Computer games entered my life in the same way they would have entered that of many children born in the early 70s: by way of my parents turning up one day and forking out for an Atari 2600 console. It was practically the beginning of home gaming and I was right there, kneeling on the floor a couple of yards from the television, taking all 128 bytes of RAM right in my face.
The first game, my first game, was “Combat”. You were a tank, or a plane, and you tried to kill an enemy tank or plane in one on one battle in various battlefields. Bullets could swerve! Yeah, take that, awful film starring Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman and a Loom of Fate; bullets were swerving in the 70s and it was fantastic. Other games followed quickly (luckily my dad kept them coming for a few months) and I loved them. “Pac-Man”, “Berzerk”, “The Empire Strikes Back” (I remember them all) and, best of the lot, “Adventure”, a game I will return to later. I played on the Atari 2600 all the time, as I did all the computers that followed it. Spectrum, Commodore 128 (ooh get me, not having the C64 but the bigger one instead. The drawback was that you had to use a different disc drive and some games wouldn’t load, so that worked out well), Amiga. For something like 15 years I loved games. Then one day, while I wasn’t looking, I fell out of love.
Hardly a surprise, you might be saying to yourself. Games are for kids and once one moves into one’s twenties the chances are that one is no longer a child. Except, of course, games aren’t for kids, really. How can they be when they cost about a month’s worth of paper round earnings and come with 18 certificates promising strong bloody violence? Games these days, and perhaps since the moment they were born, are meant for adults. Technology has advanced sufficiently now that the people who make games can aim them squarely at the more sophisticated and richer adult audience that they wanted all along. Sorry kids. Your time was way back then, when games were written by one person, in their bedroom, trying to wring something fun out of the sort of memory that a computer these days uses to play the Windows music. Since they began they have been a developing art form (Roger Ebert disagrees that they are art but then he’s just bitter because people sometimes mix him up with his brother Qbert) and one that that has developed as much as any other. I sound quite enthusiastic about the state of games now, don’t I? Well, I am, and that’s the frustration. I should like them. I should play them. But I can’t, though I try. Every few weeks an eager MarvMarsh can be seen in a branch of Game, paying up for whatever is the latest hot item for the Xbox, politely refusing the offer of a loyalty card, and shuttling swiftly out, hope fluttering once more in his foolish heart. We should all pity the poor sap because at some point in the following few days he will play that game for about an hour, starting out with enthusiasm, before becoming fed up and eventually putting the game back in its box and laying it to rest in a secluded patch of ground, surrounded by those that came before. It is as if I one day stepped outside the front door to pick up the milk and while I was there the door closed behind me. Now I can’t get back in, no matter how many times I give the handle a rattle.
Oh God, I just realised that I am trying to get back to a childhood that is lost forever!
No, it isn’t that, or at least it isn’t only that. If it were I could have spent a few quid on a counsellor and saved you all the last few hundred words. Games changed. They got better, indubitably better. They became more sophisticated and I stopped enjoying them. So, did the games change for the worse as well somehow?
The already enormous technological development since the glory days of “Combat” and co. has led to games becoming bigger, more spectacular and more complex. A player need look no further than their on screen representative to see all three of those changes to dramatic effect. In fairly recent game, “Red Dead Redemption”, the game is played by controlling John Marston, a former outlaw drawn back to the land of his former life when his family is kidnapped by the government. He has a backstory and a scar on his cheek. Compare John Marston to the central figure of the best game the Atari 2600 ever saw: “Adventure”. The object of “Adventure” is to find an enchanted chalice and return it to its rightful place in the gold castle, all the while avoiding dragons, who for reasons of their own want to make it difficult. The central figure there has no backstory. It has no scar on its cheek or a family that was kidnapped by the government. That is because the character in Adventure is a square. Not uncool. Literally a square.
Of course, it is unfair to claim that characters in games having depth is a new thing (Pac-Man probably has some dark tale in his past that led to him becoming an obsessive eater) but recent advances in games have been in the direction of depth both in gameplay and in the elements that surround it: characterisation, story, all the juicy stuff from narrative art forms. And so I come up against the thing that I always turn to first when wondering why I am struggling to engage with whatever the latest doomed-to-fail purchase from Game is: the influence of narrative in games and the fact – yes, fact! – that game narratives are rubbish.
A game is not a film or a book but there it is demanding that you, the player, stop playing and watch the story, or play – but, for all the sense of an open world that one is free to explore – play the way the game wants. That paradox is something that bothers me every time I try a so-called “sandbox” game. The illusion of freedom that the game attempts to create for the player only serves to demonstrate how far from free the experience of playing the game is. Still, allow me to leave that aside because the bigger problem is that in having all this tremendous computing power at their disposal, and with an adult audience that they want to engage enough to keep shovelling over £40 a pop, games have turned into rubbish cartoons. The story of John Marston in “Red Dead Redemption”, if you strip away the gaming aspect and leave the cut scenes (hooray for cut scenes) is a very poor western. If I want a very poor western I’ll, well, I don’t want one. Did I need a cut scene in “Gauntlet” where Yellow Wizard and Red Valkyrie had a chat about how they first got into the dungeon-raiding business? No. Yellow Wizard had the decency to largely keep his feelings to himself. All we were told was that he occasionally needed food badly or that he was about to die. Or that he had shot the food, the fool. “Gauntlet”, despite this sorry lack of dramatic scenes voiced by mid-level acting talent, was brilliant fun. In fact, it is, as you know full well, the best game ever made.
It occurs to me that I recall the very day the love died. The location was a friend’s house, where three of us grouped round his computer and took turns on “Doom”, which at the time was the latest hot stuff game that everyone had to play. I took my turn and off I went down a corridor, then round a corner and right there it all went wrong. The trick, apparently, was to time your attack; wait for the bad guys to shift about a bit, maybe stop for a cigarette and a chat about their plans for the weekend, and then leap in and pick them off. I found I couldn’t be bothered. Instead of rounding the corner and pausing, ears pricked, eyes unblinking, I decided that the situation would be most swiftly remedied if I bowled straight into the room, got into a massive one-sided fire fight and died in a blaze of feeble incompetence. So I did that. For whatever reason, I suddenly had no desire to put in the work the game asked of me, and from that day to this it has been the same.
Writing this has become an exercise in stirring up old gaming memories. As well as the day my patience disappeared, my brain is turning up the corpses of old game characters, such as Monty Mole, who for a brief period was the platform king of the world, and someone who went by the somewhat cruel but accurate name of Thing on a Spring. He was most certainly a Thing and he got about by means of a Spring that may well have been his abdomen. I know nothing else about Thing on a Spring. Perhaps he too was a former outlaw drawn back to the life he had left behind after the government kidnapped his family. If so, I hope he got Mrs Spring and the little Springs back safe and sound.
The problem for me then appears to be that I have lost the desire to make an effort with games just as games designers, with more powerful tools being placed in their hands every few minutes, have decided that one of the things they really want to do with their greater power is ask the player to put in more effort. Fighting games have become as demanding as flying two planes at once. There you are, on screen, bobbing up and down on the balls of your perfectly rendered little cartoon feet, ready to launch any one of about a thousand different assaults on your opponent and all that holds you back is your ignorance of the innumerable combination of button presses required to make your character do anything more than look tough. On the Xbox controller there are ten different buttons you can press. Ten. It would be quicker to enrol at a martial arts evening class and learn to perform a three move combination in real life than it is to learn how to do it in a game. Actually, I think there might be twelve buttons.
Of course, there are simpler games. Despite my complaints about games designers having the cheek to make their games deeper and richer, some make things on a smaller scale; just the sort of thing for the uncommitted gamer. But still, I try and I fail. One of the best games available on the Xbox, to my mind, is “Limbo”, a sideways scrolling platform and puzzle game with absolutely gorgeous graphics and design. It’s a fabulous piece of work; instantly accessible, simple, in every way like the games I used to play, only better. For an hour I loved it. Then, nope. Out came the shovel and off it went to join the others.
It is impossible for me to escape, after the therapy session that this has become, that the issue is not with the games. It’s with me. I lost the will to play. Games want you to work for your rewards, they always have done, and I have misplaced the desire to do so. I use the word misplaced because I live in hope that I will remember where I put it. If you should see me in Game, queuing up to purchase whatever is that week’s big new must have, perhaps you might consider placing a caring hand on my shoulder and whispering to me that it would be best if I walked away. I will agree but I won’t go. That game might just be the one that gets me back in the house.
MarvMarsh is a Martian. His name is Marvin.
24 thoughts on “Video Games and Me”
OK, I’ll bite. (BTW, I loved this. Good work, Marv)
I think thegames apps on the iPhone are a return to the retro gaming form for those who can’t be arsed with cutaway scenes and complicated plots.
For example in Angry Birds, you catapult various forms of kamikaze exploding bird at a bunch of pigs resting in a series of complex structures.
These games are hugely popular, I think, because they don’t require the level of commitment of big, complicated narratives. You dip in on the way to work, get your score up a bit, and on you go with the rest of your life.
That is fucking brilliant, Marv, and sums up one of the 2 reasons I no longer have any consoles (the other one being when I do find a game simplistic and moronic enough for me I end up playing it like a rat with an electrode until I starve to death).
Great, great article. And while it’s true that there’s not a second of, say, Halo cutscene or backstory that’s worth anything at all, there’s also this :
I’d be interested to hear what other people think about the intrusion of crap narratives into games, because – for better or worse – this is the aspect of modern games that’s reaching out of consoles and going everywhere.
In sandbox games, the narrative stuff is there in large part to distract that a lot of the missions are literal grinds: you keep doing roughly the same things until you’ve earned enough [quantity x] to allow you to do something else. Game designers are making the calculation that you’re more likely to do the grind if you feel you have a reason to do it.
But now look at something like this: http://www.digitalkoot.fi/en/splash This is the National Library of Finland’s attempt to produce a digital version of every book in their stores by asking users to identify or correct words. They do this by having cute characters and a vague narrative to keep users going.
I’m torn about projects like this. On the one hand, it has a cheeky simplicity. On the other, it’s functionally and aesthetically as lame as lame can be. I wonder if gamification hasn’t cut out more obvious and practical solutions to the challenge the Fins have set themselves.
There are some good articles about gamification in the Extra Credits bit of the Escapist website.
Personally, I don’t really want games to imitate movies, but then my favourite games are shmups and fighting games. LA Noire might be a good game, but I bet the story will be a bunch of cliches nicked from films and TV. Just like Mafia was.
Even when the plot of a game is above average, it tends to fall down on characterisation. But that’s a problem with giving the player freedom to do what they want. It’s no good having your avatar agonise over their misdeeds in a cutscene when you’ve just been gleefully chucking grenades at pedestrians minutes before.
The Fins? Oh, you know who I mean.
I’m OK with games like EchoBazaar where the narrative is a) central to the pleasure of the whole thing and b) actually good, odd, and even at time haunting.
But if you look at something like Max Payne, the last game I played right through, the cut scenes and narratives were something i had to sit through in order to be allowed to shoot things repeatedly in the face.
And I do think gamification is kind of a silly idea that is sold as snake oil; in loyalty you’re getting more and more people trying to sell it as a way to distract from the basic economics of the schemes which I simply don’t think will fool anyone.
For me games are about the social and co-operative aspects.. but then I play Warcraft on a RP server.
One of my favourites is Ultimate Rock Band for the Wii, where you have the option to level up (and watch slightly lame cutaway scenes every two levels or so). But you also have the option to just play and pose.
The last video game I played was the first Grand Theft Auto, for an afternoon in (I think) 1997. Previous to that it was a night of Doom in 1992. I still enjoyed every word of this for some reason.
Some of the ideas that have been discussed in these comments are the meat and drink of the emerging discourse of games criticism (for example, the concept of “ludo-narrative dissonance” – the story the cut scenes telling you clashing with the story the gameplay tells you). Part of me actually feels that this is often less of a problem in practice than it is in theory – a player instinctively understands the tonal disjunction between the cut scenes and the gameplay as a convention of the form. In fact, in GTA4, I’d argue that the game design artfully plays upon those tonal shifts.
The big thing for me at the moment is wanting to see more sophisticated modes of interaction with games – trying to move beyond the kill/drive/puzzle cycle. It’s possible that the design paradigm of game hardware isn’t going to let that happen in a meaningful way for a while. I’m planning to do a piece for this blog on LA Noire next month, where I hope to explore some of these questions. At the moment, I’m playing Heavy Rain, which starkly shows the limitations of current game design paradigms in trying to generate richer character interaction.
Another thing to be said is that the awfulness of the writing in the best examples of narrative gaming tend to be overstated. The dialogue and plot of Red Dead Redemption may not be up to the standards of the Coens’ True Grit, but they are easily superior to the remake of 3.10 to Yuma, for example. (And Uncharted 2 is better than Indiana Jones 4 in just about every particular), but there is a problem with duration, and how games handle the issue of duration. Writing that would work fine over two hours can get stretched pretty thin over the 20-30 hours it takes to complete the main campaign in a Rockstar game. Again, I think the best game producers are aware of this and trying to work with the form (the last act of RDR is a fairly audacious reversal that a mainstream film would hesitate to attempt), but again, these are early days for this kind of interactive storytelling.
I do understand (although I don’t share it) the purist impulse, then, to turn one’s back on this corner of the gaming world – luckily there’s enough variety out there for you to eschew narrative in games completely, to hew to pen and paper models of building narratives, and so on.
Heavy Rain made me think, Marv Marsh style: If I want a very poor noir, I’ll, well, I don’t want one.
In the end, I thought it had some decent qualities. I’m prepared to make some allowances for it as experimental, and I don’t expect it to be The Maltese Falcon – and it was as good as or better than, say, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or one of those Geofrrey Deaver things. There’s never going to be a conversation system in games that really works until you can just have a conversation with an NPC (old school text adventures don’t count – they’re just conversation systems disguised behind a plain text interface). But it made a virtue of brevity and the fact that it never really promises you free will as a player – instead aiming for subjectivity and character identification, which it uses reasonably cleverly to pull a reversal on you.
My parents never bought me a console, and we had an Amstrad rather than a speccy, so I was denied the delights of Jet Set Willy et al. (Though I did spend ages on the H2G2 adventure game.)
So, my real introduction to video games was in the early nineties. It was some time in the third term of my first year iof university that I realised that the amount of money I’d spent on Coin-op beatemups was greater than that spent on food, or even alcohol. That was the year when I first read Lolita, dropped acid and met the woman who’d eventually be my wife, but mastering Guile’s Sonic Boom in Streetfighter 2 felt like it was probably as great an achievement at the time. I weaned myself off, and as a result have never allowed myself to buy a console. Occasionally I gat drunk at a friend’s house and they get their Xboxes out and I have a go and I’m usually left cold Marv’s right about the astonishing complexity of the controllers. Apparently they are designed to stop you winning fights by just mashing the buttons, but I like mashing the buttons. As far as I can remember, that is how you make Blanka go all electric. The other problem is how long it takes to play the damn things. Even iof you were good at, say, Virtua Fighter, you’d be done in fifteen minutes, and you could have a pint or chat with a mate. I teach kids who spend literally days on COD and think nothing of it. I’m not getiing all high horsey about it (like I said, most of money on Streetfighter 2) , but Jesus, that sounds dull.
I think posibly Marv, Harry and I could just type “we are old we are old we are old we are old we are old we are old we are old we are old we are old we are old we are old we are old” in the comment box and have much the same effect.
I, sir, am a spring chickensnapper.
I’m very much a Tetris man, meself.
With apologies for length..
I find this article frustrating, in no small part because it uses a lot of the arguments of those who seek to dismiss videogames and repackages them as “oh, but I WANT to love you..”. The categorisation of game storylines as poor imitations of movie plots is, in my opinion, the one criticism we need most to get over. Plot and gameplay are partners, story and interaction become the same thing, it’s not like the movies, man.
Would GTA IV have been as good a game if the story of Niko Bellic (and the dovetailed stories of Johnny Klebitz, Luis Lopez and the guy from Chinatown Wars) wasn’t as compelling, funny and horrifying as it is? The mechanic of the game is good enough to sustain it, but if you couple that with a story which is weaker, less engaging (as in Red Dead Redemption, a game I also gave up on), it falls down. The best bits of RDR came in the spontaneous, freeform gameplay offered by randomly-generated side quests. A moonlit bounty hunt across the prairie, rescuing a foolhardy traveller from a band of robbers, this was where it came alive – you chose to interact, you created the story. But that was only possible because someone had, at some point in development, thought “If we put this in, the player can do this..”.
There’s a balance to be found, a tightrope to walk. The plot of Alan Wake is great, a fun Stephen King pastiche with nods to everything from Silent Hill to the Twilight Zone, but the gameplay is titanically dull and fiddly. I gave up on that, too.
As for games demanding more of a player now than in the old days, I think the opposite is true. Games without save points, with three lives (and only three!), with limited processing power available – they were tight, pixel-perfect gauntlet-runs. Merciless and often pointless (some games would just loop around, forcing you to play the same levels over and over, but faster or with more enemies, until you died or your mum called you for tea), they are a joyless experience compared to the lush, forgiving, comfortable games of today. A person can lose a day simply bounding around the rooftops of renaissance Italy in Assassins Creed Brotherhood, or chatting up the denizens of Albion in Fable III. Then the gameplay kicks in and the programmers step up to give you a hand. Coloured paths to show you the route, mash buttons enough and the game makes you look like a ninja in battle, hey, did you know there’s a built-in FAQ?
We have less leisure time, and game designers know they’re competing for it. Yes, there are challenges – it wouldn’t be a game if it didn’t make you work a bit for your play – but you make it sound like every game is out to get you. The opposite is true! You know Doom? You actually *can* charge into a room of demons and blast them to smithereens. OK, you might not get past that room, but damn, didn’t it feel good? Congratulations, you just played a game. Your way. Have a go at Portal. Sure, there’s a solution to each puzzle – and they’re bloody good puzzles – but extensive playtesting exposed other solutions, just as valid, that the designers didn’t even notice. So they left them in. Oh, while you’re playing Portal, please enjoy the top-quality script. It’s not much of a plot, but it’s some experience. And it’s only two hours long. You’d spend less time watching a couple of gay hobbits eating pudding, and you don’t even get to blow anything up. It’s all done for you.
Games are increasingly designed to provide bite-sized chunks of fun for the busy consumer. Witness the rise of casual gaming, exemplified by the sadly ubiquitous Angry Birds or the glorious Peggle. Stimulus, reward. You’re welcome. Maybe you just need to accept that you’re not a hardcore gamer any more. Who has the time? Step out of Game, and head to PopCap. Go casual. It’s fun, and isn’t that way games are supposed to be?
Re: PopCap: Plants vs Zombies is the best game *ever*. Fact.
Ehhh, I never really got into it. Too much strategy, too demanding. Peggle, now. Peggle is a beauty. A little bit of planning, a tiny bit of strategy, then good old, satisfying luck.
Also, Bookworm Adventures is up there. RIGHT up there.
World of Goo for me. Lovely goo.
Although you gotta respect a game that wishes you as much success and glory as Peggle does. Peggle loves you.
Some good points there, MrM. I still think it’s fair to say that some games do try (and fail) to imitate movies, but it’s true that games are better at doing certain things well.
Take (survival) horror games, for example. There aren’t many horror movies that have freaked me out as much as Silent Hill, even though the plot was convoluted and the dialogue was laughable. It’s all about the atmosphere and immersion. Which reminds me, I still have to play Shattered Memories.
As for old school games being ‘joyless’…I’m off to play some Metal Slug. War has never been so much fun.
I am by no means a video game fan but I really enjoyed reading this. Excellent work, Marv.