Games pretending not to be games


Continuing a thought from last week (and on the general theme I’ve been running with since the Aug./Sep. #BoRT topic) that pacing in games and stories are competing with each other to the detriment of the overall experience.  I don’t believe this is always the case, but those instances are the ones where a game’s status of being defined as a game is in question (e.g. Gone Home, or The Walking Dead.)  In the case of Arkham City, I felt that the development of player skill and strategy was mitigated by the need to maintain the narrative’s momentum.  Certainly, there are strategies players can employ to complete the game effectively but Arkham City hardly challenges you to do this.  And I can understand why this would be necessary – above all else the game wanted to envelope you in a sense of being Batman, and diverting attention away from the plot and its characters would interrupt that experience.

There’s something more to this idea though.  Of course, Arkham Asylum isn’t going to start the game off at level 1-1 and track your high scores.  But what about a game like Resident Evil 6?  Resident Evil 5 and 6 are known for their their eschewment of conventional survival horror elements in favor of an experience that more resembles an action movie.  Or how about the Modern Warfare series?  No health bars, no need to actually play the game, just witness the cool stuff happening around you.  Blockbuster video games are more often resembling movies in how scenes are “shot” and how their stories are told and they are criticized many times for failing to maintain a movie-like atmosphere.  The larger theme here, I believe, is that publishers are attempting to pander to an audience that doesn’t want to be reminded that they are playing a video game.

The response to Roger Ebert’s 2005 assertion that games are not art fanned flames of insecurity in the gaming community.  After years of having our hobby derided as solely being for children’s amusement, or being accused as murder simulator enthusiasts, we’re a bit sensitive.  Showing games as a form of speech has been imperative to defending video games from legal impediments.  Not all speech is protected, and to persuade many judges that games are a protected form of speech, they had to demonstrate merit as a medium.  More explicitly, at the time, if the topic of games as speech would make it to the Supreme Court of the U.S., it would be subject to the Miller test and scrutinized as to “whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”  And from that comes the nerve that Ebert hit with a ton of bricks.

For years, and years, the debate over games as art continued (even if it was a mostly one-sided debate.)  Gamers and games writers put a great deal of effort into reassuring us all that video games are indeed worthy of being considered art, had a place in civilized society, or that they provided experiences superior to other forms of art.  This provided an opportunity for publishers to jump on board and offer games that resembled what these writers were aspiring to – games that didn’t resemble Space Invaders or Mario.  Games that camouflaged themselves against the broader media landscape.  Games that confirmed our assumptions, at least on a superficial level.  What had been signature elements of video games had become liabilities in the push to legitimize games in the eyes of wider culture.  Publishers’ desire to cash in on this impulse is uniquely captured by the announcement trailer for Dead Island.  Audiences were given an artful trailer where scenes are alternatively shown in reverse and forward time of a family that’s being attacked by zombies and a little girl that is killed in the process.  Audiences loved it, and then the game turned out to be nothing like the trailer.  At all.

Publishers were, and continue to be ready to market and build their games as something you can show off in bits and pieces and call art.  And ironically, the quickest route to this end is to copy movies.  Publishers aren’t willing to take the same risk as indie developers and build an entire game around a story.  What we’re getting is a split baby: games that attempt to provide an illusion that you’re not playing actually game, which comes at the expense of better game design.  It’s not all games, and certainly there are developers that have succeeded in building a game completely around a story and its characters, but I think you can definitely point to examples of games and genres that have suffered as part of this phenomenon; chief among them being survival horror games and jRPGs.  These are both genres that couldn’t be easily divorced from their game-like qualities, and both which dependent on the console gaming market which is less accommodating to niche genres compared to the PC games market.  The console games market is cannibalizing itself, and in combination with the pressures of HD game development and the increasing popularity of mobile games, something’s got to give and I’m about ready to jump ship entirely to PC games.

In the mean time, I’ll take refuge in playing Final Fantasy IX, again.

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