WTF is Wrong with Video Games? Nothing (A response to Phil Owens)

Part of me is glad I’m not a game critic.  I get the feeling that being a game critic must be exhausting.  You are playing games, all the time, and I bet that you wouldn’t even get the time to really enjoy them.  There is something really great about being able to take the time and take in a game.  It’s a wonderful experience, that I can’t put into word, when I can soak up a game’s world and feel for it.  If I had to review games, all the time, then I figure that it would suck the fun out of things.  You’d start seeing games that have unique stories and characters as just like the rest, because they share similar mechanics.  What kind of life is that?  To be a critic must really, really suck.

I did a response to the article on Polygon and how I thought that was shady, native advertising.  But then I saw the article itself, and I thought – you know what this article needs?  A response?  Because the person who wrote this clearly is jaded and burned out of gaming.  Either that, or they want something from gaming that it simply cannot provide, due to the nature of the medium.  I am going to try and be reasonable here, because I’ve already attacked the publication and this person for the shadiness of this article.  Here’s a link to it, now let’s talk about it.

Films are calculated works from start to finish, and as my friend said, everything that happens in them matters to the work, or at least that’s the goal. Because that’s what art ultimately is. It has a purpose, to communicate something to you. Sometimes something other than what the creator intended comes through, which is fine and speaks to the fluid nature of art as a concept.

I can already see where this is going.  This person is about to make a comparison between film and video games.  They are going to talk about how film is this refined art form and how video games are not nearly so.  Being able to see it coming doesn’t make this argument any less annoying.  Because the comparison is meaningless.  These two art forms have little to do with one-another.  I’ll save that explanation for later, when we get further into this.

And the word “art” is not a label of quality, by the way — it’s just a term that describes a very broad form of expression.
Video games work quite a bit differently most of the time. You won’t see all the key elements contained within the full package that is a AAA video game have the meaning that a sneeze will in a movie.

So what?  That’s not a rhetorical question.  Who cares if every sneeze doesn’t have some meaning?  Who cares if there are elements of a game that are not in this narrow definition that I can already see you are about to give for art?  Does this somehow make the experience lesser?  Is something immediately not as good because every little thing is not tailor-made to be meaningful?  And what you say about film isn’t even true.  Sometimes, a sneeze is just a sneeze.  This takes me back to when people were arguing about the color of the front door in American Beauty.  Sometimes, a red door is just a red door.  The film Mr. Deeds (a TERRIBLE move!) made fun of that very thing.  Not every element in a movie is supposed to have some huge meaning.  Don’t get me wrong, films are able to convey meaning clearly, but that isn’t in every thing.  At least, not with every director.  Not everyone is David Fincher.

Even when we look at those games considered to be the best that the medium have to offer, we see this problem constantly. The Last of Us, which some had referred to as “the Citizen Kane of video games” when it was released in 2013, is rife with arbitrary design choices that hold no meaning for the complete work of art.

Oh for Christ’s sake.  This is your metric?  You are judging this medium by the fact that it has things which don’t always have some exact meaning?  Wow.  Pretentious, much?  Not to mention – this same argument could easily be applied to television.  Because television has to expand things out, not every element of an episode has some meaning.  Of Neelix makes a silly-sounding dish, does that have some huge relevance to the episode?  Often, no.  It’s just a plot element or maybe a comedic moment.  Not ever decision has to be some calculated chess match when something is made.

One of the primary gameplay mechanics in The Last of Us is the crafting of tools to help you survive the zombie-infested world you’re trying to navigate. The item you’ll likely end up crafting more than any other is a shiv, and in a bit of blatant absurdity you’ll need to scavenge four scissor blades and some tape in order to make one.

You say that it’s a gameplay mechanic, but did you forget why those exist?  Games need rules.  They need mechanics that make things make sense.  How do you assemble a med kit?  Well, they could have you constantly finding a ton of various things that could work, which would make the game unbelievably complicated, or they could have you finding bandages and alcohol.  See how that works?  Need a bomb?  Just get blades and explosive material.  Should we also have to search for the cans and nails or something?  No, because then the pace of this game would be screwy.  That sort of thing was tried in Dead Space 3, and it made the game almost unplayable, because you were constantly scrounging for stuff.  You do a little of that in The Last of Us, but it feels like exploration, more than loot-scrounging.  This kind of complaining feels to me like you are just looking to be annoyed.  You are nit-picking every little thing that you don’t like, just so you can have a problem.  Maybe it’s how much you seem to adore film, or maybe it’s just that you are at an impass with games.  Whatever the case, sort your issues out without being a douche.

That answer, by the way, is that The Last of Us is a video game, and video games operate under video game logic. Video game logic isn’t inherently bad, just as the concepts of magic or superpowers in fiction aren’t inherently bad. But in the case of these flimsy shivs, as with most arbitrary video game things, there is simply no meaning to be found there beyond their being a gameplay device.

What a crime!  Something being in a game just because it’s a game!  The horror!  Because every little thing has to have some meaning, right?  To have an interactive medium that needs rules to function.  And sometimes, those rules don’t have to be part of some absolute logic.  Just like how the biotics in Mass Effect don’t actually make sense, when you think about it.  Or how the Master Chief’s armor never gets destroyed or damaged to a point where the shields returning can’t save him.  This medium has to have rules.  Ones that make sense.  Ones that don’t strain credulity of the world’s existence.  Like, in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, why should my tilting the controller affect if memories open or not?  Why does that matter?  Oh, right – it doesn’t!  It’s a mechanic to make the game work!  What is the problem with that?

But even while I find what I might call the “art stuff” in The Last of Us to be compelling, I’m constantly distracted by how much of a video game it really is.

Oh boo hoo!  Go watch a movie then!  You keep trying to compare video games to films.  If you want to watch a movie, go watch a movie!  Video games and film can never compare to one-another.  Here’s where I’m going to get into it.  Let’s take a game that I have been playing recent, which has struck me on a person level – Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.  It is a very dismal and heart-wrenching story about a town and the people in it as the end of the world comes.  None of them survive.  You don’t know who this nameless person that you control is.  Did someone survive?  Who are they?  Why are they in that town?  Oh, right, none of that matters.  The game is about finding the memories of these people and the lives they lived, both leading up to and during the disaster that destroyed them.  This game is very personal.  But I bet that you would be one of those who call it a “walking simulator.”  Because that’s pretty much what you’re doing.  Exploring and finding the memories that people left behind.  That’s it.  I guess all the elements make sense.  Maybe this is the kind of game you want most.  Because you are bitching about games with mechanics to make them playable.  Maybe you want a game where all you do is walk around and learn.  Or maybe walk around and watch things happen?  At least with this game, you are walking around through an interesting place and learning something.  It isn’t just cutscenes.  Maybe that’s what you want?  A game that’s just cutscenes.  Like a movie?

There is art in The Last of Us, but the game itself doesn’t really function as such. It’s as if an art gallery curator constructed a very long obstacle course with the art you came to see sprinkled throughout it. Except that analogy doesn’t really work, because an art gallery curator would probably have some point to make in building the course.

Again, pretentious much?  Art is open to interpretation.  I don’t care what some art gallery curator thinks.  Not really.  I look at art and come to my own opinions.  Your entire argument boils down to – video games have game stuff in them!  So they aren’t art because of game stuff!  Maybe this guy just read the late Roger Ebert’s refutation of why video games cant be art and thought that he was on to something.  This whole article reads like just another version of that, after all.

There’s not much else to say about this.  If this entire book is just him complaining the video games have too much game stuff in them, then why would anyone want to buy it?  $3 is asking too much, in my opinion.  I wouldn’t buy this garbage for $1.  The fact that people like Total Biscuit say that he’s on to something baffles me.  I think that great video games are more than the sum of their parts.  A great element can make a game work.  Sure, are The Last of Us‘ mechanics super-complicated?  No.  But the game doesn’t deny that.  It acknowledges that it is a game.  It is open to being just a game.  But in being a game it is still telling a hard-hitting, emotional story.  And I hate that we have this pretentious asshole coming in here and shitting on it because it isn’t pretentious and artsy enough for him.  He so obviously just wants to watch a movie, so go do that instead.

Until next time, a quote,

“Hypocritical humility is the highest form of lying. Honest arrogance is the lowest form self-promotion.”  -T.P. Chia

Peace out,

Maverick

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