Point-Blank Games Criticism

April 7th, 2009

Once again I must briefly surface from my blogging exile (temporarily self-imposed until I finish my dissertation). I just stumbled upon a pair of links too relevant to my interests to ignore.

Over at Sexy Videogameland, Leigh Alexander relates an interesting bit from a panel she was on at the Game Developers Conference with Smartbomb co-author Heather Chaplin. In short, Heather said that the reason we haven’t seen many sophisticated games isn’t that the medium itself has too short a history, but that game developers themselves are a bunch of immature dudes who really just want to shoot things (“fucking adolescents,” in her words). Leigh responds that calling game developers immature is not the way to bring about this change, and that while the developers she knows personally might benefit from broader base of cultural references, this isn’t necessarily indicative of them being un-manly or immature. One portion of Leigh’s response stood out to me in particular:

Things that we hold up as groundbreaking in terms of story, immersion, emotion here in the West, are what — Oblivion? Mass Effect? Half-Life? Let me be enormously clear, here: Those are great games, and I have the highest genuine respect for the teams behind them and the way in which they try to further human interaction in their very high-quality work.

But plainly: That’s nerd stuff.

And hey. I’m a nerd. Just to be clear I’m not holier-than-thou here, I run a freaking video game blog in my spare time. But every time I hear a game designer talk about how they hope video games can be “sophisticated” and “reach broader audiences” the way that comic books can, I die a little inside. Comic books are cool and all, but if I thought video games would stay stuck in that niche, I’d quit writing. I agree with Chaplin: Tights-and-cape fantasies aimed at young men are not mature at all, and I want developers to do better.

This is a topic I’ve touched on before, suggesting that video games will not be considered an “adult” medium until they focus on doing things other than dressing up as a superhero (or, knight, space marine, rogue cop, etc.) and killing bad guys.

If this still feels a little abstract, it might be worth bringing up the second link I wanted to call attention to. Today I stumbled upon Close Range, a game (with a playable Flash “demo”) made by The Onion. The game, which is about a guy who has to rescue his brother, consists entirely of shooting people in the head at point blank range. The Onion News Network video describing the game (also at the above link) has some choice quotes:

SHANE PATEL, video game reviewer, IGN: “Just like great literature or film transports you to different worlds, Close Range transports you to a world where you shoot bullets into an endless stream of faces.” […]

JEFF TATE, ONN Tech Trends reporter: “Fans say it’s the games well-developed characters and story line that make Close Range feel so compelling.”

BRIAN CAMARCO, gamer: “You just feel like you’re inside this complex character, who’s thrust into this world where he has to blow people’s heads off.” […] “It’s completely open-ended. You can shoot someone in the ear, but you can also shoot them in the eye.”

This is excellent satire because the absurdity is so familiar to those who follow video game news and criticism. Close Range is “about a guy who has to rescue his brother” about as much as Gears of War is about Marcus Fenix’s search for his father and attempts to save Sera from the Locust Horde. Did you even know that the name of the planet in Gears of War was Sera, not Earth? It doesn’t really matter: These games are about killing your enemies. The characters, the back stories, and the graphic goriness are just the little bit of added spice, as it were.

I know that to many, there’s still a question of whether becoming “sophisticated” is even a desirable direction for a historically geeky medium to take. (If you’re interested in reading more on that, “(Why) Should Games Be Art?” here, and The Geek Culture Debate, chronicled by Matt S, and which I think might end in the middle of a discussion because I’m easily distracted.) As I’ve said before, though, I don’t think that making games that aren’t about geeky things, and aren’t focused on killing, means that those “traditional” games will cease to be made. Action and sci-fi are still doing fine in the film and comics industries, but both film and comics can apparently handle award-winning works about the Holocaust. In video games, the term is never even uttered, even as the award-winning Call of Duty series has been spread over more years than World War II itself lasted.

I do think that the insular (and nerdy) culture of the gaming industry is partly to blame for the lack of innovation, but I’m inclined to agree with Leigh that berating developers on a personal level is not the way to effect change. Building a more diverse pool of game designers and developers, with creative backgrounds that show familiarity with media besides video games, is an important step, though there are other factors at work here. As Leigh and others point out, you can’t really fault the game industry for following a particular market. I don’t think that means, though, that no other market for games must ever exist. We have a bit of a catch-22 right now: You could change mainstream opinion of games by making more sophisticated games, but nobody will buy them until mainstream audiences are already convinced that games can be sophisticated.

For now, then, every game that attempts something different will be something of a risk—but if a comic book can win a Pulitzer Prize, I believe we could see one of those “risky” games as a similar turning point in the near future.

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2 Responses to “Point-Blank Games Criticism”

  1. CS Says:

    What is your definition of more sophisticated?

    Also, some stories tend to lend themselves to better mediums.

    I don’t think I would want to play through a game of “Pride and Prejudice”, or “Hamlet”.

    I would rather have a fun and compelling game, then have some sort of “Sophisticated” story trying to be a game.

  2. Jason Tocci Says:

    What is your definition of more sophisticated?

    Good question. For a rough definition, I would say that a sophisticated story is one that is subtly and purposefully meaningful and thought-provoking when taken as a whole.

    Plenty of games have stories. Plenty of games offer thought-provoking scenes. Very few games, if any, could be said to be subtly and purposefully meaningful and thought-provoking throughout. Bioshock, for instance, explores some interesting themes about the moral and practical implications of Objectivist philosophy, and offers a plot twist that forces us to question how certain philosophies and assumptions pervade the underlying mechanics of nearly every action-oriented game we play, often in questionable or problematic ways. It’s more sophisticated than other shooters, but, taken as a whole, it’s still nowhere near as subtle and thought-provoking as what we see in other media. This isn’t because Bioshock is a video game, and games can’t be sophisticated, but because market pressures led the developers to conclude (perhaps quite rightly) that this game would only make money if it was a shooter first and a cultural commentary second. As I’ve argued elsewhere, however, I believe Bioshock would have been a much more sophisticated story—the kind I’d point to as evidence that games are as artistically relevant as any other storytelling medium—if the splicers weren’t just targets to shoot every time you see them, and if the gameplay in the second half of the game had changed radically to follow through with the implications of its big plot twist.

    Also, some stories tend to lend themselves to better mediums.

    I totally agree, but we might disagree over what this should imply. As I’ve discussed in some earlier posts, I think that the best stories are those that take advantage of what their particular medium has to offer. Games like Shadow of the Colossus (which I can’t shut up about around here) work because they offer purposefully limited interactivity, not in spite of this. And, of course, this goes the other way; Hamlet (especially with its whole “play within a play” thing) loses a lot when you make it not a play anymore. I’d similarly argue that Watchmen lost a lot when it was shoehorned into a movie. You have to play to a medium’s strengths.

    I say we might disagree over what this should imply, though, because I often see people saying that stories work differently in different media as an explanation for why games have been so narrow in the content they’ve addressed. The narrowness of content in video games is not a formal or technological issue; it is a cultural and industrial issue. Once upon a time, people argued that comics were inherently only suited to producing childish content because cartoons are less serious and meaningful than other visual arts; and I think that’s been pretty roundly disproved to critics and markets alike. Hamlet might make a lousy game, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t ever have a game that explores existential crises and madness without a fight scene every 30 seconds.

    I would rather have a fun and compelling game, then have some sort of “Sophisticated” story trying to be a game.

    That’s fair as a personal preference, but I don’t see why this has to be an either/or situation. I’d rather have access to both, and as I argue in the above post, making more sophisticated games doesn’t mean that the stuff made for pure entertainment has to take a hit.