Not Just Solid Food, But Real Food

BURG BOYS ALWAYS GOTS A STASH

by Joseph Hilgard

I was excited to see that John Walker wrote a piece calling for more mature games. My excitement faded, however, when I saw that he approached this admirable goal in completely the wrong way – talking about games’ stories and themes.

Walker criticizes games for their immature “game content” and wants to know when video games will take on more serious themes. I feel that this is an ineffective, piecemeal approach, like an amateur filmmaker deciding that it’s time to win an Oscar by making a movie about the Holocaust.

I always suspect that this criticism, that games are insufficiently “mature,” comes from our old, gnawing feelings of Game Shame. To some degree, every player wishes that his games were somehow equivalent to the canonical works of art, and that time spent playing Dark Souls was as respected or valuable as time spent reading War and Peace. (It’s not, laments Slate.com’s Michael Thomsen.)

There seems to be some expectation that games are young and will yet evolve into something respectable, which completely ignores that we have games which are nearly three thousand years old. We even have games which are so popular that it is socially acceptable to cosplay as your favorite character in public. These are called sports. Anyway, I do not know how to make video games respected. I do know, however, how to make a boring game by chasing hopelessly after respectability – obsessing over theme and content.

In his rebuttal to the Slate.com piece mentioned earlier, Edge.com’s Jason Killingsworth writes: “Though it’s possible to debate whether or not games are art, there’s no room to argue that games are books. They function in dramatically different ways and games arguably become weaker the more slavishly they aspire to mimic the conventions of other mediums. [...] Thomsen is unable to engage games on their own terms because he seems incapable of seeing beyond the superficial thematic level.”

When I read articles like Walker’s, I feel the same way. To criticize a game for not having the daring to meditate on love and loss or to end in your avatar’s suicide is like criticizing the Ford Pinto for being the wrong color. The cosmetic details may not be to your liking, but to really understand what makes the Pinto a good car or bad car, you have to open up the hood and think about what the car does, how the car works, and why it explodes when you look at it the wrong way.

Roger Ebert had a law he’d apply in his critiques: “A movie is not what it is about. It is how it is about it.” Games are the same way. It doesn’t matter what you say your game is about, because that is all just window dressing. Granted, a good theme certainly does make a good game better, especially for RPGs and virtual worlds; I deeply appreciated Fallout: New Vegas and its Country Western sensibilities. However, you can never get by on theme alone. By the tenth or twentieth hour of play, all that theme has melted away, leaving the game’s core of rules, mechanics, dynamics, and goals.

The defining feature of a game is, and will always be, play. Happily, games are staggeringly diverse and create a diversity of forms of play. In my closet I have games played through calculation, dexterity, trading, deceit, humor, language, geometry, and teamwork – and these are only the board games!

Games are only as valuable as their play. We respect chess as the grandfather of strategy games because playing it requires caution and cunning. We envy players of football and basketball because playing well implies that you are physically fit and socially capable. We cast sidelong glances at poker players because they must be cunning and deceitful. It’s how we play games, not what the games are about, that’s important.

If we want the “solid food” that will bring video games into maturity, we must ask for richer gameplay dynamics and new challenges. We need to play something different that challenges us as players, not yet another game where you hide behind waist-high barriers and trade gunfire in the Middle East / the future / Liberty City / the Old West.
Dressing up the theme around our games changes nothing. It is a lazy way to try to make your game more mature. If we called in Todd McFarlane, artist of the heinously 90′s comic book Spawn, to give Mario a remake, the result would be superficially more mature, but the game would remain the same enjoyable action-platformer. To really bring about these challenging feelings that Walker wants, the gameplay has to support the message and help to create those aesthetics, which demands much more artistry from developers and a more adventurous audience.

To date, many games with heavy themes have failed to support them with gameplay. For example, Bioshock claimed to be an insightful game for a more mature, contemplative sort of player. It was, we’re told, about the perils of libertarianism and unchecked genetic manipulation. Supposedly, the game is about the importance of humanity and kindness. I wouldn’t know, because the game I played was mostly interested in how efficiently I could shoot the mentally deranged. The heavy theme is not supported by the way the player plays. This approach is all style and no substance. It is pandering to our longing to be taken seriously but delivering nothing in return.

Many of our celebrated initial attempts at serious themes suffer from similar clashes of gameplay and theme. In Grand Theft Auto 4, Niko is written by the developers as a war vet struggling for redemption but played by the player as a mass-murdering sociopath. Compare this with the superior The Saboteur, in which the character’s motivation is always to kill Nazis, both in and out of cutscenes. Fallout 3 wishes to be about post-apocalyptic scarcity and the struggle for survival, but the player carries a limitless cornucopia of weightless health and ammunition on his back. Again, compare with the superior S.T.A.L.K.E.R., in which the player can carry little and must constantly forage for weapons, ammo, food, and vodka.

Walker suggests that games are still immature because their thematic subject matter is immature, citing that “[it's] impossible and uncommercial for a game to have a gay protagonist.” Give any video game out there a gay protagonist, and you have changed nothing about that game. Turn Marcus Feenix gay and you have simply Gears of War with a gay protagonist. In a system of play that has nothing to do with homosexuality, you have just another superficial element.

This is not to say that games shouldn’t have gay characters (or serious themes), but that it is largely irrelevant to how they play. This is one of the beautiful things about games. Games are justice. Games exist within a magic circle in which the only goal is to win and the only virtue is to play well. It doesn’t matter what race, gender, or sexuality your avatar or teammates are – the only important thing is how you play. To keep Jackie Robinson off your baseball team because of his race would be an act of pure idiocy.

In the excellent interactive fiction cover-shooter Gun Mute, you don’t realize that your character is gay until you win the game, rescuing, not your girlfriend, but your boyfriend. The question of the character’s sexuality doesn’t come up during gameplay because whether you like boys or girls has nothing to do with taking cover and shooting a pistol. In games, it is irrelevant whether you are black, white, tall, short, fat, thin, young, or old, because your value as a player is in your ability to play.
Because of the importance of play, games are not well-suited for discussions of or meditations on heavy themes like mortality, love, loss, sexuality, et cetera. Games are made of rules and enforce those rules, judging the player based on the player’s performance.

Games are didactic – each game teaches the lesson of how to play it well. This complicates attempts by a game’s writers to explore deep, emotional concepts. Consider romances in Persona 3: because the player gains in power as he becomes socially “closer” to his friends, the player will strive to become as close as possible to as many friends as possible. This results in the skilled player having a harem of five or six desperately committed lovers by the end of the game. By making romance a gameplay mechanism (grow in power as you gain romances) the theme is twisted and forced (every player, no matter how monogamous his intent, must foster a harem).

There are many other examples of how theme is trampled underfoot by the directing influence of gameplay systems. In Tropico, you might be interested in making your citizens as happy as possible, but funneling money into your Swiss Bank Account is a much more effective way to gain points. It may not make sense to hack into a computer you know the password for, but you will do just that in Deus Ex: Human Revolution because it awards you necessary experience points.

Games shape and direct behavior, which does not allow for discussion or ambiguity. Games are not the place to experience your son’s funeral, because then your son’s funeral will be minmaxed. You would be better off exploring such themes in other media, like books, movies, or even visual novels.

Often, when I read articles like Walker’s, I get the distinct impression that the author is looking for something that isn’t a game. To discredit games without heavy themes as simply “sources of distraction-entertainment… shooting cans off walls” is to completely and infuriatingly miss the elegance and genius of Chess, Go, sports, Bridge, Pictionary, Doom 2, Spacechem, Starcraft, and Tetris. He’s watching a football game and disappointed that it’s not ballet, oblivious that a great play or a masterful kick has a beauty all of its own.

Instead, he wants a movie in which he gets to be the protagonist. I am not sure that I understand the value of this sort of medium – to me, as a player, there’s nothing special about a movie where you can point the camera someplace wrong or the lead actor can miss his mark, making the other characters cough and whine and fart nervously until he gets it right. I won’t be so pigheaded as to say that such a medium would never have anything to offer me – I do really enjoy a little interactive fiction sometimes – but to compare these hybrid mutants to the richness and fullness of a game seems downright unfair. I would rather be a fencer than be an actor playing one.

If we want our games to provide us with real nourishment, I would argue that the last thing we need is last year’s shooter wrapped in some awkward story about love and loss, or yet another indie platformer about the inevitability of mortality. We don’t need superficially serious themes. We need new and interesting games which provide novel and challenging forms of play. These criticisms of theme only scrape the outer skin of a game, failing to pierce through into the rich, savory meat of play. Do we want real food, or just garnish?

Joe Hilgard is a social psychologist and enthusiastic player of board games, video games, and sports. He writes a blog at http://crystalprisonzone.blogspot.com and can be followed on Twitter as @hipscumbag.

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  • Steven Sukkau

    “Superficially serious” is the perfect description of MATURE games. Many games, including Bioshock and Mass Effect include serious elements like religion, politics, gender, sexuality and killing/death. But like Ebert says, I don’t think it matters as much what a game is about, but how it treats its subject. Yes COD had that “no russian” mission, but within the language of COD play mechanics it never reaches any depth. Instead it’s like a kindergarten production of Hamlet, it speaks of deeper themes but by it’s nature it can’t plumb the depths. Games are at a huge disadvantage compared to movies, but play mechanics are capable of emotional resonance, but you have to keep mechanics prioritized over story.

    • http://www.facebook.com/amkearns Aaron Kearns

      Ugh, “No Russian”. I remember seeing that and wondering why I couldn’t just kill all the other guys who were trying to murder all the civilians. I’m pretty sure the leader guy was right there in front of me.

      So in the end there’s a scene that lacks any real emotional resonance because you aren’t allowed to explore all the options (even if that DID end up in the death of the player character, MW2 still regularly justified continuing the story after the fact elsewhere). It felt cheap and just trying to get attention by fomenting outrage — and then never going anywhere with it.

  • BEN ADAMS

    This….This was a fantastic article to read. You make some great points about the differences between games and films and how when you talk about a game you have to talk about more than just the story, you have to consider the gameplay and how that influences the story. You have to care about more than just the story but in how the story is told. Though you should do this with books and films as well, it is required much more so in games where the structure/gameplay is so crucial to the experience.

  • BEN ADAMS

    So I thought of a random example. In The Darkness you play a character connected with a supernatural entity. You have control over it but it also threatens your sanity and humanity. Spoiler alert. At one point the game takes over and the supernatural entity takes control of your character. You lose control. This, to me, is an example of the form(gameplay/mechanics) enforcing the story. Storywise your character is fighting to keep control of this Darkness, but if throughout the whole game you control it with your 360 controller, then you do not see this in the gameplay at all. That’s why that point in the game is so powerful, it literally forces you to realize you do not have control over the Darkness.

    Now I realize this is just one part in a game where you violently rip people apart with tentacles, but I found it very powerful and it immediately came to mind after reading this article.

    • Joseph Hilgard

      Honestly, I’m not particularly fond of these kind of examples, because whenever I experience them, I immediately turn my brain off. I know that the Darkness is taking control of me not because of anything I did, but because the developers said “Here is the chapter where the Darkness takes control of you.”

      That it happens while you hold the controller is slightly, slightly better than having it happen in a cutscene. I don’t find it meaningful unless it happens during the actual gameplay. Imagine if you found that the controls grew less responsive & you accidentally murdered people the more you used the Darkness, something like Gausswerk’s idea for “Laputan Machine” at http://designreboot.blogspot.com/2009/10/design-reboot-laputan-machine.html

      So to sum it up, these kind of developer-placed milestones, like Bioshock’s big plot twist, aren’t what I have in mind. Make that control part of the natural gameplay, make players monitor it and spend it wisely, make it a mechanic, make it part of play!

      • Steven Sukkau

        Yeah, I think Leigh Alexander writes about Metal Gear Solid and how boss fights create an experience that mirrors the character of the boss using gameplay. So the fight against Sniper Wolf, because she is cold and solitary, the fight is a quiet, yet tense sniper battle in the snow that requires patience and endurance. Likewise the psycho mantis fight creates a surreal experience where you feel helpless and things are out of your control. I would add decoy octopus, because he is a master of deception, and when you “kill” him you didn’t even know you were in a fight!

      • BEN ADAMS

        Yeah, I guess I just think of those semi-cutscenes and such as baby steps or steps in the right direction.

  • Ryan Morning

    An excellent point, explored well. It’s something that I feel can be aptly demonstrated by “total conversion” modifications that swap out existing assets for new ones. Suddenly Doom has you blasting Aliens and Predators or Simpsons characters, but mechanically nothing has changed; the new narrative overlay of being trapped in a different facility with different monsters or homicidal cartoon men (what the hell was that all about, anyway?) is purely aesthetic.

    … Not that the mod makers would dream of dubbing their projects something as pretentious as a narrative overlay, but it’s a parallel to the mindset that thinks a story in the manual somehow injects the game experience with vim and vigour.

    The great Kieron Gillen was/is fond of the line that there’s no such thing as a non-linear orgasm, and I do of course agree that a railroaded game can still be exquisitely fun to play through. But at the same time (despite my preferences for choice and alternative paths) I don’t necessarily think it’s a question of linearity so much as it is cohesion. I very much believe that it’s possible for a title to intrinsically tie its story– or more cogently, as Mr. Hilgard articulated, its very themes– to its mechanics and progression without it being an afterthought or mere flavour. I was particularly fond of the article touching on game scenarios where the “best outcome” in terms of completion or score was counter to overarching themes. Or common sense!

  • BitterAlmond

    Somebody seriously needs to give all these writers complaining about games not being movies a copy of Farenheit/Heavy Rain, or MGS4 (best movie I ever held a controller through!). They’re not perfect, but if you want a game where story really is central, there you go. Enjoy your quicktime events.

    Great read, and I agree wholeheartedly. I play game AND read books, I don’t play games INSTEAD of reading books (most of the time, anyway).

    One tip, though: you don’t have to append “.com” to the end of every site, especially when you’re already linking directly to it. We’re all smart enough to figure out that you’re talking about a website.

  • Casper Gronemann

    Great fucking read. I could say a lot of smart things but I think I’m just going to go with “amen, brother!”

  • dwfries

    I think “Games exist within a magic circle in which the only goal is to win and the only virtue is to play well” is a statement that is wholly incorrect. Are you suggesting that the only value of a game is its gameplay? That seems uncomfortably reductionist. Part of the “how” is what medium is used to tell a story: a book, a movie, or a game. What’s interesting about a game is its ability to surround the player with the story, with the events or images that the creator feels are relevant and important. Absolutely gameplay has to back this up, just as the mise-en-scene and framing of a film or the literary style of a book have to support their stories and themes.

    On the whole, this article is the most intelligent “games have to be fun and games!” argument I’ve ever read, but it’s still the thought process that keeps us playing Modern Warfare 3 and not getting a game that’s as interesting and deep as All Quiet on the Western Front or Apocalypse Now. Sure there’s value in a “great play or a masterful kick,” but I want to be able to feel the value of the narrative and the themes in my games.

    • Giovanni Palacio

      I find it hard to believe that you’ve read “All Quiet on the Western Front” and still think that 1) it’s possible to create a fun playable (key words there) game that’s as deep and striking the novel and 2) that any games now even approach this level.

      • http://rudolphthesnowdeer.myopenid.com/ Rudolf

        Why is fun a keyword? Is Pathologic fun? No. Is it a game? Yes. Very much so.

      • dwfries

        So games have to be fun and playable.

        I didn’t think “All Quiet” was all that “fun,” and some would tell you books like “Ulysses” aren’t quite readable. I don’t know where your key words come from, and I think that if creators weren’t afraid to abandon them a little bit, games as striking and deep as those novels might be more common.

  • http://profiles.google.com/vivienne.wj.chan Vivienne Chan

    This was an incredibly refreshing read that sums up a lot of thoughts I have about the future of games in general. I really like the points you make about the player defining the character rather than the character defining the player’s role in the game. Everyone plays games a bit differently but by and large the real strength that games have is that it gives us control over how we choose to do something, whether it’s solve a puzzle, complete a quest, etc etc. And I think that’s a glorious thing, if occasionally overlooked.

  • http://rudolphthesnowdeer.myopenid.com/ Rudolf

    “In my closet I have games played through calculation, dexterity, trading, deceit, humor, language, geometry, and teamwork – and these are only the board games!”

    The fact that I knew you were talking about board games and not video games by the third or fourth word in that list says something kind of sad about video games.

    Anyway, I’m not sure you’re rigth. I don’t think “play” needs to be the central element of a game. And that’s because the word game doesn’t always fit our medium very well.

  • scottishmartialarts

    “Granted, a good theme certainly does make a good game better, especially for RPGs and virtual worlds; I deeply appreciated Fallout: New Vegas and its Country Western sensibilities.”

    Sorry but I couldn’t finish the article. If you don’t know what literary theme is, then you really shouldn’t be writing on this topic.

    • yertyert

      This could be overly semantic but I don’t think the author ever claimed “Country Western” was a literary theme. It is, however, a perfectly valid overall theme.

      • scottishmartialarts

        The author cites the “Country Western sensibilities” of F:NV as an example of how a “good theme [makes] a good game better”. That certainly suggests to me that he think “Country Western” is a theme. It is not.

        You, like the author, are mistaking one definition of theme for another. When you talk about the theme of a work of literature or art, you are discussing the central idea or problem that the author/artist sought to explore with his work. For example, the theme of Star Wars is not “Space Opera”; it’s Good vs. Evil.

        I see the mistake you and the author are both making. Here’s a common use of the word theme: “the boy decorated his room in a sports theme”. That is not literary theme, and that is not the sort of theme that critics are referring to when they discuss a work of art.

        I think it’s telling of how immature a “medium” video games are, when the ostensible critics don’t even have the basic vocabulary of criticism down.

        • yertyert

          I cannot speak for the author but it is not a mistake if we’re both operating under entirely different assumptions. You assume that games are art and therefore critique of games must be cast within that framework. However, I am operating under the assumption that games are not art.

        • BitterAlmond

          So let me get this straight: because the author (of a BLOG article) decided to use the word “theme” to describe a setting and particular mindset and not, instead, a “literary theme,” you stopped reading the article? That’s worse than stopping when a writer confuses “its” with “it’s”. Come on. Get over it.

  • http://twitter.com/soi Reed Berkowitz

    Really enjoyed this article. Very interesting with well thought out examples that illustrate the fallacies of slapping stories and themes onto the same old game-play. I wrote something similar over here about games as experiences and not stories : http://bit.ly/xJMcBN

    But do you think that if the game-play itself (not the stories or framing around it) becomes more sophisticated and deepens that more sophisticated and deeper themes will be able to be explored?

    Even artistic themes?

    • Joseph Hilgard

      It’s hard for me to say! All my favorite games are essentially devoid of the sort of “sophisticated, deep themes” that people seem to have in mind. Stuff like Chess and Go and Sports and Tetris, classic games that will last hundreds of years, epitomize the medium for me, and yet are essentially abstract.

      Honestly, I’m not certain that “games” are the appropriate medium for these “sophisticated” themes. I keep thinking of the example of minmaxers speedrunning your son’s funeral – stuff this serious isn’t supposed to be a game! On the other hand, DEFCON’s aesthetics succeed exactly because nuclear war isn’t a game, and to treat it that way is horrifying. (Non-game interactive fiction or cinema or holodeck might still be good at doing the kinds of things Walker desires, though.)

      I’m just going to keep playing and thinking for now, but I’m still certain that progress is going to have to come from the game designers, not just the writers and animators.

      • http://twitter.com/soi Reed Berkowitz

        I agree with the last paragraph wholeheartedly.

        You may be correct about the rest as well. Every medium is not equally good at all things.

        But since I believe games have the capacity to provide players with a certain designed experience I do believe that at some point that experience could become very meaningful in the hands of a master designer. It will not look like a movie, or a story (or else it would just be a story) but I feel it’s possible. I also don’t think it will be able to be judged by today’s standard “art” criteria. I’m still not sure why we’re not already calling games like Chess and Go “art”…

    • Joseph Hilgard

      Nice article, by the way.

      • http://twitter.com/soi Reed Berkowitz

        Thanks!