Videogames Suck: Everything Is Unoriginal

So i've been meaning to vent about this for a while, since lately i've been having this constant niggling doubt in my mind about this industry as a whole. I'm going to be talking a bit about what i've been up to that's lead me to my conclusions, then i'm going to be talking about certain aspects of gaming culture, if that's alright with you guys. Oh, and before you worry, no this blog post isn't me being really cynical about the games industry. I'm actually really positive about it! I'm actually being really cynical about cynicism in the games industry. The title is sort of irony on my part, or it's view-bating. Up to you to work out which! This might run a little long and go off-topic, it's been a long time since i've done a blog, so sorry about that.

I played The Last of Us! Anyone else play it? It's a smaller independant project, you've probably never heard of it. Man, that difficulty curving, huh? I get that the first major clicker encounter is supposed to shock your system to get you prepared for what a threat they are, but god lord did that frustrate and bore the heck out of me. It's a sad thing too, because it was a rare mis-step on what I thought was by far the most well-paced gameplay experience i've had this year. There was this real constant push-and-pull between fast-paced action (ya know, the kind that game critics call out as generic filler) and slow-paced character development (ya know, the kind that game critics call out as "trying to be a movie"), with a control scheme that really reflected what I was doing and the character I was controlling. Joel skidded about, was knocked around, smashed things frantically with a hammer; between the inputs and the way the game carried them out, you really got this sense that Joel is a real human being who gets winded and has rushes of adrenaline and so on. It's a stark contrast to Bioshock Infinite which, though I really enjoyed, was absolutely horrible as far as putting you in the shoes of Booker DeWitt. War vet be damned, that man holds insane steampunk guns like a master marksman, and despite being a 1920s dude in his fourties he has an easy time acrobatically diving around and leaping on technofantasy rail lines. You could very much argue that "it's a videogame, it's not trying to be realistic" and to an extent I agree, but at the same time you're partially going against your own point by saying that; it IS a videogame, so why does this game with a heavy focus on character development and narrative make no attempt to link the character of Booker to the way that he plays? Being the protagonist and the playable character, doesn't it seem like an ample opportunity to put you in the man's shoes? Anyway, i'm gettting way off-topic, my point is that The Last of Us uses and subverts its gameplay philosophies to really give you a sense of place and character. It keeps you constantly feeling like a grizzled old dude in a post-apocalyptic world, between the way inventory management works, to gunplay, and even just basic traversal. Summation: it uses its medium to add something significant to the experience.

It also has basic controls like a third-person shooter, and has very traditional stealth mechanics. And oh, the gaming community did cry. Do you remember when I made a weird 'hipster' joke at the start of the last paragraph? I was actually alluding to the thing that's been bugging me a lot lately, specifically in reference to games like The Last of Us. To put it simply, gameplay that "follows a lead" is slowly becoming the new naughty step for games (there's three links in there for the record; one an article, one a comment thread, one a video). Did you notice a trend in all of those things I linked? They all jump to complaining about The Last of Us using a style that other games have done before. It seems like nowadays, in odd conjuction with the stigma of the hipster subculture, many game critics and gamers in general seem to be confusing "traits recognisable as inspired by other media" and "traits that are boring and generic and uninteresting". I'm not going to sit here and tell you you're wrong if you dislike The Last of Us. There's plenty of games I dislike that a lot of people loves (Look I just couldn't get into Braid, okay?). But then you have statements like this;

"So instead of a game like Catherine, that uses a seemingly arbitrary puzzle game mechanic to metaphorically represent the character’s relationships, growth, and change, we have another game like Bioshock Infinite that wants to be about Serious Themes but fails because the designers can’t think of something better for you to do other than to rifle through drawers and shoot motherfuckers in the face."

This is a fundamentally facetious argument. You know what The Thing is? One more gruesome horror movie among many. You know what The Godfather is? One more gangster movie to chuck on the pile. You know what 1984 is? Political commentary, because that was so rare at the time of its writing. I'm pointing out these examples because they use generic tropes; styles that support the kind of point they're trying to make, inspiration gained from prior material. Does The Last of Us have cover-based shooting? Yes. Does The Last of Us do cover-based shooting in exactly the same way as most third-person shooters? No. As I already noted, Joel does not control like some spry young man, he feels like somebody desperate and worn-down. So too do the various raiders that you encounter; they investigate the area when you disappear from view for too long. They flank when they know exactly where you are. Some will retreat in fear while others will run headfirst into danger. This gameplay is used to build the world; it's a violent place, populated by real people who are constantly struggling. Boil it down to "shooting motherfuckers in the face" all you want, a great meal is simply different ingredients properly put together and cooked. And, though it's obviously not a totally fair comparison, a great meal is not criticised for using the same seasoning as another great meal. But that's the equivalent of what a lot of people want to talk like, nowadays; remember the complaints prior to the release of Fez? The ones in which, despite nobody playing the game proper, it was called out by many as being a "bland retro 2D platformer". Many people will now call that game one of the best of the year, while if you venture down to 4chan's /v/ you're find a resounding phrase of "pretentious, generic garbage". Why? Probably because it's easy to look at it in on face value and see aspects of games you've seen many times before. And with the growing popularity of "controversial" reviewers like TotalBiscuit, Errant Signal and.. ugh... Jim Sterling, it seems like more and more the value is being put on being outrageously cynical about your first impressions of a product. Here's TotalBiscuit ranting about what he thinks of Journey while running in the opposite direction and having not played past the first area. Here i'll pause and reflect on the fact that i'm now bitching about cynical game industry critics, while writing a long-winded blog in which I am super cynical about the game industry. I think I already pointed that out earlier, but I need to keep reminding myself so I don't hate the core of my being.

I don't hate game criticism, I think it's totally necessary if we want this industry to mature. What i've spelled out here, that has been bothering me so much for so long, is the need to complain about and boil down gameplay mechanics and systems, with arguments like "This is like this, that makes it bad". The Last of Us is a game about survival in a post-apocalyptic world. Do you think you'd need to sneak around and occasionally confront people in a post-apocalyptic world? Most likely. Would it have been neat if The Last of Us used its gameplay to approach those actions in a wholly unique way? Oh, for sure! But why does that matter so much? Why do games now have to catch flack for NOT doing something totally crazy mechanically? Why can they not just refine and subvert aspects of the medium that haven't been explored in that way? Watchmen is praised as one of the greatest comic-books of all time for doing just that. Some of the greatest music ever composed was a riff on previous work. The old adage "Everything is a remix" comes to mind, and it's something I wish the gaming community could start to understand. If we really want to start looking at the medium in a critical way, maybe we should be asking Why a game chooses to go in a certain direction; does it fit the narrative or how you're supposed to feel as a player, or is it intentionally going against that? The How is important, after all the main conceit of a game is that it is played, but maybe we should stop trying to damn games on the grounds of face-value traditional values. Or we can do whatever, i'm not trying to force anyone to do anything, I just hope i've added something to the discussion.

10 Comments
11 Comments
Edited by LackingSaint

Oh, and feedback is appreciated, both in terms of thoughts on what i've written and how i've written it. I'm interested in making more blogs in the future, so i'd like to get good at it!

Posted by McGhee

I'm tired of most new games myself. This is where indie developers come in. FTL blew me away. If you're bored with the same old stuff, I can't recommend it more.

Posted by LackingSaint

I know bumping is frowned upon, but i'd love some more thoughts on this from people!

Posted by Darji

I think it is pretty naive to still search for much innovation in this industry. Everything was there already but the skill is how to do it right. People want games to be fun which is understandable but if you cover serious themes and topics like the last of us. Maybe fun is not what you should try to deliver. I had this with Bioshock Infinite. I really liked the world it was set in and the topic as well but the gameplay was really off putting for me because it did not fit within the world. And after 8 hours I had enough and dropped it. Same with Tomb Raider is was too much gameplay which was not fitting to the theme and story.

Naughtydog does it right in my opinion . Uncharted is fun to play and not really that serious so the superman shooting gameplay fits the world. The world in The Last of US is cruel and so is the gameplay. A lot of one hit kills, not much ammo and a lot of frustration on the higher difficulties but it fits the world so I got way more into the game and finished it in 2 settings over a weekend.

Developers really should try to make games less fun if the theme in the world is cruel and serious. It needs to reflect the world. Ad by that I do not mean the degree of violence but more the difficulty and mechanics of the game.

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Posted by Oldirtybearon

This is only tangentially related to the OP (nice post by the way, @lackingsaint), but I find it interesting that this is the only medium I've seen where its community actively tries to foster "growth" or "evolution." Films evolved because of people like Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa pushing the boundaries of what could be done, not because a bunch of people got together and said "well we really need films with depth and meaning." Visionary artists come along maybe a couple of times a generation. If that. I just find it bizarre that instead of letting the medium evolve naturally there is a contingent of people who are more or less pushing "innovation" like it's some easily attainable thing if only people tried hard enough.

Innovation, evolution, groundbreaking ideas, they don't come as a result of trying hard. They're lightning in a bottle moments that have the ability to change the course of an entire medium. I'd argue that by constantly pushing for "innovation" one is actively degrading the awesome weight a sea-changing event can have. You're basically saying "psh, see? Ain't that hard. Just need to try something," when that couldn't be farther from the truth.

I know this doesn't have a whole lot to do with the OP, but it's something that's been bugging me about game critics and indeed the internet gaming community.

Posted by DarthOrange

Wow this was a great read and I agree with you 100%. Some people in this industry are way too cynical. It makes me wonder if they even enjoy playing videogames at all.

I look forward to your next blog duder.

Posted by LackingSaint

Wow this was a great read and I agree with you 100%. Some people in this industry are way too cynical. It makes me wonder if they even enjoy playing videogames at all.

I look forward to your next blog duder.

Thank you!

@dfl017 said:

@lackingsaint: This is why I enjoy indie games and crazy imported games. It's weird that games can be almost anything interactive yet they are all constructed so similarly. I guess it comes down to money.

A big part of it is probably how high we've set the standards for mainstream big releases nowadays; when you're not making a smaller independent project, it just takes way too much time, money and risk to program something that you've never done before.

Posted by believer258

I don't necessarily think that the greatest things are all about growth and evolution, but instead they're often about things done well. I haven't personally played The Last of Us, but I have heard plenty of people complain a bit about the gameplay. Even on Patrick's last or next to last Bombcast, they did some complaining about how the gameplay wasn't always that amazing. Bioshock Infinite, which I have played and recently, has some of the same issues. It's got an excellent story and a brilliant presentation, but the gameplay is mostly just "good" and only ever crosses over into "memorable" territory by way of the skyrail system, the star of the game's, uh, gameplay, and not utilized nearly enough. The rest of the shooting is kind of lacking. It's mostly blasting humans in ways eerily reminiscent of Call of Duty, except for the occasional bullet-sponge steampunk bad guy, most of whom aren't actually that fun to fight.

"So instead of a game like Catherine, that uses a seemingly arbitrary puzzle game mechanic to metaphorically represent the character’s relationships, growth, and change, we have another game like Bioshock Infinite that wants to be about Serious Themes but fails because the designers can’t think of something better for you to do other than to rifle through drawers and shoot motherfuckers in the face."

Strangely enough, the other Community Podcast fellows and I brought this up a few podcasts ago when talking about Bioshock Infinite again, and precisely the same complaint came up. It's not about how the game is unoriginal - it's about how the gameplay and story presented to you don't really mesh all that well. It's about how the player is constantly brought out of the story to do this routine, boring gameplay segment that isn't really much different from the last routine, boring gameplay segment, except maybe there are more enemies and you've got a new gun.

But I digress. The Last of Us likely doesn't "suck". In fact, I'd bet that it's pretty good. I'd have played it by now if I could scrounge up $60 to spend.

Posted by Killerfridge

Completely agree with you. I haven't played The Last of Us, but I did play Bioshock Infinite and thought it was great. And just because Catherines gameplay 'metaphorically represented' the story, doesn't mean it was good. I found the puzzles in that game to be boring. And like others have said, there is some truth in that games have gotten more expensive, so (most of) the big releases try to go for what sells, but that does not mean they are bad. People just like to be overly critical because the industry is sort of growing up, and they are pushing for change without even knowing what it is they want. I mean, what would they have put in lieu of Bioshocks shooting sections?

Edited by LackingSaint

@believer258 said:

I don't necessarily think that the greatest things are all about growth and evolution, but instead they're often about things done well. I haven't personally played The Last of Us, but I have heard plenty of people complain a bit about the gameplay. Even on Patrick's last or next to last Bombcast, they did some complaining about how the gameplay wasn't always that amazing. Bioshock Infinite, which I have played and recently, has some of the same issues. It's got an excellent story and a brilliant presentation, but the gameplay is mostly just "good" and only ever crosses over into "memorable" territory by way of the skyrail system, the star of the game's, uh, gameplay, and not utilized nearly enough. The rest of the shooting is kind of lacking. It's mostly blasting humans in ways eerily reminiscent of Call of Duty, except for the occasional bullet-sponge steampunk bad guy, most of whom aren't actually that fun to fight.

"So instead of a game like Catherine, that uses a seemingly arbitrary puzzle game mechanic to metaphorically represent the character’s relationships, growth, and change, we have another game like Bioshock Infinite that wants to be about Serious Themes but fails because the designers can’t think of something better for you to do other than to rifle through drawers and shoot motherfuckers in the face."

Strangely enough, the other Community Podcast fellows and I brought this up a few podcasts ago when talking about Bioshock Infinite again, and precisely the same complaint came up. It's not about how the game is unoriginal - it's about how the gameplay and story presented to you don't really mesh all that well. It's about how the player is constantly brought out of the story to do this routine, boring gameplay segment that isn't really much different from the last routine, boring gameplay segment, except maybe there are more enemies and you've got a new gun.

But I digress. The Last of Us likely doesn't "suck". In fact, I'd bet that it's pretty good. I'd have played it by now if I could scrounge up $60 to spend.

I definitely think The Last of Us is worth a look, for the record! It doesn't have perfect gameplay but, as I described in my blog, the issue is that it goes for something and occasionally doesn't manage it, not that it's bland or unoriginal. Or rather, if your issues with the game are the latter, you're being pretty damn cynical. Like the podcast, by the way!

@killerfridge said:

Completely agree with you. I haven't played The Last of Us, but I did play Bioshock Infinite and thought it was great. And just because Catherines gameplay 'metaphorically represented' the story, doesn't mean it was good. I found the puzzles in that game to be boring. And like others have said, there is some truth in that games have gotten more expensive, so (most of) the big releases try to go for what sells, but that does not mean they are bad. People just like to be overly critical because the industry is sort of growing up, and they are pushing for change without even knowing what it is they want. I mean, what would they have put in lieu of Bioshocks shooting sections?

Bioshock Infinite is still definitely one of those games I don't think benefits much from the part where it's a game, which is a legitimate criticism, but I agree on the whole with what you're saying. I'd take Bioshock Infinite's gameplay over Catherine or Katawa Shoujo's any day, even if tonally it has a much more clunky fit.