Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Know your history: death of the intellectual in gaming

In my eagerness to start the blog, I never did outline the real aim of it, which might've been a misstep. My basic intent is to write a series of critical arguments about videogames, how they relate to other media, and so on. Mostly because I love videogames and I love talking about them, but also because it's the sort of thing I'd like to see on the internet: intellectual debate rather than mindless warring over consoles, games, etc. Also because there's no real prescribed format for referencing videogames or the like, to hell with MLA!

I've a personal, intense hatred for standardized referencing. Not in-text so much as the Works Cited nonsense. IMO all that's needed is the author's name, title, ISBN, and pages referenced. The rest is irrelevant and easily discovered if one knows those four bits of information, but I digress.

Part of me wonders if what feels like a leaning towards vast immaturity in gamers (samplings of GameFAQs or 4chan will make this leaning readily apparant) has anything to do with the types of games which have populated the mainstream lately. Over the weekend I was playing Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest (GBA Port), and I marvelled at how the level design consistently advanced itself: one skill was acquired one moment, tested the next, and mastery of it was thereafter expected. The game was not challenging in the "Beat your head against a cement wall" manner of modern RPGs and the like (Yahtzee, Zero Punctuation), but involved careful application of the gamer's intellectual prowess and dexterity (I'll be honest; one of the jumps in the game I made purely by fluke after 20 or so tries). The game was and is genuinely hard. In fact, as a ten-year-old playing it, I didn't come remotely close to beating it until a few months' hard work. I completed the game this weekend in about 5 hours between studying.

Essentially what I'm saying is, Donkey Kong Country 2 was hard, and it was not afraid to be hard. This is paralleled in other games of roughly the same era: Super Mario 3, Final Fantasy (Most of the earlier games up until IX or so were deceptively difficult, though this was often owed to a clutter on-screen and a distinct lack of direction). More to the point, the manner in which these games was difficult in an intellectual manner: for platformers one needed to solve a puzzle (and combine timing to execute), while in RPGs one needed to find clues to "unlock" the next series of events. I pick these two genres to focus on primarily because they were two of the most popular back in the fourth generation (SNES), to essentially the sixth (PS2, Gamecube, Xbox).

However, upon returning to modern-day gaming, I find such challenging experiences are lacking, in favour of more visceral thrills mainly bereft of intellectual depth. And though I'm not one to wade into "console wars", I find that one system of the three current-generation home consoles is at deepest fault here: the Xbox 360. Again, I speak not of the more independant, small-scale titles on the 360, but rather of some of the most popular games released on the console. The PS3 is guilty as well, to some extent, but as most of the offending games on the Playstation 3 are found on the 360 as well the 360 will remain the centerpiece of this post. The Wii, meanwhile, is an entirely seperate creature worthy of a post devoted to it alone.

From the List of best-selling Xbox 360 games:
Halo 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2; the never-ending title (excuse the bad joke), Gears of War, Gears of War 2
Note that Grand theft Auto IV placed 5th on the list: I have not played it myself, but I believe the above four games reasonably represent the most popular choices on the 360 console.

The first and most obvious similarity between the four games is genre: they are all first-person shooters. But as Valve's arguably classic Half-life 2 shows, it is not impossible for a shooter to be an intellectual, intriguing experience. Having played all of the above four games--and having enjoyed them--I argue that they all feature essential scenes of proceding forward on a linear path ("linear" being a buzzword in gaming discussion which I am using differently here) with no interruption save the next fire-fight. These fights boil down to essentially the same thing in either game: in Halo 3, one typically must take advantage of a vehicle/weapon/environment to defeat the opponents, in Gears of War one must take cover and take potshots at oncoming enemies until they dry up, and in Call of Duty, perhaps best emphasizing my point, 90% of the gameplay relies on being able to twitch to targets and shoot them instantly. I'm not saying there's no intellectual exercise at all in any of these, but it largely consists of the same thing. Halo is arguably the game which requires the most planning and forethought, but this is only really on the entirely optional Legendary difficulty mode. Cleverness is not built into the levels so much as the enemies are made hard as steel while the player becomes made of glass.

Essentially, these games all offer visceral, drive-releasing thrills, transitioning moment-to-moment without bothering to slow the pace for more measured entertainment. In Gears of War 2 one segment features the player being swallowed into the digestive system of a massive, city-consuming worm. Expecting some sort of puzzle or challenge, I was disappointed when the entire section was essentially: run here. Stop. Shoot. Chainsaw. Run here. Stop. Shoot. Chainsaw. Repeat. In Gears of War 2 (and the other games listed above), the player acquires all the essential skills for the game within roughly a half hour of playing: after that, it's a matter of repeating the same comfortable skillset rather than advancing as in Donkey Kong Country 2.

Now back to the beginning of my argument. I believe that gaming's shift towards intellectual dampened, sensationally impacting games is what is contributing to the firey, territorial nature of gamers. Perhaps the games played by gamers affect the attitude of gamers, or perhaps the popularity of certain games attracts a kind of person with a certain attitude, but that is neither here nor there. Games are no longer about simply having fun and engaging with media, but now are essentially competitions: online multiplayer, "Acheivements" and "Trophies" all contribute to this mindset. And because games have become so visceral, I believe that gamers identify so closely with their game/console of choice that anyone simply not enjoying it is so reprehensible that they clearly must be a lower form of human being: thus propelling the mindless arguments that frequent so many forums like GameFAQs.

Come to think of it, there's something to be said for gamer-identification and the evolution of gaming protagonists... but that's a story for another day.

Comment if you've got anything to say, I'd love to hear some input.

P.S. Simply because it's awesome, I've included a track from the Donkey Kong Country 2 soundtrack, which was stunningly well-crafted given the capabilities of the Super Nintendo console. I give you Lockjaw's Saga


  1. We've all seen the effect music can have on people, and how media, like it or not, has a massive influence on society.

    Then we can take into account that people have become lazy. When the majority of people are too lazy to even read a book, it's no surprise that violence won over puzzles in the end. All it takes to play a shooter is reflexes, whereas a puzzle requires you to actually work that brain of yours.

    Fantastic post, man. I'd say more, but I'm in more of a philosophy mood. xD;

  2. This is the main reason why I gravitate to less mainstream games. Battlefield Bad Company 2 is a great example of a shooter done right. The game requires more thought due to its slower, more mature pace. Honestly, I am sick of all of these run and gun shooters on the market. Before BFBC2 came out I was worried it would attempt to change itself in order to appeal to the Halo/Cod fans. It did, but in a good way.

    (PS. Gears of War 1 and 2 (and soon 3 ;D) are third-person shooters. But thats just the game programmer in me wanting to be specific :D)

  3. I see what your saying in your throwback to the traditional RPG and platformer, however at the same time that format, the format of the typical jRPG that swarmed the NES and SNES consoles and the traditional platformer that was Mario, has become outdated. I mean sure people still play them, but mostly for the nostalgic value they have. You've been playing Donkey Kong Country 2 lately, but had you not played the game in your past, had you been in the circumstances I am in, it would not be as intriguing. I've tried to play those games, and though the gameplay is devalued by ROMs, I just couldn't get into it.

    What I'm saying is gameplay evolves just as movies and literature and so forth does. Shakespeare wouldn't have written the same works if he were born in this era, nor would Miyamoto have created Mario as he did. You wouldn't play Pong and have the same enjoyment they did in the first days of Pong. Sure there are titles that stand strong through the ages, such as the original Mario games, or Final Fantasy VII, but I've played the original Final Fantasy first hand and frankly it was more of a pain than it was entertaining, as I had to play with a FAQ due to the sheer lack of direction, and the difficulty curve between the last dungeon and the last boss was remarkably steep. He had a one hit KO attack, for Christ's sake.

    But to bring up another example in my point, Lost Odyssey was a game created with modern graphics and whatnot, but traditional jRPG style. And as you yourself have stated it is not that great a game. I've bought Resonance of Fate which tried to take on Final Fantasy XIII in a different way by maintaining traditional style to the modern stylized XIII. It's really hard to get into, because of this.

    Though I think I've digressed. What was the original point? Something about how games are not designed like they used to be? Anyway.

    Good article. :D

  4. @Quill: (Not a rebuttal or rebuke, but a reaction) In my own defence, I was not commenting necessarily on the genre of jRPG or the classic platformers themselves: but the natures of jRPGs and platformers developed in those days compared to modern shooters. The point is the challenge is intellectual versus visceral.

    Somewhat disarmingly, Lost Odyssey exhibited the same kind of lack of intellectual involvement (the gameplay: go here, fight here, listen here, watch here, go here, fight here, repeat). Even Final Fantasy XIII failed to incorporate any real challenging logic puzzles within the game, as opposed to Final Fantasy X. These games are somewhat redeemed by the fact that their battles are intellectual exercises (though FFXIII is certainly far more fast-paced than a typical strategic system), and so I did not opt to mention them in my post.

    Furthermore, Lost Odyssey is certainly not as popular as Halo 3 or Gears of War, and my post did intend to deal with the most popular games of the time. Final Fantasy XIII is a contender, but it's not really far enough into its lifecycle yet.

    And the reason I didn't discuss games such as Pong or the original Final Fantasy explicitly (though I admit I did mention it) was that these games are complicated by their release relatively new within the introduction of games as media: they were bound to be difficult by way of their creators not having figured out how to best provide an interface for the user.

    Thanks for the comments, guys, it's nice to actually get something back ^_^