Holy Crap, Taylor Clark strikes again, this time with an article on Kotaku that proclaims modern games as being dumb.
There are a bunch of things I don’t like about this article. The first thing that struck me as a reason to ram my face into the nearest desk was this gem:
“… many gamers got the impression that I spoke from ignorance—that I was another Roger Ebert badmouthing games in a national forum without knowing the first thing about them. The truth, however, is that my opinion comes from playing too many games. I hesitate even to place a ballpark figure on how many games I’ve played in recent years, for fear of how it might strike my wife or future editors if they read this; let’s just say I’ve done a very thorough survey of the field and have the Achievements and Trophies (O, the Trophies!) to prove it.”
I already wrote a small piece a while ago about why I think video game elitism is terrible. In fact, when it’s used like this, I equate it to intellectual bullying. Afterall, it’s basically saying “Hey, I’m right not because of the strength of my argument, but because I am more of a gamer.”.
The other problem I have with this article is the use of that he constantly uses the term “smart games” and “dumb games”, without really discussing what exactly makes a game smart or dumb. He does however talk about a game in term of “maturity levels”:
“My issue, then, is with what we might call the intellectual maturity level of mainstream games. It’s not the design mechanics under the hood that I find almost excruciatingly sophomoric at this point; it’s the elements of these games that bear on human emotion and intellectual sophistication, from narrative and dialogue right on down to their core thematic concepts.”
Whoa there! “Intellectual sophistication?” I’m sorry, why don’t you explain what exactly is “intellectual sophistication” and how it applies to games? Sigh, allow me to explain it, since you seem to be busy. Intellectual sophistication appears to be a term used for a higher level of thinking, so a game would be intellectually sophisticated if it makes you think. I agree. Some games don’t require any thought process at all to complete them, which is a result of bad design and would be something I would call “dumb”. However, Taylor Clark blatantly decides to ignore design and focus on the cinematic elements of the game, such as story, dialogue, and thematic elements.
Why cherry pick those? Why can’t a game be “intellectually sophisticated” on a design level and be just that? See, what Clark doesn’t seem to recognize is that a game has to have it’s story crafted a certain way because it is not there to tell a story, but to provide an experience and a challenge. Like it or not, that is what a game does. I feel like the world of Rapture in Bioshock and Bioshock 2 presented it’s criticisms towards objectivism and altruism nicely, but had to wrap it up in a combat scenario because otherwise the game would be boring (although a game simply about exploring Rapture and discovering it’s past does not seem at all that bad). Just because it had explosions and shiny things doesn’t mean that it wasn’t presenting a serious topic of discussion. But then you take a game like Metal Gear Solid, a game heavily invested in telling it’s story, and what ends up happening is we have a game that is more cutscenes than gameplay, becoming more like an interactive movie. Or even a game like Heavy Rain, which heavily limits the choices of the player to convey a story. Even Braid was crafted around the idea of providing challenges and experiences, but the story is so off to the side and optional that nobody cares.
Third problem: Intellectual maturity is another word he throws around a lot. I don’t really like when intellectual maturity is compared inversely to how funny or shiny something is. I once got my father off guard when he watched an episode of South Park that used the story of Jesus in the context of the economical crisis we had a few years back (and still feel today). The story had a lot of crude humor, it’s South Park after all, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any merit. I think what really bugged me was his comments about Skyrim, describing it as:
“[a game]… in which bandits essentially armed with sticks rush your level-500 character pledging to destroy you, in which you fight talking dragons for poorly-explained reasons, in which you must negotiate the most ruthlessly-boring and achingly-unrealistic peace treaty in history”
I think what really bugs me is that there is a good, well-explained reason why you’re fighting the talking dragons. But aside from that, Clark is examining Skyrim from the lens of the observer, which can’t be done because Skyrim is wholly a game for the participant, the player. For example, I never reached the peace treaty because I felt the Empire was right and went and stopped the Stormcloak rebellion. My story was different than what he saw because it was designed to incorporate my choices. Skyrim, as well as games like Deus Ex, Epic Mickey, Bioshock, Fallout, and to a lesser extent games like Animal Crossing and Pokemon, are games that rely on the choices I make and then as a result, I have to deal with the consequences. Why does is matter so much if thieves attack with sticks and you fight dragons? How does that really contribute or take away from the experience of the game as something intellectual when the rest of the game is a series of ethical decisions that can be made thoughtfully or carelessly?
The fourth thing I don’t like about this article is how it once again shows Clark’s inability to think of a world where Jonathan Blow is not right. Blow tripped up on his own philosophy, and created a story that was presented as poorly as it was written within a game that will largely be remembered for it’s mechanics. They both deal in absolutes such as “something is smart or it’s not”, ignoring that a more accessible middle ground is actually available and use more frequently in entertainment (as opposed to a serious research paper where the whole point is to be smart) and overall, the whole article reeks of snobbery that doesn’t provide anything constructive for people to work on. What good is an opinion such as this if it doesn’t offer anything for anyone to take in?
Before ending this, I want to compare Braid, a game that apparently contains all of the inner-knowledge of Jonathan Blow, with a game that is childish and would probably be low on the scale of “intellectual sophistication”: Kid Icarus Uprising. Naturally, spoilers for both games ahead.
Both Braid and Kid Icarus have really great game mechanics, the only difference being that Braid is more cerebral and Kid Icarus requires more dexterity. Story wise though, they both have something to say:
Kid Icarus is a game that does not take itself entirely too seriously, featuring hammy characters, troll-goddess Palutena, and a bigger emphasis on comedy than anything seriously. However, you don’t have to look too deep to see that a major discussion within the game is the nature of humans. About half-way through the game, a new faction enters the war, Viridi and the forces of nature. There is some banter back in forth about how humans are destroying the planet with the selfishness, and her modus operandi is that humans must be wiped out to protect the planet.
Another analogy the game could make is the gods being seen as people in political power. Hades manipulates the humans in wars with promises of a fake wish, Paluetna often neglects to mention that her decisions to fight the Underworld has only helped worsened things, such as beckoning the Aurum invasion, and of course Viridi wants to stamp out the human parasite. The gods are selfish, even the ones with the best intentions, and really the only reason Palutena doesn’t agree with Viridi is because humans are the closest to the gods, which in this analogy could mean that the political leaders and the people they serve aren’t all that different, mainly separated by their status and while it may seem as a bit of stretch as for the intention of the game, I think that it is a perfectly fine interpretation for the game.
Braid is about a man trying to rescue his girlfriend, wait no, he’s the stalker, no wait, the princess represents the atom bomb, no wait, the atom bomb represents a child whose mother said no….I give up. Yeah, being confusing definitely shows how “smart” you are.