mother. You're in a race against time to find a cure from the zombie illness, or else you will have to shoot her in the head. Or see the ending in which she eats your brains. That would be some game!

I'm tired of games in which the hero can mow down thousands of people and never becomes guilty of murder. How about a game where you are a murderer? Like in Mass Effect 1, where, instead of killing wave after wave of krogans and geth and whatever else, you just put a bullet between Kaiden's eyes. I mean, he's make-believe, right? It would be an interesting game if you had to spend forty hours with blood on your hands. It would be the Crime and Punishment of games. It would recontextualize everything!
posted by Nomyte at 4:16 PM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Almost everything in every game is drawn, and then all the code has to be written. All of that's art.

How can something made of art not be art, unless the asker is brain damaged or something?
posted by Malor at 4:18 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


To be frank, this conversation makes me sick. I'm not wringing my hands, this is not a figurative expression. Games will not stop being dumb until game makers face the fact of what these games are about. What are you entertained by? In this thread, and in every thread like this one, half the people claim that, e.g., dumb games where you shoot zombies in the head are fun, and that anyone who says otherwise is a stuck-up, arrogant hypocrite who can't face reality.

Yes, I very much get the feeling from this thread that if I, as a consumer of this type of media, don't enjoy hacking people to bits in a virtual environment, well, then I'm not welcome and I should just go screw.

It's really icky.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:28 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I want more horror games. Not that puerile horror of Splatterhouse and Carmageddon and Doom, but the horror of violence. Like in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange: you spend half the time observing — savoring! — the hero's violence, then you spend the second half observing acts of visceral violence directed at the hero. A Clockwork Orange is a great movie. Sure, it's torture porn, but if a lot of video games are too, why hide that fact? Why not face it?

You absolutely must play Amnesia: Dark Descent. It deals with all of the issues that you're talking about head on (and while you play a character which is completely incapable of violence). And its genuinely terrifying.
posted by empath at 5:10 PM on May 6, 2012


You absolutely must play Amnesia: Dark Descent.

I know! I think horror games are some of the most innovative. (Forbidden) Siren is another game that can be mentioned in the same context.
posted by Nomyte at 5:38 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, definitely Amnesia: Dark Descent. Play that. I still have to try (Forbidden) Siren.
posted by TwelveTwo at 5:49 PM on May 6, 2012


Amnesia's a great game till about the last third or so, when it suddenly jumps across a threshold into goofy. It's almost like it got to a certain point and then flinched away from itself. The first two thirds more than make up for its endgame missteps, though.

The little add-on chapter, consisting of an entirely different story, that they made as free DLC for the game was also fantastic. It was technically part of a some Steam-wide promotion-achievement-hunt thing where lots of Steam-hosted games were adding bits and peices for it, but the Amnesia guys really went above and beyond, crafting a full standalone little short story that didn't flinch away from itself at all. In retrospect, it made me think that Amnesia would have been even better if they'd dropped the single story across it, and instead used it as a framing device for independent ones.
posted by Drastic at 5:54 PM on May 6, 2012


Yes, I very much get the feeling from this thread that if I, as a consumer of this type of media, don't enjoy hacking people to bits in a virtual environment, well, then I'm not welcome and I should just go screw.

Well, then make that argument. So far, everyone has been wafting about and dropping hyperbole about Art, so of course we more prosaic folks are being somewhat dismissive. That sort of crap is mostly snobbery. Fifty years from now, they will be holding up some of the games being sold right now as great examples of early Art... the only reason the snobs can't see it is because they're too close. Shakespeare was once considered "vulgar, provincial, and overrated", a result of a quick search I just ran -- he was definitely lower-class entertainment for the proles. Look what happened with his stuff.

Will current games be held equal to Shakespeare? I rather doubt that, but if even he could be scorned and dismissed during his lifetime, then games being scorned and dismissed now offers precisely zero predictive power about their long-term impact. Not future games, these games, at least the gems among the dross.

If you don't actually like most modern games, that's fine. There's TONS to criticize. Most games are shit, absolutely, and most of the big game companies suck terribly. Talk about the kind of games you want to play. I don't think you'll get anyone being particularly dismissive, although you might get, "geeze, that's tough, not gonna see that for a while"

But just vague criticism that they're not sufficiently good Art is a way of stroking your own ego, telling yourself what great taste you have. That's not useful, it just becomes a circlejerk of people telling each other how great they are, how refined their palates must be. It contributes nothing useful.
posted by Malor at 5:57 PM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


"dumb" is a really uncomplicated word that is really good for shitting on things

like most of those words, when you get up the nerve to slice the cyst open, you tend to find that it is full of this cottage-cheese melange of unpacked shit, baggage, and low-fidelity referents

i mean i'm not saying it's a dogwhistle or anything but
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 6:04 PM on May 6, 2012


*unexamined, unpacked
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 6:05 PM on May 6, 2012


Amnesia's a great game till about the last third or so, when it suddenly jumps across a threshold into goofy. It's almost like it got to a certain point and then flinched away from itself. The first two thirds more than make up for its endgame missteps, though.

I think that's a problem endemic to horror. At some point you have to show the monster, and it's never as bad as you imagine. The prison sequence was as terrifying as the game got, and it was all just shadows and noises.
posted by empath at 6:12 PM on May 6, 2012


That's not useful, it just becomes a circlejerk of people telling each other how great they are, how refined their palates must be. It contributes nothing useful.

Utility, shmutility. Circlejerks are social events, opportunities to meet new dicks!
posted by TwelveTwo at 6:13 PM on May 6, 2012


I haven't really loved a game since Shenmue. There have been a couple of games since that I think I would have loved--Shenmue II

I also loved Shenmue. As a game, it was pretty bad. As an interactive movie and 1980s Japan simulator, it was sweet. The second game I never finished. Being forced to work to earn rent was super tedious. You may not have actually missed much.

We are not animals.

Wrong.

The first game man invented was mathematics

Not even wrong.
posted by adamdschneider at 6:17 PM on May 6, 2012


I think that's a problem endemic to horror. At some point you have to show the monster, and it's never as bad as you imagine. The prison sequence was as terrifying as the game got, and it was all just shadows and noises.

Dark Souls is a game that shows its monsters all the time, yet is every bit as tense as Amnesia because all the enemies are perfectly capable of killing you if you aren't good enough, and you always have something to lose by dying. Scripted horror games lose their terror once you realize that the script isn't going to throw you into an unwinnable situation, that those "shadows and noises" are not actually evidence that a monster is sneaking around (like footsteps are in Dark Souls), but just ambience meant to unsettle you.
posted by Pyry at 6:32 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


also what is with this whole sort-the-wheat-from-the-chaff deal

alright we're loading the ark, everyone who's coming get in line, not so fast unicorns

plus "art" in a lot of discourse is one of those fuckin' terms and hella classist. i mean, is a guy from rural northern idaho who works at a gas station going to be all up in that balzac shit to compare his games to
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 6:34 PM on May 6, 2012


We are not animals.

Wrong.


Your terse response reveals a nuanced and engaged understanding of what I wrote.
posted by Nomyte at 6:38 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Scripted horror games lose their terror once you realize that the script isn't going to throw you into an unwinnable situation, that those "shadows and noises" are not actually evidence that a monster is sneaking around (like footsteps are in Dark Souls), but just ambience meant to unsettle you.

I dunno, Pyry, they still scare the crap out of me. That's probably why I don't play horror games. :)
posted by Malor at 6:39 PM on May 6, 2012


control-F journey
(nod at The Longest Journey as an aside)
shake head

Zork was a spelling and reading game, really a keyboard trainer in all honesty.

Drink-in-your-face level of wrong.
posted by fleacircus at 6:40 PM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


The last AAA game I played was "Bayonetta". If you're not familiar with it, it's the dude behind the "Devil May Cry" franchise going down pretty much the same path of "stylish dude kills tons of monsters with lots of sweet moves". Except you are this hyper-sexy witch (with thick-rimmed glasses) who is so impossibly stylish that she uses not just two guns at once, but four, two of which do double duty as her high heels. And an outfit made of her own hair, which whirls off her body for the bigger special attacks and leaves her teasingly nude.

It is dumb. It is unreservedly dumb. It is quite possibly also problematic given how sexualized the heroine is. I'm fine with it myself but then again I got into burlesque not too long after playing it, I'm totally fine with images of feminine power that are also sexy.

It's also insanely gorgeous. When I finished the game I spent a few hours going through the unlocked content and oohing and aaahing at the monsters and bosses.

I had a great time playing it but at no point was my brain really engaged in any other way than the mechanics of slaughtering the enemies and navigating the environments. The plot? It moved things along, it gave me a vague justification for killing all these "angels". I guessed at its "surprising reveal" long before the game revealed it.

I also finished it.

I don't think I've ever finished a "serious" game. The actual gameplay of the few I've tried is leaden. Playing them is work. I want to have fun, want some simple escapism.

I don't thnk we'll ever have "smart" AAA games. How many summer blockbusters are "smart"? Nobody sees "Transformers" for the plot, they see it for the robots beating each other up.

Maybe there are ways to make "smart" games that are also fun to play. Games whose mechanic is not about slaughter, games you can still find compelling. (The comments on the Magical Wasteland post turned me on to Tiger Style's excellent "Waking Mars", for instance, which is about flying around caverns and growing simple ecosystems. It's not wholly pacifistic, a lot of later puzzles depend on herding creatures into the waiting jaws of predators, but you don't get a gun or anything like that, and the science-minded lead never feels like he's at odds with what he spends everything outside the cinematics doing.) But I don't think they're likely to be created in an AAA game. Big budgets mean conservative choices of game types that are proven successes.

On the other hand... Just how much of EA's revenue comes from the sports games? They're not glamorous but oh man do they sell. And they're not about killing. At all.
posted by egypturnash at 7:42 PM on May 6, 2012


I was working through the comments here, found the bit about characters in Beethoven and was grateful that I wouldn't have to pop in to drop that knowledge bomb, scrolled through more, got fed up, ctrl+F journey, found fleacircus' comment, double checked, sighed.

Journey, people. Journey. You surf through that golden-lit corridor before the underwater level for the first time and then try telling me what you experienced was dumb. And then I will know to fully ignore your opinions on everything else for the rest of time.
posted by Mizu at 8:10 PM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Skyrim was amazing in the fact that it didn't have an ending.

Seriously -- that's kind of mind-blowing in its utter awfulness.
posted by bardic at 9:13 PM on May 6, 2012


Someone should start a thread about how stupid and awful The Elder Scrolls Online looks.

I haven't seen anybody say a single good thing about it. If I were Bethesda, I would be freaking the fuck out.
posted by empath at 9:16 PM on May 6, 2012


Nomyte: How about a game where you are a murderer? Like in Mass Effect 1, where, instead of killing wave after wave of krogans and geth and whatever else, you just put a bullet between Kaiden's eyes. I mean, he's make-believe, right? It would be an interesting game if you had to spend forty hours with blood on your hands. It would be the Crime and Punishment of games. It would recontextualize everything!

It confuses me that you seem to understand Mass Effect 1 well enough to name characters from it, but your example doesn't seem to take into account that A. you can absolutely murder one of your squadmates within the game, and it's treated as a serious thing that persists into the sequels and B. you can also be responsible for Kaiden's death (although he's not the one you can murder).

Anyways, if you don't think you can be a murderer in a video game, I can only think that you haven't played any western RPGs for the last 20 years.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:26 PM on May 6, 2012


[Braid is] dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way of a grown man standing before a class in a tweed jacket, with elbow patches and a neatly trimmed beard lecturing about proper literature is dumb.

I think your auto-correct may be malfunctioning. Based on your very detailed description, I think it's substituting in "dumb" whenever you mean this.
posted by belarius at 11:52 PM on May 6, 2012


I still don't understand why we're all supposed to be granting his premise that a grown man reading a poem about gandalf is dumb.

And how is it not even better if said grown man is wearing elf ears?
posted by the bricabrac man at 3:25 AM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think it's funny that Clark claims that video games are somehow more sophisticated in the design of their mechanics than in their storytelling or presentation of character. Because if you asked the Deep Blue team, or say a Go or Chess master, they'd tell you that the vast majority of video games are indeed quite dumb. Algorithmically. Forget story and character. The one area where Clark thinks games shine "intellectually" is actually also arguably an area in which they are "dumb".

What really got so many people upset seems to be the line about how there hasn't been a game in 30 years that had any intellectual merit.

The funny thing is, I think if they were honest, most of the classically great game designers would agree with him. When Chris Crawford designed Eastern Front and Miyamoto designed the first Super Mario Bros, a tacit assumption of western gaming magazines and gaming culture was that of course these games aren't very sophisticated. The assumption was further that as games advanced technically, they would also, (obviously!) mature in other ways.

But as people like Crawford and Brenda Brathwaite and Warren Spector have pointed out time and again, this isn't what's happened. Business factors and audience dynamics have, in fact, intervened in ways that have undercut the maturation of the medium. It's a bit like what happend to comics in the 50s and 60s - consolidation, appealing to the lowest common denominator, etc - with one key difference that video games are so much more expensive to produce, especially the AAA titles that have been taken as the vanguard for so long. And in fact all the intellectual heavyweights who might have helped us out of this conundrum have either failed in their major efforts (Crawford, for example, with drama engines) or have assumed more modest goals as game designers, having been marginalized by profit-minded executives who care very little about blue sky goals like "advancing the medium". (Contrast that with film execs like the Weinstein Brothers.)

I think Clark's comments sting in particular for gamers (or they should) because the brightest lights of the game industry (before the transformation of the industry that occurred in the late 90s and early 00s) would basically agree with him. I know that in 1998 I only expected games to get better and better - mostly because the technical innovations of the 90s had seemed to be accompanied by real design innovation - but as time went on and the 3D era came into its own, more and more of the innovation was purely technical - polygon throughput, bump maps, light blooms, some aspects of play control. In favored genres like the RPG, for example, I still think of late 90s titles like Planescape: Torment and BGII as virtually unmatched by anything that came after, let alone exceeded. This as a question of the core design and integration of elements - in other words the WHOLE game. 3D games just became such resource production grinds, and so risky, that REAL, fundamental innovation was impossible to finance. Now, today, you hear darlings of the current scene, like Cliffy B, talk about innovation as if it were a four-letter word, defending the right of games to be derivative. That's what passes for a "star game designer" these days - a man who's absorbed managerial risk analysis jargon so thoroughly that he bristles at the very idea that, as a game designer, he might actually be expected to DO SOMETHING NEW.

In the beginning, we played video games because, either we were children and our tastes really were unsophisticated, or because, as adults, we saw their potential to transcend their roots in the carnival midway. IF you told somebody in 1970 that duck shoots were great art (or as analytically interesting as Chess for that matter), they would have laughed at you. Today's shooters are not much more sophisticated (except technologically), and a whole class of self-described "gamers" flies into a rage at such "unjustifiable" insults.

Now that video games have failed to realize that potential and primarily become an escapist cash cow, it really should be harder for actual thinking adults to justify an interest in them. The problem is the gamer community and the gamer mindset, the identification with a medium that, in most cases, the "angry gamer" did nothing to help create other than fork over cash.

Gaming has become a religion. And no one will save games from their followers.

It's ironic to listen to all the fans talk about "how far games have come", because if you ask the people who made video games what they are today (and NOT just the people who've capitalized off of their work or consumed it) what they REALLY think of what's happened to the medium, in private, I think they'd tell you it's a tragedy.

The line about there not being a single intellectually sophisticated game in 30 years may not be quite true, but you know what? It's a lot truer than it ought to be.

And instead of being ASHAMED of that and doing something about it, the new generation of fans will just go on consuming the tragedy and defending it with every excuse they can muster.

Because it's not about video games realizing their potential anymore.

It's about a lot of people investing their fragile self-esteem in something they view as belonging to them.

Bankers and fanboys own video games now. And it's a tragedy.
posted by macross city flaneur at 3:54 AM on May 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


Aside from a handful of truly smart games, tentpole titles like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Call of Duty: Black Ops tend to be so silly and so poorly written that they make Michael Bay movies look like the Godfather series.

I find it amusing that the author could not think of a better example of "truly smart" art than the Godfather film which, although not a bad movie, is still a big-budget sequel-spawning Hollywood mainstream crowd-pleaser.
posted by faustdick at 4:05 AM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


I had a strong reaction to the article, but it's not so much because I think there are a lot of "smart" AAA games (which, whenever I read this type of piece, are what the authors mention exclusively.) Narratively strong AAA games tend to be FPS games, which as people have mentioned end up having to justify the central game mechanics in ways that often undermine their plots (LA Noire, for example, where you solve single-murder cases while gunning down a ludicrous number of people in side missions.) There are often very smart or interesting things about them, but I don't so much care about deciding whether or not they're "art."

But there are two things that really bother me about both this article and almost every other Blow profile I've ever read. The first is their insistence on comparing Blow only to AAA games, and on putting him forward as some lone voice in the wilderness, when there are plenty of others experimenting with the form. This weekend, I played Anna Anthropy's Dys4ia, a small game about her experience as a trans woman. It's in many ways a mashup of several different minigames, and it's not all that complex, but the interactivity and the stark presentation make it surprisingly moving, in the way a good story or film short would be. Likewise, there are interesting little mods like The Stanley Parable or (of course) Dear Esther that, while they're not perfect, explore the human condition in a way that's funny, moving, and very well-composed. The author could have looked at these games and decided he didn't like them, but instead they're never even given a nod.

You could argue that, well, Blow is the only one who's made it big, and it does make sense to profile him for that reason. But if you're complaining about chaff rising to the top of gaming, it doesn't make sense to ignore games that seem to fit your measure of smart (or to at least discuss why these more traditionally artistic games aren't actually smart) unless you're either being lazy or invested in inflating Blow's already substantial reputation and ego. I liked Braid, but I hate the position it's gotten as the only safe game to call interesting or artistic, largely because its creator is abrasive and publicized in a way that many other developers aren't.

Which brings me to the second thing, which is that almost every time I read about Blow, he seems to make a point of talking about how everybody gets his game wrong because they're just not smart enough. I'm fine with him not agreeing with an interpretation, but he seems obsessed with this idea that no meaning can exist in his work except that which he explicitly put into it, and that the only reason you might disagree with him is because you're not paying enough attention. It actively detracts from my enjoyment of Braid when the developer metaphorically stands over my shoulder and corrects my experience of his work.

The example that comes up every single time is one that was put forward at Feministe, where somebody made the point that parts of the game worked as a deconstruction of the "princess in distress" theme, where Tim romanticizes his quest without taking into account the woman as an actual human being. I don't think anybody there said that this was the only possible interpretation, but I can certainly see it when I play the game (it even provides a justification for the awkward purple prose if you're positioning Tim as a kind of parody.) Blow, uh, hates this theory and (to me) ends up coming off as if he thinks the very idea of somebody having an interpretation that he hadn't though of is ludicrous, and he tends to quickly dismiss things with which he appears to have had a very shallow experience (like his characterization of the entire field of humanities as "making up bullshit" in a previous interview after his experience as -- I believe -- an undergrad.)

I'm looking forward to his next game, and I feel like I should go back and play Braid again. But Blow is distinctly one of those people whose work I can only enjoy if I pretend he doesn't exist.
posted by Tubalcain at 5:20 AM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm fine with him not agreeing with an interpretation, but he seems obsessed with this idea that no meaning can exist in his work except that which he explicitly put into it, and that the only reason you might disagree with him is because you're not paying enough attention.

I think that it's more that he doesn't like people trying to figure out 'what it all means' at all, because there really isn't a hidden meaning to the game, or a storyline that needs to be figured out.

The example that comes up every single time is one that was put forward at Feministe, where somebody made the point that parts of the game worked as a deconstruction of the "princess in distress" theme, where Tim romanticizes his quest without taking into account the woman as an actual human being. [...]Blow, uh, hates this theory

I think it's more that he doesn't like the interpretation of the game as a narrative about a guy named Tim at all.
posted by empath at 6:14 AM on May 7, 2012


But then why are there sentences like "to Blow’s unending consternation, however, the mainstream video-game community has proved uninterested in exploring Braid’s hidden depths" in the piece, and why is there a section about whether or not he's "frustrated" with the article's author's interpretation? I understand that he's said he doesn't particularly like verbalizing what he thinks it "means," but he's clearly inserting and developing references and hints at metaphor.

A more charitable reading of Blow's dislike of these interpretations is that yeah, he thinks the interpretation I mentioned is simplistic, but it seems silly to say that it "doesn't make sense" as he does, and I feel like it diminishes the work to say that you can only enjoy it in the one way that's prescribed by Jonathan Blow. A good work can contain multiple layers, and they don't have to be mutually exclusive.
posted by Tubalcain at 6:37 AM on May 7, 2012


"to Blow’s unending consternation, however, the mainstream video-game community has proved uninterested in exploring Braid’s hidden depths"

I don't know. Like I said up thread, I think the article does him a bit of a disservice, because I've never actually seen him say anything like that in his interviews or talks. I don't know where the writer got it from. He's got particular overly simplistic interpretations that he doesn't like, but that's it.
posted by empath at 7:12 AM on May 7, 2012


Maybe I'd have to see him in person, empath. This A/V club interview seems to indicate the same thing as I said above, though, as a direct quote:
"There are definitely highly significant things that I've put into the game that have very specific meanings to me, and looking around on message boards and forums, I've seen individual people find most or all of those pieces, and say, "I see this, you know, and here's what this means to me, etc." I haven't necessarily seen one person put it all together. It's a very, I would say actually a very complicated text, and the way it works with the gameplay and the puzzles is very complicated and subtle. And so I wouldn't even necessarily expect to see that yet... there's a fundamental structure and reasons in the way things are laid out, and parts of the game that are meant to draw people's attention to certain things, regardless of what's contained in that structure. And what's interesting to me is that some people get that, and some people don't."
He does seem more forgiving in that than I remember, so maybe I'm doing him a disservice too. But I'm still getting the sense that there's a specific, correct structure and list of elements that he thinks exists in Braid.
posted by Tubalcain at 7:24 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Another way of saying this is: it is extremely difficult— maybe impossible— to come up with a story and characters that, when placed within the context of most current video games, don’t feel inherently silly.

Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption, Fallout 3 and New Vegas,...I can come up with SO MANY games just off the top of my head that don't fit this generality, though, cortex.

And, despite the plethora of movies I have to choose from each year, I can name very few recent releases that I would consider "intelligent": Cabin in the Woods. Inception, maybe. Possibly Rise of the Planet of the Apes, because it so surpassed the original, absurd premise of an existing franchise already enjoying a cult following.

That's it.

It makes me want to pull out my hair when I consider that it took Joss Whedon years to get Cabin in the Woods made, and yet derivative dreck like Battleship keeps hitting the screens year after year and making huge wads of cash.

Books: of course there are tons of intelligent, ground-breaking storylines, but again the market is flooded with Twilights and formulaic fiction like the books of Metafilter nemesis Dan Brown.

And I don't know that "it sounds silly out of the context of its genre" is even a fair metric of merit, or what will stand the test of time.

Consider how ridiculous religious beliefs sound to atheists (or how Scientology sounds to, well, basically everyone but Scientologists). Yet millions of Christians, Muslims and Jews not only believe, and strongly, in the tenets of their faith, many were willing to die for them.

So what criteria can we really use to judge worth? I would say the test of time, a strong personal connection to a game, maybe how users can, as someone mentioned already, pull more from it than even the makers imagined through imaginative game play.

Mario has been around for years. i'm not personally a fan, but I recognize there is a compelling draw there that should be respected, despite the "save the princess" simplicity of the game's premise. Bioshock was the first videogame I finished before my hardcore gamer kids, because the beauty of it kept me enthralled to the end--the lighting, movement and color of just the water in that game is incredible, and I definitely had an intense personal connection to the game's artistry and execution ("Would you kindly ..."). There are a number of RTS games that blow me away with their complexity--Starcraft, for example, is about as perfectly balanced in the opposing elements as a game can possibly be. Minecraft intimidates me;I find it clunky and hard to navigate personally, it should be so limited with its 8-bit graphics, yet I've seen players manage to create worlds of surpassing beauty.
posted by misha at 7:35 AM on May 7, 2012


Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption, Fallout 3 and New Vegas

The Fallout 3 games are incredibly silly, imo. So is Bioshock, really. Bioshock had a few good thematic ideas and a great setting, but it's the same tired 'kill everything that moves' gameplay that every other FPS has, and your moral decisions are kind of a joke. The little sisters are basically just Pinatas, and your 'moral choices' are utterly meaningless, both for the story and for the gameplay.
posted by empath at 7:46 AM on May 7, 2012


Yeah, I've found that a lot of games have solid settings and atmosphere, but the stories that can be told within the FPS framework end up seeming ridiculous. Fallout and Bioshock are basically compelling because the concepts are very, very clever and there are some fantastic set pieces, and because FPS games in general seem to be good at capturing this particular kind of loneliness where you're the only person around and you're doomed to destroy everything you touch. The funny thing is that the protagonist and antagonist in Bioshock were both really boring to me, as was the ripped-from-System-Shock-2 "playing the player," but I thought the incidental Splicer dialog was gold. Hearing people wander around the landscape mourning what could have been was surprisingly sad.
posted by Tubalcain at 7:58 AM on May 7, 2012


Bioshock 2's implementation of the little sister choices was better implemented thematically for me. Like the first game, the actual endpoint was pretty much the same regardless, but it did a much better job at at making it feel different in tone. Even the "murder absolutely everything in your way" effect fit better overall in terms of the story--who can't empathize with hyperbolic expressions of letting nothing stop you from rescuing not just a child, but your child?

The majority consensus seems to be that it's a lesser sequel, but I'm comfortable in the minority view there.

While I liked Red Dead Redemption for nice atmosphere, it's very much a good illustration of the utter disconnect between story and actual gameplay experience. Sure, Marston is a protagonist struggling for redemption from a dark past, etc., weight questions. Along that quest he'll gun down thousands of people by the end of the game from random encounters, the same handful of gunfight challengers, the dozens and dozens of enemies in each plot mission, and so forth. It's pretty goofy, and I can sympathize with being frustrated by it if you don't find unintended comedy in such things.

I've shared this story before, but one of my favorite unintended comic moments in RDR occurred in an early plot cutscene, where the spunky independent woman trying to keep her ranch running against rustlers and inclement weather and hard times angrily demands of our hero, "And just how many people have you killed, Mr. Marston?!" At that point, I paused the game and checked the statistics, and the answer was several hundred--in the past few days of gametime.
posted by Drastic at 8:09 AM on May 7, 2012


While I liked Red Dead Redemption for nice atmosphere, it's very much a good illustration of the utter disconnect between story and actual gameplay experience. Sure, Marston is a protagonist struggling for redemption from a dark past, etc., weight questions. Along that quest he'll gun down thousands of people by the end of the game from random encounters, the same handful of gunfight challengers, the dozens and dozens of enemies in each plot mission, and so forth. It's pretty goofy, and I can sympathize with being frustrated by it if you don't find unintended comedy in such things.

RDR was vastly, vastly, vastly better than GTA IV at this, though. The game seemed to discourage mayhem and random acts of murder.
posted by empath at 8:23 AM on May 7, 2012


Just about every Rockstar game from the past five years or so is a great font of unintentional comedy, because they're all theoretically about grappling with a dark past and the nature of morality while also incidentally murdering hundreds of people. My "conflicted" Niko Bellic accidentally ran down pedestrians on a regular basis and never turned down a hit contract, despite having literally a million dollars in the bank and getting paid only something like $5,000 a pop for each job, which often involved multiple murders.

LA Noire was a lot more reserved in this regard, but it felt like the game was always warring between wanting to be a noir movie where you find clues and tail suspicious people and needing to give you the opportunity to randomly show up at an attempted bank heist and headshot every single perp within five minutes. Cole Phelps probably killed more people than the entire criminal population of LA over the course of that game.
posted by Tubalcain at 8:34 AM on May 7, 2012


> it is extremely difficult— maybe impossible— to come up with a story and characters that, when
> placed within the context of most current video games, don’t feel inherently silly.

I say that every time I play my favorite game. But I say it in hearty approval due to my favorite game being Lemmings.
posted by jfuller at 8:35 AM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


But there are two things that really bother me about both this article and almost every other Blow profile I've ever read. The first is their insistence on comparing Blow only to AAA games, and on putting him forward as some lone voice in the wilderness, when there are plenty of others experimenting with the form.

Yeah, it's basically a retread of the breathless "the only intelligent man in video games" profiles of Peter Molyneux we used to get, especially right around the time Black & White was released.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:35 AM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


we need to figure out what art is worthy so we can figure out what art is worth

then program all the aesthetic facts into a computer and remove the human element entirely
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 9:17 AM on May 7, 2012


Would games be better if they were smarter? Sure. Does it really matter? So what? Why is this even a worthwhile question?

What? Yes? Have you ever played a well-written game? The experience is infinitely more fun.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:40 AM on May 7, 2012


Fifty years from now, they will be holding up some of the games being sold right now as great examples of early Art... the only reason the snobs can't see it is because they're too close. Shakespeare was once considered "vulgar, provincial, and overrated", a result of a quick search I just ran -- he was definitely lower-class entertainment for the proles. Look what happened with his stuff.

Shakespeare's company was also made the King's Men within his lifetime, given the direct stamp of approval by James I.

That's kind of the thing, you know? Within his field and by his effort, Shakespeare helped turn elizabethan drama from a cross between a punch and judy show and a mime act into something that could express the subtlest fancies of the human heart. When it comes to cinema, twenty years after the lumiere brothers you've got DW Griffith doing Birth of a Nation, which in addition to inventing tons of cinematic techniques still used today, was also a hugely popular film and a highly successful propaganda piece for the KKK.

Sure, the tentpole pictures of today are pretty schlocky --- and I'd conceed that that's a problem that's gotten worse in recent years. You could say the same for books as well. But I can't help but think of Wells' famouse quote on making Citizen Kane --- that it was like being given the world's biggest train set. There's a joy of creation embedded in that quote which seems to me missing from the conversation around video games --- a sense of wanting to test the limits, to see what this baby can do, to make new miracles. I think that's what Shakespeare was trying to do with his history plays, or Joyce with Ulysses, or Wells with Kane. Let's push it, you know? Why settle for the merely entertaining when you can hit transcendent? Video games are this billion dollar industry now --- yet in some ways the mainstream seems so constrained in a way no other art form has been in its youth.... It just seems like with all of this, the acting and the art and the animation and the AI, you could do something else, something more. Shouldn't games still be at the stage when they're inventing new genres? Where you're trying to expand the form, to challenge people and make them see the world in a new way? You have such wonderful toys!

Don't get me wrong, it seems like there are some games out there trying to do that. It seems like there are definitely some companies pushing at the boundaries of what's possible --- you have people celebrating Portal's wit or Mass Effect's romance. But what seems weird to me is people's defense of the games as pure entertainment, when the types of entertainment they offer are so limited. I mean Punch and Judy shows were extremely popular, Pamela was a blockbuster in its day, but I'm pretty glad nobody said, that's it, "fuck it, those forms are done and can't be improved on," because that's how we got Shakespeare or Pride and Prejudice in the first place.
posted by Diablevert at 11:32 AM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


It was a few thousand years between Sophocles and Shakespeare, fwiw.
posted by empath at 11:38 AM on May 7, 2012


Yes, I very much get the feeling from this thread that if I, as a consumer of this type of media, don't enjoy hacking people to bits in a virtual environment, well, then I'm not welcome and I should just go screw.

It's really icky.


Ditto. Honestly, I found this thread really frustrating to read, and I guess I've reached a point where I just don't even want to talk about interactive media anymore. The stuff that excites me is too obscure, the stuff that's talked about bores me and the tone of the conversations has become way more hostile than I'm really comfortable with.

Anyway, if you liked Shenmue, you might like Dreamfall. It's not nearly as detailed, but it's similar in that it's mostly exploring beautiful cities and following a (good, for a videogame) story. I also really loved Fragile for the same reasons (I might even say the stories in Fragile are just good), but playing the game the way I did (don't fight things, just explore, interact with the characters and environments, and advance the plot) kind of fudges everything near the end. Still.
posted by byanyothername at 3:56 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Beethoven's symphonies don't have characters.

Dont' be silly. When my BFF in high school - a budding poet - heard Beethoven's 8th he said it was full of clowns. Acuity.
posted by Twang at 7:02 PM on May 7, 2012


The Trouble With Call of Duty’s Scary New War of the Future
posted by homunculus at 7:11 PM on May 7, 2012


Tubalcain: "LA Noire was a lot more reserved in this regard, but it felt like the game was always warring between wanting to be a noir movie where you find clues and tail suspicious people and needing to give you the opportunity to randomly show up at an attempted bank heist and headshot every single perp within five minutes. Cole Phelps probably killed more people than the entire criminal population of LA over the course of that game."

The side missions in LA Noire feel very much like they realized 2/3 of the way through that they'd need some shooting in this game if they were going to sell it as an action game and not a Waving Bottles Around Because Cole Has Fucked Up Wrists and Can't Turn Things Like a Normal Human Simulator. They're also super annoying and caused me to start stealing cars early on in mission so they would stop popping up every 2 minutes.

Mostly, though, they're incongruous because LA Noire is about nothing so much as failing and being a failure who muddles through blindly and is somehow rewarded for it. I'm sure there's a 100% run on YouTube, but I'd like to see a run getting the fewest clues possible. I think it would make the most narrative sense of any playthrough. At least, that's how it felt for me as I got into the later parts of the game, got worse at deciphering the facial modelling, and moved from being the department's golden boy to getting chewed out by my boss half the time.

Overall, I think what games need is not better stories but better structures and better design. The reason games tell stories as well as they do is that interactivity is draws you in unbelievably powerfully. The way to build on that is to give the game more stories to tell that are less railroaded and that hold your hand less. I'm drawn out of games' stories when characters make choices in cutscenes that I disagree with. Hell, I'm drawn out when the dialog choices don't match up well with what the PC actually says. Choices with consequences would help, and more reactive environments and situations would be even better. One of the solutions to GTA being half cutscenes about a man's journey to redemption and half pointless, gleeful murder is to make the pointless, gleeful murder actually cost something during the game. If I grabbed a gun in life and ran down the street firing at people, the cops wouldn't give up after I ran away for 5 minutes, and if I did it every day, people would stop walking around outside.

Plus, once you've depopulated half of Liberty City and turned the other half into a police state, maybe the journey to redemption would actually mean something.
posted by Copronymus at 8:52 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


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