As discussed in Part 1, an internally coherent formal system of analyzing video games as games is not some fanciful pipe dream. Neither is it a savage assault on the nebulous concept of "fun" or any other subjective appraisal value. With this skeletal but strong basis, we can finally tackle what proves so problematic about a swath of design elements and the games that utilize them improperly. And because controversy drives page hits, let's call out as many people as possible for poor game design!
Most of the games and designers targeted in the following text are by no means the only guilty parties, but are certainly some of the most egregious offenders. Games from studios large and small with reputations illustrious to spotty have all in some way transgressed against the idea that power in games should belong to players, and rather than some fictional verdict and sentence, each will conclude with a separate medium in which the assumed aims of the designers could have been better met, and why. Just trying to be helpful, because that's that's just the kind of guy I am!
|The best games always seemed to make for terrible movies...|
Name: Ken Levine
Fault: No correlation between players' actions and intended message.
Many would posit the original Bioshock as a key point in the development of the Big Message Game movement, thanks to the thickly applied patina of objectivism-versus-populism shellacked onto its plot. The failures of Andrew Ryan to account for man's imperfections as rational actors and the opportunist thuggery of Atlas/Frank Fontaine are also compounded with the questioning of the nature of free will via the heavy-handed "would you kindly" reveal. Certainly, these are interesting topics which possess the kind of philosophical gravity to make a minor masterpiece out of any work that can deftly handle them. As you can imagine, many would argue exactly that!
The problem is that the act of running about Rapture to shoot and maim the deep-sea biotechnological equivalent of crackheads does little to correlate to all this grandiose hand-wringing over the innate moral state of humanity. The first two-thirds of the game before meeting Ryan are an exercise in world-building and smacking things with wrenches that could have been accomplished in a fraction of the time. The setting is certainly an impressive one, both novel and fitting to the Galt's Gulch styling of the colony's inception, but in essence the entire process of traversing it merely amounts to a grand tour of the ruined husk of society before confronting its maker. The sub-bosses all hit the same note of "deranged exaggeration of societal ideals and values" in an extended trek that eventually has the grace to end up at real plot points.
All in all a minor offense, but the dissociation between action and intent only widened exponentially. Once it was clearly proven that just the facsimile of meaningfulness would suffice to game audiences, all bets were off. And merrily down the road we went, hailing Bioshock not as a commendable first step towards profundity but as complete fruition. We can see the results of this line of thinking in the downward slope running down Bioshock 2 and right into a seemingly "infinite" abyss.
Recommended Revamp: Movie; "thinking man's" blockbuster with Oscar chops
Kind of Like: Batman Begins
|No butter either, please, I'm watching my weight.|
Name: Anna Anthropy
Fault: Direct contradiction between player's actions and intended message.
Some background information that may shock you: even though I write a video game blog, I am a white, heterosexual, cisgendered American male. (Please, bring your jaws back up from the floor.) As a result of this, I cannot speak for the tribulations of having a physical body at odds with one's gender, to speak nothing of the experience of attempting to change that. Between societal stressors and stigma from friends, family, lovers and strangers alike, the quest to feel comfortable in one's own skin is without question a noble and human pursuit fraught with difficulty. I have immense respect for those who are willing to face the harmful ignorance of society head-on in an attempt to seek their own personal happiness.
What I simply cannot understand about the game is why it is so astonishingly simplistic. For a game that I would expect to convey the myriad trials of undergoing hormone therapy in a sympathetic light, having everything displayed in bright faux-pixel art and controlled with just four arrow keys feels inappropriate. Managing medication is moving a mouth left and right to catch falling pills; confronting people who confuse your gender identity or refuse to acknowledge your true gender is moving a blocky shield up and down. The absolute last thing I want to do is trivialize the experiences of the game's creator, which is why I feel so confused when she does it to herself via the game she created. It's cognitive dissonance to the extreme.
I suppose accurately reflecting the difficulty via the gameplay would probably make Dys4ia much less accessible, with far fewer people playing or much less completing it. But then, it seems strange to take the route of a Newgrounds flash game anyway. Go with what you know I suppose?
Recommended Revamp: Movie; short indie but not too art-house documentary
Kind of Like: Louie
|Pro Tip: Hold the Right Arrow key to be tormented by patriarchal hegemony.|
Name: Brenda Brathwaite
Fault: Using setting to destroy game and emotionally manipulate players.
At the behest of someone I was having a heated discussion with over this board game, I watched the first 45 minutes of Brathwaite's hour-long talk at GDC 2010. The brunt of the time was spent detailing the critical bombshell of the third and most famous game to date in her ironically-named six-part "Mechanic is the Message" series. Although it's morbidly amusing to wonder what will come of the presumed fourth installment, Mexican Kitchen Workers, I was caught entirely by surprise by her description of the first, The New World.
Brathwaite's daughter was having trouble understanding the horrors of the American slave trade, so a game was devised: index card ships with little painted peg people crossed the ocean on dice rolls, and limited supplies meant not everyone would make it to the other shore. Similarly-colored "families" were split up and treated as expendable commodities by the player in their effort to maximize success. The message was relayed quite brilliantly by the actions of gambling with human souls as cargo; it was so self-evident and clear that her daughter understood after only playing several turns, emphasis on "playing".
The follow-up creation, The Ireland Game, was an entirely different beast. Every detail of the playing surface's construction was a symbolic representation of what Brathwaite knew about her heritage, down to burlap stuffed with family mementos. The means of playing the game, as far as what the people engaging in her creation were to do... never came up. The distinct impression was made that the actual gameplay was so trivial to The Ireland Game that it was, in essence, no more than a particularly overt mixed-media sculpture.
And then it was time for Train: vague and cryptically open-ended rules typed on authentic Nazi typewriters, Kristallnacht broken window play boards, and 60 Juden-yellow passenger pieces worth 100,000 Dead Hebrew Souls each. Some "notoriously tough rabbi" blesses the game as an act of Torah, speaking authoritatively on behalf of every surviving member of the Chosen People in his praise. And how do you win: is it disrupting other players' trains to stop them from reaching the concentration camps, or is it figuring out the blatantly obvious and ham-handedly telegraphed "twist" and refusing to play?
Putting the utter trivialization of genocide on the back-burner for a bit, let's focus on the actual way you play the game, which received all of about 2 minutes' time to make room for more self-congratulatory media blitz recaps.
|Smooth moves, chump; looks like you just got railroaded into ethnic cleansing!|
That's clearly enough for one post. Maybe I'll do another round of cases before conclusion, maybe not. That's the fun of being your own boss!