Thursday, May 28, 2009

Is every game frustrating?

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love The Onion, America's finest news source. However, if you twist my arm, I'll admit that I love its sister publication The A.V. Club even more. Essentially The Onion's Arts & Entertainment section, The A.V. Club has reviews, features and articles about film, music and TV with the same witty, sardonic sense of humor of The Onion.

A few years ago, The A.V. Club started running videogame reviews. When this happened, I was elated. Who gives a fuck if Roger Ebert doesn't recognize that games are art? The A.V. Club is writing about games with the same insight as film, music and books. For all I knew, the Louvre could have added a videogame wing.

But it recently occurred to me that there's something odd with the way the A.V. Club does its game reviews. Each review is broken down into sections. First there's the review proper, and then short one- or two-sentence blurbs with the headers Beyond the game, Worth playing for, Final judgment, and finally, the one I take umbrage with: Frustration sets in when.

Now far be it from me to say I've never played a game that frustrated the hell out of me. But that phrase, "Frustration sets in when," appears in every game review that The A.V. Club runs, from mainstream blockbuster titles to under-the-radar indie games. For the recently-released Punch-Out!! it's when "Trainer Doc spits out another rote motivational entreaty instead of offering a hint you can actually use." For the intuitive browser game Today I Die, Gus Mastrapa explains, "Those who think too long about the financial limitations that prevent this kind of experimentation from sneaking into larger, longer, and more expensive games may be inspired to go looking for a rock, a rope, and a deep lake."

By incorporating the phrase into every game, regardless of genre, platform or overall quality, it's like the A.V. Club is assuming a priori that each and every game must have something frustrating about it, and the writer's obligation is to point it out. I humbly disagree.

I could point out games I've played that never frustrated me, but really, the whole experience is entirely subjective. But then again, that's the entire point. Everyone experiences games differently. One person might find a game to be entirely frustrating, while another person could breeze through it. By having that phrase form part of their review format, The A.V. Club is enforcing an unfair, and quite frankly false, standard.

Overall, The A.V. Club's game reviews are among the best out there. And having them alongside reviews of current movies, music and books just reinforces the point that games are on the same playing field as mainstream entertainment. But no other reviews on The A.V. Club suffer from this unfair standard. You won't see every film review pointing out the boring parts, and not every CD review mentions tracks that are worth skipping. So why the unfair treatment for games?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Unfair Comparisons, Vol. I










Thursday, May 14, 2009

What is it REALLY about?

I'm far from the only person who thinks that, in order for games to progress as an art form, they have to start telling better stories. The technology will always be improving -- that's a given. But it's a less safe bet that we're going to get better stories in the future. I'm optimistic, however, as I've gotten to know more and more people in the game design community who recognize the same flaws that I do as a player, and are actively working to remedy them.

(Note: For this post, I'm only concerned with story-driven games. Sports games, puzzle games, etc. are obviously exempt.)

The biggest problem with stories in games, as I see it, is that they are content to be about what they're about on the surface, without any sort of deeper meaning or significance to them. For example, the most recent story-driven game I've played is Resident Evil 5. It's a great game, fun as all hell, but the story is all there in the synopsis: you, the hero, overcome obstacles (and lots of zombies) to stop a nefarious plot to conquer the world. And that's it. Good conquers evil, the end. Sub in almost any major title you can think of. Contra, Gears of War, Ninja Gaiden, the list could go on forever. The thing all these games have in common is that they feature a hero (or heroes, or heroine) conquering evil, vanquishing bad guys, saving the world...and that's all.

I don't mean "and that's all" as if saving the world is an insignificant task. Rather, from a literary perspective, it's rather shallow.

Compare this to something like the film They Live. It, too, is about a hero battling monsters and eventually saving the world. But by reading between the liens, you can easily find a subtext about anti-Reagan consumerism that was so fervent in the 1980s. Think about it: Is it any coincidence that the protagonist is a working class hero, fighting "aliens" who all happen to be in the upper crust of society?

Now, I'm not suggesting that games now need to have hidden agendas or subversive messages. I merely used They Live because it encapsulates my point: that even though it's about saving the world, it's also about more than that. We take away from the film something more than, "Boy, I sure am glad the good guys won."

To use a videogame example, Portal has a hero that traverses obstacles and conquers evil, but there's clearly a deeper level of story going on. One writer went so far as to suggest that Portal was a feminist deconstruction of the first-person shooter genre.Whether the feminist subtext was intended by the game designers or not, what's important is that there was distinct substance to the game.

It occurred to me that, when I talk about wanting people to take games more seriously, this is really the best way to do it. The most common criticisms I hear essentially boil down to, "You're just killing a bunch of guys." I could throw out counter-examples (Portal, Braid, etc.) but this doesn't address the heart of the criticism, because they're right! In RE5, a state-of-the-art game, you're just killing a bunch of guys! From a story perspective, there's nothing more to it!

But obviously, this hasn't stopped it from being popular or successful. People love killing a bunch of guys. Hell, even I do. If RE5 had a deep, complex story, with dynamic characters and a pointed message about society, would it be any more successful? Probably not, but at least people wouldn't be able to dismiss it as a game where you simply "kill a bunch of guys."

So I repeat my assertion that, in order for games to progress as an art form, in order for games to be taken more seriously, they need real stories. We need less "Valiant hero overcomes obstacles, vanquishes evil and saves the world," and more "Valiant hero grows, matures, and ends up a better person for having had the experience." Perhaps in Resident Evil 6.