Bad at What?

Two quotes and a video to start: (happy late St. Patrick's day, Up Da RA)
But I'm fascinated with the early stages in a game where its world appears to be larger than it really is, the AI seems cleverer than it really is and the developers always have some new trick to confound you. Your imagination runs wild with gameplay rules that don't exist.

Enjoy those honeymoon hours while you can, because they don't last.
It's a crazy set of number-crunching that can result in a perfect "everyone survives the suicide mission against impossible odds" to an equally epic "Hamlet in space" ending that has nearly everyone dying around Shepard. Yes, such crazy and memorable experiences can ultimately be reduced to a set of binary switches and number twiddling. But that's pretty much every game, if you want to be reductive about it. I've heard similar sentiment when a designer once commented that role-playing games and real-time-strategy games are both fundamentally about number crunching -- their difference lies in presentation.

What does it mean to be bad at a video game, and what are you actually bad at when you can't do something as simple as wack a stationary target with a melee weapon? What does it mean to be Really Good At A Videogame? What consequences does this have for criticism and design?

Here's my theory. Books and games are the same, in that it's possible to read a book and play a game, and maybe even reach the end of each, and understand less than nothing about what the book or game means or how it works. In games the problem is more clear-cut, in that there are mechanical realities coded into the thing you're working with, and there is a right and a wrong way to do it, and you generally can't reach the end of a game without figuring out some of it at least by accident. But if you want to be an authority, if you want to make a Quake video like the one I just posted, you have to do a lot more than just scan some lines and turn the page. The difference between someone who plays Tribes by walking everywhere and someone who plays Tribes by skiing everywhere is a good example of what I mean: both people are playing the game, both people are 'reading' it and can tell others 'yeah I play Tribes,' but only one of them has any sort of clue as to what they did and what it meant. Ditto for someone who read A Modest Propsal ('yeah, I've read that.') and took it at face value. They didn't get it, and this has real consequences, and it's not something we should just ignore or pretend is irrelevant, especially if the work in question is deliberately obtuse and difficult. Joyce said that it took him years to write Ulysses, so he expected people to spend years reading it. People have spent entire lifetimes reading it. We should let games fuck with us and frustrate us for at least a few hours (without necessarily enjoying it) so that we can gain some level of understanding.

But, as opposed to literature, in games it's common to either ignore or attack someone who appears to be getting 'too far into' a particular game, or to imply that raw mastery is 'impressive' in the same patronizing insider-outsider way that people talk about someone who memorized the phonebook. It isn't the same knowledge, it resembles critical understanding in literature, and nobody sneers at someone who advances a well-reasoned opinion of a piece of literature by calling them a tryhard faggot or a minmaxer.

A good example that most of you can probably use from your own experience is the phenomenon of making the transition from single to multiplayer in a strategy game (for those of you that don't start with multi to begin with). Maybe you've never made as drastic a leap in understanding as the Tribes player who walked everywhere before discovering the jetpack, but I'll bet playing online for the first time against a human was a pretty rude awakening, whatever the game was. Most strategy games (demonstrating the 'emgergence' principle discussed below) are almost two-in-one, one game being the single-player experience crafted by a developer who thought he knew his own game, and the other game being the actual game as it exists, as uncovered by the lords of the leaderboard through nonstop, merciless beasting.

This is why it's so grating to read alleged game criticism that pretends that games are for some reason different, and that the degree to which one has studied the object has no bearing on one's authority to write about it. The Mass Effect article, which, by the way, details the accomplishment of something that a lot of players did without realizing that failure was even possible (thats how easy it was), is a great example of this. Even though it pretends to be rigorous (it isnt, what the hell kind of calculus is 'sentence comprehension' and 'addition' anyway?), it's being treated as some masterwork of game-playing by everyone in the comments section and by the writer himself. Why is it exceptional that someone beat a video game? Why do we have to act like playing and enjoying a game is somehow different from figuring out what is going on and increasing ones skills? It's the Minecraft syndrome rearing its ugly head again, where the kind of people who spend all day on TF2 servers actively idling for hats and playing music for each other over Mani plugins are now defining what gaming is all about. The literary equivalent of that article is someone writing in excruciating detail about how they finally, against all odds, discovered that Jonathan Swift wasn't proposing eating the Irish but was making an argument of striking subtlety and power aimed at the black heart of the British ruling class!

The beaten-into-the-ground argument about 'emergence' is this tendency taken to the Nth, where the the inability to understand the interactions governing a complex system is perversely elevated into a virtue in a system's developer. The people who throw their hands up after reading Ulysses don't go on to write books about it. The people who throw their hands up after playing Mafia or Mass Effect or a hard wargame apparently think that they can. It's gross.

Zappa tells us that 'writing about music is like dancing about architecture.' Video games work the same way. The best way to review a game is still to either provide screens or, better yet, to tape yourself playing it. Most words about games are even more suspect than most dances about architecture are, since the entire culture has been up to its neck in corporate payoffs and grotesque academic backscratching since the very beginning, and nobody demands or cares about (or could get even if they wanted) 'objectivity' of any kind. If video game criticism has any future then its products will increasingly come to resemble the Quake youtube at the top of this post. Pure footage of someone who knows everything about Quake demonstrating their knowledge to you through the closest of hairs-width close readings. It's like a word-by-word exegesis of a key passage in the Bible covered in manuscript sigils, or really good footnotes to a great translation. It tells you what you need to know and why you need to know it from a position of casual, almost effortless mastery. It's the only position from which real criticism (not just player's intuition, or pot-boiling review production) is even possible.
Update 03 May 2012: An edited version of this piece appeared elsewhere.


Joe said...

I'm reminded of Kill Screen's completely useless review of Fortune Street for the Wii ( http://killscreendaily.com/articles/occupy-fortune-street/ ). There's no way to understand whether the game is interesting or involves any strategy, because the game reviewer clearly has no idea either. It's a lot of words about nothing. It feels like reading a book report by a fifth grader who only looked at the book's cover.

yarles p said...

my favorite part is that reference to "some," as in "some people will say that I don't understand the strategy," and how he immediately frames it as some sort of maverick bullshit, as in 'welp, a lot of folks dont take a likin to what I do, but I aint been known to heed what a lot of folks got to say' even though it's a totally legitimate objection to a review about a strategy game.