Some say he never sleeps and eats only gourmet amaretto cupcakes. Others claim he's a hyperactive optimist. To citizens of the Destructoid empire, though, he's Captain Starkey, Intergalactic Games Journalist.
Disclosure: In my undergrad at the University of Minnesota, I did do PR and event promotion for Microsoft. It does not and has not affected any of the pieces I have written, but it is something that you, as a reader, should know.
I am someone who has been steeped in gaming. I started playing when I was just a few months old, and over the past two decades I’ve developed a sense of arrogance when it comes to gaming. It is something that I have reflected upon time and time again, because I can never discern what the source of this attitude is. A main interest of mine in why people like one game or another, and whether or not there is any objective “good” or “bad” when it comes to assessing the quality of a game. In a grander sense, I would ultimately like to answer the question- Is fun enough? And are the people who don’t think so really just pretentious dicks (like me)?
We all know someone who is a little… well…snobbish. When these people start talking about chosen media they always look down on your favorites for some seemingly arbitrary reason. They’re usually giant douches about it. While I will openly admit I have most of these character traits, I’d like to think that I am a little different in that I don’t intentionally smack talk others. I used to, but I eventually realized that this is a really bad way to make friends. Still, I recognize that I dislike a lot of games that the majority of core gamers cherish. I hate most Mario platformers, and I really hate Halo, Gears of War, Resistance, damn-near every Final Fantasy game, all of the old Resident Evils, the Grand Theft Autos, and Ninja Gaiden just to name a few. In each case I have at least one major complaint that boils down to bland, uninteresting characters, bad level design, or a hackneyed plot. As much as I’d like to try and claim that my distaste for all of the above titles is not founded in a rejection of that which is popular, I really don’t think I can, because I feel so consumed by my bullcrap hipster attitude that I cannot tell to what degree my complaints are legitimate, or if they are merely excuses to hate an otherwise exceptional game.
I wonder if any game can ever be called objectively “good”. As an artistic relativist, I don’t personally believe so; however there are conventions to game design- Intuitive level composition, challenging gameplay that avoids frustrating the player, teaching players to utilize new concepts in subtle yet inspired ways, etc. Is a game that follows these tenants to the letter always good? What about those games that break with these rules? Is unintuitive level design ever tolerable?
Halo, for example, specializes in shitty, repetitive level design (though this is limited almost exclusively to the campaign). It is confusing, easy to get turned around. There are even arrows painted on the floor to tell you which way to go; presumably because the developers knew how badly they messed up. The characters are one-dimensional at best and the narrative is nothing if not clichéd. Half-Life 2, having many of the same core elements is redeemed through its flawless execution and smooth, flowing, and elegantly constructed form. This may be my traditional rant, but how much of that is simply my rejection of what is popular; if people have fun, then why should anyone care about such vacuous complaints?
God I hate Halo...
That said, when I play a game that openly goes for shallow fun (for example, Super Mario Galaxy) I can enjoy it up to a point. I loved Galaxy until about the time I became a bee. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with bees, but sometime around then I started asking myself a rather annoying question.
Anytime I engage with media it is an exercise is stavin]g off that one question. When it pops into my head, without exception, it wipes out any possible interest that existed. To me, it is the hallmark of poor quality. I reason, if it had an interesting plot or characters or if it was capable of keeping things new and engaging, then I would not have asked that question. Even things that I think are absolutely fantastic begin to get old after a while. Fallout 3, one of my favorite games ever could not hold my interest forever. As fun as watching someone’s head fly apart in a dozen different directions, it just isn’t enough. This is the main reason I cannot play multiplayer games for more than two weeks or so before moving on to something else. In the end, I always ask “why”, and once I start thinking about it, I can never go back.
Yahtzee, in his review of Psychonauts said that, “I would like to think that we aren’t all so jaded that we can let a few handling issues get in the way of enjoying a game that allows you to set squirrels on fire…”. That’s a great point, but it is one that I think he counters himself in his Brutal Legend review when he harped on a handful of harmless hindrances; quite the hypocrite.
I, on the other hand, enjoyed BL. It got me listening to metal again, I found it genuinely funny, and I had a good time with it. I didn’t mind the lackluster RTS elements because I was so consumed by the world that it didn’t matter. I know a lot of people disagree with me, and that’s just fine but at this point I’m really starting to wonder if there is anything objective about the design or reviewing of games. Croshaw, a reviewer that I usually respect, holds a “bizarre and fantastical setting” over gameplay in one instance then turns around and criticizes a game that has very similar problems. So I guess the take-home point, as per Croshaw, is that fun is sometimes enough; while at other, arbitrarily designated times, it is not.
I once thought that there were games that were good and/or bad independent of the observer, but the more I think about it the more I think I understand how utterly ludicrous that is. At the same time, there are some things that are generally not a good idea to put in games (e.g. escort missions) yet a game can be generally considered to be “good” with them (Ico and RE4). So it really makes one wonder just what makes a game “good”? If everything is subjective, then why try to legitimize what is not there by attaching a number to a review in an attempt to assess the title’s quality? Is it not better to simply describe the game as best you can?
Conversely, it seems like there are games that are bad, through and through. There are just some things that are so godawful that they don’t seem to have any redeeming qualities from any perspective grounded in reality. Games like Superman 64 and E.T. will no doubt crop up in your minds, but the thing for me is that I feel the exact same about Halo. With the notable exception of multiplayer, which I always think gets a free pass on the whole “fun” vs. “substance” debate because I seriously doubt anyone has ever expected reflections on the human condition from Smash Bros Brawl.
SSBB Discusses the oppression of women in Nazi Germany
Some people, like Jim Sterling claim that they find “art” in blowing people up. Some like Ben Croshaw think that the epitome of gaming is grounded solely in fun (this is a bit confusing though because he often accuses games of “having the depth of a spoon”). I think that, of those that actively participate in this debate and are in the public eye, Anthony Burch has the best defense of what games *can* be. Games, right now, are almost exclusively male power fantasies. Only a handful of titles in Gamerankings’ top 20 are more than that; typically starring males, almost always in power suits and requiring you to kill thousands of people. Is it fun? Hell yeah. Is it unique? Not at all. I’ve grown so completely bored with the standard space marine kill-a-thon.
With recharging health, grenades, vehicles, absurdly over-powered guns, rockets, etc. it is not uncommon, for a gaming protagonist to wantonly slaughter dozens or hundreds without a single brush with death. Recently, while playing Dragon Age 2, I realized that it was just as guilty of this. Bioware, being one of the few developers that actually understands the importance of good storytelling, still fall victim to this teenage boy wank-fest by allowing you to kill 25-30 people in a single bout in a gloriously gruesome fashion. This is forgivable in a game like God of War, but in DA2 I was trying to be “good”. I was trying to save lives, but I didn’t really have an option. You can’t skip fights, or even talk your way out of half of them. This unyielding insistence on violence creates this cognitive dissonance because you have a role-playing game from a company that prides itself on giving players choice, yet when I choose to kill as few people as possible, I’m still a mass-murderer at best and on par with an entire Blight at worst. This is the sort of thing that really pushes me away from a chunk of the games I mentioned earlier. It becomes a huge problem for me when a majority of the game is based is rooted in this type of gameplay.
So is fun enough? If all you ever want from games is the equivalent of Die Hard, Family Guy, Harlequin novels and a whoopee cushion, then yes ,fun is enough. If you want Shakespeare in Love, Dexter, Moby Dick then, I implore you; support those few people who strive to push the medium.
I would say that the only rational way assess a game is to look at what the developer tried to accomplish with it and decide for yourself if it worked for you. If they want you to have fun, and you do, then they did a good job. If they are looking for artistic relevance, then take it for what it is. I can understand the appeal of killing swarms of things, but sometimes I need more. Sometimes I start wondering why I can’t have anything else. I think we at least deserve some choices. What do you think?