A wide spectrum of responses followed – some agreeing with me, others claiming I was an idiot for not succumbing to the game’s various charms.
“Enjoy it for the art,” tweeted regular Kotaku contributor Adam Ruch.
“And the amazing voice over,” continued my buddy Klutar.
“Maybe you need a break from gaming,” claimed another tweet.
I thought about that one for a couple of seconds.
No, that can’t be it – I love video games. In fact, that might just be the problem…
I like games.
Instantly I was reminded of an interview I did a couple of years back, for the release of Skate 2. In that interview the producer regaled the way in which the concept for Skate and its ‘flick-it’ controls came into being.
It began as a rapid prototype. The stripped back foundation that became Skate was initially nothing more than a bleak visual representation of analogue stick movement – at this stage character models, animations, and environments were months from fruition. Within this framework the team began inventing the analogue movements that would make up the various tricks in the game – a down-up flick for a simple Ollie, movements to represent shove-its, kick flips. Everything that was to be added to Skate was brainstormed and built via this simple, stripped down system.
And when the team realised how much fun they were having – simply flicking the right analogue stick in this featureless, barren environment with no reward or feedback – that was when they realised they were on to something.
Ultimately Skate was not a Skateboarding sim. It was a game. It was an awesome game. It had a strict set of rules, it had mechanics that were fun from the very second you picked up the controller. Mechanics that had depth; that rewarded practice. Skate had one of the most successful demos in the history of Xbox LIVE for this precise reason – Skate was instantly fun and remained fun for as long as it sat snugly in your disc tray.
Skate had great visuals, but I didn’t have to enjoy the game for its art. Skate had some of the best audio design I’ve ever seen in a game, I could feel the squeak of the wheels, the clank of the trucks when they hit the rails – but this only served to enhance the experience I was having with the game’s solid core mechanics. Art is not a game. Sound is not a game.
A game is a game.
It’s an age old argument, but too often whilst playing ‘AAA’ titles I get the distinct impression that the game mechanics are some sort of unwieldy burden that I, as the gamer, have to bear. Something I’m supposed to endure whilst waiting for the narrative to kick in, a diversion designed to kill time. Eventually I’ll care about this character but, for now, here are some buttons I should be pressing.
L.A. Noire was like that, for me at least. I feel bad for picking on that game – and Bastion for that matter, since it really is such a beautiful game – but creating a flimsy foundation and expecting it hold the overbearing weight that surrounds it is fundamentally unfair. Your core must be solid. Your core must be unassailable. Only then can the features you build upon that foundation – narrative, art, sound – enhance that core in a beautiful and meaningful way.
Halo had its 30 seconds of fun. That’s the hook. That’s the game. Braid, for all its pretence and bluster, is a remarkable puzzle game. Metal Gear Solid, minus its self-indulgent cut-scenes, is Pac-man – a game in which the hunter becomes the hunted and vice versa. That’s the core reward. That’s what makes it fun. Everything else is icing on the cake – literally.
Sometimes games, in the absence of that core, feel hollow. I like stories. I like cool voiceovers and I like gorgeous art. I even like 20 minute cut-scenes now and again.
But more than anything I love games, and I want to enjoy playing them.