Nico Doesn’t Like Things

*Nico is not, nor has ever been, Larry David

By Nico Dicecco

People keep telling me I don’t like things. I think they’re wrong. It seems to me that I like all sorts of things, but I like them the way I like them. Games are one of the best examples of this. There are a lot of games that people seem to rave about, but which I find deeply unsatisfying. Halo is one. Smash Bros. is another. Final Fantasy, Gears of War, Rock Band, Resident Evil, Alan Wake… it goes on. It would actually be much easier to offer up the list of games I like:

Okay, so maybe I don’t like things. But that’s not quite what this column is about. This is about making an effort to understand how I interact with games, how they interact with me, why I generally find the process so unsatisfying, and how this experience is impacted by all the stuff that surrounds a given title.

What stuff? Well, a vast array of previews, views, reviews, interviews, demos, ads, criticism, word of mouth, and hype. By the time I get to a game, I’m not just playing the game, I’m playing it through the lens of everything I’ve already heard about it.

The Fable series is a good example. I think I must have been about 19 when a friend of mine told me about this game that was about to be released, where the choices that you made throughout the game changed how NPCs saw you, changed how you looked–really changed the whole experience of the game. I didn’t have an Xbox, but I was excited about the potential of this experience. I offered to go halfsies on the game with my friend if he would let me use his console once in a while. He agreed, we bought the game, and I got to try it out. But after a week, I was still in his room, and he was pissed off. He made me go back to my own dorm room. That sad, lonely, Xbox-less hovel.

I loved that game. It didn’t do everything my friend said it would, but it did more than I thought a game could do. And I had a lot of fun.

That said, I didn’t like it. What I loved was the opportunity to indulge in relatively mindless, albeit satisfying, gameplay at a time when my day-to-day life was consumed by reading, writing, and studying. This is something about games that I continue to love: sometimes I need a break from work that only compelling gameplay can satisfy. What I didn’t like, and what still bothers me about gaming, is the relative immaturity of the art form. Question number one of art criticism (whether focused on literature, film, visual art, etc.) is how does the form complicate the content? In video games, this relationship is difficult to process, because it is possible to develop a game form that has little or nothing to do with narrative form. And it is not necessary that either of these relate to the game’s content in a meaningful way.

The basic narrative form of the quest, which for example structures early Mario games, has little or nothing to do with the challenge of platforming. Perhaps we may extrapolate to say that jumping from surface to surface, avoiding pits, and squishing enemies fits the general pattern of a hero overcoming obstacles in pursuit of the grail (that is, in this case, Peach). But this is so broad a connection as to be almost meaningless. Now consider how either the quest structure or the platforming structure relates to the game’s content: a plumber, a princess, a reptilian antagonist, a mushroom kingdom, pipes, blocks, creatures, and coins. There is much to say about the fact that the princess is the object of narrative desire, and that the main obstacle is so “other” as to be fully inhuman. But how does platforming as the main game mechanic complicate the classic chauvinist fantasy? Perhaps we could say something about masculine athleticism? It’s all pretty flimsy.

Compare the above example with the “Would You Kindly” scene in Bioshock. Andrew Ryan exclaims, “A man chooses; a slave obeys,” at precisely the moment that our control of the avatar is suspended. We shift from the interactive mode into a cut scene, but not for mere aesthetic variation, not so that we can gain a more properly cinematic or spectacular perspective on the action. Rather, the tilting, panning, and tracking of the avatar-camera becomes coded in tandem with the ideological manipulation of the game’s central (voiceless, faceless) character. We are told to sit, and the camera shifts to a low angle. We are told to run, and it tracks to the other end of the room. We are told to kill, and our avatar’s hand–the in-frame object through which we express our agency by enacting the game’s central (FPS) mechanic–acts without player input. Further, we learn that all of the game objectives that lead to this point, missions we accomplished while believing that we as players had control over the avatar/character, were the result of careful manipulation. This narrative information, that “would you kindly” was a trigger phrase, retroactively conditions our prior gameplay experience. Much as the main character never had a genuinely free choice, our choices as players were always limited by the predetermined conditions of the game’s code.

Admittedly, that’s a fairly slapdash analysis of Bioshock. I could do better. Certainly, many others have done better. My point is merely to emphasize that one of the great achievements of that game is that game form, narrative form, and content are all carefully considered in relation to one another, such as to produce a highly nuanced aesthetic. Unfortunately, artistic nuance isn’t something that games often prioritize.

Back to my Fable story, only flash forward about four years. I live in my own apartment. I have my own 360. And I’m starting to hear about a sequel to Fable. At this point in my life, I’m just starting to read about games in addition to playing them. I’m reading IGN stuff because that’s the only website I know about at that moment. And I see that one of the developers is doing an interview about the revolutionary features of Fable 2. And I’m crying with excitement.

But if you’re familiar with Lionhead Studios, I’m sure you smell the turn that this is about to take. The interview I watch is with Peter Molyneux. It’s the first time I’m hearing the guy’s name, and it’s pretty much the only thing I’m hearing about what Fable 2 will be like. And, holy shit, it’s going to change everything. He’s promising that he’s going to change everything. He’s telling me that I will finally have meaningful interactions with non-player characters. I will finally care about the other beings that occupy virtual space.

But, again, you probably know that’s not how it works out. Fable 2 turns out to be an OK game; I had fun playing it. I really wanted to like that dog, but I didn’t. I really wanted to find meaning in the morally questionable choices that I made, though I was ultimately left dissatisfied by a game that seemed to understand morality in binary terms. What’s great about a book like Lolita is that Humbert Humbert is a monster, and yet we’re tempted to side with him, lured in by breathtaking prose. A show like Dexter demonstrates that a man capable of brutal murder is not simply sociopathic, but torn between genuine compassion for others and a vexed history that motivates abhorrent actions. There are no dramatic stakes to the devil/angel dichotomy set up by Fable 2. By the time that we get to the choices that are formally figured as the most morally significant (in the prison, for example), we are so trained by the game’s limited verbiage that it’s hardly difficult to live with the consequences of either choice. In other words, the verb “to kill” is rendered all but meaningless by the ease with which we deploy it for the first two-thirds of the game.

And Peter Molyneux turns out to be a self-aggrandizing windbag. Maybe that’s too harsh. Mr. Molyneux turns out to be someone who is very excited about the potential his studio’s games are exploring, and someone who lacks a keen sense of when to stop talking. Maybe that’s too kind.

My point is ultimately that I didn’t merely play Fable 2 when I played the game. I was playing out my expectations of a revolutionary gaming experience, playing those expectations against a merely entertaining experiment. And in some cases a really dumb experiment–I mean, why would they think that those cartoonish gestures players used to communicate with NPCs offered a compelling way to develop in-game relationships?

And that’s just one example. That game made for a whole lot of disappointment. But it’s not really a bad game, when compared to most of its contemporaries. It’s a bad game when compared with what I hope games might become, with what Peter Molyneux’s hype encouraged me to imagine for the future of the medium.

So that’s all for now. Future articles may include, “Why I play every game on the easiest setting,” and, “I would be happier with four hours of something thoughtful than fifty hours of meaningless gameplay for its own sake.”

About Nico Dicecco

I'm a PhD student at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. My research is built around adaptations: films based on novels, video game tie-ins, comic versions of beloved (and not so beloved) literary classics, theatre, dance, television, action figures... I love me some media. I come to games criticism as both a fan and a person incapable of enjoying cultural objects at face value. I'm always looking for a critical angle on the things that I do for fun. As a co-founder of Medium Difficulty, I have a fancy title of some kind – Chief Operations Officer, if I remember correctly – but I'm still trying to figure out what that means while folks like Kyle, Karl, and Kait do most of the heavy lifting. Maybe if my name also started with a K, I'd be a better colleague.
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  • http://twitter.com/ckunzelman Cameron Kunzelman

    I had a lot of feelings like this for a long time. Now I don’t read about a game before playing it–for instance, I have read nothing about the new Mass Effect game, and I will probably be really pleased with my experience.

  • http://twitter.com/kvillegas kvillegas

    Most people who write about games are not writers. They are amateurs doing amateurish work, and can be ignored.

    And of course, the irony of writing about writing about games shouldn’t be lost on anyone. But I think you have done a good job here talking about the dangers of expectation setting. Like any consumer product, buzz drives sales, but ultimately how “good” a game is depends entirely on the vision of the producer, the strength of the coders and whether or not the story is compelling. Those are things that are not addressed nearly enough in my opinion.

  • BitterAlmond

    Games don’t have to be meaningful and game-changing (so to speak, hur hur). What you’re saying about games is like someone saying “I only watch movies that change the way I think about the world.” That limits you to, what, a few Kubrick movies, It’s a Wonderful Life, Do the Right Thing, and maybe some oddball movies like Videodrome?

    Transformers made a ton of money not because we truly cared about the characters or because we all wanted to ponder the deeper question of whether machines are taking over our lives. That’s the sort of overanalysis that belongs exclusively to English majors. I went to see Transformers because I wanted to see giant robots fighting, and that’s what I got. It was fun, and that’s all I expected it to be.

    Games are no different. Sure, there are some games I’ve finished where I just sat back and said “wow.” But those games aren’t all that different from the simpler ones I play and love just as much. I may have really gotten into the world and story of both the Mass Effect games (eagerly anticipating number 3), taking my time to play sidequests and talk to NPCs just for more lore and more character development. Making story choices in that game was one of the few times I’ve actually cared about making such choices. That doesn’t mean I haven’t spent five times more hours playing Team Fortress 2, a game entirely devoid of meaningful story.

    Games are just games. You don’t expect a rich story from your chess board, do you? That sort of thing is left to pencil-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, and even then story is usually taken pretty lightly. We can push the boundaries of storytelling in games, but the fact remains that games need gameplay, and that’s the sort of thing that rarely gels well with true storytelling.

    Brilliant article, though. I may disagree with you, but it was a fascinating read.

    • smalty

      I agree with many of your points BitterAlmond but at the same time I feel you are missing one of the biggest aspects of this article: false promises. There are so many studios out there that greatly over exaggerate the breakthroughs and advancements of their new and upcoming game. Like Nico said, Mr. Molyneux likes to blow smoke and everyone following that game’s development gets even more excited, only to be sorely disappointed when those so called “meaningful interactions” with NPCs are being able to belch or flex at people.

      I agree that not every game needs to be a whole new type of user interaction or advance the way we play video games, but the head of studios should not sell it that way if that’s not what it is. Transformers never implied that it was a thought provoking movie, it advertised giant fighting robots, and it delivered. Fable 2, a great game, advertised a revolutionary interaction system where every decision made is set in stone and that was far from the actual product.

  • http://piclyf.com/ericzoo Ericzoo

    I wish you can play the Mass Effect trilogy and assess how close it is to achieving Fable’s ambition.