That is the sound of me trying to talk to someone while playing a game, not because I’m some illiterate fool, despite what you may think of this article, but because I’m playing a game. By game, I of course mean a videogame, but what is a videogame? That’s a stupid question to pose on a videogame site you might think, but I feel the idea of what a game is has become increasingly unclear in recent years, by which I mean perhaps the last ten or so.
In the last couple of weeks there has been some furore over Nintendo’s plans regarding people using footage of their games on sites like Youtube. ‘Let’s Play’ videos and the like appear to be under threat and the free advertising they may or may not provide, depending on your point of view, will be lost, at least for Nintendo games. I don’t know, or care, enough about the details of this to comment but the Let’s Play videos themselves are an interesting phenomenon. For those who don’t know, they’re essentially game footage with someone, usually a ‘personality’ very much of the inverted commas type, talking to you about the game as they play. I would be terrible at this, as outlined by my example above of me attempting to speak when playing a game.
Of course, if I was playing something like GTA, or Skyrim, or Assassin’s Bloody Creed I could probably have a pretty in depth conversation with you about anything you like. If, on the other hand, I was playing a tricky level in a Mario game for example, I probably wouldn’t hear a word you were saying. Now we’re about to move into that dangerous territory of the opinion piece where people will start to think I’m talking so much shit that they can’t stand it anymore, and they might be right, but here goes. I feel that some games are videogames and some aren’t. Some are just interactive experiences that we’ve come to accept as videogames. So strap in and read on to find out why, or walk away in disgust now.
When you went to that crappy media studies course that everyone does at college, before you dropped out, you probably learnt a little something about cinematic codes and conventions and, with lesser but still some relevance to this, mise en scene. These are the unwritten rules of cinema that actually have been written down in hundreds of textbooks and form the basis for most films you see today. That’s fine, they work, they’re established for a reason. Where they struggle is when they’re applied to videogames, as they have been more and more over the past decade or so. As games became more realistic their creators became perhaps more pretentious in their ambitions and attempts to rival the spectacle of a summer blockbuster. An early example, and perhaps the flawed Citizen Kane of this misguided move, would be the early Metal Gear Solid games with all the cutscenes. Some people love those games but huge parts of them aren’t games at all. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you know. If that’s what you want, and like, that’s fine, but don’t try to tell me it’s videogaming.
From some point in the early to mid 00s it became the norm for games to have open ended structures and dollops of plot, to give you time to explore and do your own thing. Everything was a ‘sandbox’ for better or worse. More and more ‘power’ was given to the player when what this actually meant was that level design became much looser and the direction much more free from traditional gameplay constraints. We were sold on the idea that linearity was a bad thing. You could do anything you wanted in whatever order you felt like but the onus was now on you to decide. ‘Here’s what we made, we weren’t sure how to structure it so you figure it out.’
As the industry grew and we got more and more lavish productions you saw all these cinematic touches crop up again and again. The problem is, things like mise en scene are there for the passive viewer to enjoy; it’s set decoration and subtle touches to help tell a story. These codes and conventions are not designed for interactivity. Videogaming needs its own rules because it’s a different medium from cinema. Trying to force things from a passive arena into an interactive one doesn’t work. It might be nice, it might add some novelty, but it’s not gaming. It’s like going to the cinema and looking at some photos whilst listening to a radio play. The core element of why you’re there is missing.
Now, before you all start to think I’m some kind of NES-era obsessed philistine, let’s go back a few years. I had, and enjoyed, all the same big games everyone else did last gen. I played through Oblivion and Skyrim, I got GTA IV and V and even didn’t mind Assassin’s Creed 2 for a bit. But let’s move along to my attention grabbing clickbait headline, let’s talk about 2010’s Bayonetta and how it ruined all these modern games I’d been perfectly happy playing.
Something in me was looking for something different, some subconscious yearning of the sort that makes you throw money at new consoles and games in the hope of filling that hole that might otherwise spark a more conventionally recognisable mid-life crisis. I saw the underground hype and the Edge review for Bayonetta and thought I’d give it a go, put off by the silly name and the action brawler genre but bored enough to try it anyway and see what that 10/10 was all about. I was grabbed instantly. Despite not normally enjoying fighting games of this type I found myself glued to the screen and concentrating, actually concentrating! I don’t think I’d concentrated on what I was doing in a game since the 90s, I hadn’t had to. All the years of casually playing football games or holding a stick up as I glided over a 3D world suddenly faded into the background and I was paying attention again. Not even because I really had to, Bayonetta isn’t a hard game to just get through, but because I wanted to. The gameplay was satisfying and rewarding to the extent that I wanted to play it well and be good at it. I was no longer just grinding through a world and ticking things off a list of chores, I was playing for the sake of playing.
Shortly after I picked up Street Fighter IV and enjoyed that game’s demanding nature just as much. These were games like games are meant to be; games that grab you and pull you in and force you to pay attention to them. You can’t put these on in the background while having a drunken conversation, not if you want to play them properly anyway. I continued to seek out similar experiences and found Vanquish and Super Meat Boy, both games that demand your full attention and respect, either due to the constant action or the apparent difficulty. I could still appreciate the grandeur of the big AAA releases and still bought them in most cases but they always left me cold and would be put to one side and left unfinished, they had no urgency. My crossroads moment, the thing that made me realise that big budget mainstream gaming might not be for me, was probably when I picked up a PS3 to play The Last of Us. It was a great game with a great story, perhaps told in the best way that any game of that sort ever has, but I still found myself holding the stick up for most of it and moving a cursor that represented a gun over targets during the action sequences, essentially the parts that are meant to be the game. I preferred the story-telling side of it but that may as well not be interactive at all. All I was doing was moving from one area to the next to activate the cutscene and progress the story, turning a virtual page in the most laborious manner. I felt that the Walking Dead games did it better by being more obviously a visual novel.
I don’t mean to criticise modern games, they are genuinely great at what they do and in many ways we’ve never had it so good. I just feel that a lot of people miss the true point of games, the real reason people play them. Maybe that’s not why they play them anymore though. Maybe it was when games started to leave that core element behind that they appealed to the masses more. Maybe the very thing I like about gaming is the same thing that had put people off for so long.
Most of the games I seem to like are made in Japan. I don’t know if that’s a cultural thing or because Japanese developers are behind the times or what, but that seems to be the case and I mention it only to illustrate more clearly the sort of games I’m talking about. I don’t think Western developers are incapable of making ‘proper’ games but I do think that perhaps Hollywood casts a longer shadow in the West. It’s consumer taste as well of course and as gaming becomes a bigger and bigger concern, with bigger and bigger budgets it’s only natural that less risks are taken and the masses are catered to more and more. Some will look to the indie developers for innovation and the upholding of old values but they too are looking for profits first and the success of less interactive titles like Gone Home suggest that’s where the money is. I want to reiterate that I have nothing against this and enjoy those experiences too, I just hope there remains to be the sort of game I’ve tried to avoid calling ‘old-school’, but I suppose that’s what it is and perhaps what I am.
I’ve come up with a little test for games to see if I might enjoy them, if they might grab me. I call it the TV test and it consists of asking yourself how annoyed you’d be if someone walked in front of the TV while you were playing. For a lot of modern games it wouldn’t matter, the second or two that they took to walk past would have no impact. But imagine someone doing that when you were mid-jump on the last bit of a secret level in Mario that you’d been trying to do for ages, you’d flatten the bastard. It’s that violent rage that lets you know a game is doing something right. I’ve recently been trying to get all the gold cups on the 150CC races in Mario Kart 8. I’d placed first in the first three of a series and was about to complete the set when I was hit at the line and Koopa Troopa’s smiley face gently floated past to win. “You fucking green shelled mother fucking bastard!” I shouted, before pausing, taking a deep breath and realising, I’m enjoying this.