Delayed Responsibility

I Shouldn't Be Gaming Right Now… But I Am!

Substance, Really?

Posted by deckard47 on December 4, 2008

So I was reading some comments on that Dead Space article I wrote over at GSW, and one of the comments caught my eye. In that article, I asserted that Dead Space made up for its lack of substance (which I defined as depth, complexity and originality of narrative, character definition and presentation, and story) with its flair and style (which I defined as its interface, level design, graphics and gameplay). This commentor took umbrage with my conclusion, saying that

Style over substance? What you just described is a game you enjoyed for its satisfying gameplay despite disliking the dialogue, characters and plot. Gameplay is substance. Plot is style. The lesson here is that only gameplay matters.

This is both an interesting and a problematic assertion. Of course, it would be hard to disagree with a person who says that gameplay, fun gameplay is the only truly necessary thing for a good game. After all, we’ve seen time and again what happens when a story, character roster or narrative device is emphasized at the expense of gameplay. The results can range from the excellent (Mass Effect, which is still one of the most criminally designed games I’ve recently played when it comes to interface and other minor elements) to the awful (any number of bad, big RPGs comes to mind, Lost Odyssey being one I’m very familiar with).

Still, this philosophy cannot be what guides our desires for the future of video games. If we value gameplay above the rest of a game, always, we will continue to produce games like Gears of War, God of War, and Halo.

Now wait, I know that about 75% of the gaming world suddenly wants to destroy me. I’m not saying the above games are bad. I played Halo co-op and multiplayer for so long that the sight of the game makes me sick. It’s like candy: you eat so much of it, you can no longer stand the sight of it.  God of War is also a game that continually sucks me in, and I’ve made many attempts to finish it and its sequel: they’re just so fun to play. Gears of War, however, is crossing a line that I refuse to go near. Its impossible for me to even briefly visit that game, so offensively bad is the fiction they’ve wrapped it in. I am quite sure that if I turned my brain way, way off, picked it up and played it co-op with Owen, we’d have some fun. Likewise, to enjoy God of War, I have to grit my teeth and ignore the childish ululations and antics of the “character” Kratos. I mean, seriously, at one point, whenever I killed a guy or used magic, he would just yell “I am the God of War!” You don’t say Kratos.

Why should I have to do that? Why can’t I pick up a game, play some awesome co-op, and partake of a fiction that only mildly offends me, or maybe even entertains me? I’m not saying that all games have to have millions of lines of brilliantly acted and written dialogue, or that they have to be serious and thought-provoking. I love Drake’s Fortune, and the reason I love it is because they have unabashedly reproduced a particular brand of pulp fiction that I love. It’s done with care and style, and their purose is clearly to entertain and divert. They never force some peculiar notion of how I should be enjoying the game on me. I can play it as a fun game, or I can enjoy its bad action movie inspiration: it’s not necessary for me to partake in the hideous performance of nonexistent (in most of the real world) masculinity that drips from Gears of War, say.

Still, it is plain for all to see that gameplay will continue to trump story for a long time to come. The problem isn’t with how things are: that’ll change, as people begin to demand a junior high school (or, God forbid, higher) level of maturity from their games. The problem is that if we continue to designate gameplay as the only “substance” of a game, it’ll continue to be the substance. It seems ridiculous to me that one would ever consider the plot and characters of a fiction, of any variety, to be “style,” or in some way ancillary or secondary. If we continue to think this way, games will continue to be diversions, or worse, ways to be “escapists.”

Owen was playing Dead Space yesterday, and I suggested he pop in Fallout 3, which he’s barely touched. he did so, but then quit, saying he didn’t have the time to invest in it. This reminded me of the piece I’m writing now, because he was basically admitting that he needed something light and fluffy (in the attention/cognition department) to have a bit of fun with before he signed off. The game he knew would fulfill this desire was Dead Space. It’s a game that never demands you be aware of what or why you are doing something. Sure, it’s comforting and interesting to know what’s going on, but it’s also nice to hop in and blow some scary aliens away, using crisp, excellent controls. Oh, and it should be noted that when it comes to what I designated as style and flair, Dead Space kicks Fallout 3‘s ass.

Like I said, this isn’t a bad thing. I love Dead Space to death, but it’s not a game that I’ll look to for “depth” or intricacy, especially when I want a more “meaty” (forgive me) experience. The problem (and I keep on using that word) is that people are appallingly content to accept games like Dead Space and Halo as games that provide us with compelling stories, engrossing fictions. That might have been the case back when I was still reading Timothy Zahn books and (please don’t tell anyone) Robert Heinlein books, but nowadays, I strangely desire stories that explore something more than adolescent desires and musings. A game like Braid, for instance, barely escapes from being juvenile. It explores a post-high school sensibility of romantic involvement, commitment and loss. Compared to most games, it’s completely visionary. Yet it shouldn’t be.

Let’s be clear, when you look at Braid it’s really just a guy talking about how he dated a girl once. It’s just him talking about how it would be nice if things could have been different (and exploring this notion through gameplay elements). And it blows me away, it’s a fantastic game, and it’s better at telegraphing its emotional and intellectual quandaries than 99% of the games out there. How can this be? There are tons of games out there that deal with serious, important issues, like genocide, racism, and violence. The problem is, most of  these games view these issues through adolescent, infantile lenses. Its disappointing that the best way to approach betrayal and love is supposed to be through games like Final Fantasy XII, a game whose plot and dialogue I would have found entertaining but light when I was 12. It seems like every single fiction we hold dear is stuck at the level of maturity of A New Hope or Aliens. Sure, it can be grand and entertaining and even meaningful, to a degree, but don’t we ever want to graduate to something more? Maybe Empire?

Again, I’m not saying that a one of these games suck. I’m just saying that the rhetoric we use to describe games can only be so mature when games themselves are stuck in their own weird little time warp. All of a game has to be “substantial,” no matter if its the style or the implementation or the tone or any other part of it. When we continually value the most shallow (emotionally and intellectually) elements of games, we stunt the growth of the other parts of our games. And here is where I become embarassed: either SLRC or Graffiti Gamer wrote an article that discussed the need for gamers and developers to put story before (or at least on a level with) gameplay, but I can’t find the article! It’s completely irresponsible of me not to be a able to find that post, but I can’t. Sorry, my only excuse is that I’ve spent a long time writing this and I’m late for a dinner.

So, I’ll leave you now, but I’d like to repeat my earlier entreaty: can we please not demonize story and narrative by using “style” as a derogatory word for them? They’re important, and if we all want to be taken seriosuly (and if we want our games to amture as we do), we had best figure that out, quickly.


2 Responses to “Substance, Really?”

  1. Sam said

    All good points. Sobering, even, when you consider (as _you_, particularly, ought) what this means for the emotional lives of serious gamers. That is to say, if much of your waking time is spent playing and thinking about video games, what kind of world does that place you in? One whose content is adolescent and designed by adolescents, one that’s fabulously inarticulate and uninterested in the things that matter to adults with complex and serious feelings about the world/other people.

    Does that mean you can’t be an adult and play games seriously? Of course not. It just means that for the time being, and apparently for some time to come, you have to bring mature thought to gaming from the outside, which seems to be what a good number of gaming blogs do. Why are the articulate, reflective minds in gaming almost exclusively the ones who _write about it_, rather than the ones who make it?

  2. I’m thinking that was most likely SLRC but I can’t remember. I’ve written some stuff regarding gameplay versus story but it was probably rather scathing.

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