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A psychologist's thoughts on how and why we play games

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Not Just Solid Food, But Real Food

Things have been quiet around here because I've been striving to get published elsewhere!  Today I have an article on Medium Difficulty: Not Just Solid Food, But Real Food. Please read it!

Last week, John Walker over at RPS wrote an editorial asking that games grow up and try taking on more serious themes.

For goodness sake, even Jennifer Aniston movies have more to say about love than all of gaming put together, and what Jennifer Aniston movies have to say about love is, “Durrrrrrrr.” Where is our commentary? Where is our criticism? Where is our subversion? Where is the game that questions governments, challenges society, hell, asks a bloody question? Let alone issues. Good heavens, imagine a game that dealt with issues!

 I found Walker's argument to be fundamentally flawed, suggesting that games are serious or worthwhile if and only if they have serious themes.  This is wrong for several reasons:  First, we already have lots of games that pretend to be about serious things but are utterly boneheaded.  Next, there are plenty of games, some of them thousands of years old, which are taken seriously and respected by all despite their lack of theme - consider Chess or Football.  Finally, since games are meant to be won, serious concepts like love or death will be reduced to things to be won or lost.

Theme doesn't make a smart game.  Smart gameplay makes smart games.

3 comments:

  1. Throughout your blog you seem to have this same opinion about game themes. And try to somehow include the games plot in its gameplay.

    While it is a possible view on a games structure, it is an unnecessary complicated one. I found it much easier to treat story and gameplay as two separate processes. Some games, like Tetris, don't actually have any story. In fact, a games story is completely independent from its gameplay mechanics in most cases(I can't actually think of a game that did).

    So the usual treatment a game gets from me is as if it consisted from two parts - a movie/book with a story and a set of rules that define gameplay mechanics. I can like the first and be completely frustrated with the second and vice versa.

    So it's like "Smart theme OR smart gameplay make smart games", though usually I prefer an AND.

    For example, Morrowind had strong philosophical themes with quite solid gameplay (explorers loved it, but the battle system and enemy AI was somewhat lacking). And to this day Morrowind is still valued as much as a deep atmospheric game(storywise) as an enjoyable dungeon crawler(gameplaywise). In fact, there were both a gameplay runthrough, finding challenges for yourself AND a story runthrough, looking for books and notes and just talking to NPCs, most of which didn't require any gameplay effort at all(although the main storyline did a little bit, but it's not even 5% of in-game lore most of which is freely accessible at any level).

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  2. Tetris does have a story, it's just not explicitly articulated in the same way as authored ones. I'd actually say that tetris has a better story than most games specifically _because_ it is one that plays out entirely through the act of playing the game, instead of being a pre-recorded sing-a-long goes on regardless of whatever you end up trying to sing.

    Until we figure out how to generate dialog on the fly I think that the most powerful and provocative game narratives will be the ones that don't contain any dialog at all, and instead allow for the game itself to tell the story. That or at least tie whatever pre-authored narrative there is directly into the act of playing the game, as Braid does. Dwarf Fortress is the obligatory example here, but I'm also talking about games like x-com and Journey and Eve. I was more moved by what happened while watching a friend play through Journey with a random internet guy than I was by any of the Uncharted or Mass Effect games, and those are currently the best our medium has yet to offer along those traditional lines.

    The problem is that developers are trying to write better stories than those in books and movies, but are doing so completely separate from gameplay. It'll never work because they're both denying their medium's greatest strength (interactivity) and utterly diluting what story they do add because there's a bunch of inconsequential filler in between.

    I find that it's the mentality that game story is and/or should be completely independent from gameplay mechanics that prevents the industry from creating more meaningful games.

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    1. I agree. The trick in telling a story via video games, is to allow the combat to flow as a natural progression rather than just being there for the sake of it like some 2nd-rate action film. I enjoyed Halo 4 far more than the previous instalments simply because it was overall shorter and the action was not prolonged and repetitive corridors (compared, say, to the previous 3). I felt like the cutscenes arrived before I had much chance to become bored with combat. That was nice, though barely a high watermark, but still.

      In terms of platforming, I would rather see a room that unlocks its story secrets as you platform through it via visual cues - like Braid with the jig-saw puzzles, but because I think in 3rd person, I see the character always coming into contact with story elements as they platform rather than just a cutscene that explains it all at the end.

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