A few weeks ago, The Atlantic magazine published a profile I wrote of the developer Jonathan Blow, a man known in gaming circles as much for his criticism of the mainstream game industry’s intellectual shortcomings as he is for Braid, the outstanding game he created.
To put it mildly, this article pissed a lot of gamers off; in fact, given the tenor of the comments by gaming enthusiasts on Twitter and on fine websites like this one, it seems that many people believe my talents might lie less with game criticism and more with, say, janitorial technology.
Though some commentators took umbrage with what they perceived as Blow’s pretentiousness (and you’ll just have to take my word for it when I tell you he’s actually a great guy), the substantial majority bristled at one particular argument I made about games. “There’s no nice way to say this,” I wrote, “but it needs to be said: video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb.”
It’s safe to say that we needn’t seek out the services of America’s top psychologists to figure out why this idea chapped a few hides. To use the words of Brainy Gamer‘s Michael Abbott-who has even launched a “Smart Game Catalog” to prove my claim wrong, what I wrote was “a sharp slap in the face” to those who don’t see games as juvenile toys. This isn’t entirely true (I did allow for exceptions, after all), but I take his point. While I never intended to be disdainful or dismissive toward gamers (of whom I am one, but more about that in a moment), I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t want to splash some cold water in the face of any intelligent gaming fan who contentedly pays to be treated like a dimwitted child. So, while I firmly believe everything I wrote about mainstream gaming’s smartness drought, I also think the point I was striving to make deserves a bit of clarification.
First, because I wrote this piece for a general, non-gaming audience (upon whom any discussion of the artfulness of Bulletstorm‘s energy leash decapitations, for example, would have been lost), 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. What I wrote, then, came not from ignorance or contempt, but from frustration with the state of big-budget gaming. I’ve cared deeply about games for a very long time now, and thus it bothers me (and Blow as well, I should note) that they’ve failed to evolve much intellectually.
Which brings us to another point: as a chronic gamer, I’m well aware that Jon Blow is not the only human being ever to have produced a smart, artistically interesting game for a large audience. I’ve gone on record as saying that Portal is a work of unblemished brilliance, for instance (though I did not write the accompanying headline proclaiming Portal 2 “The Best video game Ever”), and there are many others that I consider terrifically smart. To name just a few recent examples: Bioshock, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, Red Dead Redemption, Fez, Uncharted 2 (the apex of games as Hollywood movies), Limbo, Dark Souls (for sheer visionary weirdness), Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and so on. I don’t know that I’d ever grab one of the nation’s premier art critics, fire up the Chaos Witch Quelaag boss fight in Dark Souls, and then argue that it represents a masterful achievement on par with the portraiture of Gustav Klimt — but still, there’s some fascinating stuff going on there.
The problem, though, is that smart games like these are vanishingly rare, particularly among mainstream developers. This is what I meant when I wrote that “games, with very few exceptions, are dumb.” Out of the hundreds, if not thousands, of console and PC games that emerge from the dark and mysterious caves of development studios each year, only a handful are what a reasonable observer might call smart or artistic — a disturbingly low batting average by any metric. The rest are… well, as I said, they’re typically pretty dumb.
So let’s have a word about what I mean when I use this admittedly rather unkind little term. (“Dumb”, I realise, is a loaded word that many gamers would have preferred to see replaced with something less caustic- like “unfulfilling” or “emotionally unsophisticated” — but while this is a fair point, the d-word is what we have to work with.) I don’t mean that literally everything about them lacks intelligence. It should go without saying that there are countless smart things going on in even the most outwardly silly games, or else they’d have no reason to succeed. To me, the gameplay of the cartoonish gorefest known as Gears of War 3 is as tightly calibrated as a Maserati’s suspension system (I’ve written as much, as well), and only a fool could fail to see the beauty of Flower or the devious brilliance of a “social gaming” cash vortex like FarmVille.
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.
Take the 2010 shooter Vanquish, for example. Viewed through the context of pure game design, Vanquish is an absolute triumph; it’s a joy to play, it looks fantastic, and it provides a nicely paced, challenging gaming experience. Yet when we evaluate it on the intellectual maturity scale, the game is an atrocity. Between its senseless plot, silly premise, cornball paint-by-numbers characters, and preposterous dialogue (a combination Japanese game creators seem to have perfected), the game is so toxic to the player’s intelligence that one can almost feel the brain cells dying with each pointless cutscene and agonising spoken exchange.
Everything other than Vanquish’s core gameplay feels as though it was dashed together in an afternoon by a seventh-grade anime fan. In his excellent book Extra Lives (which anyone who cares about games should read immediately), my friend Tom Bissell notes that great art is “comprehensively intelligent”, meaning that it’s intelligent in every way available to it. A game like Vanquish, on the other hand, shows a fragmentary, schizophrenic intelligence; its gameplay is brilliant, while the rest of it is what Chris Hecker, in my piece, calls “adolescent nonsense”.
Of course, this issue might not bother you. You might point out that one shouldn’t really expect much brainpower from a bullet hell shooter in which one rocket-slides around battlefields aiming glowing energy balls at flying men in super-suits, which is an argument that would hold more water if the same problem didn’t afflict virtually every mainstream game. It doesn’t even strike me as controversial to point out that there is way, way, way too much of this thematic juvenility in games. Vanquish, like so many others, is a product that makes us say, “It’s incredibly silly, but hey — it’s fun.”
Yet for gamers to just sweep that important first part under the rug over and over again in favour of brainless, high-octane enjoyment feels like a crime against the medium they love. To accept childish dreck without protest-or worse, to defend the dreck’s obvious dreckiness just because the other parts of a game are cool-is to allow the form to languish forever.
Now, I’m not saying that intelligent people should never play intellectually unsophisticated games, or that games aiming at overall smartness can’t involve a bit of ridiculousness. For one thing, “silly” games are frequently quite imaginative and rewarding to play, from the whimsical creativity of LittleBigPlanet to the deranged WTF-ness of something like Shadows of the Damned. For another, we have to make allowances for the fact that virtually any fictional work we experience requires some suspension of disbelief. Even great literature often asks us to swallow our objections about plausibility and logic; I just finished reading a much-lauded novel in which the narrator has incredible telepathic powers that derive from his blocked sinuses, for god’s sake.
Almost all mainstream games that involve narrative or human emotion or conceptual thought, however, require something more like suspension of brainpower. Again and again, studios churn out the same story of saving the world, the same inhuman flat-as-a-pancake characters, the same lack of moral nuance, the same horrifically violent foundations (who actually enjoys the murder-porn segments of military shooters in which you rack up 50 kills per minute from an invulnerable gunship?), the same insipid dialogue, the same absence of intellectual maturity, the same disregard for the real existential dilemmas human beings face. The end result of this, for anyone who both plays games regularly and actually cares about such things, is that you feel — despite the surface-level fun — like you’re wasting hours of your life that you will never get back on mindless adolescent escapism.
This has been my experience, at least. Too often, I play a game that I dearly want to — like Skyrim, say, or Deus Ex: Human Revolution — and end up feeling as though I’ve poured a colossal amount of time into what amounted, maturity-wise, to a particularly vulgar and bloody children’s cartoon. Some gamers might say that I’m overreacting here, and that a game like Skyrim is in fact perfectly smart and grown-up. To which I would respond as follows: please look at the thing for a moment from an objective perspective.
As gamers, we get so used to the unique rhythms and conventions of game construction that we fail to realise how very silly they are until we’re forced to step back and look dispassionately at what we’re playing. With apologies to female gamers, I think of this as the “girlfriend effect”: that moment when, as you’re thoughtlessly playing Gears of War, your significant other walks into the room, sees what’s on the TV, and says something like “You’re really playing a game where you can rip off someone’s arm and beat him to death with it?” Suddenly, you see with perfect clarity just how preposterous this seems to any other intelligent adult — the endless gore, the ultraviolence, the dumb catchphrases, the brainlessly simple good-versus-evil setup, the context-inappropriate cleavage, the huge muscles and huger guns, and on and on. What do you say then? That it’s not juvenile? You can’t, because it is; anyone can see it.
And often, this is every bit as true of more “serious” games as it is of deliberately over-the-top ones like Gears. To take Skyrim as an example once again, some gamers might absorb that game’s grandiose aesthetics and epic sweep, and then come away thinking they’re dealing with a deeply mature creative work. This would be a mistake.
We’re talking about a game, after all, 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, and in which the random strangers you pass call out comments like “Being a fletcher is hard work, but when you craft the perfect arrow, it strikes forth like the fist of God.” The game may have its merits, but let’s not pretend this kind of thing is mature. My impression is that when gamers call something like Skyrim “smart,” they don’t mean it’s objectively smart, as in filled with interesting characters and thought-provoking ideas; they mean it’s smart for a game, as in not completely insulting to your intelligence at every moment you’re playing it. But as Blow once told me, something is either smart or it’s not; the “for a game” part is meaningless.
Am I being too harsh? Am I asking too much? Should I just set down the controller and spend my time sipping port while reading 19th century French poetry if I’m so intellectually-frustrated with games? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. Because what I’m looking for is actually very simple: not to feel like nearly every game treats me like a delinquent teenager with ADHD. I know that there are many out there who believe games are just supposed to be fun, so let’s not get pretentious about the whole equation. If that’s how you feel, go with god, my friend; I’m not out to spoil your party, and the market is already serving you very well.
But I prefer to believe that as an entire generation of lifelong gamers grows from twitchy adolescents into mature, thoughtful adults, it’s reasonable to want games to grow up, too. Whatever you might think of Jon Blow, his work does show us that truly, comprehensively smart games are within our creative reach — games that make us think, treat us like grown-ups, and explore the whole range of real human experience. The only things holding developers back from making more of them are a lack of ambition and a tendency for gamers to accept juvenility as long as it comes wrapped in fun.
This situation frustrates me (and Blow, and I’m sure quite a few of you as well), because it’s clear that games are capable of so much more than they’re doing now. The video game, as a creative medium, has the potential to provide us with experiences every bit as rich and meaningful as those we’ve gotten from books, visual art, and film; for all we know, it could even surpass them. At the moment, though, the vast, overwhelming, crushing majority of that potential is being wasted on frivolous digital toys. These toys may be fun to play with, and we might have an especially warm place in our hearts for them, but that does not change the fact that they, by and large, are emotionally and intellectually unfulfilling-which is precisely what I meant by the word “dumb”. Saying this doesn’t give me pleasure, since I wish it weren’t the case, but I still believe it’s true.
So game developers of the world, please — please! — prove me wrong, but don’t do it with words. Prove me wrong by making smarter games. I’ll be waiting, controller stashed safely nearby, sipping my port like a jackass.