Sunday 5 July 2015

The Problem with Videogames

From January 2011. What’s weird about this one is how quickly it has dated: when writing it I genuinely couldn’t conceive of a world which contained (off the top of my head) Dear Esther, Gone Home, Papers Please, 30 Flights of Loving, The Walking Dead, Her Story, Kentucky Route Zero…

The videogame landscape is in a much better place than it was in 2010. But even if I’ve been proved wrong in general, I think there’s still some arguments of worth here.

In the last few days, I've mostly been travelling across the Galaxy and murdering everything that moves, but I've been trying to be as lovely as possible.

Normally, when I play RPGs, I either act like a paragon of virtue or a devious, scheming bastard. But in Mass Effect 2 (which has been taking up an embarrassing amount of my time over the last couple of days), I've been trying to act in every situation as I would in real life. Which means facing political problems with vague, well-meaning idealism, and facing interpersonal problems by trying to be nice to everyone and hoping everything will work itself out in the end. Unfortunately, these kind of problems only constitute about 10% of the decisions that the game asks you to make. The other 90% involve deciding whether to shoot the man on the left with the rocket launcher or the man behind the wall with the sniper rifle. Facing *that* kind of decision in real life, I would always take the “run away screaming and crying” option, which doesn't exactly lead to mission success.

The problem is, no matter how hard I try, I am not anything like the lead character of this game. If a shadowy organisation really did spend billions of dollars resurrecting me because of my superior military training and exemplary war record, I'd politely inform them that they'd probably a mistake, before being shot repeatedly in the face by the robot behind the first door. But the lead character isn't me. He's Commander Shepherd, galactic hero, maverick soldier, and general-purpose badass. The more I try to make him act like me, the weirder the game gets: I've asked a hardened battle-scarred, highly professional commando if he's dealing alright with recent romantic troubles, and questioned my borderline-insane psychic killer friend about whether her living quarters were comfy enough. Unsurprisingly, both characters looked at me as if I were crazy.

I'm not really complaining. Plenty of the decisions the game lets you make are fascinating. It takes place in a pleasingly meaty science fiction world, with intricate relationships between government power and private enterprise, and a genuinely complex set of race-relations that mirror, but never simply allegorise, real-world issues. Playing space-hero while picking your way through the game's political minefield is a rare pleasure. And even if this takes up far less time that shooting aliens in the face, shooting aliens in the face is a lot of fun, especially when your psychic powers and magic bullets cause your enemies to fly gracefully backwards through the air, on fire.

But here's the problem with all videogames: I like the shooting.

More accurately: everyone likes the shooting.

Videogames are the artform that most defines our generation. The generation above us had music that their parents didn't understand. We've got videogames. Even if you've got parents who play games – and both of mine do – their relationship to the form is completely different to that of our generation. They never had Timesplitters 2 map layouts permanently burned into their twelve-year-old brains, never had Mortal Kombats and Grand Theft Autos become defining teenaged transgressions, never had hours of fevered conversations on the way to school about just how excitingly insane Metal Gear Solid 2 was. For those of us who play games, the form is wired into our cultural and social history just as hard as books, films and television.

If you don't like videogames, and never did, that's fine. It probably means (as I'm going to try and explain) that you're more sensible than those of us that do. But you can't deny that the form surrounds us. You've held a console controller in your hand. You've been to parties where everyone was playing guitar hero. You've listened to long game-based conversations between friends in pubs. If nothing else, I would argue that it has formed in us an almost universal view of censorship. We're a bunch of people who’ve got brothers and sisters and friends and cousins and boyfriends and girlfriends and fiances who have shot a virtual man in the groin just to see what will happen, and the experience of simulated violence has been harmless. We are – for the most part – immune to the idea that unpleasant art creates unpleasant readers.

And all of this is great. We have access to an artform that can provide vast quantities of personal and social pleasure. But this artform is stuffed full of built-in limitations that stifle its potential for achievement. This isn't going to be a manifesto about how to fix what's wrong with games. I honestly the believe that the form is stuck in an unchanging and unchangeable rut. In order to create videogames that could even begin to compete with the best of literature, film and music, the form would need to change so much that it would become essentially unrecognisable. Not that this won't happen, but it won't be happening within the next ten years, and I see no motivation for the games industry to change itself even within that timeframe.

Videogames are – uniquely – about processes. They present a world and a highly limited number of ways of interacting with that world. Typically, they have you applying these limited interactions to a world for a number of hours that enters double figures. This convergence between limited action and extended timeframe means that with remarkably few exceptions, games will have you performing the same actions (be they shooting, commanding an army, solving puzzles, navigating platforms or whatever else) again and again and again. This is no bad thing. If these actions are sufficiently fun, you will *want* to perform them repeatedly. But these formal constraints all mean that games constantly live in the present, as a series of repeated cathartic processes. Because game design has always concentrated on the mechanics of how to make these processes more enjoyable, and how to improve their central, repetitive experiences, they do not concentrate on how to transmit ideas. Games *have* to be about instant gratification. The form ensures that process always dominates; stories and ideas exist within games, but they always come second to the mechanical processes that determine the interactions between the players and the gameworld.

Even the absolute pinnacles of the form fail to escape these limitations. Bioshock is a critique of Randian Objectivism and presents a stunningly imagined art-deco city to explore. Similarly, Portal is an almost perfect piece of writing, simultaneously sinister and hilarious. But despite all of the (justified) praise that these games receive, most of the time you spend playing the games, you aren't engaging with their themes. In Bioshock, you spend far more time shooting your enemies than you do considering Rapture's economic model, or the hubris of its characters. In Portal, you spend far more time solving the game's puzzles and performing feats of athletic dexterity than you do engaging with its story. Themes, ideas, narratives, even aesthetic pleasures: all of this falls by the wayside, or at least into the background, as soon as the bullets start flying. The golden moments in games, when they seem to reach the level of the highest art, are simply punctuation marks – brief moments in games that otherwise function as streams of repeated motion.

And the problem is that this is not a problem. Repeated cathartic processes are fun. We don't *want* our games to give us anything other than the immediate and fleeting satisfactions of crunchy combat or clever puzzles or subtle strategic challenges. Games are always about challenging the player's skills and empowering them, and people will keep on buying games that do this regardless of the possibilities of nebulous-hypothetical-future games with wider aims. There are no incentives for the industry to change.

Obviously there are exceptions to the rule. Fahrenheit (which I have to say that I loved) does everything it can to avoid repeated processes, but unfortunately replaces them with irritating minigames and very silly plotting. Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines did its best, but in its crazed ambition became a twitchy, buggy mess. And there's a free thing on the internet called Gravity Bone that does everything I want games to do, but has the disadvantage of being about fifteen minutes long. Since Pong and Asteroids, games have devoted themselves to instant immediate responses. They've become very good at dealing with those kinds of responses, but the medium has never developed ways of dealing with a player's critical faculties in the same ways. When games attempt to completely avoid cathartic process, they are discarding decades of wisdom about how to make games. In their radical experimentation, stumbling wildly is almost inevitable

So here is the rut that games find themselves in. They know how to make instant gratification fun. If – swiftly and fleetingly – they can engage brains and hearts alongside this instant gratification, they look like works of genius. If they avoid instant gratification completely, then rootless experimentation causes them to fail. But given that their instant gratification is so good, and given that the instant gratification is the reason people play games, there is no incentive to push large amounts of money and artists into experimenting further. The audiences who want more than repeated, cathartic processes are wary of games, and those who want both catharsis and thought are left with a poorer, less powerful artform.

You might be thinking that I want to turn videogames into books or films, that I'm annoyed because videogames are videogames, and that I'm failing to appreciate that different artforms are different. But this is not what I'm saying. If we go back to Mass Effect 2, the best, most interesting sections are not the (admittedly fun) shooting, but the attempts to be diplomatic, to make difficult political decisions. I want to be able to play as Captain Picard, not the Terminator. But letting you be the Terminator is what games are good at, and an entire thirty hour game of Mass Effect 2's conversation system would quickly get tiresome. But still, the possibility of a game as slick and professional as Mass Effect 2, but where diplomacy and politicking were the central concern is an exciting one. Unlike all other artforms, games let you control their narratives, or (as Bioshock does at its best moments) allow a story to be told through the player-led exploration of an area. They open up a whole bunch of storytelling and artistic possibilities which – in their current form – they pretty much ignore. Videogames are, therefore, something of a wasted opportunity.

There are bunch of really excellent journalists writing really excellent articles about videogames. They treat the form seriously, analyse it sharply, and treat it as high art. I wish the form deserved these writers, but I don't think it does. In their current form, videogames can produce something as good as Star Wars but could never (except for very brief moments in much longer works) produce something as good as King Lear. And I love Star Wars, I really do. If people keep producing games that perfectly judge how to create instant gratification, things will be alright. But I will still be disappointed. At the moment, the most culturally pervasive games are the slick but brain-dead and sour-tastingly militaristic Modern Warfare entries in the Call of Duty series. Worryingly, in terms of how they play, they aren't massively different from the Bioshocks and the Portals – our great champions of gaming-as-art. That no one has made a game as good as King Lear is not a problem, but the fact that – in the current climate – making such a game would be impossible is food for thought. Games are trapped in a level of immaturity that I don't think they can escape. We should – but won't – demand better.

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