It's been a while since I've commented on this site, and I initially posted this to the wrong place, but GiantBoyDetective showed me the path to righteous discussion. Anyways, I've just finished a (lengthy) piece called Games Criticism and the State of Games Going Forward, which I also posted to reddit, and I would love to get your opinion. Here goes:
Just a heads up: I will be discussing a few games and there will be some pretty big spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line and Saint's Row IV, and some very mild ones for Assassin's Creed IV and The Stanley Parable
So, this post is going to be about a couple different things. These things have been on my mind a lot lately in regards to gaming, so I just wanted to see if these are trends that everyone else is noticing and thinking about. I'm on my winter break, so I've been doing a lot of gaming and have had the chance to catch up on a lot of stuff I've been meaning to play. First, I want to look at the ways in which gaming has been increasingly entering a reflective era in which developers are looking inward to ask questions about form and function (why do we play the games we do, and are they problematic in any way?). Second, I want to explore games criticism, as it seems like those who used to simply judge and write about games to answer questions like, is it fun? are the graphics good? how is the multiplayer? are now taking more critical stances in reviews and post-launch discourse, asking tougher questions about what a games actually mean.
We are in an era where the gaming market is more saturated than ever. Not only can you get AAA blockbusters like Call of Duty that offer adrenaline soaked experiences for huge audiences, but there are more indie games than ever before thanks to the changing digital distribution landscape and slow death of publishers (much like record labels, still holding on and serving a practical purpose, but different, changing). While this is something that's been talked about to death, I think the sheer amount of games available in nearly every genre is what's important. We're even seeing a massive resurgence in strategy, space exploration and RPGs, not to mention PC gaming as a whole. But with the constant influx of shooters that were enormously popular in the last console generation, things started to get stale. I mean, even if you're a diehard Call of Duty fan, you have to admit Ghosts is just tiresome and every set piece gives you the sense of déjà vu, that you've done this a thousand times before.
But what I've seen over the last couple of years is the slow shift in the industry to produce some thought provoking stuff that calls into question the mindless shooting galleries, the rinse and repeat level design, the endless tropes and game-isms that it seemed like for a while, everything coming out was going to fall victim to. I've noticed a trend recently in games to develop a sort of metacommentary that slaps you over the face and says, "Hey, you're playing a game and this is how it was constructed!" The Stanley Parable is a prime example of this.
Stanley is an office worker who mindlessly keeps pushing buttons day in and day out. He doesn't question his job and thinks everything is dandy. But one day, something isn't right and he sets off on a quest to seek out the meaning of his existence. All of this is a very thinly veiled look at game design clichés and the players of games. The narrator makes us question the linear, follow the NPC, quest marker, arrow, etc. design that has been so popular in that too-often-used-as-an-example-but-too-hard-to-ignore Call of Duty (and every generic knock off, along with many other kinds of action games) when he says, "This time, to make sure we don't get lost, I've employed the help of the Stanley Parable Adventure Line. Just follow the line. How simple is that?" Eventually many other gaming tropes and game design philosophies are put under that narrator's microscope, such as the illusion of choice and the lack of any clear narrative.
The very fact that this game was successful says that there's a large number of players out there who are unsatisfied, looking for something new. And this whole not-really-a-game genre has been growing in popularity with games like Dear Esther, Gone Home, and The Walking Dead being commercial and critical successes, though obviously not bringing home the money that AAA does.
Then there are games like Spec Ops: The Line. I started the game thinking after the first hour or so, "Why do people like this game? The gameplay is bland and this is just a derivative of every other Middle-Eastern themed, shoot the brown people killfest." But then the enemy, the "other" that is so prevalent in Western military-themed games, changes. No longer are you killing some nameless, towel-masked enigma that you can't and aren't supposed to relate to. You are tasked with killing American soldiers. Every step of the way, the game forces you to look at the horrible things your character does and ask yourself, "Is this right?" It really makes you question the cathartic murder sprees that have been part of gaming for ages. Your character descends into being a dark, broken man, one who doesn't feel like he had a choice in any of the violence he took part in. But that leaves the player with a question. Do I have a choice? Should I keep reveling in these bloodbaths?
There are plenty more examples of a critical consciousness and self-awareness entering into games. Saint's Row IV, for example, takes absurdity to the next level, parodying the hero fantasies of other games by making you the President of the United States and a god damn superhero. But the main villain, Zinyak, becomes an obvious metaphor for game designer, as he is the architect of the virtual world you play in. While this usually is just a set up for a joke about the clichés of game design, sometimes there is honest-to-goodness criticism of gaming as a whole. The game frequently parodies Mass Effect, and at one point, the illusion of choice is poked at, much like the Stanley Parable. You get the choice, do you want to enter one door and sacrifice yourself to save humanity, restoring it to what it was, or do you want to keep fighting? Well out of interest, I chose to sacrifice my sexually confused, morbidly obese, dildo weapon wielding super hero for the greater good. But it doesn't work. You're greeted with a familiar "You've Failed" screen with the words "Zinyak lied" below it. Zinyak being the developers, Volition, who lampoon the idea that you have any free will in the outcome of the story. It's their creation, their world, and you are simply choosing one path to the same outcome.
Now, I haven't played much of it yet, so bear with me on this one and correct me if I'm wrong, but Assassin's Creed IV has some really interesting parts in the present day. I know most critics felt like the first person sections that take place at Abstergo Studios were boring and out of place, but I see a commentary on sequalization and lack of creativity by the developers. You see, the Templars, known as Abstergo in the present day, and "bad guys" throughout the series, set up a game development studio which help them craft experiences in the Animus to help them get into the assassin's ancestor's lives. So they come up with endless varieties of historical periods for these "players" to go into and help achieve their goal of world domination (or whatever their goal really is, I'm not sure myself). But are they really getting any closer to their goal? The struggle between Templars and assassin's has been going on for most of modern human history. The plot really isn't going anywhere, which is both true of the struggle inside the game, but it's also true of the games story itself. Assassin's Creed games have always been carrot on a stick style in terms of the story driving us. We're left with more questions than answers, and the only thing we get in each new iteration is a fancy new setting and some fancy new gadgets. Some players are fine with this, but I find it boring and it seems like some people at Ubisoft are tired of it too, evidenced by including this underlying commentary. Again, I'm only a couple hours into this game, so please correct me if this is wrong.
So now that I've provided a set of examples of this shift in gaming, I want to talk about the critical discussions surrounding games in the media. Before, it seemed like it was very rare for a review to break down what it was that made a game work. Perhaps it's the nature of a consumer driven industry such as video gaming, but games were merely judged on if they felt good to play, if the graphics looked nice, how the sound was, and story and meaning were treated as a bonus. And while reviews overall still mostly take this shape, the discussions around games, especially after the release buzz has settled, have gotten better. The elephant in the room is Bioshock Infinite.
People really liked the when it came out. It was pretty, fun to play for the most part, and had an intelligently crafted story that I really enjoyed. But after the press had their hands on it for a couple weeks, discussions started coming out about storytelling in the medium. Was it necessary to having FPS gameplay at all in a story driven game? Words like ludonarrative dissonance started being tossed around. And after all the dust settled, we were left with mixed feelings. I still love the game, but can understand all of the criticisms being thrown at it. But the fact that this conversation was had at all is a huge step forward. The industry needs big, controversial games like Bioshock for people to discuss and understand what it really is about gaming that we like. And more and more it seems like people are clamoring for fresh ideas, for good stories, for something to break up the monotony.
I previously talked about Spec Ops: The Line, and a lot of what I wrote stemmed from thoughts I had after reading Killing is Harmless by Brendan Keogh, a 177 page critical analysis of the game. It was an incredibly interesting read, but as I was reading it what almost amazed me more than the complexity of the writing, imagery and storytelling of the game that Keogh discusses was the fact that I was reading a book such as this about a game at all. Serious critical analysis and social commentary is something that has traditionally been reserved for literature, film, and other forms of art. It made me incredibly happy to see someone's in depth look of the imagery of sand washing away the Western influenced construction of Dubai. This, along with the conversations about Bioshock leave me hopeful for the future of gaming. After all, if the medium is aspiring to elevate itself to a higher form of art, we need intelligent people discussing what works and what doesn't, what is important to a game's meaning and what is filler, fluff added to artificially lengthen a game.
So after all my ramblings, I want to open it up to you. Have you noticed these trends as well? How do you feel about them? What other critical analysis is out there that I missed? Are trends being bucked simply because we are moving into a new generation of game consoles or is gaming really maturing as a medium? I want to hear what you think.