In the decade or so I’ve been doing this whole quasi-videogame journalistI’m actually not a journalist. I’m either a pundit or a critic. But these days everyone who writes about games gets called a “journalist”. thing, I’ve seen my share of pointless arguments that stem from simple misunderstandings. Again and again I see the same points, and counter-points, and counter-counter points, until I feel like I could jump into a random forum somewhere and single-handedly write both sides of a 50-person flame war.
This can be really irritating.
So in the interest of having one fewer endlessly looping debate in the mix, let’s try to put this one to rest:
I’m sure you’ve seen this one before. Someone protests that part of a game is “too videogame-y”, and someone else jumps in, horrified that “being like a videogame” is a bad thing for a videogame. Isn’t that like saying “This music is too musical” or “this sci-fi is too science-fictional”? Isn’t being a game a good thing for a videogame? As usual, the two sides are talking past each other and rarely does the conversation drill down and identify where the conversation (much less the game itself) went wrong.
For the last twenty years we’ve had this odd, awkward, sometimes cringe-worthy effort to mix games with movies. Far too many games feel the need to pause our fun, engaging, interactive gameplay so we can watch a static, linear, poorly-written, overblown cutscene that robs us of our agency and often contradicts the way the world is portrayed in gameplay. So for some people games exist on a spectrum, with “movie” on one extreme and “game” on the other. So when they see someone say something is “too much like a videogame” they imagine you mean “it should be more like a movie”.
But the actual problem has nothing to do with the longstanding games vs. movies debate. This isn’t about gameplay, it’s about someone failing to properly use their medium.
Let’s imagine a procedural crime drama about Private Detective Sullen McHardcase. The whole show seems to take place in his office. Cops come to his office to discuss the case and even bring him evidence. Suspects stop by to be interrogated. When Sullen socializes with his friend, he does so at his office instead of at his home. If he needs to meet with a lawyer about his eternally ongoing divorce, the lawyer comes to the McHardcase office instead of Sullen going to theirs.
In the audience, we know why this is. The show probably has a small budget and location shooting is expensive. But after a while it becomes awkward and surreal. It’s a distraction from the story being told. It feels like the show takes place in some Twilight Zone universe where the entire world revolves around this little office.
Someone might say this show is “Too television-y”. They’re not saying it should be less like a TV show. They’re saying it too obviously suffers from the limitations of the medium and that the writers have done a bad job at concealing those limitations.
Something being “too videogame-y” means the developers are putting things in the game that make no sense, simply for the purposes of gameplay. They aren’t using their medium properly, and it’s distracting. Nobody is saying a game must have a story. But if you’re going to mix a story into gameplay, then the two should blend together to form a coherent whole.
I have two examples of this problem:
1) Perverting an otherwise serious story to accommodate silly gameplay tropes.
2) Treating gameplay abstractions as literally true.
I want to talk about an example of each of these. Both involve final boss fights, which seems to be where game developers usually fumble on this. Both are spoilers for their respective games, but only if you think that “you fight the bad guy at the end” is a spoiler.
Silly Gameplay Tropes
In the Mass Effect 2 DLC Lair of the Shadow Broker, hero Shepard gets to come face-to-face with the mysterious Shadow Broker character. He’s an information broker, and his identity has always been unknown. His specialty is in acquiring and selling secrets. Also (spoiler) he is introduced and killed in the same scene.
A careful writer will know that if you want to show how powerful someone is then it’s usually most effective to make them very small or physically unassumingAssuming their power doesn’t come from raw physical strength and aggression, obviously.. This is particularly true for someone important who will only get a couple of minutes of screen time between their reveal and their death. The writer needs to pack a lot of information into their character design, because they don’t have any exposition to spare. The exposition is already focused on resolving the plot.
Think about Yoda’s size. He’s not small because he’s a puppet, he’s small because the writer wanted to stress how powerful the force is. In Kill Bill, Pai Mei is a small old man. If he was played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, it would actually make him less impressive and formidable. By making him physically unassuming, the writer is amplifying his power and mystery. When he casually punches through a wall, we know it’s not because of his muscles, but because his kung-fu is supernaturally good.
What would an information broker look like? You’d imagine someone who spends all their time reading would be small and bookish. You’d imagine someone with a secret identity would be quietly unassuming. Perhaps all those years of toiling over computer screens has made them hunched. Perhaps they’re fat from lack of exercise, or skinny because they become so engrossed in their work they forget to eat. In the Mass Effect universe, you might expect the Shadow Broker to be a quick-thinking and details-oriented Salarian. Or maybe an ancient and knowledgeable Asari matriarch. Or perhaps the Shadow broker is actually a small group of Volus, who excel at trade and commerce. Or maybe even an AI.
Personality-wise, you’d imagine an information broker would be a cruel gossip, a leering voyeur, or someone cold and clinically detached. Being the greatest information broker in the galaxy implies a level of focus and dedication far beyond common people. You’d imagine his social skills would trend to the extreme ends of the spectrum: Either he’s a gregarious manipulator skilled at tricking people into revealing secrets, or he’s socially inept because his life revolves around using a computer.
In any case, their purpose within the story should inform their character design, their personality, and their behavior.
But here the writer ignored all storytelling concerns and simply designed the boss fight in the most mindlessly gameplay-focused way possible. The Shadow Broker is apparently a hulking brute. Not only does he not look like an information nerd, it’s not even clear how he can use computers with his over-sized hands. He gets outsmarted in conversation by an archaeologist and then throws a Hulk-style temper tantrum and smashes up his own furniture. There is absolutely nothing impressive or formidable about him beyond his brutish form.
The audience has been wondering about the Shadow Broker since the first act of the first game. Who is he? What race? And here we find out he’s nobody we’ve ever heard of, from a race we’ve never heard of. It’s like getting to the end of a murder mystery where Inspector Poirot gathers everyone into the study to announce that the killer is someone we’ve never heard of and know nothing about and has never been mentioned before now. Sure, that’s a possible outcome, but it’s also kind of unsatisfying.
The brutish design satisfies all the needs of gameplay and neglects the needs of the story. This fight is “too videogame-y”Sometimes the designer goes too far the other way and the gameplay is brushed aside in service of the story. In those cases, people would call it too “railroad-y”.. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a boss fight or that all we wanted was a movie. It means the two parts of this game don’t work together. The writer could have made this brute the bodyguard of the real Shadow Broker, who could emerge from behind a metaphorical curtain like the Wizard of Oz. They could have satisfied the needs of both the story and the gameplay. They just needed to have respect for the world they’d created and put in the effort to sustain it.
In Doom, the player is instantly healed whenever they come into contact with a medkit, even if all they do is step on it. This is nonsense when you try to picture it in your head, but that doesn’t matter. It would be ridiculous to have an animation where the Doom Marine stops, opens a box of medical supplies, cleanses his wound, wraps in gauze, and applies disinfectant. It would ruin the gameplay. Likewise, removing the medkits entirely would change the fundamental nature of the game. The player would abandon the frantic and brutal frontal assault the game developer intends, and instead play slowly and cautiously.
There’s no way to “fix” this tension. Anything you do to resolve this conflict between the world and the gameplay would hurt the game. So instead, medkits are an abstraction, and there’s an unspoken agreement between the designer and the player: I won’t bring it up if you don’t. The player can then file this inconsistency into the drawer where they keep all the other gameplay abstractions and compromises: Running speed, carry weight, bodily fatigue, fall damage, and even the basic concept of hitpoints. You can’t put everything into that drawer, but you can fit a lot, especially if the gameplay is fun.
But it would be ludicrous to treat these things as literally true. Imagine a cutscene where the doom guy is badly injured, crawling along the floor near death. Then he finds a medkit, pokes it with his foot, and suddenly his wounds magically close and he stands up, fit and hale. That would be… odd.
But this sort of oddball break between story and gameplay abstraction is basically what happens at the end of Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Lara Croft carries an implausible number of weapons on her person. By the end of the game she has a bow, a handgun, an automatic weapon, a shotgun, and her axe. When she switches weapons, she puts her hand behind her back. The previous weapon vanishes into hammerspace and the new weapon appearsIt’s actually a little more complex than this and some weapons are still depicted even when not in use, but you get the idea..
When you get to the final boss, he shoves Lara down, and pulls the bow off her back as if it was stuck there with velcro. This one motion somehow takes away all of the player’s guns.
Having an unarmed fight against the boss is, I suppose, more or less fine. But this set-up is beyond ludicrous. Developer Crystal Dynamics spent all this moneyActually, I’m pretty sure publisher Square Enix is the one who wrote the check, but you know what I mean. to make this fancy mocap stage, hired all these actors, and poured a bunch of money into full performance capture. Which… fine. If you want to try to run with Naughty Dog and make your game half-movie, that’s your business. That’s how the Uncharted franchise does it, and that series isn’t short on fans. But here they’re trying so hard to make a movie, and then at the very climax of the movie they abandon all pretense at storytelling and adopt Super Mario-style world logic.
It’s not like movies have never figured out how to get our leads to give up their weapons and go hand-to-hand. It happens all the time. Here:
- Have the bad guy take a hostage and use them as leverage to get Lara to drop her weapons.
- Have a running rivalry that requires our two adversaries to put their weapons aside at the end to settle things “honorably”.
- Have Lara give her weapons to some injured allies she’s rescued, so they can fight to safety while she deals with the Big Bad.
- Have the fight take place in a location where a you can’t use firearms because it might cause an avalanche / explosion / cave-in.
- The Big Bad attacks during a moment where Lara is unprepared.
- The player’s ammunition pouch catches fire and Lara is forced to drop itActually, this one is still pretty crappy because ammo storage is also a hammerspace-based abstraction. But it’s less visually silly than the idea that she keeps all her firearms INSIDE HER BOW..
- Heck, the moments in Alan Wake where the main character would somehow “drop” all of his guns at the same time were silly and lame, but at least they were less nonsensical than this.
The writer spent all this effort and made us sit through that hour of angst-y, melodramatic cutscenes, and then at the end they just shrugged and said, “Meh. It’s just a game. Don’t think about it too hard. It doesn’t really matter.”
Nobody complains that Mario is “too videogamey”. Same goes for Minecraft, Team Fortress 2, Pac-Man, Street Fighter, Guitar Hero, or a hundred other gameplay-focused titles. The complaint of excess videogame-ness comes when the writer tells us to take the story seriously, and then they fail to do the same.
 I’m actually not a journalist. I’m either a pundit or a critic. But these days everyone who writes about games gets called a “journalist”.
 Assuming their power doesn’t come from raw physical strength and aggression, obviously.
 Sometimes the designer goes too far the other way and the gameplay is brushed aside in service of the story. In those cases, people would call it too “railroad-y”.
 It’s actually a little more complex than this and some weapons are still depicted even when not in use, but you get the idea.
 Actually, I’m pretty sure publisher Square Enix is the one who wrote the check, but you know what I mean.
 Actually, this one is still pretty crappy because ammo storage is also a hammerspace-based abstraction. But it’s less visually silly than the idea that she keeps all her firearms INSIDE HER BOW.
Spec Ops: The Line
A videogame that judges its audience, criticizes its genre, and hates its premise. How did this thing get made?
The Best of 2016
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2016.
A programming project where I set out to make a Minecraft-style world so I can experiment with Octree data.
Diablo III Retrospective
We were so upset by the server problems and real money auction that we overlooked just how terrible everything else is.
MMO Population Problems
Computers keep getting more powerful. So why do the population caps for massively multiplayer games stay about the same?