Improving Conversation About Games: E3 and Perfection
Now that the E3 hype-train has left the station, I find myself still standing on the platform without a ticket. Not that that’s an unusual position for me to find myself in; I’ve never really bought into the whole E3 hype machine. I’ve seen the smoke a mirrors surrounding E3 demos fall down too many times to ever fall down that rabbit hole now. But mostly the kind of gaming experiences that I care about aren’t the kind that show up on a big show stage.
So why did I show up to the station at all, why do I bother consuming E3 coverage? Because I care about video games, I care about how we cover video games, how we think about them and how we talk about them. There’s only so much you can learn about games playing them by yourself. But there’s so much noise around games, information, hype, bitching, and whatnot, that’s it can become easy to lose sight of what makes games worthwhile. This is my attempt to cut through the fat and figure out how to have better thoughts and dialogue about games.
The first E3 took place in 1995 and was a part of video games asserting themselves as a separate industry. Prior to that the big trade show for video games was CES, where they had to share floor space with the latest computers, phones, televisions, satellite dishes, non-gaming software, miscellaneous gadgetry, and other nonsense. The video game industry was birthed from the swollen bleeding vagina of CES, and I think it’s still traumatized by the experience. In that vomiting typhoon of consumer marketing the 3DO and Atari Jaguar seemed like good ideas to someone.
A window into CES pre-E3
Even though it has begun to diminish in importance, E3 is still this industry’s big self-congratulatory circle-jerk. For other media industries that event is an award show. The Oscars celebrates movies by celebrating movies. The video game industry celebrates itself by selling itself. Even the VGA’s is one big ad. There’s an insecurity that permeates the culture, tied to a fear that somehow video games could all vanish one day; even as the facts of indie development and fan archiving make it clear that though the industry may change video games aren’t going to vanish.
Where that fear is grounded is AAA publishers putting more and more money into fewer games to the point where even hits struggle to make a profit. Companies that need their games to be all things to all people, so they over-promise and over-hype while delivering overstuffed games that just do what’s done before. Ubisoft seems determined to make all their franchises basically the same game. Activision has paired down their output to three huge games. These companies do have a reason for fear as they eat their own tails; not content to merely make money but desperate to make all the money. Often doomed from the outset because they’re just copying what’s worked already without understanding why the stars aligned for that game’s success in the first place. Every “WoW-killer” or Call of Duty clone attempted to drink a milkshake that was already gone.
The character of E3 is dominated by these insecurities; the focus on hype and controlled demos exists because publishers don’t believe that their games can stand out on their own merits. Ubisoft sold Watchdogs as a transcendent game, the first truly next-gen title.
The Watchdogs Demo from Sony’s PS4 conference
Now that people have played it the consensus seems to be that it’s just another open world Ubisoft game; there’s nothing about it that makes it feel truly next-gen. But that hype train led to a huge number of pre-orders and then a backlash against the game because Ubisoft made it out to be more than it was.
When publishers try to sell us on a game, their interests lie in standing out in the marketplace. While those interests may coincide with the interests of people who play games, we shouldn’t conflate the two. When we let that environment dominate the conversation about games, we do damage to our own understanding of them. Games as product are to an extent at odds with, or at least not equivalent to games as games.
The idea I’ve been working towards is that when we talk about games (And this goes for everyone, myself included) we struggle with the idea of great games, and the specifics of what makes games great. We lack a strong common vocabulary for greatness. We rely on words like “immersive,” “epic,” or even just “awesome” and too often we do so without breaking down what the game does and how it’s designed to live up to those words. I could speak vaguely about how we talk about great games, and just generalize, but I think it’ll be more useful just to kinda unfairly dig into something specific, so I’m going to use this IGN article.
Honestly this article is just coming at the issue in a silly way. It’s a total abuse of the word “perfect” to treat it as subjective. A perfect game could be just an ideal, I don’t see why the fact that video games, and all fiction, have qualities that we can criticize demands that we lower our standards for want games could be, as well as our entire idea of “perfection.” The article starts from a weird position of compromise, and honestly I think it’s more influenced by the idea of a perfect game being one that deserves a perfect review score, a “ten-oughta-ten.” If we’re already admitting that games are flawed, why are we then enshrining them in perfection? How does that help us move forward? I’m just going to pretend this article is about “great games” and move on.
“Story. It’s all about story.” This idea comes up a lot, and it’s one I held to for a while, but I think it’s a reductive one. When you claim that all you care about in a game is the story it implies a lack of trust in games as a medium. Also it’s purely a preference thing, you’re singling out a specific part of games, diminishing the importance of gameplay. “Obviously the perfect video game will have both,” so just say that, what’s the problem? Also, “story” can mean a lot of different things for a game, but when you section storytelling off, it reveals an affection for more traditional forms of storytelling, as opposed to storytelling through gameplay. For example, does Street Fighter have a good story? I think someone who would make the claim that storytelling is what really matters, would say no. All the dialogue and cutscene storyline stuff in those games is hot garbage. But the character designs are strong, you don’t really need any of that stuff because the designs tell you plenty about the characters just by looking at them. And then there’s the storytelling through play; every great match of Street Fighter has an arc to it, moments of glory and shame, triumph and failure, drama. It’s a different kind of storytelling but it’s why people get emotionally invested in the game. It’s also completely tied to gameplay, and I feel like if you appreciate that kind of storytelling, that only games can deliver, you shouldn’t go out of your way to separate gameplay and story.
“Experience is what makes the perfect game.” This statement is just too universal to be useful honestly. It makes every game a great game through subjectivity, and if you do that then there’s no conversation to be had about great games, because then it doesn’t matter what the content of a game actually is as long as someone finds a great time in it. I had a great time playing Sonic the Hedgehog ’06 with my friends, and watching let’s plays of it, but I would never call it a great game, much less a perfect one.
The cohesion point here is probably the most appropriate for what was asked. In theory the perfect game is all things to everyone. It could be bloated because of that, but again the perfect game would be able to pull all that off without feeling bloated. So more of my problem here is with the premise of this article again; I don’t think that striving for “the perfect game” is the way to approach this. And I think the article even bears that out by not really being about that for the most part anyway. AAA game publishers are striving for “the perfect game”; they want to make a game that everyone will buy, the game that is all things to all people. But a great game can be very specific. It can hone in on one idea and execute it very well. Quality over quantity to an extent, because how games use our time matters, and games that try too many different things are more likely to waste your time even when they succeed. Such as an open-world game where the sandbox merely becomes a chore you have to deal with between missions.
This also puts a question into my head that I’m just going to pose and then abandon for now. If the multiplayer component of a game is unconnected to the single player portion, shouldn’t it be considered a separate game, just running on the same tech and packed in. I mean when you’re reviewing a game as a product being sold, obviously it’s part of the package. But if we’re just talking about games outside the prospect of purchase, shouldn’t we take them separately, at least in some cases?
“The games that I think are perfect weren’t scared to try something different and even though their ideas were outside of the box, they were executed beautifully.” The execution thing is the key there. Just because an idea is novel doesn’t mean its good. The burden is on the developer to make that idea worthwhile. And this kind of sentiment is generally just born out of AAA publishers pushing out the same kinds of games over and over. It’s more about the failure of the games market that we have than a quality that actually makes game good. No game was made great simply by an idea, it takes a lot of work and thoughtful execution to get there and focusing heavily on that idea is probably only going to distract from what the developers did to bring that idea to player effectively.
“For the perfect game, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; and I think that point is reached when total immersion is achieved.” The immersion argument is one I’ve always had a problem with, but I didn’t really have a handle on why until I watched this episode of Game Grumps.
Game Grumps Immersion discussion.
So if immersion can both apply to games with a compelling world that the player can dive deep into, like Skyrim, and also simple puzzle games that the player can get completely engrossed and lost in, like Tetris, Then I’m not sure what we’re getting out of saying that immersion is what matters. Immersion is a side effect of a game that effectively draws the player in, and saying that a game is immersive is no more useful than saying that it’s compelling. Also there’s an implication of a preference for single player games, because when playing with another human you’re always going to be aware that your playing a game (unless you’re all role-playing I guess?). And in worse cases someone arguing for the importance of immersion is revealing a personal preference for a certain kind of storytelling in games that still wouldn’t be clear without further elucidation.
“The perfect game is the game that speaks to us over and over, and remains relevant and precious against the test of time, and is a different game for each of us.” Ok, this is better than the experience point because it’s more specific; a game that means something particular to you because of the circumstances you played it under, that’s at least something that you can share with others, there’s a conversation there you can start. And once you peel back those particulars you might even have a better view of the particulars of the game that made it so effective under those circumstances.
“Only thing about this is that philosophically I don’t believe a perfect video game (or any other form of art) exists – and that’s also our stated policy in the review scale.” Then why did you publish this article? Whatever. “Only thing about this…” that’s a big fucking thing. Ung, moving on.
So my point here is that when we talk about games in generalities we don’t say very much. We need to go deeper, and not just to make our points clearer to others, but to make our opinions clearer to ourselves. If we want to understand games we need to work a little harder.
So I think that that’s enough to chew on for now. I’ve got some ideas for where to go from here but this is an exercise in how to improve conversation about games so questions, comments, suggestions and criticism are all welcomed.