How Should A Game Be?

by Mike Barthel

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-announcedSteam 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.