My current least favourite part of the modern video game is when it tells me to stop having fun for a few minutes so I can think about something.
It usually does this to satisfy some rough checklist born of a game designer's tentative inferiority complex: "Our game might not be 'sophisticated' enough."
A friend has been working his way through Uncharted 2: Among Thieves at my house for the past two months. Every time he's over and things become dull for whatever reason, he puts the game in, hoping to shoot some dudes. I've noticed an interesting pattern: Every time he puts the game in and endures the laborious data-loading process, he ends up squinting at some "thoughtful" "exploration" scene for 20 minutes before firing a single shot. What this indicates to me is that he stops playing the game, every time, for the same reason that he starts playing the game - because things get dull.
Just this week I watched him endure that terrifyingly boring puzzle in the temple, near the very end of the game, where you have to keep flipping open the notebook and attempting to memorise the arcane shapes of those made-up letters in that weird alphabet. You have to carry these symbols and put them on top of these pedestals corresponding to some type of animal. I remember being pretty bored out of my mind at that point, when I played the game myself, and also under the influence of a cappuccino cup full of espresso. My impatience was on par with that of a first-grader's. Still, despite my frothing squirming, I was able to notice little things like the soldered-like edge of the texture on the rotating bronze cylinders, considering the possibility that whatever they're paying these 2D artists, it's not enough. My friend groaned through the puzzle, flipping open his in-game notebook sixteen times a minute. When, eventually, Permission To Blast was granted again, he hit the ground running. He stopped playing the game - remarkably - at the part where you're expected to climb up onto huge bronze cylinders to rotate them so they show the letters indicated, again, in the notebook.
That little notebook fascinates me. How did Drake get all of the clues in there? Can you imagine this guy in the library? Considering the density of his notes and the impossibility of his physical endurance, you'd imagine that he spends as much time in the library as he does working out, and as much time sleeping as he does eating, as he does everything else (muscle needs fuel and rest to rebuild and strengthen). I bet he does pull-ups on bookshelves. Man, that'd be a great stage. Attention Naughty Dog: please make that the first stage of Uncharted 3.
The other thing I think about, when I personally am squinting at that little notebook in Uncharted, is what kinds of brain-dead, thoughtless, cruel, psychotic sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters these ancient rulers must have had, to protect their treasures with such violent traps. That's about as deeply explorable a mythology as my idea for a movie about the day-to-day life of a henchman in a James Bond villain's secret lair. (Which is such a good idea that someone might have made it already.) Except these tombs are always just-barely solvable. It makes you wonder why the ancient rulers built a solution in there. I find that fascinating. Have you ever seen the film "Land of the Pharoahs", where the engineer in ancient Egypt devises a pyramid that will fill with sand when a certain mechanism is activated, burying all the loyal slaves alive and sealing the tomb from grave-robbers forever? Yeah, that wouldn't make a very good video-game premise.
At the end of the day, though, Drake's little notebook is, essentially, a Turtles All The Way Down death-tunnel. The puzzle is there so the game isn't just all about shooting. The game isn't all about shooting because one thing repeated is "repetitive", which is a word commonly found in negative blurbs on Metacritic. The puzzles break up the repetition. The puzzles are dead spots. You might get bored. The developers give you clues to make the experience as painless as possible. The clues are there because the game wants you to solve the puzzle. The game wants you to solve it so that you can finish the game. The game wants you to finish the game so that you can feel good about yourself. The game wants you to feel good about yourself so you buy the sequel.
Enough about that. Recently, people are up in arms, again, about whether or not games can ever be art. Maybe they already are art, some people say. One argument seems to be that games aren't art because you're in control. Another argument points out that not all films are art. One argument points out that pornography can be art. One argument points out that everything, everywhere, all the time, is always art and always will be art. That'd be the nihilist perspective, if I have my philosophies right. (And if I don't have my philosophies right (and if I don't have my philosophies right on purpose), my hypothesis might be a shrewd lie, and an artistic one. (If I don't have my philosophies right on accident, and you don't know that it's an accident, you are permitted to consider my opinion a work of satirical art.)) I believe that art is a... a thing. Who cares what I think! Well, I do, and I believe that art is a thing. I think Uncharted isn't trying to be art. I think Uncharted is pretty entertaining, and worth something. I think things that are trying to be art aren't so entertaining - though only some of the time. My belief that I am going somewhere with this might (or might not) be a artistic expression.
If you held a gun to my head and told me to name the two best forms of art in human history, I'd say gypsy swing jazz music and films, in that order. If pressured for a third example, I'd say "everything else". Video games would be part of the "everything else". I've thought about it for 30 whole seconds, and I believe I've come to the tentative conclusion that gypsy jazz music is the greatest and best form of art on the face of the earth because it was a major part of my growing up.
Listening to Django Reinhardt was definitely the first time in my life I stopped and thought terribly deeply of myself. It barely occurred to me that a group of individual people with individual experiences were responsible for that resonance. Django Reinhardt himself, for example, had been injured badly in a fire at age 18, one of his legs paralysed and the third and fourth fingers of his left hand rendered completely useless for the rest of his life. He had to re-learn how to play the guitar using only two fingers. Using only two fingers, he changed the way everyone after him played guitar with four fingers. The centre of the sound of the Quintette du Hot Club de France was born from a young man taking a maybe-deep breath and saying, "I guess I'm going to have to learn how to do what I do with half the physical resources I had before." Rather than do what he did, he did something else: maybe it was that, in trying to learn how to do what he had been doing, he discovered something else. Some genuine human quality - maybe a "soul" - led him to make the decision that this new thing - not the old thing - was "it." The decision was, at first, only a feeling. So: art.
The first comment I can see on the above Youtube video page reads thusly:
* You can post a video of a moron falling off a skate board and get millions of views. This is barely over half a million, makes me a bit sad in regards to humanity.
That comment has 69 thumbs-ups.
The first film humans paid money to see was, according to the great lore, a silent black-and-white moving picture of a train approaching a camera. People paid as much to see this, in a darkened tent, as they would also willingly pay to see a woman with a beard, or a midget without a beard. A train rolling toward a camera was, in silent black and white, even at the time, not the most realistic experience. They didn't have 3D glasses or THX back then. The idea that a train stood the chance of invading a darkened tent in the middle of a cramped fairground was ridiculous, though these were people that believed in magic. Maybe-fact: These were people who believed in magic, miracles and religion to a point that they might have also believed death to be silent, and in black and white. Legend says that many women fainted, and many manly men ran from the tent shouting.
A century later, you can post a video of a moron falling off a skateboard and get millions of views on YouTube. The short filmmaker has grown up and learned to detach the audience from the experience: Rather than make them fear genuinely for their own life, they show them the comedic misfortune of another, and earn their genuine (or ingenuine) empathy.
One of my favourite topics, when I'm talking to people about marketing and those people might give me money, is Orson Welles and "War of the Worlds". I'd be genuinely afraid if I didn't explain who Orson Welles was and what he did with "War of the Worlds" and someone in the comments complained about "pointless name-dropping". That'd be scarier than a real-life train bearing down on me. So I'll say: Orson Welles did a radio play based on a novel about aliens invading the earth and destroying North America. The play was fashioned to sound like a real-life news broadcast. It scared countless people straight to their wits' end. All over the country, people were running out of their houses with the radios still on, heading for the hills. Orson Welles changed the game: By crunching on the New Snow of fourth-wall-breaking, he scared the world out of its skull while simultaneously assuring that no one else could ever do anything remotely similar again. That didn't stop people from trying, or at least driving themselves half insane thinking of ways to one-up "War of the Worlds." Decades later, Steven Spielberg turned "War of the Worlds" into a generic action film. There you have it.
Welles' "War of the Worlds" was a mass media miracle. You can't ever have anything like it ever again. Governments passed real-world laws in the wake of the sheer artistic virtuosity wreaked by "War of the Worlds".
People talk about Citizen Kane being the greatest film ever, and thus maybe a raffle-ticket holder in the snaking queue around the block from The Greatest Art ever, and we talk about how games don't have a "Citizen Kane" yet. Why do we have to think of it that way? Why can't we talk about the Mona Lisa of games? Or why can't we talk about the "War of the Worlds" of games? Games don't have to be movies, you know.
The improvisational jazz guitar stylings of Django Reinhardt are, in my thirty-year-old brain, right now, today, easily the greatest art ever captured. The films of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen and the plays of Shakespeare are up there, vying for the title, right alongside Super Mario Bros..
Is love art? Super Mario Bros isn't a result of an individual or a group of people trying to craft great art. Sometimes, when you tell people that you like or love Super Mario Bros, or that some of your fondest memories involve Super Mario Bros, they'll get sceptical and tell you that your affection isn't genuine, that it's "just nostalgia." Is nostalgia enough to qualify something as not love, or not art? Love is, like everything else - like the quality of the carrots today at the vegetable shop on the corner - happy or not, an accident.
Another (naive, maybe-insipid) side to this argument is whenever someone says a game like ICO or Shadow of the Colossus is art because it has "themes" or a "narrative", and then some devil's advocate pops in and says that it's not fun. Does something have to be fun to be a game? Does something have to be art to be fun?
Maybe the better question is
Is fun art? Why can't fun be art? Maybe it's not art while it's happening. Maybe it becomes art years later, as you grow up, exist in the world, and make crucial life decisions. If art is something that evokes an emotional response unique to each individual beholder, then fun most certainly can be art.
What I've found is that, more often than not, the more you try to make a game resemble something that has a "point," the less it feels like a game. It starts to feel like a badly acted film. Super Mario Bros was a miracle, and the five-year-olds of 1985 had no idea what the hell it was supposed to be "about". In the game, you're a guy who grows to twice his normal height when he eats a mushroom. In the world of the game, if you jump on a turtle, its head and legs pop into its shell. You then touch the shell to kick it. The shell inexplicably, frictionlessly slides across the ground at great speed, toppling large, hard-shelled beetles or mushrooms with feet. What does any of this mean? You're free to consider it for yourself, or you're free to think absolutely nothing at all, and let it flow through you as it is. The game rolls on as it was in the beginning, always perplexing with regard to theme, always stimulating when it comes to the escalation of the difficulty of its situations. Future games would feature cinematic stories about modern-day pirates, seeing fit to present moral questions behind the simulated killing of each virtual human henchman.
Why have games chosen to become like films? You could think of a million answers for that question, and none of them would be any good. Games aren't films. Films aren't games. It's true, when you decide to make a game into something that isn't a game, you usually end up making it into a (very) bad) film, a Saturday morning cartoon, or a maybe-lukewarm-decent book. You don't see people making games into songs.
I think the best games are more like songs than anything else. Super Mario Bros is a song of a game. It even has fantastic music. Mega Man is like a song - and hey, it has fantastic music, too. And then we have the old Castlevanias, also with great music. Then we have games like OutRun, about pure, simple experiences - also with outstanding music. OutRun satisfies the adolescent fantasy of wanting to drive a hot red convertible with a hot blonde woman in the passenger seat; After Burner satisfies the adolescent fantasy of being a jet pilot. Does art not reside in the heart of a young boy tasting a glimpse of his dream of the future, in more or less the exact form he'd expect it? Say what you will: Yu Suzuki is a genius and an artist. These games are full sensory experiences that lull players into grooves and create pleasant feelings of skilled performance, or teeth-gritting frustration, of triumphing over adversity, or of eventual defeat and giving up. These feelings last forever and manifest themselves in our future everyday lives. While driving my red convertible with a hot blonde in the passenger's seat, I often recall my days as a youth, playing OutRun in the local bowling alley, when I was too fat to bowl properly. While trying to navigate a sea of pedestrians with umbrellas on a rainy day, I recall the terrible, sticky, frictive feeling of trying to ascend a hill at walking speed in the first Sonic the Hedgehog. (A game which also had an amazing soundtrack.)
Into something like After Burner, Tetsuya Mizuguchi and his team injected "art" and called it Rez. The old joke is that to make art, you just make something no one can understand. Panzer Dragoon was already art. Rez wanted to be art-er. So rather than gamble by making the character something some people could relate to and some people couldn't, we had some cold wire-frame shooting other cold wire-frames, mostly in the dark.
IN DEFENCE OF STUPID GAMES I've read much of the internet's collective response to Roger Ebert's comments on games as not-art. I've believed for some time that Ebert is cleverly trolling the game-playing/game-developing community, daring us to do better, or - at the very least - expect better. I've written many words on what games do wrong. I've written about in-game tutorials snapping us out of the trance called entertainment; I've written about senseless violence being portrayed just realistically enough to be believable, and not realistically enough to teach anyone playing the game anything about violence in the real world. I've assessed whether or not games should teach us anything about the real world, and come away with the answer of "sometimes". I think Modern Warfare has some moments of power. I think Modern Warfare 2 has no such moments of power. I have, in the past, asserted that games like Zelda, in forcing us to fabricate some mental connection between lighting up four torches using our torch-lighting item - performing every repeated instance of the Thing We Can Do in Our Current Situation - and a locked door opening, might push young minds closer to kleptomania or obsessive compulsive disorder than, say, the not-realistic-enough Grand Theft Auto might push a young adult toward justifying a real-world killing spree. I'd like to explore that latter point again, in a roundabout way, except instead of talking about morals, let's talk about marketing and money.
The old, abstract, weird, surreal, space-like, solid black, death-void backgrounds of old games continue to call to me today. Pac-Man and Space Invaders weren't the only games in the world when they arrived. They were, however, the best. Sequels to Pac-Man and Space Invaders only added More Stuff. They didn't make the games better. It's always been the opinion of the Men With Money that nothing is popular because it's good. According to businessmen, things are popular because someone succeeding in duping the public. This isn't, necessarily, the worst way to approach things, as a businessperson. It's always helpful to consider that your success might actually be because you made a mistake somewhere. If you let this possibility terrorise you, however, you'll probably never get anything done. It's about as possible that everything you did is a mistake as it's possible that the people love only one thing - or everything - about whatever it is you did.
What the hell is Bubble Bobble about? Does anyone know? It's about two boys who had been walking in a park with their mother when suddenly a wizard from another dimension spirited them away, transformed them into dinosaurs, and trapped them in a tower. How are we supposed to know that? We're not. In practice, Bubble Bobble becomes a much more realistic story about creatures blowing bubbles in which to trap, torture and exterminate other creatures in the name of being magically transported from one room to another room. Bubble Bobble didn't succeed because of story or narrative; it didn't become a household name because we cared about the characters, nor did it solve the world hunger crisis because it was the highest art. It did, however, mean a little something to a lot of people. It passed some time. I was playing Bubble Bobble in the basement with my brother when my dad got the phone call about his father dying in Delaware of brain and lung cancer. Our dad told us that our grandfather was dead; within minutes, we unpaused the game and played straight to game over.
When I think back on games that really made me feel something, they're always these stupid things. Try explaining the plot of Bubble Bobble to an Amish person, for example. One of the characters in Contra: Hard Corps is a werewolf with a machine gun. Castlevania: Bloodlines has no on-screen expository text until the instant you slay the final boss, when the words "FINAL STAGE CLEAR" appear in the centre of the screen. Then, the screen snaps violently to a long shot of your hero, standing on a cliff, watching the castle crumble. The words "THE RESURRECTION OF DRACULA HAS BEEN AVERTED" flash up on the screen. So that's what you've been doing all this time. That's why you've been jumping on all those platforms and whipping all those skeletons. There you have it. Is this art? Maybe to someone with just the right personality disorder. Sometimes, I happen to have just the right personality disorder to consider that art.
I happen to like stupid and repetitive games with plots that don't exist until they suddenly do. I like games where your character can only do one or two things, and has to keep doing those things or die. I like a little bit of friction and a little bit of context. I don't like too much context. I like fighting games. What the hell are fighting games about? I wish they wouldn't put stories in fighting games. I like when fighting games have a survival mode. I really think someone needs to make a fighting game where every character is perfectly equal, which isn't necessarily a side-scrolling 2D kind of thing. Maybe it could be top-down, like Zelda. You should have a heal button. Hold it down to heal. If you get hit while you're healing, it'll hurt you more than it would hurt you if you weren't healing. Make the game one screen, send out intelligent drones ad nauseum. If it felt right, I could play that all day. Let the cleverness of the game designer manifest itself in the improvisational spirit of the player and the unpredictable nature of complicated on-screen situations. Give it a great soundtrack and a neat character design, and there you go.
I've been thinking about stupid games a lot ever since I read about Shinji Mikami apologising for God Hand. Mikami was speaking on the subject of Vanquish, his next game - a pretty-looking shooter with a plain title. Vanquish will be the first major game project Mikami has directed since God Hand. God Hand sold terribly poorly. Around the time God Hand came out, I remember advising a Particular Japanese Game Company to stop assuming that everything had to be sequels in order to sell well at all. I tried to push the idea that people, not numerals, make games. I advised them to start putting peoples' names on the packages, or at least "From the director of..." They thought I was insane. Well, I don't know what Capcom were thinking or doing around that time, though they didn't force Mikami to make another Resident Evil, nor did they put his name on the God Hand package. It was a little perplexing. Did they expect the game to sell? If so, why? What about the game screamed "Sales Dynamo"? How long was the game in production before they theorised that it might not sell five million copies and cause the entire world to call the fire department? Maybe that moment never came. Maybe they were shocked out of their minds when the game didn't make the front page of the Wall Street Journal under the headline, "New Game Sells So Well World Economy Collapses."
What happened was, God Hand was a game that the director enjoyed making. The enjoyment is the thing he apologised for, in that recent interview. He apologised for having made something that he enjoyed making, without thinking about what, maybe, other people would enjoy playing or seeing. God Hand certainly isn't a work of art - or maybe it is, because it isn't - and Mikami certainly isn't an artist. One of the most common complaints haters make about the films of Quentin Tarantino is that all he's doing is making the films he personally would like to see. They call this "self-centred", or some other adjective. Is it a bad thing to make something you like? The people calling it self-centred are maybe being more egotistical than the director who makes films he likes, because they're assuming that all people assume no one else anywhere is anything else like them.
Anyway, it just about knocked the wind out of me to see that Shinji Mikami had apologised for having too much freedom with God Hand. Who was this comment supposed to appeal to? People who hated God Hand, or people who hadn't played it though kind of heard from a friend of a friend that a couple of websites didn't like it? What about the people like me, who hold the self-evident truth that God Hand is Created Awesome? Did Mikami just tell us to go get bent in a broom closet? From a strictly business perspective, how and why can we trust someone who sees fit to release something that they're going to apologise for a couple years down the line? It's amateurish and weak; it's sanctimonious and weird.
God Hand is a weird, stupid game with a lot of problems. The story is lunacy, rife with half-baked references to things that the author himself probably only understands tangentially. Yet if God Hand is trash, it is High Trash. Have you ever gotten into a discussion with someone over the "drug references" in Super Mario Bros? It's a pretty terrible discussion to have. As a listener of much psychedelic Japanese music, I can tell you that scarily close to zero Japanese psychedelic musicians have ever consumed any psychedelic drugs. Drugs are prohibitively expensive in Japan. No, you see, the "drug references" in Super Mario Bros, if they even exist at all (and I'm not saying they do), found their way in by way of the creators' maybe-just-tangential familiarity with other entertainments directly influenced by drugs. I personally think that Super Mario Bros is just, like Sonic the Hedgehog, trying to be a vintage cartoon. It's stupid and weird and bouncy.
Many people responsible for God Hand specifically likened their aim for the project as trying to create a game that would take something or other back to its roots. They wanted to make a game in the old style. Former Grasshopper Manufacture sound team lead Masafumi Takada, who supplied the music for God Hand, comments on how he played the theme music from Mappy on the piano back in high school. His God Hand soundtrack is full of old-school video-game-like leitmotif, of simple guitar riffs on tight loops. What Super Mario Bros and Zelda did with gypsy jazz, God Hand does for surf rock.
What went wrong with God Handwas, simply, that the age of downloadable games had not yet arrived, and that they knew they were going to have to endure the costs of printing this thing onto a disc and designing a package and a manual, and that all that would take so much time and money that the game would have to sell, so they'd need a decent advertising campaign to raise awareness, and if something has an advertising campaign, it's probably going to need to feel like it's worth the money people spend on it, if and when they spend money on it. That means cut-scenes, story, lots of stages, item shops, mini-games and maybe some puzzles.
What God Hand had, at the end of the day, is friction. If you can ignore the Herculean task of enjoying all the bullshit, you get the hell of some friction. Here. I am going to write a review of God Hand, in which every sentence includes the words "God" and "Hand":
A REVIEW OF GOD HAND (one of the best games ever (warning: life spoilers)) Many games feel like work, God Hand among them. However, God Hand also feels like the Best Job Ever. God Hand is usually like being a professional chainsaw-wielding glacier demolisher at a party where the penguins are going to need a lot of ice cubes. Sometimes, however, God Hand is like a phone call from a hallucinating Mike Tyson moments before you're supposed to kiss the bride.
The goal of God Hand is to extinct the tar out of any moving human body, be it male, female, transvestite or wearing a gorilla costume. God Hand is a video game based on the idea of throwing bucketsful of baseballs, one at a time, hard as you can, at a barn-side-sized cube of maple-syrup-sticky Styrofoam. God Hand is alternatingly the friction of repeatedly dropping a bowling ball into a massive cardboard box full of delicious bubble wrap, its sweet vinyl scent like Jesus's kid sister, and the frustration of bending at the knees to pick that bowling ball up again, thirsting only for the next sticky drop. God Hand is the friction of an electric knife through a frozen ham. God Hand is the friction of a baseball bat against an oncoming Toyota Prius. God Hand is the friction of a cricket bat against an oncoming Harley Davidson. God Hand is, occasionally, a NASCAR broadsiding a freight train. God Hand is a stick of butter so hard it will break your teeth if you think it's a candy bar. God Hand is the Pringles of video games. Though God Hand is usually like poking holes in a watermelon with a chopstick for the best reason ("no good reason"), God Hand is sometimes like using a pizza cutter to eat ice cream. At its best, God Hand allows you to indulge in your curiosity re: How hard you would have to flex to break a Canada goose's neck.
God Hand< is the dankest video game in existence. God Hand is a game-bong: You pass it around. God Hand is a glimpse into the lifestyle of a mythical class of human whose diet consists entirely of disused vintage electric guitars. Most of the time, God Hand is actually more fun than taking a dump. The first time you play God Hand, it makes about as much sense as the first time you wear ice skates. Eventually, God Hand is as easy as breathing - on a planet where the atmosphere is entirely cotton candy. Soon enough, God Hand is the first time you wear a pair of shoes that cost more than $US20. Sometimes, God Hand feels like writing a friendly letter by hand while wearing brass knuckles; at other times, God Hand feels like asking a brick wall a rhetorical question and getting an answer that requires you to sit down for literally six weeks. At some points, God Hand feels like you've just hired an auctioneer to narrate your fluctuating torrent download speeds; at other points, God Hand feels like you've just hired a UFC ringside announcer to shout "Oh!" or "Ow!" or "That's Gotta Hurt!" in time with your every footstep or operation of a hole puncher, stapler or copy machine. Configuring your special attacks in God Hand is as easy as hiring George Foreman to beat the tar out of your mechanic. Chaining together combos in God Hand is as psychically instant and desolate as praying to God for a new Ferrari and simultaneously knowing you won't get it. Every stage in God Hand is the tip of a new, identically delicious iceburger. Moments in God Hand reflect the feeling of catching a bully's punch, effortlessly uncurling his fist, and snatching out a fifty-dollar bill. In God Hand, you will immediately confront every idle enemy grunt like a pit bull confronts a stray bath towel. Sometimes, you see, God Hand is the catharsis of using a jackhammer to cut your birthday cake.
God Hand looks like the only parts you remember about your cooler big brother's comic book collection. God Hand sounds like the only parts you remember about your much cooler, dead best friend's record collection. God Hand's story is that fat kid in high school who even the other nerds hated so much he got pushed down the stairs at least once every day before lunch; at the ten-year reunion, they hold a memorial service for him: You ask a dude how he died, and he's like, "Oh yeah, after school, he got ripped, joined the CIA, boned a bunch of supermodels, et cetera, et cetera - he died last year, crashing a dirtbike into a helicopter so as to kill the terrorist warlord who was trying to escape", and you make that face that Neo made in The Matrix when he realised he knew kung-fu, like, "Whoa!"
THE REVIEW HAS ENDED
INTERLUDE: WHAT IF THEY MADE A CARTOON ABOUT STREETS OF RAGE 2? Would the fans cry and moan if every episode didn't end in a boss fight wherein Axel and Skate's dialogue was something like "What are we gonna do, Axel! This guy's tough!" "I know, Skate - you run at him, head-butt him in the chest, and knock him down; then, I'll keep jump-kicking him every time he starts to stand up!" "Good plan, Axel! After 50 jump-kicks, maybe he'll fall to the ground, flicker and disappear!"
END INTERLUDE RE: STREETS OF RAGE<CARTOON Maybe the reason people didn't know they were supposed to and allowed to enjoy God Hand is because they approached it like a (terrible) film repeatedly interrupted by scenes of virtuosic improvisation. Played - and enjoyed - properly, God Hand is the video game equivalent of gypsy jazz. This is going to sound a thousand and one flavours of weird or wrong, though after learning a tiny bit of guitar, my skill at God Hand exploded. God Hand is a method of self-expression. You see a dude in front of you, and you make the instant decision to either tear into him like a pit bull into a bath towel or a rhinoceros into a Jeep. It's a new-ish game that perfectly recreates the incomprehensibility of old games.
I suppose the problem is that, way back when, the old games were brand new, and the old people didn't like brand new things by default, so the oldest game fans were young people when the oldest games were brand new. Those people have grown up, though numerous new people have come into existence, by the process of human reproduction. Some say we can't make stupid, simple games anymore because a great majority of game-playing adult-people have played all the old, stupid games, and they require something new. What about the new ("young") people? Why does everything have to be layers of sophistication?
Remember Doom? Maybe you do, maybe you don't. Doom was the coolest thing you could do with a computer. When Doom first came out, even a lunch-money-mugging jock might have looked at the computer screen and, after rhyming your last name with something vaguely sexual, he might have secretly thought that dude, computers are probably kind of cool. Maybe you'd never had a girlfriend before; Doom made you feel like a real bad-ass.
Was Doom a great game? I tried playing it yesterday. It's still pretty good. The deathmatch has a clean, quaint, stoic simplicity about it. I'd love to see someone make a four-player turn-based Doom deathmatch game for the iPhone. That could be hilarious. It might be like tic-tac-toe: you just circle around each other, no one ever firing a shot. You're just waiting for the other guy to blink. Someone out there, be a dear and make that game. (See: someone made a game based on my idea for a perfect Mario game!) Is classic Doom the best of all possible games? Maybe not. These days, we see a lot of indie revisions of Super Mario - where are the Doom revisions? How about infinite ammo, never-ending enemies, slow-moving enemy projectiles, the ability to reflect projectiles back at enemies by shooting at them, a melee attack that knocks enemies back into other enemies? I can probably think of a thousand more ideas that were as possible with the technology of 1992 as they are now. What I'm saying is that Doom wasn't some holy grail of game design: It was a couple lucky hacker-like dudes seeing to the top half-dozen items on a hells-of-long checklist: "3D, guns, shooting, strafing", et cetera. Why do you think Doom 3 disappointed so many people? He-llo! It's because you were giving a Hollywood budget to people who didn't actually have a script. They weren't really game designers: They were just geniuses.
What I am saying is, to hell with the geniuses. You know who's a game designer? Tooru Iwatani. Decades after Pac-Man, he went back and re-thought the game design, incorporating a number of satisfying frictions that shed a whole new light on the idea of an abstract shape trapped in a maze. Pac-Man: Championship Edition actually kind of changed my life. So did Space Invaders Extreme, which was more or less the same idea. To hell with geniuses. I was working at a game company many years ago, and the game was a real dead-end. No one had any clue what the hell they were doing. The character artists sure were designing characters, and the animators sure were churning out animations, and the programmer sure were doing... something. There was just no game design, no balls. Everyone kept second-guessing the director, as he second-guessed the big publisher. Me and one other guy were really passionate about making a game, perhaps to the level of being a little obsessed. We scheduled brain-storming sessions, and no one showed up, afraid that to show up would be to defy the Way Things Must Be. We came up with a hell of a barrel of ideas. We wrote them up all formal-like. No one wanted to even look at them. Now wasn't the time to be thinking about game design: It was too early to be thinking about game design, they said. We needed to think about our pitch, why this game was going to sell, what it was going to do to change the way people play games. It needed a sales angle before it needed anything else. We needed to draft up a list of achievements before we needed to even decide what the game was about. It was a terrible experience. The game was on a collision course for a desert of blandness. Then the publisher came back to us with a story treatment written by some Hollywood types, based on the pathetic, chicken-bone-like ideas we'd plopped out in a frenzied rush the day before the deadline. It was so scary to look at that document. It felt like waking up in the middle of the night to see a rotting corpse at the foot of the bed, standing, animated, jiggling terrifyingly by the power of a cattle prod shoved up its anus. Have you ever stayed in a cheap motel? Maybe, right before you turn out the light, you see a cockroach scamper up the wall and disappear into a little crack up near the ceiling. Now you have to sleep with that knowledge. That Hollywoody document was the cockroach in the motel room, for me.
I don't want to play or make games with meaningful narratives. Nor do I want to make games where the questions (like, why does the hero of God Hand seem to hate women so much?) hold the possibility of getting in the way of letting me think for myself, enjoy the game, and maybe forge some kind of psychological triggers useful (or not) in future interactions with human beings or paper shredders. I want to make something simple and pure, something like Canabalt, where the player is encouraged to use his imagination. I want it to be endless, though unlike Canabalt, I want it to address the common complaint that an endless contest makes the player feel depressed or worthless. It will have gravity. It will be huge. It will be a little ridiculous, ridiculous enough for the savvy player to go, "I see what you did there," though not ridiculous enough for the fundamentalist Christian to shout "Oh My Word!" (OMW) and call FOX News. Ultimately, it will be, like Out of This World, art, though unlike Out of This World it will only be art because it will have a sparkling clean, invisible interface and an airtight minimalist narrative, and it will only be that way because I am a jerk, and I am only trolling the world. It will be fun. For me, anyway. It'll be frictive and sticky and chunky and crunchy. Its airtight, minimalist story will begin like this: "[Fade up from black: Hero holds shotgun in the direction of villain's face; player pulls trigger, Hero shoots villain in the face, sending him careening down a staircase, music begins with a crash] ", and it will end like this: "[Enemy drone or enemy projectile makes contact with Hero; screen sharply snaps to white, with the sound of mellow though loud guitar feedback, then silence] ". And it'll have great music.
I am pleased to announce that we have started on, among other things, the music.
We were going to rehearse the other two-thirds of the track yesterday, though my drummer was suddenly called away to climb a mountain. This is noteworthy because my game is about something kind of like climbing a mountain, in reverse. It will hopefully be the Pac-Man for the Gears of War generation or DooM for the Shadow of the Colossus generation, or the Space Invaders of the Guitar Hero generation, or the Elevator Action of the Modern Warfare generation, or the Q-Bert of the Peggle generation, or whatever. It's going to be huge and loud and stupid and awesome. The working title of the game is Ziggurat, and I will hopefully be able to show it to you next month. In the meantime, I'm fielding suggestions for a new name - something that looks better with an apostrophe-s on the end. I personally think "Billy T Exclamation" sounds pretty good.
Tim Rogers is the editor-in-chief of Action Button Dot Net, which is a fancy way of saying he's the founder and one of three completely unpaid employees. Friend his band on MySpace, follow him on Twitter, or email him at 108 (at) action button (dot! (net!))