This is a piece I wrote for the Fellowship of Australian Writers Queensland Soapbox competition. That means it has an impassioned and, yes, biased slant. It’s also the unedited version (whoops) because I left the final version at uni. But you’ll get the gist.
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Videogames suck. I don’t mean the games themselves—as a medium I think they’re capable of fantastic and exciting things. I mean the people involved with videogames give me intellectual rigor mortis. It’s the critics and their ineffectual languishing over Why Games Are Great. It’s the development teams, whether big or small, who continue to churn out monumental bytes of crap, all the while working like doomed souls in the pit of Hell. And it’s the players, the people who should be telling it like it is, but instead roll over and take it in the proverbial as they spout endless “memes”. I digress; there are glimpses of hope. But for the most part it’s human beings that make videogames suck.
Let’s start with the supposed gatekeepers of knowledge and quality: the critics and journalists. Videogame journalism is mostly an online arena, with a lot of freelance work liberally spreading the ignorance. Some sites naturally don’t gather much in the way of revenue, and so young, budding players write for free. I won’t call them writers because frankly there isn’t much talent in that department. These hard-working, naive fools dream of hitting the big time and getting paid. The majority are barely noticed, while a few stand out from the masses–mostly for the wrong reasons.
There are some game critics who Don’t Get It (called DGIs). Some to watch for include Ben Kuchera, Brendan Keogh, and the infamous John Walker. All are successful in their own ways, but quite simply they just don’tgetit. They ramble on about Emotions and Games Can Be Anything. We should be perfectly satisfied with the current state of the medium! Well, no. When you dismiss choice in videogames as illusory, or don’t even understand the meaning of the phrases “interactivity” and “player agency” then something is clearly wrong. Sure, go and argue about the rampant sexism in videogames, but please come back and actually definite what a game is. Recently there has been a crusade of sorts among these DGIs to thwart attempts to define games. “Nobody puts Mario in a corner,” they cry. Apparently if we let games be whatever they desire we can finally achieve Art. This is not a Goomba! But the problem with that is that mediums need rules. Regulations don’t inhibit artistic forms, but instead help them flourish, much like a trellis for plants. If we don’t know what constitutes a game (there are plenty of good definitions out there) then we have institutions like PC Powerplay giving a “game” like To The Moon a perfect score–for shame, Mr. Wildgoose. This all said there are GIs out there, and good writers too. Daniel Hindes is at least one Australian journalist who Gets It. Tracey Lien and Ben Abraham are also examples of good, intelligent writers. But when critics start praising games of the too-smart-for-you variety, it’s either time to take a stand, or get the Hell out of there.
At the other end of the spectrum, the journalism cycle is bent way out of shape. I was one of those unpaid, wide-eyed chumps writing for a reasonably well-known website. Earlier this year I was given the opportunity to write the review for an upcoming blockbuster–let’s call it Diablo3. I played it, I wrote a lengthy review, and gave it 6/10. Honestly, it was a slightly above average game. My opinion was that behind the glitzy overlay, there was nothing to it. My editors, however, were dismayed. Possible publisher relations would become tenuous and, God forbid, the Metacritic score would be affected. I was asked to change my score, and perhaps re-word the review itself. I was outraged. Looking at the Metacritic scores they are almost universally 80 or above. That is to say, near perfection. Some respectable websites went the whole way; if you’re going to suck up why hold back? This highlights a massive issue with the news cycle. Big releases see massive scores despite them being re-hashes and sequels. The true score range lies somewhere between seven and ten. The level of writing in the reviews is no better. Just search through Kotaku for a glimpse of the quality inherent among game journalists. The whole system is a shambles of preview code, endless hyping, over-enthusiastic reviews, and eventual acceptance that, yes, Oblivion sucked. Between the DGIs praising non-games for the wrong reason, and the absurd pandering attitude of Big News Sites, what hope do videogames have? Who who will critique our critics?
Perhaps the developers, those who make videogames, have a better idea of what is required for a good game. Alas, this is not necessarily the case. If the critics don’t know what games are, then the creators don’t know what games can be. As with everything there are exceptions, but the majority churn out derivative crap like it’s going out of fashion. And I do hope that it is.
Videogames are in a state of Decline. When the focus was not hardware, not the graphics, and not the amount of voice-acting, games were better. Perhaps as far back as ten years ago saw the last hopes of solidly built games made by big companies. Looking Glass and Obsidian were big studios that really knew how to shape and build a very specific game. Now days we have Bioware and Activision. As the perfect example of the Decline videogames face, look at DeusEx. The original game is still considered to be one of the greatest games of all time. You cannot play DeusEx and then say that choice is illusory. You cannot play the original DeusEx and not marvel at the superb simulation that was essentially authored by Warren Spector. Compare it to the recent DeusEx: HumanRevolution. It gathers it’s inspiration from anime, includes boss fights and takedown scenes, and is a pale shadow of its in-depth and superior precursor. The merging of cinema and games has been a stain on the medium since it began. Cutscenes are abhorrent, and despite best attempts to justify their inclusion, they will never fit. Valve are a great example of never taking control away from the player. Despite their doggedly linear fashion, Valve games manage to merge narrative and gameplay better than most. The struggle to draw emotions from the players will never be achieved true romance options. It’s about creating a world and letting the player experience it.
Indie designers are faring better. Minecraft is a shining example of simulated play. Dean “Rocket” Hall turned an already fantastic military simulator into the greatest survival game of all time, evoking true emotions through nothing more than a world. And all of this by small groups with clear visions. At times it feels that money has gone to the heads of executives and clouded their vision. Downloadable content packages are rife, with publishers pumping out an endless stream of extras and must-have bonuses. Free-to-play games are the New Thing. Farmville and AngryBirds rule our lives, endless microtransactions eating into out savings accounts. It’s grim, and I have thankfully managed to pull away. For a long time I bought games for the sake of buying them. Digital downloads and Steam (the gaming portal made by the insidious yet harmless looking Valve) have stripped me of thousands of dollars. I admit it, I was a compulsive game buyer, not even playing half the games I own. And I’m not alone. Game developers and publishers realised that players are loose with their cash and have seized upon numerous ways to suck them dry. Steam Greenlight, a democratic system of game publishing, is about to give rise to a new wave of crap. It’s easy enough to publish a good indie game, and now everyone wants to be the next Mojang, only with a horribly inflated sense of worth. Self-publishing is bad for books, and perhaps doubly so for games. But players seem to love dross, so why blame companies for wanting to make money.
In the end, there is no one to blame for the disease that infects videogames other than the players themselves. It’s the consumers buying yet another iteration of Hardcore Man Shooter or Gay Elf Sex Simulator that cause these games to come out each and every year. Big companies are scared of new intellectual property because the players don’t buy it, and yet there they are camping out to get the Extreme Special Edition of whatever trite is cool right now. If you’re feeling disinclined with videogames, it’s your own damn fault.
Gaming is mainstream now, and we’re worse for it. Rather than being a hidden past time of the socially inept, it’s become a symbol of pride. “I’m a GAMER, I play GAMES and stuff; what are you going to do about it,” they sneer as normal citizens walk by, noses pinched shut in an attempt to rid their senses of body odour. Hip gamers wear even cooler t-shirts, with hilarious puns and “memes”, too obtuse for the plebeian suits of the world. Groups of gamers (the type seen outside conventions or Scientology headquarters) are like galaxies. The more socially awkward gravitate towards the centre, bunching together. Those unaware of their lack of social skills spiral around this focal point, chatting amongst themselves, loud and brash. Unfortunately this wave of nu-gamerdom has brought even more worrying, ahem, interests to the fore. Just because most people are “gamers” (let’s be honest, this is an absurd term, and I use it grudgingly) does not mean we want to know that you’re a burgeoning Brony or Furry. There are few groups more obnoxious than recently self-aware yet societally unclimatised nerds.
On the web everyone can hear you scream. Most ignore these screams, but if they’re loud enough they affect change. The recent Mass Effect 3 kerfuffle is a case in point. Bioware actually went back and changed the ending to their game because of mass outcry. Look, the first game sucked and only went downhill from there, what did people expect? These are the people, the Emotionmen, who applaud the calls to arms of the John Walkers of the world, who truly believe the writers who think it’s all about the narrative. These are the people, the holier than thou, who sign-up for game design courses and then argue whether FinalFantasyVII is better or worse than The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Answer: they’re both terrible. There are very few people out there who actually understand what games are capable off. Those that want story and plots and the chance to weep into their controllers miss the point completely. They give power to terrible franchises and the rapidly increasing monestisation of the industry. If you know a friend in this situation, reach out to them. Tell them to read books on game theory. Instead of listening to the ever-weeping John Walker, point them towards venerable Raph Koster. Instead of letting them agonise over which romance option to take, buy them a Paradox Interactive game and lock them to their chair. If videogames are to reverse from terminal decline, the source needs to be cured.
It’s quite clear that for all intents and purposes, videogames suck. And yet the majority of those involved are blind to this. Critics laud the power of games to be everything and anything. Conversely designers are stuck in a rut churning out the same thing year in, year out. And the players seethe on tides of newly realised power, and yet are in the end slaves to ignorance. Yet there is hope. Videogames are capable of so much more, and we’ve seen glimpses of it in the past, even the present. Games need to be games again. Let’s stop the suck.