Truth in Redundancy: Games are Games.

I recently ran across a light essay by David Jaffe -- creator of games like Twisted Metal and God of War -- responding to Heather Chaplin's hilarious rant at this year's Game Developer's Conference. I disagree with Jaffe on a number of things, particularly that he seems to think that video games are somehow exempt from the charge of being juvenile because the audience enjoys them and there's nothing inherently wrong with adolescent wish fulfillment, but one thing that interested me was this particular quote:

"Perhaps the reason games have not had their Citizen Kane moment yet is because games are not movies. And we don't want them to .e."

I've long been of the opinion that games work best when treated as games, and that all of the things that developers have been doing of late -- chief among them Square Enix -- are extraneous, wasted effort. Anybody remember The Bouncer? I hope not. That game is exactly the sort of thing that I've grown to hate about games. Squaresoft (this was before the merger with Enix) frequently touted it as a new paradigm in action games, releasing ads that said "play the action movie." Only problem: it quickly became apparent that you were actually going to "watch the action game" while wondering how in the world anybody could think it was okay to walk around in public dressed like the protagonist. The real problem with the game was not that it was basically an expensive version of the sort of game that people used to play in arcades for a quarter, it was that the actual game was interrupted every few minutes with expository cinematic sequences rendered at times in cgi and at times with the game engine. Either way, it was painful to watch bad dialogue and nonsensical exposition spouted every few minutes by some of Tetsuya Nomura's ugliest characters. It's not like that's the only game that has pretensions of actually being like a movie (Halo, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy 10, Mass Effect, The Getaway, Metal Gear Solid 2-whatever they're on now, etc. are all guilty of this too) but God, was it ever noticable with The Bouncer.

The basic function of games is to be played. Pock-faced and overall overrated douchebag Tomonobu Itakagi, formerly of Tecmo's Team Ninja development firm, infamously described games as being about input and output. Basically, he believes that a simplicity of inputs used in clever ways that result in spectacular results on screen (output) is the key to good game play. Granted, The "Dead or Alive" series of fighting games is little more than a two button mash-a-thon, but in spite of that series, I think he's really hit the nail on the head. Games are about seeing something awesome happen with a simple effort that takes a bit of skill or cleverness or thinking to really master.

So how exactly can that be art?

It's one of the stranger facets of the game industry; as technology expands, developers utilize it for every purpose except gameplay. Have new game genres been invented since the Playstation? What's more, how have the fundamental generic principles changed for the existing styles of gaming? Of course, these questions are rhetorical, and I'm not about to demand of the gaming industry more innovation, mostly because I don't bother with newer games terribly often. I just feel it necessary to point out, as I'm about to say a series of potentially insulting things about game developers, gaming journalists, and the industry's loyal consumers. I happily wait for them to prove me wrong.

Generic games cannot be art. Role playing games, first person shooters, platformers, sports games, etc. cannot be art. Art is about the expression of personal truths. Tell me, you who hail Halo 3 and Final Fantasy 10 as masterworks of human civilization, what auteur is responsible for the thematic content of those games? For that matter, what exactly is the thematic content of those games? Okay, I'm using examples that only the eternal n00bs would hold as examples of "games as art," but look at games that are prime examples of games as games. Tetris, Mario, Diablo -- do these games have to be art to be great games?

But getting back to the point; it is hard to express a deeply held personal truth in terms of gameplay. Does Shigeru Miyamoto have something important to say when Mario jumps on a koopa? What does leveling up my Barbarian's strength in Diablo 2 say about the human condition? Now, you might be wondering about games that make use of heavy symbolism. For instance, the Persona series ties the RPG mechanics into a system based on tarot cards and their associated Jungian archetypes. And that's cool, and in a sense, it could be said to illustrate the depth of those archetypes and how each affects the human psyche -- the character's stats developing in particular directions based on which type of persona is being used and for how long. That's a bit of a stretch, but in order to try and find "truth" in gameplay, it has to be. And really, those tarot cards could be changed to anything, and it wouldn't affect the core gameplay itself. Now you might be ready to ask about narrative and how it is that I'm so far ignoring that.

Well so much for this problem: narrative is not gameplay.

You can't even get narrative across in gameplay, unless you consider the player's movement of their in game avatar to be narrative. The story would then proceed as: "Mario walks, then runs, then jumps on a goomba, then..." If you point out the hours worth of dialogue that has to be read in Planescape: Torment, or the "stunning" (lols) fmv of Final Fantasy 7, we are -- once again -- not talking about gameplay, but about mediocre "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" writing and cheesy anime style cg animation, respectively. And as Heather Chaplin so gracelessly pointed out, when compared to every other form of narrative media, games lag far behind in the creation of mature, thought provoking, non-juvenile narrative.

This isn't to say that there aren't any games that transcend the limitations of their mechanics to become something special. Many people will tell you that they were (many still are) entranced by the Mother series, or by Ultima VII, or by Ico, or by Nights: Into Dreams. In fact, I'd say that if any game comes close to telling a story or expressing something in gameplay, it would probably be Ico, as far as consoles go. It gets even more difficult to draw a line or make a rule about art vs entertainment when it comes to PC gaming genres like text based adventures. What does one even say about something like Conway's Game of Life? (other than "wow")

But really, the problem is with kids who grew up in the past couple console generations and arrogant "gaming journalists" being insecure about their chosen hobby. These are the people who want for games to be anything but games. It's okay guys. I don't judge any of you. You sixteen year olds can go back to flaming each other on forums and increasing your collections of CloudxSephiroth doujin manga. You gaming journalists can go back to flaying developers in hypocritical rants and composing embarrasing odes to glorious Nippon, a land built of Pocky and Manga where everybody knows that games are serious business. Let the developers start making games again, without demanding "deep" story lines or "memorable" characters, because you won't get them. And don't just buy games because of the cool space marines on the box art, or the chick with huge boobs on the box art, or the spikey haired, emo Japanese guy on the box art, or the gratuitous blood and violence the game is purported to contain. If you want for developers to start working hard at their craft, in hopes of eventually seeing it become art, try rewarding them when they do right, instead of berating them for doing what makes money.

Games are games -- fact.

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