Video Games Are Stupid

1.

Video Games Are Stupid

Even with its backdrop of realized Cold War futurism, a greaser-style youth gang in an underground vault society in the year 2277 is the working definition of a dumb idea.

-Tom Bissell, from Extra Lives, on Fallout 3

For someone who subtitled his book “Why Video Games Matter,” Tom Bissell spends much of his time in Extra Lives discussing why many games, in fact, matter very little. The book is ostensibly about why video games are sophisticated vessels of creativity. Bissell makes a compelling argument, but must overcome one major hurdle: namely, that video games often, if not always, fall short of real sophistication. We are not talking about mass-market shooters or the video game equivalent of Dan Brown novels; we are talking about widely praised and celebrated games. Bissell spends much of his time dismantling series like Resident Evil, Fallout, and Grand Theft Auto, pulling no punches and laying bare their many weaknesses.

Bissell’s self-deprecation is an important part of his argument, because if one wants to write a convincing apology for video games, one cannot take an over-generous view of their true quality. Any appreciation of Grand Theft Auto IV cannot hinge on the strength of its narrative or the depth of its characters, because GTA IV is indisputably overshadowed by many other fictional works – particularly those gangland dramas whose comparison GTA invites. Similarly, any argument that the Resident Evil series is “great” must acknowledge that its characters are straightforwardly moronic, and its plot impenetrably dense.

In short, Bissell has to address head-on the apparent paradox of being an intelligent, mature adult who cares deeply about many games which are, in most ways, indefensibly stupid.

Bissell is hardly alone in this situation. Most game critics assume a defensive position, fighting against the widespread notion that games are merely cheap entertainment. Kill Screen is an unambiguous response to the idea that “gamers don’t think;” the Brainy Gamer’s name suggests a lack of brainy gamers;  for a time, Kotaku (and countless others) couldn’t shut up about Roger Ebert, all because Roger Ebert, a film critic with rather limited influence over video games, does not think highly of the medium. Clearly, as critics, journalists, and fans, we have something to prove.

Here we must be honest with ourselves. We must dispense with our kneejerk reactions and practiced arguments. There is no doubt that many smart and talented people make video games, and there is no doubt that many smart and talented people play video games. But there is a great deal of doubt in video games as a creative medium, even among great lovers of that medium. We can be diplomatic and say that video games have yet to reach their potential, whatever that might be. Tom Bissell says as much in his introduction: “In my conversations with game designers, I was sternly informed, again and again, of the newness of their form, the things they were still learning how to do, and of the necessity of discarding any notion of what defines video games.” But we can also be more straightforward, and say that video games are often dumb, or at least juvenile, clutching awkwardly at some higher form.

If gamers have something to prove, then they are lacking in evidence.

2.

Video Games Are Stupider Than We Realize

This guy just beat his head against a wall until it bled. And then finally it was done. And he played the game on its own stupid, brutal, dumb terms, and finally got through it. Whereas, John, you’re a smart fellow, but you figured out: this game is stupid.

- John Hodgman, on Mega Man X

I suspect most gamers, at one point or another, have experienced the great shame of trying to explain a video game to someone with no knowledge of or interest in the medium – a friend, a parent, a partner. I was living at home when Kingdom Hearts was released and found myself unable to explain to my mom why a boy in puffy shorts battled monsters alongside the Little Mermaid. It’s not that Kingdom Hearts is hard to describe. It’s easy enough to describe what the game is literally about, and I actually enjoy the series quite a bit. But I couldn’t describe the game in any way that made sense to an outsider, because what the game is literally about makes zero fucking sense.

Even today, I’m not sure I could explain my enjoyment of the Kingdom Hearts series. My appreciation would be appended by multiple asterisks, acknowledging the game’s nonsensical plot, its tedious level design, its grueling cutscenes, and its aggressively boring opening sequences. There is a scene in Kingdom Hearts II where Goofy – that is, Goofy the dog – is hit by a boulder and presumed dead. The main character and his companions vow to avenge Goofy’s death, and leap into battle. Of course, Goofy later wakes up, rubbing his head, laughing as only Goofy does.

Kingdom Hearts is quite possibly the dumbest game I’ve ever played, and yet I spent $300 on a PlayStation 3 in the hopes of eventually playing the yet-unreleased Kingdom Hearts III.

Kingdom Hearts is only one such example of an obviously flawed game which I nonetheless enjoy. Despite the work of writers like Tom Bissell, many games remain obstinately hard to defend, and wither in comparison to even middling works of film, of music, of literature. And I spend much more time playing games than I do reading even mediocre books.

Gamers often think that everybody else just hasn’t figured it out yet. Michael Abbott, the Brainy Gamer, said as much when he attempted to compile a “Smart Game Catalog.” He said that people are merely “looking at the wrong games.” The right games, naturally, would convince even the stodgiest of critics of gaming’s value, or at least potential. His crowd-sourced list includes the usual stable of sweethearts: Ico, Braid, Flower, Half-Life, Planescape: Torment, BioShock, etc. (And one vote for Kingdom Hearts.) But rarely do gaming enthusiasts consider the alternative: that they are slow to figure out what everybody else immediately recognizes, that the “wrong games” are barely distinguishable from the right ones.

3.

Even Smart Video Games Are Stupid

I think this game could give people a lot to think about, like how it’s dangerous to give everyone in a city inherently destructive superpowers.

- John Jackson, on BioShock, from “Ken Levine’s Secret Notepad of BioShock Ideas

Planescape: Torment is easily one of the most well-regarded video games of all time. The game sold unspectacularly but is often hailed as one of the richest demonstrations of the medium – certainly, at least, of the roleplaying genre – and for good reason. Torment’s story centers on a character known as The Nameless One, a  scarred warrior cursed with immortality, who has died countless deaths and loses his memory every time. The story explores themes of identity and mortality, circling the game’s central question: What can change the nature of a man? All of this is woven through the Planescape setting, a byzantine, multidimensional realm where philosophies are made sentient by obscure cosmic forces. By almost any standard, Torment is an impressive work.

The game’s actual game elements are, simply put, pretty bad. Based on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, Torment’s cumbersome combat system ranges from terrible to extremely terrible.  The user interface is unkind, and the game’s quest tracking is spotty, leaving inattentive gamers scratching their heads as to the location of some critical NPC. But the game coasts along on the strength of its massive 800,000 word script and lengthy sections which are better compared to the puzzling fetch-quests of adventure games than to hack-and-slash dungeon crawls. You can play for hours without lifting a battleaxe. Many obstacles can be overcome with an insightful dialog choice if you’d rather avoid physical combat, and in fact you gain vastly more experience by navigating dialog trees than slaying monsters.

I have been playing Torment for the second or perhaps fourth time, depending on how you count it. My first few attempts sputtered out within hours. Torment demands an attentive and engaged player. The game does not herd you through plot checkpoints, and if you breeze through dialog trees you will quickly find yourself lost. Much of the game’s pleasure is found in self-directed exploration. It is not even quite accurate to divide the story into a main quest and sidequests, as we do with most RPGs. Storylines weave together in an intricate web, and the main plot is only properly understood by a thorough knowledge of the many peripheral stories.

All of this is to say that it is no mystery why Torment is highly regarded by so many gamers. It is one of the few games that can be called smart, sophisticated, even literary, without prompting incredulous eye-rolls.

But, of course, this does not prevent the game from having female characters with tits the size of their head.

I’m not kidding. You spend much of your time in Torment reading winding philosophical conversations written in utter seriousness, delivered by or in the presence of women with enormous breasts, with costumes that might as well have been taken from the wet dreams of a 14 year old fantasy nerd.

I submit as evidence the character models for Upper Class Townie, Male and Upper Class Townie, Female. One wonders why this picture doesn’t single-handedly undermine the credibility of the whole game. Maybe it does.

 4.

But Stupid Video Games Can Be Smart

Surprisingly, there have been relatively few Spacewar-like games invented. The most elaborate is a “Snoopy and the Red Baron” game which involves flying your console like a biplane. But computer graphics as an area of research has mushroomed. The field is too wide and deep and engrossing for me to report here. It’s an art form waiting for artists, a consciousness form waiting for mystics.

-Stewart Brand, “Spacewar,” written in Rolling Stone in 1972

Without exaggeration, I think QWOP is one of the best games ever made. You have probably played it, if you are using the Internet and like video games. QWOP refers to the four keys you use to control the motion of a runner’s legs – keys which are, by design, fairly arbitrary, with no intuitive relationship to the task at hand. Your first goal is to discover a rhythm that allows your runner some sort of functional ambulation. This is harder than it sounds. Your next goal is to see how far you can run before collapsing. This is even harder. The game is genuinely difficult but also really funny. Failure is preceded by the hopeless flailing of your runner or a pathetic crumple to the ground. “Chariots of Fire” can be heard in the background if you manage to pick up some speed, the song playing in fits and starts as your character struggles to move a few meters forward.

QWOP is really stupid, but in that “stupid like a fox” sort of way. The game’s difficulty comes from a senselessly complicated simulation of an activity we normally find easy, but which, in reality, is very complicated.  I risk giving a silly flash game too much credit by saying that it provokes a bit of self-reflection on how we take our bodies for granted, but the person who made it is also a philosopher and bioethicist at Oxford, so the game probably deserves a little credit. Regardless, QWOP is a tremendous work of game design. It is funny, challenging, rewards practice, and can be played over and over again – and all of this is packed in a game so simple its name is also its instruction manual. Charles Wheeler of The Rules on the Field, a blog about sports and game design, sums it up well:

It’s hard to say what QWOP is. Is it a reminder of the staggering complexity required to co-ordinate all the weight and body movements that we all take for granted? Is it an (albeit limited) hard-core physical simulation of a generally ignored sports genre? Or is it simply a lark? I’m not entirely sure. And even though I’m not entirely comfortable calling it a good game, I think it might just be a masterpiece.

Much of my enjoyment of games, I admit, comes from the thrill of this new and untested medium. I have personally been alive for half of gaming’s existence, for many milestones and achievements, some of which we may not recognize yet. Kingdom Hearts may be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad game, but for a moment let’s appreciate just how uniquely bizarre it is. A decade down the line, I might realize what everybody else figured out long ago: that the game just sucks. For now, it’s new and interesting and if it’s stupid (it is), it’s stupid in a new and interesting way.

But some games do not need these sheepish qualifications. Even though QWOP is expressly stupid, I do not hesitate to recommend it. I do not need to say, “It’s great, if you ignore all of these awful parts.” There are no asterisks to my appreciation, no giant breasts to blushingly explain away.  QWOP is not a would-be great game polluted by bad choices or juvenile writing. It is a simple game with a disarming intelligence. It’s stupid, but that’s the point. It’s smart, but you might never notice.

Some of the greatest games in fact look like larks, absurd ideas given surprising heft by smart designers. Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia can perhaps best be described as a WarioWare-style series of minigames about hormone replacement therapy – a description that might make you wonder why someone chose to combine a serious, personal topic with a style of game mostly known for its frenetic gameplay and silly humor. But then you play the game and wonder how you ever could have doubted the decision.

There can be no doubt that video games were born and flourished as amusing distractions – as virtual tennis, or games of extraterrestrial combat. There is nothing wrong with this, but it does pose a rather serious problem to people trying to elevate amusing distractions to, as David Cage puts it, “emotional journeys.” We should not be surprised to find designers stumbling, even decades later, with a medium still struggling with its newness. But let’s take some comfort in those games that don’t elevate amusing distractions, but work squarely within that form – a form that, apparently, can accommodate a breadth of sophisticated ideas. It is exciting to consider the prophesying of gaming futurists like Will Wright or Peter Molyneux (blowhards that they sometimes are). I think it’s even more exciting to watch the work of people who looked at something as simple as Spacewar! and said to themselves, this right here will attract an entire field of artists, this is a “a consciousness form waiting for mystics.” These designers are not looking into some indeterminate future where we have finally overcome the limitations of the medium; they’re making games right now that they could have made decades ago. Not clutching awkwardly but proving a concept.

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One Response to Video Games Are Stupid

  1. David September 12, 2012 at 2:47 PM #

    Thanks for a well-written article with interesting observations. I think it would be worthwhile and instructive to consider the medium of video games as compared to board and card games. You mention film and literature, but the closest best cousin for comparison would have to be games not played on a computer — which happen to be enjoying quite a renaissance in the past decade or so (see http://www.boardgamegeek.com as a starting point). Maybe you don’t know much about board games, but I think this discussion ought to include them. There are countless quality board and card games that are not stupid and do not include violence, scantily clad women, nonsensical plots and the other shortcomings of video games that you catalog. In fact, there is an abundance of very smart and clever board games that are outstandingly fun and challenging with no real downsides.

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