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.