Striking at the Soul

Over the years I’ve come across many terms that I hate seeing applied to games.  Soul.  Magic.  Heart.  Charm.  Spark.  So it looks like it’s time to do another list, all of these terms deserve to be categorically addressed so I can explain exactly why they are not valid ways to judge games.  Let’s get right to it: time for the intimidating task of dissecting five different concepts in one article.  Let’s get started!

Magic

What it means:  Magic, when applied to games, is a catch-all term for an indescribable feeling you get from a game.  Something you can’t describe, but you just KNOW it when you see it.  Something that supercedes any part of a game you can actually give a supportable opinion on.  Magic is different from the other terms because, because…

Wait…

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All of them are the same freaking thing! 

Yep, the list was a fake-out.  These (and probably many more) terms are all functionally identical, and it’s that concept that I want to argue against, in all of its guises.  There are two main things that the various terms (I’m just going to use soul for the rest of this article) are actually describing, and neither are good reasons for judging a game.  Let’s get to the real dissection!

Aesthetics

You know how some people judge games on their technical or budget merits?  How many polygons there are, how much wide open empty space the draw distance can show at once, how expensive the voice actors were?  Well people who care about a game’s soul would never do that.  Why?  Because it’s not petty ENOUGH!  It’s the little things that make a game great: little touches in the background, the exact right amount of comedic quirk in the dialogue, whether it’s a sequel or not.  Judging a game by the graphics as a whole makes you shallow, but judging it by dissecting minor details of the graphics makes you deep.  Maybe an 8-bit art style could have potentially passed your metric for the game having enough “soul” in its look, but you’re still judging a game for how it looks, and no euphemism is going to change that.

 

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This is what letting games be judged by soul gets us.

 

Why would anyone believe in this double standard?  I’m not convinced that many genuinely do.  The fact is, saying a game is bad because of its graphics is going to make a lot of people disregard your opinion, which in my magical and soulful special spark of an opinion is justified.  As someone who still regularly plays games from earlier console generations, defends Nintendo for focusing on gameplay over writing and story in many of their series, and gets very annoyed by being told my systems of choice are inferior to the “master race” because the graphics aren’t as good, I obviously don’t approve of judging games by their graphics.  So I don’t like it when people ostensibly on my side do the exact same thing but insist that it’s actually about “soul.”  If you care about aesthetics to the point where a game not meeting your expectations in them can ruin the experience for you, I’ll have a much easier time agreeing to disagree if you don’t use vague and frustrating terms to hide it.  But maybe it isn’t really the artistic merit that the game is really being judged on, quite often it’s really…

Nostalgia

Yep, it’s come to this, the big N.  No, not Nintendo… well, a lot of the time they are the ones this is being used against, but that’s not the point.  It’s not a coincidence that sequels and recent games are so much more likely to be derided for having an insufficient quantity of soul.  Nostalgia is a powerful force.  I’m not going to claim to be immune to it: in fact I’m hyper-sensitive to it and develop it much faster than most people (I’m listening to a song that brings back memories of 2014 as I type this sentence).  I’ve certainly replayed many games that in no way merit ever being touched again because they gave me nostalgia, I’m still looking for my floppy disc of Dino: Lost in Bedrock just because it’s a different version than the one you can find online.

 

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This has great nostalgia for me, do I have claws for claiming cat puns and terrible controls are soulful?

 

So having nostalgia is fine, enjoying things just because of nostalgia is fine.  But you have to be aware of what you’re doing, and more important, don’t judge new games on how much they appeal to your nostalgia!  If you want to pick up a game because it’s pandering to your nostalgia just right, go for it, but don’t judge newer games as a whole because they don’t accomplish the impossible task of giving you the same nostalgic feeling a game you played in elementary school does.  It is not the game lacking soul that makes it feel less magical than the 20-year-old previous installment did, it’s the fact that you were 20 years younger back then.  Not understanding your nostalgia cravings is just going to lead to disappointment and despair, and bashing every new game in a franchise because of that makes you annoying, okay? So stop it.

So what would it be?

So if games actually did have souls, what would the soul be?  What is the core of a game, the element that really makes it special?  If you took away all the extras and aesthetics, what would be left to define the pure essence of a game?  How long am I going to insult your intelligence by building this up when it’s blatantly obvious that I’m going to say the answer is gameplay?

 

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The gameplay in this is more soul than you’d find in any pixel art walking simulator.

 

Yes, if we were to say games actually have a soul, it would clearly be gameplay.  In addition to being the most important part of a game, gameplay ultimately leads to the things that are wrongfully called the soul of a game.  A game being good in the first place will be a major contribution to how much nostalgia it eventually produces, right?  And the positive associations a game gives you thanks to its gameplay are what lead to the little aesthetic touches and quirks that people mistake for soul.  If Bubsy was a platforming masterpiece, I firmly believe Bubsy’s annoying puns would be iconic and loved in a somewhat ironic way like the dialogue in Star Fox 64 and Resident Evil 4.

So that’s my rant for the day.  Week, months, whatever I procrastinated it to.  I hope I’ve made some points about what a game should and shouldn’t be judged by, or at least gotten people to find better terms for what they use to judge games.  A thought occurred to me as I was writing this, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that I was using gameplay as just as much of a vague catch-all in this article as the terms I railed against.  Going into detail about what I consider gameplay, though, would take up an entire article of its own… so that’s what I’m going to give it.  Stay tuned!

 

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…But I Know What I Like

If there’s one trend among gaming journalists that’s been bothering me lately, it’s their obsession with video games “growing up”. It’s not that I think that no video game should ever that tackle more mature subject matter in a thought-provoking way, but then, that’s not usually the entire story when it comes to the common narrative with the ideal way for video games to grow as a medium. Usually, according to most mainstream game journalists: in order for the medium to achieve its true potential, gamers have to be willing to put away childish things. Things like focusing on quality gameplay and interesting mechanics over more important elements, chiefly the game’s storyline. After all, since when are video games about gameplay, right?

Perhaps the best hope for maturing video games as a medium in the eyes of our journalists is the “art game”, scare quotes intended. If you’ll recall, when I was discussing my opinion of independent games awhile back, it was art games that led me to blindly hate indie games in general. Considering how much my opinion of indie games has turned around (especially ones commonly referred to by more cynical critics as “played-out retro wankfests”), it’s only intensified my hatred towards art games, because of the effects they had on my opinion of indie games in general.

At this point, you’re probably wondering: what is an art game? Of course, definitions tend to subjective, so I’ll just define it from my own perspective. For me, art games tend to rely on style over substance. The most common focal point for most art games I’ve seen is the game’s storyline. but placing emphasis on the game’s graphical artstyle (or how many polygons/emotions the system can produce) is fairly common as well. Of course, sometimes even games with solid gameplay can be art games, depending on how pretentious they are with regards to other elements of the games.

Then again, maybe the best way to summarize my thoughts on what makes something an “art game” would be to rattle off some examples. Perhaps the biggest example of an art game by my definition would have to be Gone Home, a game that’s been called a “walking simulator” and is generally considered deep due to the game’s subject matter, as opposed to how well the game itself was crafted.  It’s kind of a shame how bland this game turned out, considering the creators of the game keep harping on about how they worked on the Bioshock series. In the same vein, you’ve also got Dear Esther, which was probably the Gone Home of its…year, actually. Just to show that art games don’t have to be low-budget indie titles, I’d also count the works of David Cage, specifically Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. Same basic deal there: shallow gameplay coupled with a storyline so shallow, it would be considered abhorrent in any other form of medium. Of course, as I said before, even games with solid gameplay can be considered art. Jonathan Blow’s Braid and Phil Fish’s FEZ are two such games, games that would be fine otherwise, but marred by the self-absorbed nature of their respective creators.

My first general problem with these games is that gameplay generally takes a backseat to everything else. As I stated earlier, the typical culprit is the game’s storyline, which is typically weak in general, but considering the low standards for stories in video games compared to other mediums, the bar is set pretty low. This isn’t to say that video games shouldn’t have good stories, but rather the storyline should collaborate with the gameplay, as opposed to impeding it. Most stories told in video games are typically fairly linear and rely on specific events. Considering the most common method for imparting story in video games is in-game cutscenes, there’s usually the feeling that the game itself and its story are two separate entities. Some games try to avoid this and attempt to tell stories through interactive elements within the game itself, but this is fairly rare by comparison.

The biggest problem I have with the stories typically seen in art games is that they generally would be better suited for other, less interactive mediums. Usually, most art games I’ve seen have barely been able to exploit the interactivity that is inherent to video games as a medium. Beyond: Two Souls was mostly cutscenes and the majority of the game’s interactive elements were merely choices, choices that didn’t have any major effect on the story of the game itself. So then what’s the point of making it a video game if the interactivity is so shallow and superficial? It’d be like making a motion picture without video, a song without sound. If you’re not going to utilize the main strength of a medium when crafting your art work, why not use a medium that’s better suited for it? It baffles me.

Of course, this likely ties into the reason why I find art games more despicable than any other attempts at experimental forms of media, like arthouse films, modern art and the like. At the very least, these attempts at artistic expression utilize the strengths of the medium they inhabit in order to grow and further develop it. After all, the art films of the past have led to the development of many cinematic techniques we see used, even today. If video games’ main draw are their interactivity, then why are the games generally considered attempts at art so lacking in this element? If game enthusiasts, art game creators and video game journalists have become obsessed with the idea of video games finally being accepted as a legitimate art form, then why do they simply intend to emulate other art forms in a shoddier fashion to achieve their goal? The whole idea of creating the “Citizen Kane of video games” is a silly idea to begin with, mainly because when it was originally released, Citizen Kane was not considered a significant work of media. Its reputation and esteem from the film community came with time, to attempt to recreate such an event, except with an instantaneous outcome would be impossible. Then again, SNESMasterKI believes the original Super Mario Bros. is the Citizen Kane of gaming, though I’d probably liken it to an earlier keystone in film history, like maybe the first “talkie” film that actually used the new technology to deliver a more engaging story.

The shallowness of the gameplay typically found in your traditional art game typically stems from the idea that only by aping already legitimate art forms will video games also be accepted into the fold. Again, with games like Beyond: Two Souls and Gone Home, the player’s experience is reduced significantly, when compared to coarsely, more “mainstream” entries of games. It almost turns the player into a second-person observer, limiting their actions and interactivity with the world significantly, reducing their impact on the game’s narrative to a few random choices. I suppose I can understand that some of these art games, especially Gone Home, were likely made in response to the idea that violence in video games is an inherent part of the medium. I think that got disproven way back in the 1980s, during the medium’s infancy. Granted, it’s an obscure little game, you’ve probably never heard of it: Tetris. I guess one could argue that the destruction of the pieces upon completing a line could be considered some form of abstract violence, or even that players preferring certain pieces over others could be considered some abstract form of racism, but if you’re looking for that kind of deconstruction of a product of simpler times, you should probably go to some other site.

Even good gameplay, however, isn’t enough of a guard against being classified as an art game. Sometimes, if the game itself delivers a sufficiently pretentious narrative, the game can be considered art. Perhaps the biggest example I can think of this phenomenon is Braid. A “clever” deconstruction of the Super Mario Bros. games of old, where the roles are reversed and you are playing as the damsel in distress’s kidnapper, a plot point so telegraphed from the get-go, the game might as well have been called something like “Super Stockholm Syndrome Bros.”. Granted, what little I know about Braid is from second-hand information, I’ve seen gameplay and even I have to admit that looks solid. On that note, when a friend of mine who suggests Braid to me says that I should just enjoy the gameplay and ignore the storyline as he did, well, if that’s not a red flag, I don’t know what is. Perhaps it’s hypocritical of me: after all, why should a game with a bad story bother me, when I typically tend to prefer games with little to no story whatsoever? In all honesty, my disgust towards Braid may also have spawned due to my vulnerability to the concept of “hype backlash”: the idea that the more positive responses to, well, anything before I am able to experience it myself, generally sours my overall opinion of it. When Braid was first released, I was exposed to so many reviews of Braid, praising its brilliant story and original gameplay that it put me off buying the game forever. I’ve gone on the record, saying I’d only play Braid if someone else fronted the bill, and even then, it would be under duress.

Worse still, is when a perfectly good game is tainted by the actions of their creators. My first experience seeing Jonathan Blow, the main creative force behind the aforementioned Braid, was in the trailer for Indie Game: The Movie, an independent film that chronicled the development process of a few high-profile indie games. From my perspective, Blow came off exactly the way I would have expected him to, just based on what I could gleam from Braid: he came off as a stereotypical “artiste”, a pretentious sort who clearly thought he was the smartest person in the room. If Braid didn’t turn me completely against him, his segments in that trailer most certainly did. On the opposite side of the spectrum, you’ve got Phil Fish, creator of FEZ. I’ll be honest, at one point, I was actually interested in FEZ (I even played the demo on Xbox 360 and thought it had potential), but Fish’s antics have put me off the game entirely. First, he bashed the modern Japanese video games industry by proclaiming that their games suck, and then he ended up cancelling the anticipated sequel to FEZ over a spat on Twitter, despite claiming otherwise.  Then came the coup de grâce to Fish’s reputation, at least in my opinion: he uncancelled FEZ II…on April Fools’ Day. What a scumbag.

Maybe one day, video games will be viewed as works of art, on the same scale that many people hold film, literature and music, as opposed to simply fine art and nothing more. I’d like to see video games reach a niche that resembles that of film the most, existing a spectrum ranging from mindless fun shooters/action blockbusters to thoughtful experiences/independent films, with some works falling in between those two extremes. I feel, however, that video games can only achieve these lofty goals if they do so on their own terms, as opposed to simply mimicking the artforms that came before it. If telling a deep and engaging story is paramount to video games becoming acceptable within the realm of art, then they must exploit their own strengths, to deliver a narrative that is interactive. To attempt anything else would be like if literature were expected to achieve its lofty position without the use of the written word, it’s futile from my perspective. If video games need to ditch their roots entirely in order to achieve their supposed “full potential”, then what is the point in the long run? If you need to neuter interactivity and remove gameplay wholesale in order to achieve your vision, you’re better off making a movie of some kind. That’s my opinion.