Thursday, October 5, 2017

Game Journos Don't Understand Video Games



There's been a lot of hoopla on twitter recently about this recent Rock Paper Shotgun article (archive link here) about how games should let people skip combat and boss fights, because the writer doesn't like them. Now there are numerous problems with this article, not the least of which is the tone of smug superiority that permeates every single sentence. But, and you may want to sit down for this, I'm of two minds on this. Before you pull out your torches and pitchforks, hear me out. I'm firmly on the side of, "Git gud, you fucking pussy." However, I can see the guy's point. I read the whole thing, and you should too before reading my response. Use the archive link, don't give these idiots anymore clicks. I gave them at least two finding the article, and even having my ad blocker up thanks to the Brave browser, that's far too many for this dreck. 

So, what's his main contention? Well, it's mostly that he doesn't like boss fights, so he should be allowed to skip them. This actually doesn't seem to be an egregious request. The way he phrases it is completely out of bounds, and the smug aura of self-congratulation in this post is beyond disgusting. However, skipping boss fights and combat doesn't seem too bad to me. Honestly, I have a couple of games that I keep installed on my computer because I can get absolutely blitzed out of my head (read: so drunk I have trouble seeing straight) and still play the game and have a good time. Viscera: Cleanup Detail is a good example, and the vast majority of the time I've spent in that game was spent so drunk I could barely see or so hungover I can't think beyond simple tasks like "clean this room". 

So I understand where dude is coming from. However, I also subscribe to the idea that video games are not books, movies, or tv shows, and should not be treated as such. To my understanding game design and development is fiendishly difficult, and adding this mode into the game is not as simple as people believe it to be. And above and beyond the extra strain on the developers, video games should not be treated like other media, because they're not like other media. 

Video games are a diverse entertainment media. There are games like Dark Souls (that really isn't as hard as people make it out to be) which focus on combat and storyline, and the gameplay is tight as shit. There are games like Primordia, that are more focused on puzzle solving and point-and-click adventures. There are games like Red Faction, that are straight-up first person shooters. There are platformers like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro The Dragon. There are stealth games like Thief and Styx: Master of Shadows. There are RPG's like Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and The Elder Scrolls. There are JRPG's like the Final Fantasy series. There are strategy games like Stronghold Crusader, Civilization, and Endless Legend. There are visual novels like Katawa Shoujo and the Sakura series. There is a near endless range of genres of games to choose from, and many that mix genres and do it very well.

With the exception of visual novels (which I honestly don't have much experience with), most of these game genres expect a basic level of competency from the player. It's not quite so bad as in the old days of the NES, SNES, and consoles like them, whose games were built on the arcade model which was specifically designed to get kids to cough up quarters into machines at arcades, rather than be easily beatable. But even the games on those consoles taught me valuable lessons about overcoming challenges and the inherent worth in working for something.

I grew up with a NES, upgraded to a SNES, and then got a PSX. I'm very familiar with the difficulty level of games like Contra, Kung Fu, Ninja Gaiden, and other classics of the NES catalogue. Some of these games were so difficult that I couldn't beat them. I never did beat the original Super Mario Bros. I got to the level where you have to work out the top, middle, bottom sequence and couldn't work it out as a kid. But I did get to Wiley's Fortress on Mega Man X as a kid, and just getting that far in the game made me feel very good. Like I'd actually accomplished something. 

That feeling of working for something, applying the lessons the game had taught me, using my skill and knowledge and luck to get past the boss is a part of what gaming is about. It's not a hobby for everyone. What this writer at RPS is asking for is the ability to put the disk into their machine and watch a long play. Before Let's Plays, there were long plays, where someone would play a game, record it, and put the video up on YouTube with zero commentary or facecam. People still do these, and the footage is very useful for people who want to see a game before they buy it, or don't want to play the game but want to see the story. 

Games are meant to be challenging on a certain level. That's why walking simulators get deservedly panned by gamers. They're barely games, they require minimal input from the person playing the game, and they're primarily story driven. They're essentially first-person visual novels. There's no inherent challenge, they're easily beatable by someone with no functional knowledge of video games, and they have a very low satisfaction level for completing the game. This is why I avoid visual novels. I've played a couple, and they're just not interesting or entertaining. That's not to say the story isn't interesting, but the progression of the game happens something like this:

Click through dialogue for a few minutes
Battle happens off-screen
Click through dialogue for a few minutes
Make a choice in dialogue options
Click through dialogue for a few minutes
Make another dialogue choice
Click through more dialogue

And so on. It's not entertaining to play, because there's no actual "play" happening. I'm just clicking the mouse and reading. I could go to my kindle and get the exact same experience. Albeit with fewer sexy pictures. Apart from the "visual" part of a visual novel, there's fundamentally no difference between playing one of those types of game and reading a book on my kindle. When I play a video game, I don't want to just click through dialogue and not watch while all the action happens off-screen.

What this game journo is asking is for all games to have a "visual novel mode". This I find fundamentally abhorrent because I value learning and struggling to achieve, and the final achievement I get after the struggle is a basic part of why I love video games so much. Playing through Thief, I loved the tension and challenge in getting around the guards and figuring out what I have to do to progress in the game. The challenge is rewarding because I was able to work it out and progress. I was the equal of the challenge, and that brings a sense of accomplishment that other entertainment media doesn't bring and at base level isn't designed to bring. 

Movies are passive. Books are passive. TV shows are passive. You are not taking active part in the goings on of the story. Video games are fundamentally an active entertainment storytelling medium. The player is part of the story. Even if the player is railroaded by the story, they are participating. They affect the outcome via their choices. 

Dark Souls is a good example here. In Dark Souls, there is the legend of the Chosen Undead that may or may not be the player. Over the course of the game you go through a journey that makes you the Chosen Undead. You were not actually Chosen, you just happened to be there and have the determination to complete all the challenges and earn the right to decide the fate of the world. You became the Chosen Undead by right of trial by combat, and through your choices along the course of the game. The only way you can not become the Chosen Undead in Dark Souls (and thereby "lose" the game) is to stop playing. 

Much the same, in other video games you need to show a competent level of skill to progress. This is intrinsic to the medium. It is not the same as books, movies, or tv shows. All gamers have a game that we love above most others, but there's THAT ONE PART that drives us fucking crazy. But we play through it because getting through that infuriating section of the game not only allows us to experience the rest of the story, but gives us the feeling of accomplishment that comes with completing a difficult task thanks to our own ability, pluck, and ingenuity. 

While I'm not against a "tourist mode" in video games, it does undermine the medium because video games are not meant to just give you anything. You're supposed to earn it. It's an interactive storytelling medium. It has been since shortly after the very beginning. Even with games like Pong there's no "Press X To Win" mechanic, and there shouldn't be. You win Pong by being good at the game, and giving Pong a "Press X To Win" mechanic would cheapen the experience. Not just for me, but for anyone who plays the game.

This is one of this person's breakdowns. That the people complaining about the "tourist mode" would somehow be negatively affected by the inclusion of this mode and other people using it. That's not the case with me.

I think the people using it will be negatively affected by it. 

It matters not one whit to me if I decide to buy AssCreed Origins, play it through properly, enjoy it, and someone else decides to use the tourism mode. If it's in the game, it's the player's decision to use it. But the player who uses the option will not get the sense of achievement that people like me receive from playing the game properly. They're just watching the game at that point.

And, really, you can find a long play, or a let's play, that will do the exact same thing for you. You can get the entire story in the same amount of time, and it will require no effort on your part apart from finding the video on YouTube. So why not just do that? Why request that every developer in the foreseeable future include this mode in their games? Which, I remind you, will require more development time and effort on the part of the developers. 

This approach to game design also inherently undermines the entire point of excellent games like Undertale. I bought it, and genuinely enjoyed it, but I stopped playing because the bullet hell approach to the battles annoyed the shit out of me. I'm not a fan of bullet hell games, so I quit playing. And because of that I didn't get to see the rest of the game. This game is designed around player input. Your choices matter on such an intrinsic level in this game that almost no two people's playthroughs will be exactly alike. Adding a "tourist mode" to the game would undermine everything about the way the game's storyline is supposed to develop based on player choice. 

My theory is this game journalist, and by extension most people calling for a "tourist mode" in video games, has (have) never had to work for things in their life. They've had things given to them. 

They're entitled. 

They think they're entitled to see the rest of the story of the game, despite the fact that they haven't absorbed the proper information or developed the proper skills to progress, or actually tried to beat it. They want it given to them, and this is the heart of the breakdown between game journos like this person and gamers. Gamers have spent their lifetimes earning their achievements, be those achievements simply beating an NES game, or the more modern, conventionally understood meaning of "achievements" on Steam or various other gaming platforms. 

This mindset is inherently alien to me. I like earning what I have, be it the money I make off of the books I write (or help write), the audiobooks I produce, or the simple pleasure of beating a video game I like. I don't understand how people can find satisfaction in having everything given to them. Even with movies, books, and tv shows, you have to watch through the "boring parts" to get to the fun bits. There's no skill involved, but you have to invest the time, at the very least. Even people who like the sports games that EA pumps out every year like to play the games. Otherwise they'd just go watch football, or soccer, or whatever.

This article serves to underline the divide between the games press and the gamers, the people who support the hobby and keep it on its feet. Video games are built upon (sometimes) hard work and achieving through struggle, persevering through adversity, winning through impossible odds to the final goal. Be that adversity puzzles, hordes of enemies, boss fights, what have you.

I get the feeling that game journos just do not understand this, because they are not gamers. They have not been playing games since they were young, they have no understanding of the roots of the medium, and they do not enjoy video games. They are journalism majors who got into games journalism because they thought it would be easy, because really who cares about the biggest entertainment industry on the face of the earth? They do not understand the hobby, and therefore they do not understand the backlash they get when they print horrifyingly smug articles like this. 

All I can say to them is: Go play something more your speed. Play visual novels, or walking simulators, or point-and-click adventure games (although p&c adventure games do have puzzles, and that might tax your brain a bit and force you to actually work for something, so they may throw you off a bit). But there are games out there to cater to your non-play style of...playing games. Go play those, and stop pretending you represent a serious segment of the hobby, because you don't.

Most of us enjoy a challenge.

Where the fuck do you think Gamergate came from?

2 comments :

  1. Jim,
    I've played some video games very superficially and while I'm terrible at it I do enjoy the immersive experience and try my luck with the moves.
    From your post, I've seen this behaviour before in religious reporting where a journo covers the religious beat but neither has their interest nor curiosity to learn (cf getreligion.org which Tom Mattis created to hold his compatriots accountable)
    So it's the same with gaming journalists. Frankly I don't get this indifference because I can't think of a more interesting and fun job than to be paid to play video games and then write about.
    Seriously, how can they hate such a job?
    If I covered gaming, I'd be upfront about my limitations but that wouldn"t distract me from giving a fair opinion pro and con of a game.

    Better yet, expressing some frustration about the game mechanics and then trying to understand them would prompt gamers and developers to talk about gaming. And that would be a nice way to report about gaming as both a business and a subset of civil society (aka Chesterton's tiny platoons).
    Just a profound lack of imagination and connecting the micro with the macro with gaming and society.
    xavier

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ugh, John Walker. Pretty much the poster child for game journalists who suck at playing games. IIRC, he's occasionally panned games for being too hard for him even though they're actually not particularly challenging. He is a fan of point-and-click adventure games, although I dislike how he smugly subscribes to the anti-Sierra/Infocom dogma that's become popular since the late 90s. I suppose disliking death as a gameplay feature would fit in with his anti-challenge position...

    ReplyDelete