Thursday, January 16th, 2014
13

How Should A Game Be?

Just like every year for at least the past half-decade, 2013 was the GREATEST YEAR EVER for games: the graphics more realistic, the worlds bigger, the narratives more cinematic. Bioshock Infinite and Grand Theft Auto V, the year's two highest-profile releases, won near-universal acclaim from the major games reviewers, and no wonder: with their intricately-detailed worlds and epic, violent stories full of tortured characters and twisting plots, they perfectly fulfilled the current standards for Quality Games.

But for perhaps the first time, much of the criticism these so-called AAA games inevitably received came not from the usual arbiters of moral decay, but from dedicated, engaged gamers. Bioshock was criticized for its emphasis on violence over story, and for being too easy to play, while the relentless sexism (and decent bit of racism) in GTA came in for its own criticism. This built to an overall complaint of these games as soulless corporate behemoths pandering to the worst impulses of the public and spreading odious political values.

What should we play instead? Why, independent games, of course! In Papers, Please, you play the passport agent of a totalitarian state, and the graphics are only cutting edge if you’ve been in a coma since 1993; in Gone Home you play a teenage girl in 1995 who returns home to find her family missing, and must explore the house's contents to discover their fate. Both were thoughtful, artistic, quiet, and small.

As games take a central place in the entertainment world (GTA grossed over a billion dollars in its first week, more than all but one of Hollywood's summer blockbusters), the great unresolved question is what their place will be in the culture. Will they be, as the AAAs have it, like big Hollywood movies, lauded for their technical achievements and character-driven drama? Or will they be, as the indies are aiming for, more like poetry, dazzling for their precision, rigor, and mystery? And—perhaps most urgently of all—what do these two alternatives leave out? What vital qualities of games do we miss by having as our sole options blockbusters or poetry?


The big games in 2013 were amazing technical achievements. Bioshock Infinite created a fictional world in which nativists had broken away from the U.S. in the late 19th century and built a flying city that hovered above the world, free from any state; in the opening sequence, you explored a dazzing boardwalk, reading news bulletins about resistance movements and listened to a barbershop quartet sing "God Only Knows" on a hoverboat. (An intentional anachronism, intended to foreshadow time-travel tears that appear later in the game.) GTA mapped a giant edit of the greater Los Angeles area and filled it with an incredible level of detail. The Last of Us put you in a terrifying reproduction of a post-apocalyptic Boston metro station full of zombies who quickly overrun your group if you make too much noise.

The result was apparent universal acclaim from commercial games reviewers: according to Metacritic, Bioshock received 24 perfect scores, GTA 35, and The Last of Us 41. (Can you imagine an album getting 41 perfect scores? A movie? A book?) More importantly, these three games received zero negative reviews. The negativity, then, came from critics, not reviewers. Kotatu's Kirk Hamilton summarized the two primary issues with Bioshock (which was slaveringly anticipated by gamers): that it's way too easy, and way too violent. The game's designers had a great story to tell about structural oppression and quantum physics, and they told it through a virtual world created for the sole purpose of telling that story. But because they also told it through a video game, you had to advance through the game by brutally murdering a large number of people. But because they wanted to make sure a mass audience got to experience the story, it was pretty easy to kill people. And so no one was really satisfied. It was widely considered one of the best games of the year anyway.

As for Grand Theft Auto V, sexism had long been a problem for the series, but as its audience and cultural prominence had grown massively since GTA IV, this installment was the first to encounter the kind of critics who could call the game on it constructively. In her Gamespot review of the game—a review that awarded the game a score of 9/10—Carolyn Petit pointed out that, hey, maybe a game in which none of the main characters are women and the only serious female character gets sucked into a jet engine (among other issues!) might be a problem. Commenters heaped so much abuse on her for it that Gamespot produced a response video carefully laying out why they were wrong, arguing that "if we ever want to see games being broadly accepted as an artform, or as anything more than a slightly quirky pastime, we have to include politics."

Games are very self-consciously trying to establish themselves as an capital-a Art, and are using the critical reception as part of their case: a holiday-season TV ad for GTA touts it as "THE MOST HIGHLY REVIEWED GAME OF THE YEAR," and games' grosses are used as an argument that they're "bigger than movies." (By this argument, milk is also bigger than movies.) Ken Levine, Bioshock's designer, has been a major proponent of games as art, and his games advance the argument that games can tell complex stories that are meaningful specifically because you're playing a game. In his previous effort, the universally adored Bioshock (less a prequel to Infinite than a sort of alternate version), you discover near the end of the game that the voice you'd thought was just telling you how to play the game is in fact the villain, giving your character telepathic commands to kill. The designer of GTA justified their decision to have none of the game's three main characters be female by arguing that "the concept of being masculine was so key to this story." The story, here, is all.

There are lots of great game critics out there, but a good summation of the critical perspective comes in a piece by Tevis Thompson called "On Videogame Reviews." Thompson begins his piece with the line "Bioshock Infinite is the worst game of the year," but while that game is his focus, his critiques apply more widely. (It's a sign of the current vitality of games criticism that it tends toward such extremes; there is much to fight about.) He argues that as the graphics of AAA games have become increasingly realistic, the way the worlds work has remained mechanical, and this alienates non-hardcore gamers who don't already accept the nonsensical way games work; that in focusing on telling a story rather than making a game, the designers have produced an extremely unsatisfying experience for gamers looking for a challenge; and that in seeking a mass audience to justify their huge budgets, AAA game producers have pandered to politically problematic positions.

These arguments are not (just) theoretical. Games already exist that satisfy Thompson's standards, and are widely available both on an iTunes-like platform called Steam and the in-system store for the Playstations 3 and 4. Take Papers, Please. Its flat, anachronistic graphics weren't chosen solely to obviate the need for a building full of programmers and million-dollar budgets: they're absolutely vital to evoking the game's setting of an east European authoritarian regime. As a player, your goal is to decide who to allow through and who to reject, but you fail frequently, resulting in regime destabilization or border bombings. By forcing you to consider the difficulty of these decisions—and the enormity of their consequences—the game forms a powerful political argument about immigration policy. It's not tremendously fun, but it's awfully meaningful.

1 Of course, this dichotomy leaves out the most commercially successful game genres: puzzle/casual games like Candy Crush, sports games, and non-narratively driven shooters like Call of Duty. Despite a push to make games criticism more about the gameplay (or "ludic" aspects), like level design or the logic of a game's rules, puzzle and sports games are ferociously hard to write criticism about, or at least any criticism that resonates beyond a fairly elite audience. For instance, in her fantastic piece about the exclusion of female voices from games criticism, Brianna Wu makes a compelling case for the most recent Tomb Raider as a fantastic and worthwhile game, but does so almost entirely through reference to character and narrative elements of the game. Given her purpose of alerting a broad audience to the mistreatment of female games critics, this seems like the right way to go: we're used to interpreting art based on character and narrative. There's lots of ludic criticism out there—the aforementioned Thompson does so on a regular basis—but it's failed to find as much purchase as pieces about games' narratives have. This is another path games criticism might go, but at present it seems too foreboding to most readers, and as such it's not able to draw the kind of connections with other forms that form-justifying criticism needs to do (though it's flourishing as an academic discipline). "Games are art because they are like novels" is an easier argument to make than "games are art because they are games."

These are the lines on which the critical battle-lines have been drawn: narrative-heavy AAA games get pushed to a mainstream audience as breathtaking advances in realism and size; critics respond by championing the difficult and the handmade.1 Each side represents a competing argument about how games can justify themselves as art. AAA games, and consumer game reviewers, use the logic of Hollywood blockbusters: big budgets, big successes, big names, big pictures. The purpose of games is to tell stories, and to tell them to as many people as possible. These stories should be laden with the kind of importance we see in Oscar winners. GTA is a story about "being masculine…parenting and pseudo-parenting." Bioshock is about free will, quantum physics, America, history. Games need all the guns and the glitz because that's what big stories require.

Indie games, on the other hand, are justified in the same terms as mid-century modernist art, especially poetry. They are not for the masses, but for a discerning elite. They are intentionally out of step with current trends. They are by single creators, generally, and those creators are lauded as heroic. They are gestural and evocative, often abstract. They advance progressive political values. And, just as T.S. Eliot insisted that "modern poetry is supposed to be difficult," games should, like the final world of any Super Mario Brothers game, be difficult to get through in order for audiences to fully engage with them as artistic creations.

Both of these approaches feel incomplete. Video games became a cultural force specifically because they're really, really good at providing pleasurable experiences to kids, and if they've broadened beyond this, that ember of fun must still burn at the heart of any true game. It seems strange to suggest that games are only art if they're avant-garde art; indeed, many games critics explicitly reject "fun" as a way to judge games, considering it suspiciously bourgeois. It's not surprising that the critical conversation has developed this way, given that nearly identical turns toward the small, handmade, and difficult produced both the indie movies and indie music movements. It's frustrating to see in games, though, because unlike movies or music, the critical discussion that had already risen up around games very much valued pleasure. It's limiting to judge games solely on their enjoyment value, but it seems needlessly obtuse to abandon the standard entirely.

At the same time, it would be an equal tragedy for games to become like Hollywood blockbusters, limited to a handful of narrative strategies (the plot twists in Bioshock and The Last of Us both play the "FREE WILL IS AN ILLUSION!" card pretty heavily) and drained of any energy. I loved Bioshock Infinite, but the critics are right that the gameplay quickly became rote, and if I wasn't so invested in the story it's doubtful I woud've made it past the halfway point. It feels like the game's designers were so focused on creating an amazing story that they forgot to make an actual game with engaging goals and well-balanced opponents, much like how with Avatar James Cameron focused so much on innovations in motion capture that he forgot to make a movie with characters and a story. I finished GTA quickly, and it was extremely unsatisfying, like the designers had produced this incredible world and then neglected to give me much to do within it, or at least nothing that meaningfully connected with the objects they'd put in the world. It was impressive, but I don't know how much fun it was. Those are the game parts of games, and if they're not the focus, it's unclear what the point is of me spending 20 or more hours with a controller in my hand. And lots of players do seem to be finding enough pleasure in difficult games to keep coming back: DayZ, a game that gets positive reviews saying things like "raided a military base and I got some great gear, then I accidentally drank bleach and died," has been bought by a million people, despite not being finished. Clearly there's something fun going on there.

As the next-generation consoles roll onto the market, however, the landscape may be shifting. While the Xbox 360 was the dominant platform over the past half-decade, the PS4 was easily winning the pre-release battle with the Xbox One, and one of the unique draws of the PS4 was its embrace of indie games. As a result, the games available only on the PS4 far outnumbered the 15 exclusive to the Xbox One. And the newly-announced "Steam Box" pushes this possibility even further. Steam, which allows users to buy and download both AAA and indie games to their computers, is partnering with manufacturers to produce consoles devoted solely to hosting Steam games. As a result, you'll soon be able to buy and quickly set up a plastic box that lets you download Papers, Please as easily as you can Call of Duty. Like the historical shifts that have enabled the production of avant-garde art (patronage, postwar affluence, cheap rents in SoHo), this may be one of those moments that opens up a space for difficult things to thrive in the mainstream. If so, the debate about what makes games art will only become more fraught.





Mike Barthel has a Tumblr.

13 Comments / Post A Comment

Danzig! (#5,318)

Wowee here comes a long comment.

Part of it is the stratification of production – while the comparison of video games to film seems spurious in the context of consumption, it's not spurious at all in terms of budgeting. You average AAA game (that is, a game by a major publisher that doesn't run its own hardware platform) is made for probably $30 million on average, over 2-5 years. A lot of that isn't just for the sake of garishness, it's just that the amount of legwork and tech needed to provide the basic gameplay mechanics that consumers generally expect – full 3D (high-res, high-poly) modeling, real-time lighting, physics, etc – is intense and expensive. That's where the gap mostly resides, I think.

I mean, there's a lot (a hell of a lot) you could point to in order to explicate how the medium got to where it is at this point in time, but the criticisms you could level at game publishers are the same you could lob at major film studios – that expense has made them risk-averse, and that risk aversion has made them dull. When Bioshock Infinite was first revealed the villain / crux of the story was an American ultranationalist rather than a charismatic christian prophet.* There are a lot of reasons why that might have changed but I don't think cutting examination of American nationalism would have flown with any major publisher. The other day someone on twitter wrote that the problem with games like Call of Duty is not that they normalize violence but that they reinforce the inherent righteousness of military / paramilitary forces and all they do. I think that's on point. I can't even really play Mass Effect 3 anymore without the cryptofascist romanticism of it blaring like a siren (universally heroic soldiers, faceless and nameless civilians who are utterly hopeless without them, conniving and obstructionist civilian democratic authority, etc). Games are not all that removed from dreck like Lone Survivor.

Maybe I'm all over the place here. It is kind of a shame that with games you can have bran or cocoa puffs but not both, but if you're going to be critical (in the political rather than aesthetic sense) of games then it's true that "fun" is an inadequate measure, and indeed the concept of fun itself can be interrogated as an aspect of hegemonic cultural production, or whatever. But somehow putting games through the Brecht grinder seems pointless. That we should strip games of the elements that make them engaging and expose them as naked mechanical systems of inputs / outputs, as twine projects tend to, seems pointless. But it only feels that way because the point of games is to be fun, or so it's thought.

A lot of people are touting Kickstarter as being sort of a bridge, allowing self-styled auteurs and indie types budgets more in line with their ambitions, but I'm not sure of the extent to which that's true. This year seems like a test, since all of the big, nominally progressive kickstarter successes are due to be released. We'll see what changes, if anything.

*There might have been some avenues of criticism their eventual approach would have afforded, around the birth of the modern born-again movement and its endemic white supremacy and nationalism, but they weren't pursued from what I could tell. It all fell into a rote "extremism is bad" sentiment. And I loved the game!

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

@Danzig! Oh hey, wow, all good points. I think what I was trying to say is that focusing on either AAA or indie would be a fine approach, but they're very different approaches. I totally agree that big-budget games are like big-budget movies in many ways, and I think they can be justified as art in the same way film critics did in the 60s/70s (Cahiers, Kael, etc.) – through appeal to something like auteur theory and championing their populist appeal. (Is there a Kaelian games critic out there doing like libidinal critiques of Skyrim?) But as a music critic, I know that ultimately one view tends to win out: all rock music is now judged by the standards of punk, even though there are a lot of different versions of rock critics could champion. So will critics decide that AAA games aren't "really art" and focus on the indie stuff? Or will the big-budget standards win out, as they seem to have in film criticism? Or maybe they can coexist!

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@Danzig! @MikeBarthel I think the most video games-y thing I can say about video games is that the smartest, most sensitive, intelligent, socially and culturally and aesthetically aware writing about them is done on a website called "Rock, Paper, Shotgun."

Danzig! (#5,318)

@stuffisthings RPS is pretty great on the whole, I agree. Their PC focus and perhaps their Britishness might factor into that. For whatever reason it seemed like console-bound multiplayer shooters really changed the scope and tenor of gaming. Not that it was particularly progressive before that, but suddenly we had gamers as a demographic, and thus a market, and thus a culture (both critical and end-user).

Fwiw there are some critical, trenchant writers on the fringes of the usual conversations. Soha El-Sabaawi wrote a couple of pretty strong pieces on Infinite when it came out, Porpentine shows up on RPS pretty often (and is on the Hairpin today!). But mainline criticism, Kotaku and Polygon and Penny Arcade and the like, is for the birds. In my opinion, at least.

fhwang (#8,234)

First, can I please say that if The Awl were to create a site that were about games I would be unreasonably, unfathomably, excited? Okay then.

Two random thoughts:

1. "Indie game" is a bit of an amorphous catch-all, when you think about it. It includes artier stuff like "Papers, Please", but also hardcore Rogue-likes or games with lo-fi graphics but super-complex rules engines. What they have in common is that they're all low-budget, but they often appeal to very different audiences. I hope as time goes on this can be delineated further but I'm not 100% how that happens.

2. If you're looking for indie action you have to avoid the main consoles: Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft are very committed to their big game publishers, and for reasons that are probably sensible. The big triple-A releases are what drive console loyalty for a lot of people. Indie games are far easier to find on iOS or Steam, and I think it's a damn shame that Steam's look and feel makes you feel like you're at a LAN party drinking too much Mountain Dew, because inside that store there are actually a lot of lovely independent games waiting to be found. The situation doesn't feel that similar to comic book stores not that long ago: Lots of great, sensitive comics to be found but only if you could wade through a mile of generic superhero crap to find it.

There does generally seem to be an upswing of interest in indie games, which is great. More than anything else that's what keeps me coming back to Steam …

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

@fhwang Also good points! "Indie" is definitely a meaningless term, but it is for movies and music too – there are lots of bands we'd recognize as "indie" that are on major labels, and lots of bands on independent labels that don't sound "indie." That "indie games" is starting to become a name for a genre term rather than a description of a distribution arrangement is indicative of the avant-garde shift in games.

p is for pee (#900)

HOLY CANOLI man! Spoiler alert w/ the end of Bioshock. I haven't played it yet and I feel a little robbed.

xee (#8,831)

No mention of Xbox Live Arcade? I think the majority of the "indie game" playing that my friends do has been sourced via XBLA. It's always been my impression that that was the first distributor for the indie game: the movie crop of indie games – Fez, Super Meat Boy, Braid – games that are highly playable but have that recognisably "indie" aesthetic particularly in their use of nostalgic tropes. Which are games I wish you'd discussed here!

Of course these are (by and large) platformers, and have nothing like as much of the RPG elements that you're identifying in the AAA games, but they're strong on ludic elements, they're hugely fun and their criticism can't avoid discussion of how fun they are to play. They're popular, they're critically rated, they're valued for their aesthetic. The economic and structural disparity between indie and major studios means they're shorter and more derivative than major-studio platformers. But there isn't the same gap you're identifying by focusing so much on story-led games.

There's a huge and undeniable tendency in indie games towards eat-your-greens Difficult Art with a Moral Message – especially when it comes to experimental free games, whose very freeness is often related to the creators' political and artistic convictions. But there's also a lot of sentimental and nostalgic stuff that uses its limited resources not to be meaningful but just to charm (even to charm with how difficult it is! even for kids! i've had six-year-olds commandeer my computer to play endless rounds of bit-trip runner (which, ok, rhythm action puzzle) in total delight and fascination).

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Any gamer reader this is going to have quibbles about what you left out so I'll just say this: I think games are at present the most diverse, vibrant, and healthy artistic medium going. There is simply great stuff available for every taste and at every brow-level, not just the conceptual indies and AAA blockbusters discussed here, but a vast range of everything in between (and off to the side, too). Like Paradox's strategy offerings. Or the incredibly detailed military/racing simulators and their fanatical fans. Or the explosion of roguelikes. But it has to be taken on its own terms. How do you describe the way narrative emerges from the ludic elements of something like DayZ, or FTL, or Crusader Kings II, using the language of any other medium? Most of the gaming critics at the intellectual level of "ARE GAMES ART?" already find the question tiresome.

And the amazing thing is that, even with games being cheaper than ever for the consumer, creating them is remunerative in a way that painting and poetry and even journalism haven't been in a long time. The makers of Hotline Miami probably earned more money last year than America's best-regarded up-and-coming poet. I'd also be willing to bet that Notch has made more money from Minecraft in 2013 than Robin Thicke did from Blurred Lines. That's a crass way to measure an artform, but without the money we wouldn't have nearly so much interesting stuff happening. I think fading cultural industries (e.g. literary publishing) could learn a lot, if they wanted to listen.

Finally, I should point out the fact that many games critics (notably Rock Paper Shotgun — whose GOTY was Kentucky Route Zero) intentionally don't give numerical scores or thumbs up/thumbs down ratings even when they do reviews because of how badly Metacritic scores are abused by the industry — I guess a lot of game execs went to Harvard because a 7/10 is considered an absolute failure. So runs of "perfect" reviews simply don't mean the same thing as they would in another medium.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Just to clarify: another reason the no-score critics don't give scores is because they've already settled ARE GAMES ART and they have decided to treat them the way Serious Novels are treated in The New Yorker, not the way your brother's cousin's post-grindcore EP is treated in the local alt weekly.

markkowgier (#258,051)

Great Post!

I really liked the parallel between indie games and Modernist poetry. And I think there's more to it as well. If we're talking about the evolution of criticism and how it can apply to games, you could just as easily look at the shift from modernism to post modernism. One of the key elements of pomo is a constant sense of play and fun (when it's not buried under too much self-referential bullshit).

So then a case could be made that a potential future for games would be a similar embrace of aspects from all 'levels' of games (high and low). That would leave us with a game the not only uses addictive puzzles from 'lower-Art' games, but also deep layered storytelling from high-Art games, as well as everything in between that's fun.

And that's where I disagree with you a bit. Just because ""games are art because they are games" is a harder argument to make, doesn't make it less important. It depends what your goal is. If it's attract readers to a critical discussion, I think you're right. But if it's to push that discussion forward about how to make videogames that are unquestionably Art (which your article totally does) then I think we have to go there. I think the games that double down on the fun inherent in the medium, are the ones that won't just inherent the Art thrown, they'll destroy it. In the same way that the best poetry is infused with the electricity of fun inherent in that medium

I'm gonna stop there because your ideas have clearly inspired something. This feels like a blog post. I'll shoot you a link once I've posted it.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

@markkowgier Awesome!

notquitethere (#257,448)

I think you need to unpack what you mean by 'fun'. Do you mean some kind of consistent state of elation? From what I can see, it's not even obvious that games are fun.

I think good games are engaging, they hold our interest. But this engagement isn't best couched in terms of 'fun'.

It's not even obvious that bad but popular games like Call of Duty and Candy Crush are fun— they're compulsive and frustrating but hypnotise their players into states of deep flow.

When I think of the games I've enjoyed the most, it's not entirely clear that this joy was experienced consistently in actual play. Monkey Island or maybe Fallout 2 are funny and challenging, they're not elating.

If I play a roguelike, like Dwarf Fortress or Cataclysm DDA, it's a sort of extended intellectual exercise like chewing over a sheet of cryptic crosswords that self-combust whenever you get a letter wrong. At the end, I'll have an exciting emergent story of hubris or escape but most of the play isn't exciting.

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