Thinking Not Required

This turned into a bit of an essay quickly, my congrats if you get to the end.....

Pretentious? Moi?

The Quick Look for Fez provoked a familiar reaction from portions of the gaming community. Although there were some positive or interested voices a small majority of comments were damning of a release they deemed ‘the game de jour for indie devs looking for wank material’ or another game hyped by ‘pretentious assholes. ’ While some of this distaste can be explained by people’s aversion to Phil Fish, its expression feels like a gag reflex many have toward games which appear arty and I wondered why, and if this was justified in any way.

Each time a game comes out which looks different, asks unusual questions of gamers or tries to include themes and ideas outside of gaming’s usual milieu it seems to antagonise certain sections of the community. This response would be understandable if it was a considered reaction to psuedry, or shallowness masquerading as insight, but generally, and especially it seems in the case of Fez, this is just a gut reaction rather than serious criticism. The forums seemed desperate to deride Fez, calling it boring, simple, ‘is that all there is’ ran one quote, another, ‘it looks like a basic New Grounds game.’ Clearly to anyone who has played Fez or even listened to the excellent discussion on this week’s Bombcast this is not the case. While not being to everyone’s taste, it is obvious the game is seriously complex and creates a world of codes and symbols for the player to puzzle over. The meat of the game is much more than jumping, rotating and collecting.

Emperor’s New Clothes?

It’s not just Fez, Braid and Limbo are two other games which have suffered sniping over their degree of pretentiousness and have been derided for attempts to be profound. Why do they provoke these reactions? Are the detractors right and these games are the emperors new clothes, naked of gameplay and fun, enjoyed by deluded audiences desperate to be hip, or are there a section of gamers scared of games which innovate outside of basic gameplay and graphics power.

A Typical Indie Dev Team

The answer, I think, is somewhere in between. I think there certainly are a section of gamers who feel threatened by people being or trying to be thoughtful and intelligent. These are the same people who would pick on the clever kid at school or pride themselves on never having read a book, but I think there is more to this than mere boorishness and something else is disturbing those who scorn fashionable indie games.

I think the issue is related to games’ youth as a pastime, and what the pastime entails. The clue is in the name – games – these are things which are supposed to be fun and enjoyable and for most people fun is something simple, almost thoughtless. Games are a way of escaping from the pressures of life, a release from being judged, tested, assessed and challenged. In gaming you can find release from your perceived intellectual or social failures and be who you want, it is a safe zone where preference confers no real intellectual caché. If you prefer Quake over Team Fortress or Halo over Call of Duty your taste or skill might be criticised but they are not choices which divide audiences into sophisticates and plebs, just different flavours of simple fun. However if your taste is for Hollywood blockbusters and Dan Brown novels there will always be someone, probably with a funny haircut and thrift store clothes, looking down their nose at you. The uniformity of gaming reviews in comparison to cinema reviews bares this out. In gaming blockbuster games get big sales and 5 and 4 stars uniformly, but film critics tend to sneer at the big Hollywood releases even as the public pack out the picture houses. Gaming’s short history has meant that up till now it has avoided this split into Arthouse and Mainstream or Literature and Genre Fiction. I think some members of the community, whose taste falls in the latter of these categories fear this distinction coming to gaming and being left among the lumpen once again. This may not be a conscious motive as they deride the lastest indie sensation but I think it is there, lurking at the back of their minds.

Am I a Game?

This is a shame because the two can exist side by side, but I understand the fear that some people have that they are going to be left in the dumb half of culture constantly apologising for their lowbrow taste, that somehow their simple paradise of fun is going to be highjacked by arty types and sneering aesthetes. As one person wrote in comments to Patrick’s article on the Cambodia “not game” The Killer – ‘Games are meant to be a fun escape from the real world, I don’t play games to get a deep message.’

Too Much Hype

However it doesn’t follow that all criticism of this nature is invalid. I think the current state of the industry can starve games of intelligent thought (although there are exceptions among the AAA titles) and this can make the audience hankering after these experiences too eager to praise the next big thing. The expense of making Video Games is something that can work against the creative process, something pointed out by Peter Molyneux in his interview about the Molyjam with Patrick. He says,

.....when you’re making a title that is going to end up costing millions and millions, tens of millions of dollars, Patrick, you just cannot have that attitude of ,”Well, let’s just do it.” It’s all got to be meticulously and carefully planned and structured and thought through and discussed and that does take the creative energy out of it. It must, whether it be a triple A computer game or a film..

Looks like art, sounds like art, must be.....right?

The point here that he is making is that the size and cost of making games stifles their creativity. Designer’s ideas are always being filtered through different teams and focus groups and creative risks are avoided when large sums are at stake. This leaves us with a selection of titles which while fun may not really show us anything new outside of updating old gameplay ideas and boosting visuals. For the media and enthusiasts who play these games this can get boring and the anticipation for a game which looks innovative or striking can lead too quickly to hype and often this over inflates the importance of certain products. It is also dangerous to artistic or mistake distinctive style for depth and true conceptual innovation. Limbo is a game which got critics and bloggers frothing superlatives (it is currently running at 90 on Metacritic) but was this praise justified? Limbo is a beautiful looking game and a fun platform-puzzler and was thought a worthy candidate in the ‘can games be art’ discussion with much made of the themes supposedly contained in its mysterious narrative. Although I enjoyed the game immensely I thought its stylish black and white presentation and ambiguous story gave an illusion of depth and no real thought was provoked outside of its fun puzzles. Articles and discussions sprung up about what the game meant or what it was trying to say when to me it was just a series of different puzzle arenas connected by a unifying art style. I thought the ambiguity of meaning was actually an absence and while it is no real criticism to say Limbo was just a great looking and fun puzzler, that’s all it was.

So I can understand why some people get snarky about commentators cooing over the next interesting little gem but I also understand this sometimes misplaced enthusiasm is there. Video games are not filled with many spaces for quiet reflection and generally don’t leave you with too much to ponder outside of how to up your APM or kill ratio and now the audience has grown and expanded far outside the teenage male’s bedroom it is not surprising that there are group of gamers hungry for something thoughtful from their experiences. When you compare what videogames want to say about the world with what is being discussed in cinema or literature you realise how far they have to go before they can really reflect human experience with the same depth as these two artistic institutions.

I am not sure if Videogames will ever reach this point and I fully understand that there is a good portion of the community that don’t care if they do. However would also say that there is no reason for anyone to fear or deride those that try, it’s never a bad thing to think hard about your art or try to push it in weird and innovative directions, even if these experiments fail sometimes. The main thing we as consumers can do is make sure we are always using our critical faculties to distinguish the merely stylish from the truly visionary, and the updated from the innovative.

9 Comments
10 Comments
Posted by leebmx

This turned into a bit of an essay quickly, my congrats if you get to the end.....

Pretentious? Moi?

The Quick Look for Fez provoked a familiar reaction from portions of the gaming community. Although there were some positive or interested voices a small majority of comments were damning of a release they deemed ‘the game de jour for indie devs looking for wank material’ or another game hyped by ‘pretentious assholes. ’ While some of this distaste can be explained by people’s aversion to Phil Fish, its expression feels like a gag reflex many have toward games which appear arty and I wondered why, and if this was justified in any way.

Each time a game comes out which looks different, asks unusual questions of gamers or tries to include themes and ideas outside of gaming’s usual milieu it seems to antagonise certain sections of the community. This response would be understandable if it was a considered reaction to psuedry, or shallowness masquerading as insight, but generally, and especially it seems in the case of Fez, this is just a gut reaction rather than serious criticism. The forums seemed desperate to deride Fez, calling it boring, simple, ‘is that all there is’ ran one quote, another, ‘it looks like a basic New Grounds game.’ Clearly to anyone who has played Fez or even listened to the excellent discussion on this week’s Bombcast this is not the case. While not being to everyone’s taste, it is obvious the game is seriously complex and creates a world of codes and symbols for the player to puzzle over. The meat of the game is much more than jumping, rotating and collecting.

Emperor’s New Clothes?

It’s not just Fez, Braid and Limbo are two other games which have suffered sniping over their degree of pretentiousness and have been derided for attempts to be profound. Why do they provoke these reactions? Are the detractors right and these games are the emperors new clothes, naked of gameplay and fun, enjoyed by deluded audiences desperate to be hip, or are there a section of gamers scared of games which innovate outside of basic gameplay and graphics power.

A Typical Indie Dev Team

The answer, I think, is somewhere in between. I think there certainly are a section of gamers who feel threatened by people being or trying to be thoughtful and intelligent. These are the same people who would pick on the clever kid at school or pride themselves on never having read a book, but I think there is more to this than mere boorishness and something else is disturbing those who scorn fashionable indie games.

I think the issue is related to games’ youth as a pastime, and what the pastime entails. The clue is in the name – games – these are things which are supposed to be fun and enjoyable and for most people fun is something simple, almost thoughtless. Games are a way of escaping from the pressures of life, a release from being judged, tested, assessed and challenged. In gaming you can find release from your perceived intellectual or social failures and be who you want, it is a safe zone where preference confers no real intellectual caché. If you prefer Quake over Team Fortress or Halo over Call of Duty your taste or skill might be criticised but they are not choices which divide audiences into sophisticates and plebs, just different flavours of simple fun. However if your taste is for Hollywood blockbusters and Dan Brown novels there will always be someone, probably with a funny haircut and thrift store clothes, looking down their nose at you. The uniformity of gaming reviews in comparison to cinema reviews bares this out. In gaming blockbuster games get big sales and 5 and 4 stars uniformly, but film critics tend to sneer at the big Hollywood releases even as the public pack out the picture houses. Gaming’s short history has meant that up till now it has avoided this split into Arthouse and Mainstream or Literature and Genre Fiction. I think some members of the community, whose taste falls in the latter of these categories fear this distinction coming to gaming and being left among the lumpen once again. This may not be a conscious motive as they deride the lastest indie sensation but I think it is there, lurking at the back of their minds.

Am I a Game?

This is a shame because the two can exist side by side, but I understand the fear that some people have that they are going to be left in the dumb half of culture constantly apologising for their lowbrow taste, that somehow their simple paradise of fun is going to be highjacked by arty types and sneering aesthetes. As one person wrote in comments to Patrick’s article on the Cambodia “not game” The Killer – ‘Games are meant to be a fun escape from the real world, I don’t play games to get a deep message.’

Too Much Hype

However it doesn’t follow that all criticism of this nature is invalid. I think the current state of the industry can starve games of intelligent thought (although there are exceptions among the AAA titles) and this can make the audience hankering after these experiences too eager to praise the next big thing. The expense of making Video Games is something that can work against the creative process, something pointed out by Peter Molyneux in his interview about the Molyjam with Patrick. He says,

.....when you’re making a title that is going to end up costing millions and millions, tens of millions of dollars, Patrick, you just cannot have that attitude of ,”Well, let’s just do it.” It’s all got to be meticulously and carefully planned and structured and thought through and discussed and that does take the creative energy out of it. It must, whether it be a triple A computer game or a film..

Looks like art, sounds like art, must be.....right?

The point here that he is making is that the size and cost of making games stifles their creativity. Designer’s ideas are always being filtered through different teams and focus groups and creative risks are avoided when large sums are at stake. This leaves us with a selection of titles which while fun may not really show us anything new outside of updating old gameplay ideas and boosting visuals. For the media and enthusiasts who play these games this can get boring and the anticipation for a game which looks innovative or striking can lead too quickly to hype and often this over inflates the importance of certain products. It is also dangerous to artistic or mistake distinctive style for depth and true conceptual innovation. Limbo is a game which got critics and bloggers frothing superlatives (it is currently running at 90 on Metacritic) but was this praise justified? Limbo is a beautiful looking game and a fun platform-puzzler and was thought a worthy candidate in the ‘can games be art’ discussion with much made of the themes supposedly contained in its mysterious narrative. Although I enjoyed the game immensely I thought its stylish black and white presentation and ambiguous story gave an illusion of depth and no real thought was provoked outside of its fun puzzles. Articles and discussions sprung up about what the game meant or what it was trying to say when to me it was just a series of different puzzle arenas connected by a unifying art style. I thought the ambiguity of meaning was actually an absence and while it is no real criticism to say Limbo was just a great looking and fun puzzler, that’s all it was.

So I can understand why some people get snarky about commentators cooing over the next interesting little gem but I also understand this sometimes misplaced enthusiasm is there. Video games are not filled with many spaces for quiet reflection and generally don’t leave you with too much to ponder outside of how to up your APM or kill ratio and now the audience has grown and expanded far outside the teenage male’s bedroom it is not surprising that there are group of gamers hungry for something thoughtful from their experiences. When you compare what videogames want to say about the world with what is being discussed in cinema or literature you realise how far they have to go before they can really reflect human experience with the same depth as these two artistic institutions.

I am not sure if Videogames will ever reach this point and I fully understand that there is a good portion of the community that don’t care if they do. However would also say that there is no reason for anyone to fear or deride those that try, it’s never a bad thing to think hard about your art or try to push it in weird and innovative directions, even if these experiments fail sometimes. The main thing we as consumers can do is make sure we are always using our critical faculties to distinguish the merely stylish from the truly visionary, and the updated from the innovative.

Posted by nail1080

Meh you would probably just as quick to sneer a Call of Duty game as they would to something a little less mainstream like Fez. The difference is that there's more of them!

Posted by TheDudeOfGaming

If you like a game, play it. If not, don't. It's that fucking simple.

Posted by Ventilaator

A shit game is a shit game. You throw Braid and Limbo in the same basket, and I would say that Braid is brilliant and one of the greatest games of the generation, while Limbo is an utterly shit game, just with a cool artstyle. People want their arty games to actually have good gameplay behind them, which is why Braid is well-loved and Fez got a negative reaction, because all the QL showed was some very basic platforming.

Posted by DeF

Great read! You made it sounds like you let it flow but your thoughts actually come across pretty well structured.

This kind of divided reaction, I believe, comes about because gaming truly seems to be one of the the fields of diversity in entertainment when it comes its audience. People come to gaming for tons of different reasons, more than other media, I'd argue. Some want to have fun, some want shoot dudes in the face to blow off steam, some want to figure out puzzles, some want a rewarding narrative experience, some want to grind their teeth when faced with complex mechanics, some want to experience something truly novel, some want their thoughts to be provoked, some want all of these things.

In other media, you usually tend to have only two types: those who simply want to be entertained and those who are into the craft/art-side of things - there isn't much room for other things. The interactive part invites so many different activities that the reasons people play games differ so drastically. It's only natural that their reaction to comments being made about games is accordingly different as well. Sadly, some don't seem to realize this and get all riled up and feel the need to vent when something is just not meant for them.

Hm, somehow I think my comment got a bit away from your original point. Ah, well ... :)

Edited by Rokkaku

It's a little unfair to say the desire for mainstream alternatives came only after gaming expanded beyond the teenage bedroom. This was precisely the audience that devoured the Final Fantasy games that were actually saying something about society (while still remaining resolutely as traditional games). As gaming got bigger, there have arguably been fewer risks because the big companies didn't want to scare away their lucrative new audiences. Detractors will always be louder than supporters, at least on the internet, so you won't hear too much from the millions who enjoyed Heavy Rain, LA Noire and others, but they are very much around. Gaming will eventually mature, but not for a little while yet, as it continues to explore the possibilities that advancing technology opens up, just have some patience.

Movies didn't even have sound for 30 years of existence, and only then could they truly diversify the story they told. The same watershed will come to games, we just don't know what form it will take or when it will happen, so just enjoy the alternatives where you can find them for now, and that is increasingly in the download space. Peace.

Posted by Brodehouse

It was me that offered the 'is this all there is?' quote. And it's a perfectly valid question. I played for an hour and the game did nothing to capture deeper interest. It doesn't matter how deep and creative something is if you don't present something worth investigating. I don't look to solve puzzles just because they exist, that's something a savant does. A rubix cube is worth investigating, a ratty locked suitcase with a rubix cube inside it is not.

Look at Wolpaw's Law. Jeff talks about the jumping and rotating being completely ancillary to the 'true' experience. Then I wonder why it's there, and why one should suffer through it in hopes of something greater later. Why front load your game with the stuff that you care least about? Just seems foolish.

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Posted by Little_Socrates

I thought it was a good read. I think the second and third sections were a little under-delivered, though.

Posted by leebmx

@Brodehouse: Sorry :) not picking on you or anything. I agree with what you say about the game mechanics on Fez, they are there for no other reason than to let you explore the world rather than to provide any real gameplay in themselves, although there is some mild puzzling to be had in rotating but not much.

This good point isn't the one most commentators were picking on though, they seemed to just enjoy bashing the next big thing without taking the time to find out more.

Posted by leebmx

@Ventilaator: I didn't mean to, just didn't get round to discussing Braid. I think Braid is a much better game but almost the complete opposite to Limbo in that Limbo has a great look but nothing-new gamplay and I didn't like Braids visuals but loved the puzzles