Spoilers, Y'all Author's Note: The following blog post was written after watching the latest Rev Rant on the site, in which Mr. Burch deplores the lack of cool, interesting gay characters in video games. In the video, he holds up Persona 4 as a video game that seems to make strides to present a gay character in a game and fails, and calls the decision to say whether or not Kanji is gay "cowardly". I felt that Mr. Burch had an incorrect close reading of the character, and ended up sending him an email about why I thought he was looking at the character in the wrong light. I ended up enjoying the process of trying to explain Kanji's position in Persona 4, and have decided to share my rational with y'all here. This blog is written in the letter format I sent to Mr. Burch.
I just watched your Rev Rant this week about the ways gay people are represented in games. Boy, did I get a charge out of it. I haven’t felt this kind of seething anger and desire to type furiously since….well, since you posted Runner. After watching, I immediately wanted to respond to your rant, and try and correct what I saw as a major factual error of the rant….and the thing that may prevent your enjoyment of Persona 4.
Yes, I’m writing to you based on your comments on Kanji Tatsumi in the rant. And I’m writing this because I think you REALLY misinterpreted what P4 was trying to say about Kanji. In fact, using Kanji as an example of a gay character in a game is proof positive that you have the wrong read on the game.
But I’m jumping ahead of myself. Let’s get your words on the page.
You said in the video that, in the portrayal of the character Kanji, Atlas, “sotra half-assed it. Is he gay? Is he not gay? You can argue that this is because of different definitions of sexuality in japan vs. here, and that (sexuality) is not as clear cut as that, but the game still made me feel that that was a cowardly move, to make a character, and actually explore what it’s like to be gay in high school when that’s not really the accepted norm, and then refuse to say whether he’s gay or not.
The big problem here? Your speech makes it clear that you missed out on the key aspect of the Kanji story line, the part where the game reveals the truth of Kanji’s sexuality. And the game DOES address Kanji’s storyline. It DOES address Kanji’s sexuality. And the revelations about Kanji’s sexuality provide insight beyond the simple categorization of “gay” or “straight”; it cuts to the heart of a completely different, equally vital discussion, one that exists even in our American society.
You see, Kanji isn’t gay.
As Kanji says inside the T.V, after finally sedating his shadow self, “It ain’t a matter of guys and chicks….”.
The game certainly makes it SEEM like he’s gay. His interaction’s with the “boy” Naoto and, of course, his shadow on the Midnight Channel are all designed to make it look like he’s gay. Persona 4 really goes far to make you think that Kanji is, in fact gay.
And so many people WANT Kanji to be gay. In fact, I think the reason you included him on this list is specifically for that reason. You, like so many other game players, WANT Kanji to be gay, because video games are in desperate need for gay characters who are not stereotypes. And if Kanji, in your mind, was gay, it would provide some really interesting interactions throughout the game, just as you said; it would allow the game to show interactions of a gay teenager in high school. And that would be just the kind of insightful, meaningful representation of homosexuality that gaming needs.
But Persona 4 doesn’t make it so simple, and you punish the game for what it isn’t; a sophisticated, heartfelt, and honest interactive experience involving someone coming to grips with their homosexual urges.
The problem, though, is just that; you are punishing the game for what it isn’t, and you’re not seeing what the game actually is.
Persona 4 does have a message about Kanji, and it has nothing do with whether or not he’s actually gay.
Persona 4 doesn’t care if Kanji is gay.
Persona 4 doesn’t care if Kanji is not gay.
The game is not interested in Kanji’s sexuality in and of itself.
No, Persona 4 is interested in Kanji for a different reason.
The key to understanding Kanji isn’t sexuality. It’s Gender.
Now, you may think I’m crazy. You may think that the game puts a ton of time into portraying Kanji as gay, particularly with his near-naked, heavily lisped shadow inside the T.V. The game, you say, seems to want to have Kanji be gay, and doesn’t go through with it.
But take another look at the dialog in the game, particularly from Kanji and Shadow Kanji inside the T.V
Just before the fight against Shadow Kanji begins, he utters this very interesting line;
“What does it mean to ‘be a guy? What does it mean to be ‘manly?’ Shadow Kanji
Shadow Kanii hits upon one of real Kanji’s sorest spots; for all of his tough guy shenanigans, his leather jacket and “shouting at Media”-itude, Kanji, according to his hearts, true desire, doesn’t understand what it means to be a ”guy”….and, more importantly, why he isn’t a guy.
Yes, Kanji has that air of overcompensating manliness that we always link to heterosexuality, but his heart tells a different story…a story about the real reason his shadow has manifested.
“Oh, how I hate girls……
(The girls say)’You like to sew? What a queer!’
‘Painting is so not you!’
‘But you’re a guy! You don’t act like a guy! Why aren’t you manly?’
“They look at me like I’m some kind of disgusting freak, and say that I’m a weirdo!” Shadow Kanji.
“The girls of Inaba High reject him. They call him queer. Why? Because Kanji likes to sew. He’s good with textiles. He likes to do crafts, He enjoys knitting. He does things that are “queer” for a guy to do.
Kanji, in the opinion of Inaba High, has to be gay, because he doesn’t do the things a guy is “supposed” to do.
THIS is the key to Kanji.
For the people of Inaba, a person’s sexual preferences are not dependent on what sex an individual actually likes. It doesn’t have anything to do with attraction. Heck, it doesn’t have anything to do with sexuality whatsoever. Because Kanji doesn’t act like a ‘man”, he is not engaging in things that are “male”. For the people of Inaba (and, I would absolutely say, the people here in America) you can’t be a man, like to sew, and still be straight. Kanji likes to do girly things, and not manly things. Therefore, he must be gay.
And this gets to the heart of what Kanji represents in Persona 4, and why he’s such a wonderful character, in spite of what he “isn’t” to you. Kanji, as a character, represents the way that society(Japanese society, and, I would say, American society) handle Gender and Sexuality.
People, in general, need to characterize things, separate items and people according to differences. You are gay or straight. You are a Democrat or a Republican. You are Rich or Poor. If you are male, you like to have sex with women. If you’re female, you like to sew and do arts and crafts. If you’re a man, you like to do “manly” things, like play sports or get into fights.
YOU, as an individual, do not make these choices. YOU, as an individual, do not choose whether or not you like guys or girls, whether you like sports or crafts. Society, that all seeing eye, determines what you SHOULD like, what you SHOULD enjoy doing. Your reality, your existence; it’s socially constructed. Society determines what you are supposed to be.
For the kids at Inaba High, because Kanji is a guy who likes to sew, he HAS to be gay. That’s all he’s allowed to be. That’s all society allows him to be.
Kanji has to be gay, because society deems him to be gay, not because he is actually attracted to other men.
Kanji Tatsumi is a character with a startling, and true, revelation: We are trapped in the roles we are given by society, We HAVE to fit into the categories that define people.
In Kanji Tatsumi, we see that sexuality is defined by others, towards us. We don’t choose our sexuality, instead, we have it assigned based on what we are “supposed” to be.
Think I’m still crazy? Good! But I’m not done yet! There’s one final piece to Kanji’s puzzle!
I have no sense of whether or not you made it to the end of the game( and by that, I mean the very very all the way super true super true ending) because the very end of the game provides a final twist on the Midnight Channel.
Since you, at the least, have gotten to Kanji in the game, then I’m sure you know what the Investigation Team THINKS the Midnight Channel is: a representation of people’s deepest, most secret desires and beliefs. The Shadow bosses are representations of what the individual on the Channel wishes they could be, or yearns to be, or actually is. Denying that truth makes the shadows stronger.
You know that song, but did you make it to the very end of the “true ending” of P4? The final final boss actually reveals the actual truth of the Midnight Channel: the mysterious shadows figures are not the representations of the captured student’s greatest fears and desires.
In actuality, the image on the midnight channel is generated by Inaba’s perception of whoever had recently showed up on normal television. The shadow Kanji, almost totally naked and with Heavy Lisp, wasn’t generated inside his heart; it was what the town THOUGHT Kanji was, what Inaba THOUGHT was Kanji’s true self: a closeted homosexual.
Kanji’s story isn’t about what was inside his heart. It’s slyer, sneakier than that: it’s about what Inaba THINKS Kanji is supposed to be.
And we can all relate to that, right? Did you ever have a hobby, or an action, or a habit that others construed as “gay”? Do you have reactions that aren’t considered manly? Well…..why aren’t they manly?
Me? I’m a hopeless romantic. I love romance films. I love a good love story. I’m emotionally needy. I’m easily overwhelmed by my buried emotions. I’ve cried in public, for god’s sakes. I am a person who engages in activities that are “not manly”. But I am straight. And that doesn’t matter. Society has determined that my actions, and my choices, mean that I’m gay.
For Persona 4, society limits us; it breaks us down into categories, stereotypes, roles and characters. We are SUPPOSED to act in certain ways, and conform to certain standards.
“What’s the matter with doing what I want to do?” Shadow Kanji
Kanji does things that mean, for society, that he has to be gay.
Kanji isn’t allowed to be the person that he actually is: a guy who enjoys “feminine” pursuits, like sewing and painting. He doesn’t want to be rejected by the people around him. For being something he’s not “supposed” to be. He doesn’t want to have his pursuits laughed at. He instead wants to be respected for who he is, not what he is supposed to be.
“Won’t someone….anyone…..accept me for who I am?!” Shadow Kanji.
“I’m just scared shitless of being rejected….” Regular Kanji
Kanji's story is the story of what it means, and what if feels like, to have a generalization assigned to you.
Kanji ain’t no coward, sir. He may not be gay, be his story still makes him one of the richest, most interesting characters in the entire game.
And he really doesn’t belong on your list of gay character portrayals in video games. He deserves a totally different list.
PHEW! That takes care of that. I hope I was able to provide some measure of insight into the way Persona 4 understands Kanji, and why your criticism of the Kanji character in the video is unfounded. Persona 4 doesn’t drop the ball with Kanji Tatsumi.
You judged Kanji because he was supposed to be gay. He was supposed to fit into you grand scheme, your design of homosexual characters in video games. When Kanji didn’t easily fit into your group of positive gay characters, you chastised him and the game, and cut him down to size. You didn’t see, or respect, the person that Kanji actually was, or the game that Persona 4 actually is.
Thank you again for posting the Rev Rant. I think there are certainly game writers who are better than you, but no other writer in all of gaming gets me whipped up into a writing frenzy like you do.
Author's Note I started writing this article yesterday, not too long after Runner was actually released. I successfully completed the article, however, over a 10 hour period, and, as such, there is a very pronounced tonal shift in the work. I have made some editing changes to the article since I started, but I decided to keep the initial spitefulness with which the article is written, if only to remind me that people do deserve the benefit of the doubt, and that I am absolutely able to make a wrong judgment about a person.
This article is long. Too long. Too unfocused, half rambling, all crazy. Since not a damn soul will actually read this article, instead of posting the old standby of “TL/DR”, please instead add the appropriate comment of “What the Fuck is wrong with you.” Punctuation is unnecessary. If you do have genuine comments, I will be shocked, but will happily take your advice.
I write this article with the full knowledge that I could be completely and totally wrong. Please debate my points, if you manage to find them in this madness.
Double Edit: In the original release of this horror story of a blog, I incorrectly labeled the game as a "Flash Game", claiming that the game had been actually programed in Flash. This is incorrect, and only reveals my ignorance of programming languages. I regret the error and apologize for revealing my idiocy: the blog does a much better job of making THAT point. It has since been changed.
Runner: A Comprehensive Analysis
I just finished Runner, an independent game project created by Anthony Burch, Ashley Davis, and Jonathan Holmes. After finishing the game, I felt compelled to write about it, but I would be lying if I said that the impetus for this evaluation comes from the goodness of my heart. No, I’m interested in the game because I don’t much care for Mr. Anthony Burch. I’ve been coming to Destructoid for quite some time now, and I’ve rarely enjoyed Mr. Burch’s work. His reviews are cynical and misguided, coming from a position that no consumer could possibly empathize with or take genuine purchasing advice from; his desire is not to “review” and “recommend games” but, rather, to “grade” games, taking a $60 product and marking it with red ink. Any person who would score a video game-any game at all- a 3 out of 10 and still recommend it for purchase is not the kind of reviewer I want buying advice from.
(Special mention has to be made for the hysterically misguided Metal Gear Jesus article. My classmates used to joke back in my AP English class that the easiest way to get an A in class was to find a way to compare the text to the New Testament, because it was quicker than taking a look at the material and trying to find a substantive explanation).
I’m not a fan of Mr. Burch, but that puts me in an interesting position; I can honestly talk about the game because I’m not afraid about hurting his feelings. I’m not held back by irrational love for the website or the people who made it. I genuinely believe that honest criticism is a necessity in the world, and I think the folks behind Runner, Mr. Burch included, are man enough to take it. And I’m not so bitter a person that I wouldn’t be interested in what the man I dislike would do in the designer seat.
For those who haven’t yet downloaded the file, Runner is, at its purest form, a clone of the Jet-Ski sequence from Battletoads. Just like the famous gameplay session from Rare’s NES brawler, Runner puts you in the position of “The Runner”, a man who….well… runs. Behind him lies a trio of pixilated sprite ladies. Ahead, a series of magical doors and barriers. Like Pimple and Zitz before him, Runner can move up and down the pseudo-3D plane and dodge doors, while using the spacebar allows Runner to make a ridiculous jump that will clear all those pesky horizontal obstacles. Unlike the notoriously difficult forbearer, Runner doesn’t end when you accidentally collide with the obstacles behind you; the various blockades stutter your movement and cause the women behind you to run faster. Your play session ends if you can make it 5 minutes without being caught by the sprite women behind you….or if you manage to hit one final obstacle….at which point, the game abruptly return to the title screen.
Runner, as a "pure game", is a bust.
It’s not fun. The gameplay is far too simplistic to keep a players attention even for the 3 minutes of the game’s length. The actual mechanics wear out their welcome before you finish the game.
It’s isn’t very original: anyone who played Passage, Braid, or Castle Crashers might be surprised to see design intricacies from these games ripped off wholesale in the game.
It’s far more concerned with telling its “story” then in creating a compelling game sequence (and the game hits you over the head with the blunt end of the story).
The art design isn’t bad, but the game relies on these sequences too heavily, instead of using the gameplay to accomplish the same feat.
The game is far more frustrating than it should be. Making it to the game’s “real” ending is a test of endurance, and many players far more fickle than me won’t go through the game more than once (and the fact that I’ve only beaten the game 4 or 5 times out of the 40 or so attempts can be attributed to madness rather than any kind of genuine gameplay affection).
So, no. Runner isn’t very good as a game.
But let’s go a little deeper than that, and ask ourselves the question I imagine Mr. Burch really wants to hear: does the game work artistically? Does this game have a clear message, or a powerful emotional undercurrent? Does its various design oddities offer a genuine commentary of game design, or merely a portal into the soul of an angry, lonely man?
Let’s make this play scenario as clear as possible.
Runner involves an Anthony Burch doppelganger (I assume it must be a clear analog for the games designer) running away from a group of three girls. As the player runs and avoids obstacles, the girls rise up into the air and reveal small snippets of their relationship with the runner…in the form of massive, oversized art bubbles that make navigating the oncoming obstacles extremely difficult. The only way to actually see the end of the game without being tripped up by the story is to ignore it completely, and focus entirely on the gameplay.
Eventually, you’ll come across a typewriter and, upon grabbing it, will lift into the air and avoid all obstacles for a short time. Your furious typing to take flight and keeps you aloft for a few seconds. Eventually, you land.
After a few more seconds of dodging obstacles, a new girl enters the frame, this time coming from the direction of the other obstacles. If you touch the Runner and the girl’s sprites together, the two of you combine and form a couple (a design decision that isn’t so much homage as it is a wholesale theft from Passage) .You now control the couple together. The only meaningful change, however, is that the Runner’s jump has been replaced with a “love attack”. You shoot a heart in front of the couple, and the heart can bust through the various obstacles. At this point, the girls chasing you have vanished from the screen. It’s just the player-controlled couple and the power of love.
Unfortunately, that love power begins to wane over the next few seconds. The heart becomes smaller and smaller, and it becomes progressively more difficult to break through the obstacles (already a chore because the game prioritizes the animation of the heart power over the actual gameplay usage of the heart power). Eventually, the heart disappears, and your new girlfriend dumps you and runs back towards the left side of the screen.
But then your ex returns, chasing your player character along with the other girls, all ghosts of the heart. As your player jumps over or runs into one final obstacle, the game abruptly ends (I thought the game had bugged out at first). A final dedication to Ashley Davis, the girl who created all of the hand drawn animated scenes that cover the gameplay so nicely over the course of the game.
She is immediately thanked again in the official credits of the game….it’s an odd construction choice, seeing a person thanked in the dedications and then immediately thanked again.
But ultimately, a bizarre credit page is the least of the game's problems.
Let us quickly jot down the specifics of why the “game” part of Runner doesn’t work, and why playing Runner isn’t very fun or interesting at all.
1. As mentioned above, the game play is horribly generic. It’s kind of interesting that a super personal game project(or at least what seems pretty personal) would take such an over the top gameplay sequence like the Battletoads Jet Ski moment as its inspiration. It’s a neat little juxtaposition, but it never gets beyond “kinda neat” in my book, at least from a gameplay perspective. It’s a pretty obvious reference and, worst of all, it doesn’t achieve the kind of transformative experience Burch was looking for.
Inspired by Braid, Mr. Burch has attempted to merge an unconventional story into his game by creating a game play system that “tells” the story. Runner strives away from cut scenes and any meaningful lull in the actual “playing” of the game, for which he is genuinely to be commended. However, the Battletoads Jet Ski gameplay never reaches that Braid moment, where it fundamentally changed our perception of the game being played and the game’s inspiration. Braid powerfully altered the way players viewed the Super Mario Bros. franchise, and all 2D platformers at some level. Runner wants to do the same with the Battletoads, to turn the running/dodge/obstacle action into a metaphor for the turmoil of the in game character (and, I assume, Burch’s own turmoil). What Burch wants is the moment of transformative Imation, and I’m not sure the Battletoads homage is the place to start.
You still want a game about running, and I imagine that the Battletoads moment was
A) Easier to program and
B) A little smaller in scale.
As it stands, I truthfully think you need a different gameplay system, or you need to fundamentally change the entire product, because the current gameplay never manages to mesh with the other disparate elements of the game. The flashing sprites and (relatively) quick speed of the moving obstacles just seems to move way faster than anything else happening in the game, and, as a result…
2. The gameplay, even in its slowed down form, is simply too intense for the kind of game Runner is trying to be. Everything about the game seems to demand a more relaxed, more thoughtful gameplay to exist as the backdrop to all of the lovelorn strife, because the Jet Ski sequence requires too much attention. I spent more time trying to “win” Runner instead of “playing” the game, and I quickly became frustrated. It was as if your game was throwing out my chances to take it seriously as an artistic product (at, least, I hope it was meant to be taken as an artistic product, because it certainly doesn’t work as an actual game). There is simply too much to handle onscreen, and the end result is that, over the course of my 5 playthroughs, I died about 30 times and had to start my game over. However, the other key reason I was dying so often was that…
3. The huge story sequences completely cover gameplay. Burch makes a very conscious design decision to have the girls, at various points in the game, float into the air and tell their story in the form of huge speech bubbles filled with artwork THAT COMPLETELY COVER THE MAIN CHARACTER. This is one of the more blatantly obvious and totally manipulative design decisions that I’ve seen in any game since Too Human. In the game’s attempt to covey its story or its underlying message, it obscures gameplay and leads the player to a series of horribly frustrating deaths. In Runner, it doesn’t feel like dying is your fault; you kicked the bucket because the vengeful designer put you in a situation that was, in gameplay terms, unfair. Allow me to offer a helpful tip, Anthony. YOU CAN ONLY HINDER THE PLAYER THROUGH GAMEPLAY DESIGN. Trying to hide the player with what is essentially the story is not concussive for an enjoyable play session. Much like the Valirike in Too Human, the speech bubbles feel like an unfair punishment to the player, an unnecessary abstraction to the gameplay that serves to make it hard for “kicks”.
Now, Mr. Burch, I understand you’ve been down on cutscenes and the RPG genre as of late, and that one could very reasonably view the oppressive nature of the cutscenes as a commentary on the way story violently interrupts gameplay (emphasized by the moment when the player grabs the typewriter and fly high above the obstacles- now, we can see how the separation of story and gameplay is more conducive to playing, but interaction is more limited). I think it’s a nice undercurrent to the game, as a genuine commentary….but it doesn’t work as commentary. Your game isn’t designed as a satire or direct accusation of various game elements. It’s really designed as a story about one man’s interaction with four different girls, and how those relationships affect his life. You need to find a different means of interaction between the story and the game, one that doesn’t sacrifice either like your current system doesn’t.
You seemed to like MGS4 quite a bit. Why not take a bit of inspiration from Kojima himself? Split the screen in half at a diagonal or some chopped off angle, showing the story on the top and the gameplay on the bottom. That doesn’t allow the two disparate elements to play off each other, but it’s better than your current gameplay setup, and your current gameplay setup just isn’t conducive to actual playing and telling a story at the same time. Besides, the presence of the big speech bubbles (as indicated above) is a wholly manipulative way of telling the story. You do a much better job trying to tell the story through the gameplay (particularly through the little animations that Runner has with the last girlfriend, catching her as the pair run into blockades.) The gameplay should be telling the story….especially because the gameplay you are using to tell a story has already been told in another story in the exact same way.
(That is a logical sentence, from a person who is very smart….maybe).
What I’m saying is that the big finale of the game is, essentially, lifted wholesale from Passage, so the least you could is go all the way copying passage and try to tell the story entirely in the gameplay without cutting away to those oppressive art bubbles. Isolate the art from the gameplay, and tell the actual story without putting any kind of obstruction on the player’s ability to interact with the game.
4. The Music doesn’t match with the gameplay. I really love the music track you chose for the game; wonderfully introspective and melancholy. But it doesn’t match with the speed of the actual gameplay. The song moves far slower than any aspect of the onscreen action. Trying to process the tempo of the song with the much faster pace of the Battletoads inspired antics is far more difficult than it should be. I’m not sure you could do anything about this complaint—the gameplay is, as I’ve stated earlier, too damn fast for the kind of introspective game the rest of the art design and sound choices to flow together.
5. Winning isn’t an objective, it’s an obstacle. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the game is that it clings so totally to a “gameness”—the very design of the game, with it’s clear objectives (avoid obstacles and avoid girls), along with the subsequent failing of those objectives, means that the player is actively punished with “death” for not following the instructions….but following those instructions is a total pain in the ass because of the gameplay decisions you implemented! And, furthermore, the core gameplay isn’t interesting enough on its own to keep a player coming back more than once, so the only thing you offer to players is the hope that the game will become a transformative experience….but the game ISN’T a transformative experience, and never offers that satisfying or meaningful conclusion that makes the previous design decisions make sense!
The end result is that I only saw the game’s ending out of maddning perseverance, a perseverance I imagine few will have.
Look to the games you ripped off, like Passage and Braid; neither game went out of their way to “punish” players for their mistakes. Braid offered that go-back-in-time-potion to set a puzzle right, while Passage….well, Passage didn’t really punish the player ever. It only takes one playthrough of Passage to gleam its powerful message.
It took me about 20 playthroughs of Runner to see your personal message.
Your game requires too much of an investment for most people to see your game through all the way to the end, and I would say that I’m not the normal player in this scenario.
Take another look at the game you borrowed so much from. Passage has certain confines of being a “game” but it is only a game so much as it reflects direct input from the player. It is mainly a maze of discovery, where the player is able to see the most interesting and more powerful parts of the game on their own, without seeming like they were forced there by the designer.
The game wants to combine the linear aspects of actual “gameplay” sessions that you might find on consoles with the exploratory revelations that are taking from Passage, a game that is, inherently, an exploratory experience. This is the indie game equivalent of having your cake and eating it too. You’re aren’t yet experienced enough as a programmer or designer to make the games you obviously want to create(you know….like Passage)and you’re only able to emulate more simplistic gameplay experiences. As a result, Runner feels like a guided tour down a very clear artistic vision, at the expense of my own sense of personal involvement or interaction with the game.
So, to be clear, Runner doesn’t work as a game, not in the slightest. It ends up becoming a product that is hurt by its definition of interactivity, by the presence of a“losing" scenario, by it's bizarre design and aesthetic decisions.
So, let’s step away from the fact that Runner isn’t a good game and ask a different question.
Is Runner a good experience?
I’m the kind of game player who can rationally judge a product that has bad, underdeveloped elements and still find a meaningful game beacuse I'm more interested in having a compelling experience than playing a fun game.
I’m the player who thinks that Rez is an extremely important gaming experience. Of course the game is a dumb rail shooter. That isn’t the point. The point of Rez is that powerful feeling of your heart swelling with delight every time your onscreen actions perfectly coordinate with the gameplay.
A game can succeed as an experience far beyond the inadequacies of its gameplay. Bioshock doesn’t have particularly good combat(with its overly “game-y” enemies and it’s Vita Chamber “die-your-way-through-the-game” nonsense), but any game player worth their salt knows that Bioshock’s powerful statement about the inherently oppressive and manipulative nature of game design is an important revelation for the medium.
(Even though it’s basically the same revelation from Metal Gear Solid 2 and System Shock 2)
So, if Runner doesn’t work as a game, does it disparate artistic and musical choices work?
Ultimately, I don’t think so, but it’s certainly (and this is the key) a very interesting attempt.
As I mentioned earlier in the blog, Runner wants to do to the Battletoads Jet Ski sequence the same thing that Braid did to Super Mario Bros. and 2D platforming: it wants to fundamentally alter the ways we look at these infamous gameplay sequences, turn them from wholly commercial set pieces of classic games into means for a more personal story delivery. Runner’s oppressive art design, its music choice, its design facilities….all of these elements want to transform our view of a very well known gaming set piece…a gaming set piece with an infamous history.
So, let’s break down the specific artistic elements of the game and analyze them to judge their effectiveness.
1. The running girls. The young ladies chasing Runner are the real “obstacle” through the entire game. If one of the ladies manages to grab you, the game is over (perhaps an homage to the end of the 4 bosses from Metal Gear Solid 4). They’re faded ghosts, and they chase Runner throughout the maze of obstacles.
2. The Obstacles themselves. Flashing in front of Runner, the player has to, just like in the famous Battletoads sequence, has to dodge the obstacles quickly
3. The Art Bubbles. Covering the main character entirely, the art bubbles tell the stories of the various human interactions that Runner has with the three girls chasing him. The story bubbles completely overpower the main character, covering the sprite and making it impossible to know exactly where on the play field the player is moving.
Let’s dissect this sequence a little bit.
Mr. Burch seems to be using this sequence to say to his players that:
A) As mentioned way earlier in the article, the nature of most in game story telling is inherently a manipulative design choice that impedes the player’s ability to actually play the game. The large story bubbles will pretty quickly distract the player and hit that one obstacle that makes them lose the game. That means that the only discernible way to play the game effectively is to
B) Stop focusing on the story and keep focusing on the obstacles coming at the player. This is where Mr. Burch’s design choices become interesting. Why create a game that is only meaningfully playable when we ignore aspects in the game? Why put an element in the game that is designed to be ignored? This doesn’t work as a game design commentary (like the twists of Bioshock or Metal Gear Solid 2) but, rather, on a personal level. If the player becomes increasingly focused on the story bubbles instead of the obstacles ahead, they become tripped up and will eventually be caught by the girls. If the player ignores the story bubbles and concentrates on the obstacles ahead, they have a much better chance of not being tripped up by history, by the past, by the embarrassing and regretful experiences and relationships that dog the Runner every step of the game.
"You know, just like in real life."
Runner poses a pretty powerful life philosophy in its design; if we focus on our past actions, the moments of anguish that we keep inside our heads, then we won’t have the mental fortitude to handle the current obstacles that we must face as we move through life. It might be annoying and frustrating as hell from a gameplay perspective, and it doesn’t feature the wryness and inherent silliness that allow other “bad on purpose” to be successful from a play perspective(like the wonderfully miserable open world sequences from No More Heroes, which delightfully suck on purpose).
However, it is an interesting philosophy integrated into the action in a unique way, and had the game ended there I might have been much more forgiving of the game as a whole. However, just like Bioshock, Runner makes the fatal error of continuing to tell its “story” long after its principle “twist” has been revealed. Runner is far too eager to tell the story instead of allowing players to think about its frantic gameplay, and, just like Bioshock, the gameplay of Runner simply doesn’t have enough meat on its own to interest the player after that twist.
(Another Astonishingly well written sentence).
Runner wants to tell a full story AND have its meaningful game play implications, but the gameplay doesn’t hold up long enough to allow this revelation to develop. Worst of all, trying to find this "bigger than games" moment is a real challenge, because getting through the gameplay sequence is so god damn frustrating. It took me hours to find that substantive twist inside the game. Ultimately, you, as a game designer, need to provide gameplay that is, at the very least, compelling enough for the player that I can, and actively want, to try and figure out "what's going on."
Let’s move on to other artistic elements
4. The typewriter. Upon grabbing the typewriter powerup from the middle of the playfield (and by hitting a specific scripting spot on the map, the player is whisked into the air. His only field of movement is to move backward and forward. The sprite model is frantically typing letters to one of the girls in play(in the form of the game’s only unobtrusive story bubble, which shows the Runner’s hand drawn figure with arms wrapped around a girl, looking very happy together). The letters, however, go flying behind the Flyer Runner, as if he’s not able to come up with a written description that adequately reflects his internal turmoil, the things that genuinely wants to say.
Again, this is another interesting sequence from the game, because it offers a pretty unique perception of writing. For the Runner, writing offers the possibility to say things that he’s unable to put into words….but it doesn’t work, and each possible attempt at purging his heart of its anxiety and fears is tossed aside. As a result, the writing isn’t a purifying experience. It doesn’t offer any kind of respite from his anguish, and you can tell because it doesn’t cause the running girls—his fears—to dissipate. They are still there, dogging his footsteps and reminding him of his anxiety. The writing, in fact, enhances those feeling of regret and loneliness, rather than ameliorating them.
The typewriter does, however, allow the Runner to avoid those life obstacles that would normally cause him to stumble and fall into the hands of the girls, and (most importantly of all) it gives control of the painful memories to the Runner. He is no longer plagued by the random actions and events that caused him anguish, as they are no longer random flashes of suffering. Writing allows the Runner to control these moments of pain and, even if he never is able to send a satisfactory letter, he is allowed, for a moment, to master his life, to control the events of the story. We know this because the player, in controlling the movement of the flying Runner, can move the art bubble that emerges from the Typewriter. The player, for the first time in the game, is able to “shift” the story, to control it.
This sequence, just like the first part of the game, may very well have been given a longer opportunity to breath and develop, but, unfortunately, its sandwiched between two sequences that have their own specific meanings and their own life. Why do I say this? Think about the nature of the sequence again. When you pick up that typewriter and fly into the air….you are no longer the Runner. You’ve transformed into Flyer, and your connection to the game is fundamentally changed. You work with different controls and different gameplay systems. The game now changes the game from a meditation about running to a meditation about flying.
This is a fundamental mistake, a metaphorical juxtaposition that doesn’t reach its full potential. Flying is, and has always been, a metaphor for escape, a means of escaping life’s obstacles and leaving them behind. However, to achieve this flying sequence, the game actually reduces the number of control options you posses. You are only limited to one plane of travel—a single 2D plane of movement-and even though you manage to avoid obstacles, the player’s ability to control the situation becomes limited by a situation that inherently implies MORE control. Any means by which a designer artificially restricts a player should be questioned and judged, but when it comes from a metaphorical mismatch like a flight sequence that contains more restrictions, it ceases to be effective.
I quite like the imagery that Mr. Burch is attempting to conjure in the sequence, but it simply doesn’t fit with the other elements in the game. It’s a metaphor that doesn’t fit with the key gameplay being presented and the control that the player is allowed. The flying sequence exists not to further the gameplay in any special way, but to further the telling of the story. For all intents and purposes, the typewriter powerup is a cutscene. It doesn’t stop the flow of play, but it avoids the obstacles that the player had previously been dealing with (the core “avoid the obstacle gameplay”, while simultaneously reducing the kinds of challenges that the player has to deal with (by placing them in a gameplay environment with no challenge and no real gameplay to speak of.
Mr. Burch crates a moment where an interaction with a powerup results in a cutscene, rather than allowing the players actions to tell the story (he’s actually more successful in this endeavor at the beginning and end if the game, with storytelling elements that are a more direct result of gameplay interaction instead of the triggering of a cutscene. The entire sequence doesn’t work….but it’s an interesting attempt, none the less. It falls apart because the designer didn’t fully think about the implications of his own metaphor, and how his gameplay restrictions clash with his metaphor.
5. The game’s piano piece is, in a small way, timed to the gameplay. Or, to put it in a less stupid way, the speed of the moving obstacles in the Battletoads styled gameplay is scored to the beats of the piano piece. Though, truth be told, It took me an additional 4 hours of writing this stupid article to even realize that the music was synced to the movement of the obstacles. I was never in a position to notice; I spent so much damn time trying to fight my way to the end of the game that I was never in a position to notice. The fasted paced nature of the game fundamentally clashes with a gameplay style that is all about tempo.
I can see, to some extent, what you were trying to do, Mr. Burch. You wanted to create a gameplay scenario where players relied on the music instead of their eyes. You were hoping for, like Guitar Hero players, Runner’s controlling hands would focus on the beat and tempo instead of their eyes to get through a scenario. It’s a nice idea, and the fact that you timed the obstacles to come onscreen at certain points in the timeline of the song is “kinda neat”. But I also think it’s a fundamentally flawed representation of real life, and of the interaction between gameplay and music.
The key aspect to recognize in this design choice is that the obstacles are timed to the music...which means that it’s NOT timed to the gameplay. That means that, essentially, the gameplay is scored to the music, and that the action onscreen is predetermined….not reflective of the players actions. Your use of the music is more cinematic in nature; you’ve scored the game the same way a composer scores a movie, and the aspects that are not in the direct control of the player are the ones getting a musical treatment. I
can see how this is an easier alternative to scoring(musically) the game based on the players actions, but it’s fundamentally at odds with the nature of your chosen medium. You’re making a game, and, as such, the most important facet of the game is the inherently interactive nature of the game. The player is the key facet in your game, not the actual game world itself. You scored the game to the predefined events of the world in the way a composer would score a certain scene, and the result is, of course, the realization that the scene is very obviously manufactured.
The world that you have created in Runner is scored like a movie, and emotional resonance, as a result, is very clearly manufactured. You scored the environment instead of the actions of the player, and, thus, you say to your audience that this game world is itself, inherently manufactured, constructed FOR THE PURPOSE of being introspective and deep rather than actually pushing the player to make that perception based on the nature of the gameplay. The player is the key component to the game, and you need to base the interactions in the game around the player’s decisions FIRST. If you’re planning to make a grand “players are not in control of their games” statement like Metal Gear Solid 2 or Bioshock, then you need to put the focus of the entire game around the player and show how their own actions will lead them to that conclusion. Runner reveals, right at the outset, that it is a manipulative game, and I think players will find that very false construction to be off-putting long before they discover what the game is actually hoping to say.
You can’t score a game like a movie or you risk announcing that your game is a manufactured creation. Perhaps this would have worked out if the game was scored to the player’s jumps, where each move the player made would logically happen at the exact moment of the song you want to emphasize, but, in its current state, the score makes the game feel sloppy, like it doesn’t have the confidence to make these assertions on its own.
Perhaps my other issue with the choice to score the environment instead of the player is that you, in making this design choice, argue that the future, and the obstacles we must avoid in the future, is predestined to happen, and that our actions have very little meaning since we’re merely following the straightforward path of a song. This is absolutely true in the greater sense of the video game medium, of course. Bioshock and MGS2 go to great lengths to show that our actions throughout the game are very carefully monitored and planned by the designers, and that there is very little room for serendipity or exploratory gameplay. However, the game isn’t about following the path of the designer, is it, Mr. Burch? It’s about our passage through life, and the ways that our actions haunt us and dog at our footsteps and can keep us from looking forward. The future is a mystery, and it’s impossible to concentrate on if we look at the past. We have to keep looking forward so we can understand and adapt to the challenges life throws at us.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way the game, or real life works. The future is, really and truly, a total mystery, and we have very little perception on the effects we will have on the world before they happen. We can’t predict the future, so the choice of having a musical backdrop quite literally predict the obstacles we will face in life is a fundamental contradiction with your core story idea.
6. At the end of the game, Runner meets a girl running in the same direction he is. You can avoid the girl completely or interact with her.
If you avoid her, the game doesn’t continue on much further once she leaves the screen. You eventually reach the dedication page again.
If you do interact with the girl (by touching her) the game changes. As mentioned way above here, the jump is replaced by a heart attack that can bust through the oncoming obstacles, the chasing whips of past loves disappear from the screen, and, as you eventually collide into more obstacles because of the awkward amount of time it takes the animation to play and bust out the attack the breaks the barrier, the girl leaves you and, at the very end, comes back as a another lonely memory dogging the runners footsteps.
This is the single most interesting aspect of the game, period.
Yes, navigating the environment with a couple is virtually identical to meeting the wife inside the mazes of Passage. Yes, the girl essentially amounts to a powerup, which, in someone else’s words, could very well be one of the most sexist game design decisions I’ve ever seen in a game, boiling down the opposite sex into a means of respite for a male unable to handle/cope with his various issues.
And yet, in a small way, Mr. Burch, this small section of the game—though it clashes with the other two gameplay sessions—is the closest Runner gets to becoming a transformative experience.
Why? In your choice to use a pre-established game sequence as the core interactivity sequence, you made a game that draws attention NOT to the various intricacies of dodging obstacles in the environment, but, rather, the well established fact that Battletoads is INFAMOUS for this gameplay scenario because it’s stupid hard.
You created a gameplay situation that actually draws its power NOT from the game mechanics in question, but rather their reputation. Battletoads is well known as one of the hardest games on the old Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Jet Ski sequence was one of the most frustrating, timing intensive gameplay sessions in the history of the medium. You focused on the fact that everyone LOSES at Battletoads at this precise moment, and all but the best players can make it through the sequence.
And you made a game that is all about ruining a relationship by running into obstacles over and over again. You focus not on the success of the relationship, but the way in which Runner, the player, perhaps you, Mr. Burch, manage to ruin that relationship somehow.
You equated losing at a video game to losing at a relationship. You’ve brought the failure associated with a bad jump or a mistimed gunshot to the same plane as saying the wrong thing to your significant other.
This is, without a doubt, the single most successful, interesting moment of the entire game. It takes too long to get to this moment, and requires a bit too much patience on the part of the player. But hey, I’m a Metal Gear fan, so I’m happy to put up with the bullshit if the rewards are worth the hassle.
And in this case, I think they are. You managed to create a mechanical scenario that is able to match and evoke the same kind of reaction a person may have if they irrevocably ruin their relationship. This is either a really interesting gameplay sequence that stands as moment when Runner threatens to truly become a transformative work, or it represents a man who suffers from a supreme mind warp where the aspects of reality have become trivialized to the point where video game failure is equal to relationship failure. I personally wish it was the latter, but Runner spends so much time painting the protagonists as a figure for sympathy that I don’t think it works out.
Regardless, this is the one moment in the game that works, because
A) It exists entirely within the controls and interactions of the player. It is the player who must screw up these reactions in order to see the couple break apart, for the relationship to break apart, rather than a sequence that is regulated and determined by in game logic.
B) It works out of and enhances the aspects of the Battletoads game that I remember most clearly; specifically, losing.
This is the single best moment in the entire game…and, unfortunately, the game keeps going past this moment. As soon as the relationship breaks apart, the girl reappears as the ghost onscreen and a new art bubble appears, explaining the exact thing we just saw in drawing form. Just like that pesky Bioshock, Runner is a game that overstays its welcome, and spends too much time trying to complete the “story” of the game rather than allowing the game’s revelation to hold the spotlight.
Indeed, what really struck me as peculiar about this moment is the underlying indication that you didn’t think your players would understand what just happened in their game play if you didn’t explain it to them in art form. This seems like a surprising act of distrust on your part, Mr. Burch. You are more interested in hammering in your game revelation into the player’s mind with a hammer rather than letting them interpolate the on screen reactions on their own. Have a little faith. Don’t be afraid to trust your audience to the point where they can put the pieces of the puzzle together for themselves.
Regardless, this single moment of the game is the closest the game comes to truly being a worthwhile experience, and I say that out of genuine respect. It’s not a perfect moment, and it’s not quite the transformative experience that more polished art games are…but it’s a goddamn close miss.
About the only problem I have with this section of the game is that it's more closely tied to the story of the game, and the shackles of the need to tell a story really keep this moment from developing into something incredible.
My last few thoughts about the artistic construction of Runner
7. Runner is a game about memorization. To succeed at the game, your best option is to have some foresight as to what obstacles are coming at you, rather than relying on the game’s controls and your own quick thinking. However, this means that the future comes at the player IN THE EXACT SAME WAY EVERY TIME.
Is that truly your viewpoint of the progression of life? That we can predict and react to every aspect of life while it’s happening? That’s a far more positive impression of mankind and individuals than I think the rest of the game suggests. Obviously, programming your game for random obstacles is probably impossibility at this juncture of you design/programming career, but I’m not sure that a future that is made up of events that can be predicted is a proper representation of life. Humanity is far more complicated and mysterious and totally messed up to allow for the existence of a period of history in which the same things happen in the exact same order over and over again.
The only way I could possibly condone this viewpoint—a world that is essentially in a state of infinite loop, where the same things happen over and over again—would be if you argued through the game that
A) The entire game is a flashback, with an old man looking back at the events of his life in retrospect and reflecting on the choices or mistakes he made in his life. It may have been possible that this viewpoint could have existed in the game except that there is no mention of this figure in the game, nor is there any indication that the game is a second person look at a man’s life and choices. The other alternative is
B) The Runner is living in a world where his own fears and anxieties keep him making the same mistakes in relationships over and over again. The Runner keeps screwing up his outings with women and the result is that he’s stuck in his own double helix, running through the same obstacles and getting caught up in the same traps over and over again.
I would love if B was the actual intention of the game’s linearity and repetitive, memorization based gameplay (it would be a fascinating homage to Metal Gear Solid 2). I would love to see the protagonist as a figure being manipulated by the game’s actions to live through the same horrible events over and over again, and having to make the same mistakes time and time again. It would indicate that the game and its designer see the world, and their own lives, as a series of mistakes repeated over and over again, keeping designer and player from ever achieving the happiness that they seek. I wish that was the underlying point of the game’s repetitive nature, but I can’t quite say that’s the case, simply based on the evidence provided by the game. You see, if you were trying to create a game world that is inherently a cycle of repeating events, then why does the game take place on a linear, straightforward road? Couldn’t this exact same game take place in a world that is curved and rounded, there-by driving into the player that the game is an exercise in repeated mistakes? The linearity of the game and the game world completely offsets the notion that the world and the mistakes of the main character are cyclical in nature. The two elements don’t mesh together at all.
I imagine the inherently repetitive nature of the game design is just a result of your design infancy. But it’s these decisions that separate the best art games from the trash. Every single element of you r game really needs to mesh together (unless, of course, it’s designed to NOT mesh). It’s these inherent contradictions in your game design that cause the whole of Runner to fall apart in the long run.
8. Runner is a game that feels like it’s very clearly divided into three different moments with three different “revelations” for the player. None of these elements mesh together as well as you’d like, and the whole game feels like it stretches the gameplay past the point of interest. I simply think that 3 minutes of this game is too long for most people to put up with, and I think that Runner may have been more successful if you put all of your energy into exploring one of these three distinct aspects:
A) Avoiding obstacles and not letting our past control our lives
B) Using writing and expression as a means of dealing with the world around us, ignoring the obstacles ahead and allowing us to master the fears and emotions that have thus far control us and affect our choices
C) Using gameplay failure as a metaphor for relationship failure.
Each of these aspects on their own has plenty of meat for gameplay exploration, but it’s too much for your current game to handle. I think you should forget about “telling a story” and really spend some time trying to flesh out these specific ideas about the world through gameplay. As it stands, your desire to complete a story of some kind means that none of these specific ideas has enough time to be explored because the game is so anxious to get to the next part of the story. Focus on the game and not the story telling, and that may be the key to really fleshing out these ideas in a way that’s more meaningful than the product you designed.
So….does Runner work as an experience?
Ultimately, it falls short of being a worthwhile experience. There are too many aspects of the game that are awkwardly juxtaposed, too many contradictions between the game design and the metaphors, too many moments where the hand of the designer ineffectively manipulates the gameplay. And this is all from a game that is too long and requires way too much investment, even for a 3 minute game. Only the most devoted nut jobs (Hello!) will really be able to make it past the game’s frustrating moments, and there just isn’t enough of a revelatory experience waiting at the end of that difficult to handle gameplay. And, of course, it’s not a transformative experience the way Braid is, the way that Runner so desperately strives to be.
Runner doesn’t quite measure up to its lofty expectations, and, to some extent, it’s a victim of your personal design idiosyncrasies, Mr. Burch.
No, Runner is a miss. But it’s a damn interesting miss. For all of the game’s borrowed and stolen elements from other, different, better games, and despite its ability to mesh all those different products into a satisfactory product…but there is life in this game, and some very interesting ideas. Small, isolated successes are here, deep under the surface of the game (the total avoidance of cutscene and the very interesting perception of the Battletoad’s Jet Ski gameplay do work). It’s cliché, to some extent, but several of the stolen elements (particularly the “couple” control mechanic from Passage) are changed and explored in some compelling ways.
Runner is not a “good” game, or a "good" experience, but as a first attempt, it makes me damn interested in seeing what you put out next, Mr. Burch. Runner has its missteps, but (and this is the key) Runner is a game that has ideas. When it’s working at its best, Runner is far more concerned with using gameplay and interaction to say things about the world and life and the medium, and do more than simply tell a story. You’re trying to do something with your game, rather than just making a fun game to waste people’s time for a few minutes.
I want to see the ways in which you can expand the ideas you’re thinking about, and the ways you’re thinking about using the medium, because they are SUBSTANTIAL. Your game, despite my own feelings about its quality and the specific ideas it explores, is EXACTLY where I want to see video gaming progress over the next few years. I want to see games get personal, and I want to see how designers take their own personal feelings and translate them into an interactive environment.
I started writing this article 8000 words ago mostly out of scorn and spite. Surely I wouldn’t have been so committed to writing this hallucinatory, rambling, prolonged mess of TOTAL LUNACY had it not been inspired by irrational anger. But after thinking about your game and exploring it for a good 10 hours, I can confidently say that I like the way you’re thinking about game design, and I respect you a hell of a lot more than I did a day ago
I eagerly anticipate your next project, Mr. Burch. If you can learn from your design choices and design missteps from this game, I think you could very well make something great.
Or, you know, half great. That’ll be okay too.
Hope you all enjoyed a close reading of a 3 minute game,
When I was in third grade, there was nothing in the world that seemed more important than the fantastical whozits and whatzits of the Pokemon franchise. My friends and I devoured everything even minutely related to the game inside the red and blue cartridges: card games, toys, the cartoon show, the proper console games. Every single physical item was enhanced by the mere presence of the Pokemon property ( I’ll bet marketers at Nintendo still remember the “good ol’ days” when that shock mouse was raw electric money ).
But , despite that merchandising whirlwind that encapsulated our young minds, it was the actual Game Boy games that we latched onto and obsessed over. I think a substantial portion of 1998 was devoted to figuring out if you could breed Pokemon and raise babies, if there were wild Mews near the truck outside of the cruise ship, and if Missingno was some “super Pokeman”, or just Raichu’s dad( I kid you not.) In the days just before we fully embraced the internet, my friends and I discovered, passed on, and made up rumors about that most mysterious of Game Boy games. Trying to separate the fact from fiction in those heady days without forums or communities, I found myself gain an enormous appreciation for the Pokemon franchise; I invested so much of myself and my time into those first two games, trying to become “the Pokemon master” that I found the series to be tremendously interactive, and one of my most potent early gaming memories.
What the hell is that thing?!
Flash forward to middle school, and to the moment where my nostalgic memories of the Pokemon franchise began to crumble. My new friends were dead set on convincing me that Pokemon wasn’t a “real RPG”. No, these new kids were playing real RPG’s, real games that told real stories real serious(ly). They introduced me to their definition of a “real RPG”, a game franchise that I knew in name but had no experience with: Final Fantasy. With a taste for “real RPG’s” I embraced the console franchise wholeheartedly, and continued enjoying JRPG’s from Squaresoft and other “real” Japanese developers.
It’s a little shocking, in retrospect, to see how adamant my old friends were that Pokemon couldn’t possibly be a real “RPG” franchise. ….Actually, I take that back; It may be shocking in our modern context, where the Pokemon franchise has outlasted it’s detractors and haters, it’s jokes and it’s memes. I imagine, in the minds of those old compatriots, that the Final Fantasy games they were enjoying seemed like adult fare; they were playing games with “stories” and “subject matters”, with “characters” and a “plot” and “shocking events”. Compared to the non-existent story of the Pokemon games( “Go catch ‘em all! Alright, late!) those Final Fantasy games must have seemed like the first time anyone had taken their gaming past time seriously. The “realistic” story totally characterized what the RPG genre was able to deliver, and games like Pokemon seemed mentally stagnant by comparison.
All these years later, I finally understand where my friends were coming from, and why I latched onto their line of reasoning; I wanted to see video games taken seriously as an artistic medium, and treated with the same kind of reverence people held for movies and literature, and so I bought into the “serious” nature of video games.
But in the 200-NIIIIICE, I’ve finally manage to outlast and contain those middle school impulses that forced me down the endless, dirty road of Final Fantasy worship and Square Enix adulation. I’m finally ready to say what I’ve known in my heart since 1998.
Pokemon is the most influential RPG ever made.
Now, allow me to clarify the above statement. I’m not here to argue that Pokemon Red/Blue(we’ll stick with the original games) is the best RPG ever made(though it’s my personal top 10). Nor am I here to argue that other RPG’s aren’t important (I would be remiss to toss away the influence that games like Final Fantasy 6, Final Fantasy 7, and Chrono Trigger had on game player’s expectations of the RPG genre. Rather, I am here to assert that the fundamental structure of Pokemon was more influential than any other RPG because it was the first RPG that prioritized the gameplay over the story. In particular, I’d like to take to task older console RPGs rather than newer ones(you can’t argue that games like Oblivion and Kotor are “better” than those old Game Boy Pokemon games). While the quality of those older games should be noted, it is their supposed “influence” that I address.
One of gaming’s great incongruities is that so much love is bestowed upon Snes and Playstation RPG’s like FF 6 and FF 7 and Chrono Trigger as great games but these products are not fundamentally “game like”. Video games are, inherently, defined by their interactivity(and I use interactivity to label any connection that the player can have with the game). However, whenever people talk about the great RPG’s you won’t often here them describe moments that YOU, the player, were allowed to interact with. Some people may remember a particularly memorable boss(the Sephiroth fight, the Kefka fight), but you’ll rarely hear anyone mention the things they were able to do in a game. These RPG’s are predominantly made up of moments, and these moments are usually events that take place outside of the users control.
This gameplay section only serves to give you something to interact with! It has no bearing on the point of the game!
So, if the best moments in a video game happen during cutscenes or dialog, how does the player interact with the game? Why, in the random battles, of course! Older Japanese RPG’s revolved around the bulk of your gameplay experiences occurring as random battles against random enemies. Progression in these games was dependent on you grinding your various characters against enemy after enemy until they were powerful enough to advance the plot. Nothing that ever happened in those actual “gameplay” sections ever had any importance to the game. There was no random battle that ever completely changed the game and the events in the story. No fighting move or magic attack you ever used in combat was useful for more than simply allowing you to “advance the plot”.
Take the most obvious, common contender for “the best RPG ever made”, Final Fantasy 7. Ask yourself this: what are the parts of that game that you remember and enjoyed the most? Was it fighting random enemies on the map? Was it casting Fire-2 on a Shinra Soldier? Or, perhaps, was it the scourging at Nibelhelm, the death of Aerith, and the death of Ultima Weapon? The best parts of these games are not the meager interactions you have during random battles, but, rather, the actual moments relevant to the progression.
This is an awesome moment....but you don't really play the moment. You watch it. Shouldn't a video game actually be about the moments you ARE playing?
So, do you see what I wish to take to task in those older RPG’s? Those games separate gameplay and story entirely. Gameplay is a swamp, a murky, muddy barrier to keep you from crossing through and reaching the other side too quickly. Gameplay is, in many of those older RPG’s, an artificial lengthening measurement to assure that you don’t blow through the game’s story too quickly. The gameplay is an afterthought, a chores which must be completed in order to see the next exciting part of the story. The product is the story, and all your attention and actions are directed towards the story as opposed to the gameplay.
“But, hold on just a minute here!”, you might be thinking. “Everything you just described here applies to those early Pokemon games! Red and Blue also have the same grinding you complain about, the same constant slogging through random battles in order to complete the story. Hell! There’s not even much of a story to complete, so all you’re left with is the gameplay that you hate so much! How can you sit there and tell me that Pokémon’s gameplay is able to succeed where Final Fantasy 7’s gameplay fails?”
It’s an astute observation, and one that bares clarification. I’ve attempted to argue about the overall game play in terms of it’s structural elements in this blog entry, but I’ve never made any statement claiming that these Japanese RPG’s aren’t fun. In fact, I think they ARE pretty fun. Even games like Final Fantasy 6 and 7, which I’ve just spent 1200 words decrying, is a game that I enjoyed when I played it. But the point that I decry here is that the way that the gameplay is treated over the course of Final Fantasy 7: a second class citizen to be stepped on. Those old school JRPG’s make very little effort to focus on the gameplay, instead devoting the majority of your playtime to showing a particularly compelling story.
Pokemon Red and Blue are, on the other hand, ALL ABOUT GAMEPLAY.
Everything you do over the course of Pokemon Red/Blue is designed to keep you focused on the actual interaction between the various types of Pokemon. The game’s meager story attempt at a story ( go kick ass and teach Gary a lesson) insures that you won’t spend your time focused on character relationships or the political intrigue. No, Pokemon is 100% about the gameplay, and everything goes back to the gameplay. The whole point of the game is to fight, and to get the opportunity to fight, you have to FIGHT. BADASS.
Okay, it might not be badass, but the point I’m trying to outline here is that Pokemon Red and Blue is one of the few RPG’s released that is ACTUALLY about the gameplay. The majority of Japanese RPG’s released around the Pokemon franchise are merely opportunities for trying to tell a story. Those RPG’s aren’t’ about the gameplay. Like adventure games, the RPG genre is a story telling “platform”, a means of controlled, measured interaction where a story can be inserted. The actual plot and character development of an RPG occurs around the actual gameplay.
15 Types. 6 Slots. 4 Moves. GO.
But the Pokemon franchise NEVER attempts to distract you from the actual interaction you have with the game. Unlike other JRPG’s, the star of the show IS the Pokemon on Pokemon violence. Everything in the game is designed to keep you thinking about what you can do to your Pokemon team to handle a certain opponent/type of enemy. The gameplay is the star of the show in Pokemon, instead of the story.
That’s the reason why Pokemon is the most influential RPG in recent memory. Every other “important” JRPG that we see lauded on message boards or blog posts inevitably talks about the story in those games, the events that you see taking place over the course of a game. But we’re talking about video games here, and, as such, we need to measure games based on the interaction you have with them. Ultimately, Pokemon Red/Blue has the fewest number of barriers between the player and the game itself. You play Pokemon to PLAY it, while other RPG’s are played in order to get to the next cutscene. Pokemon is the game responsible for embedding the RPG gameplay elements into the minds of game players because the game was primarily ABOUT those gameplay elements.
Again, I don’t necessarily think that Pokemon is “better” than those other games, or even more fun that those other JRPGs. However, Pokemon is the one game that is actually about the gameplay interactions you have, rather than the story the developer is trying to tell. While I believe that a great story or really novel interactivity is certainly preferable to really deep, compelling gameplay, Pokemon Red/Blue is perhaps the “purest” JRPG ever created, as it uses the RPG genre for its specific gameplay elements rather than a means to see a bunch of cutscenes.
What do you guys think? Is the meager interactivity in games like Final Fantasy 7 overshadowed by it’s fantastic story and memorable characters? Do you think that the Turn based/ATB systems of those games actually have an effect on the story so you feel like a participant in the game’s plot? Are you someone who will ignore gameplay for a really well told story? Do you think Squirtle is awesome? Let me know in the comments!
Warning! Mad Spoilers for the Entire Arc of the MGS series follow!
For a few years now, I’ve approached most game releases in a state of cautious optimism, hoping that the game delivers a fine experience, but trying to keep expectations neutral. Ever since I realized, much to my chagrin, that Twilight Princess, the “official sequel” to Ocarina of Time, was lifeless and boring, and the cartoony “The Wind Waker” was the more delightful game, I’ve been wary to show any kind of franchise loyalty. It’s put me in an odd position as a game player: I’ve become contemptuous of nostalgia. I turn up a nose at games like Smash Bros Brawl and Soul Calibur, sickened by the way those franchises hide behind classic gaming memories and childhood rather than actually innovating and changing their gameplay. I worry that the fanatical franchise loyalty is going to hold the industry back, cashing in on wistful players who remember that everything in the world was a whole lot nicer when there’s a SNES in front of the TV.
But, as much as I’d like to hold on to my stoic reproach of franchise allegiance, I realize that I‘m a big hypocrite. I know it because, over the past 6 months, I had been unable to play MGS4. And it was KILLING me.
I love Metal Gear Solid, but my love for the series is bizarre, almost fragmentary. I have no particular love for the stealth action gameplay, especially from the PS2 games, which put too much control emphasis on the Dual Shock’s bizarre sensitivity settings for effective stealth and combat. I enjoyed the game’s ludicrous cut scenes, but I could stand from a distance and acknowledge that the series wasn’t well written, driving the same points into the heads of the player over and over again, at times overpowering the gameplay.
No, my love of the MGS franchise stems from the moments when, out of nowhere, Hideo Kojima takes the plot and characters he’s spent 20+ hours developing in cinematic, and uses them to make an actual point about the nature of game design. While so many games were focused on entertainment, MGS had moments that were entirely self-reflective, not in terms of character development, but on the nature of the relationship between player and designer.
People love to talk about Bioshock’s sublime “twist”, but fewer people will tell you that Metal Gear Solid 2 had the EXACT same revelation six years earlier. One could easily make the argument that the “twist” is better executed in Bioshock (it’s less long winded, more elegant) but Metal Gear Solid 2’s version of the “twist” was more insane, more shocking, and, as a young gamer, more frightening. Watching those last 4 hours of cutscenes and codec exposition in MGS2 rank among my most exciting and horrifying moments in video games; to realize that one has absolutely zero impact on the progression of a game, and that one can be so easily manipulated by(to use the word from the game) “context”…..it literally changed every expectation I had of the game medium.
So…..yeah. I really like Metal Gear Solid, because I’m happy to put up with the bullshit in order to try and find what Hideo Kojima is going to say. The convoluted back story of the games was neat, but it was the way Hideo Kojima would lead the player by the nose that has always interested me the most. No other game designer is as willing to give their fanbase a middle finger and make the game THEY want to make.
As you can imagine, I was STOKED to get my hands on a PS3 just a few weeks ago. I couldn’t wait to see what Kojima had in store. I managed to stay “relatively” spoiler free over those arduous 6 months, so I was ready to leave my principles by the wayside and embrace my ridiculous love for the series.
It’s been about 2 weeks since I actually completed Metal Gear Solid 4, and when I say completed, I mean all the way completed: I collected almost all of the games secret items, purchased all the Drebin guns, seen the game’s wackier gags…..I’ve done just about everything (except play the game through Big Boss hard. Hard games are Hard!).
I’ve beaten the game. I’ve seen everything.
And I feel conflicted. I’m more confused than I’ve ever been after completing an MGS game.
It’s not a kind of logistical confusion. I certainly understand what’s going on(as most people should. I understood most of what was going on while Kojima still insisted on hammering the major plot points and information into my mind….that dude needs an editor). I wasn’t confused by the usual assortment of wacky cut scenes, enemies and bosses. And(note: this is the part where you can be SURE that I’m a straight out lunatic) I know that I like the game. I like the game! I like playing the game. I like the (admittedly less than stellar but still great) boss fights. I like the cutscenes. I like those individual moments where gameplay and cinematic merge together. I like all that! I would recommend the game to other people. More so than the past MGS games, MGS4 has the fewest barriers to entry for normal players to enjoy the game, and that is absolutely to be commended.
I like MGS4. I like it quite a lot.
I don’t love it.
And I’ve spent days trying to find out why I don’t love it.
I feel like I should. I feel like I should be singing the game’s praises from the mountain tops. I want to feel like I should stop people in the street and say, “Sir/Madam, I don’t know if you heard, but Metal Gear Solid 4 is out, and playing it could be the most important thing you do this week”. Certainly the sentiment from many people, including the editors on this site.
But, I don’t love it. I really like it.
And I think that the reason I don’t love it…..is my own damn fault.
Note how, over the course of this ridiculous blog entry, I’ve made frequent mention of Hideo Kojima, and past Metal Gear Solid games. I have made NO mention of Solid Snake. No mention of Ocelot or Liquid or Otacon or Raiden or any of the numerous wacky characters that appear in the Metal Gear Solid Series. Ultimately( and this is where I start making enemies) I don’t really CARE about any of the characters.
Sure, I like Snake, as a protagonist. I like the bizarre bosses that have defined the franchise….but I don’t love them. I don’t froth at the prospect of a Psycho Mantis cameo, and my heart doesn’t jump when Big Boss decides to join the list of characters who are tied down neither by death no plot. The character I really like from MGS…..is Hideo Kojima.
I’ve always viewed the franchise as a means for Kojima to use the current game in the franchise to say something totally bewildering about the game in question and video games as a medium. I’ve always told myself that Kojima is the driving force behind the game’s lunacy, the real puppet master( a visual image that actually manifests in Metal Gear Solid 4). More so than just about any other game maker(and perhaps more so than any single Western Designer) Hideo Kojima is the real star of his game. He’s the medium’s version of Hitchcock, leaving his personal stamp and ideas over every frame of the product.
Yes, I admired Kojima more than any other “character” in the franchise. I wanted to see Kojima flex his usual creative muscle. And he certainly does over the course of the game. It’s just that….this time, his particular story isn’t as well served by the man’s powerful presence.
Metal Gear Solid 4 SHOULD be all about Solid Snake. More so than any other game he’s worked on, Metal Gear Solid 4 DEMANDS that Kojima should take a step back, allow Snake to exist, for once, not as an avatar of the player, nor as a message about games and the state of game design, but as a man.
Kojima doesn’t allow Snake to become transcendent. Instead, Kojima takes what could have been the single greatest, most important martyrdom in the history of video games…..and ruins it.
Here’s the bottom line, ladies and gents: Solid Snake should have died.
At the end of Metal Gear Solid 4, Solid Snake should have died.
After a goddamn LIFETIME of suffering, a whole game filled with physical and mental torment, Snake should have been allowed to do the one thing that game players have prevented him doing for ten years: To die, and stay dead.
If Snake had died inside the server room, this blog wouldn’t exist.
If Snake simply laid down after his climatic fight with Liquid, and closed his eyes, I would not be here, at 1500 words, trying to explain what I find so damn frustrating about the game.
Snake could have become transcendent. His bitter life could have been summed up by the most noble sacrifice in all of gaming.
But he didn’t.
Rather, he wasn’t allowed to.
Because, as we’ve discussed, Metal Gear Solid 4 is NOT Snake’s game. It’s Kojima’s game.
It never was Snake’s story. It has never been Snake’s story.
For the first time in the history of this series, the presence of Hideo Kojima has weakened the game’s emotional resonance.
And, really, I should have realized it sooner. Every step of this convoluted path, Hideo Kojima has kept Snake from ever becoming a “character” in the series. Snake almost never says how he feels, nor does he ever have a moment of genuine self reflection. There are flashes of it, moments that seem like they could evolve into genuine moments of self reflection. But Snake is never given that chance. He has, always, had two major oppositions to ever becoming a real person.
There are moments of self reflection throughout Metal Gear, but, it seems, all of those moments seem to come from other characters TELLING Snake how they feel. Snake is kept from those moments of genuine reflection, while Kojima’s doppelgangers circle that aged serpent, telling him the proper emotions. Snake, for all of his wonderful facial expressions(god, MGS 4 must have the best character models in all of gaming) spends most of his time expressing information everyone(player included) already knows, and repeating other character’s lines as questions. Snake has always done this, and it’s easy to just say that the repetition is just one of the series “little quirks”. In actuality, these constant questions (A surveillance camera? SOP? The Patriots?) are in the script simply to inform the player of important information. The dialog is done to inform the player, rather than….well, allowing Snake to speak.
Metal Gear Solid 4 is a debate between the player and the designer. There is no avenue to allow the series main character to actually develop. Yes, our protagonist is a victim of physical violence, but we almost never have any sense of what Snake is thinking…because Snake isn’t allowed to think without the player.
Snake, as a result, never felt to me like a real character. For all of his physical sacrifice, and for all of the player’s connection to his moments of unspeakable pain, we have no insight into the man that IS Solid Snake. In Kojima’s effort to keep Snake solely the method by which the player interacts with the game, I didn’t have any special connection to Snake or his efforts.
Clearly, I’m not only insane, but a moron to boot. I’ve disparaged the game for giving me an avenue to participate in the game’s events, and would rather spend more time hearing Snake TALK then actually play the game. Maybe I should have my game license revoked.
After playing Grand Theft Auto IV earlier this year, I found that I was MORE connected to Niko Bellic and his compatriots because they felt like actual people, betraying their psychological scarring even in normal conversation. Niko’s personal strife affected me because I WANTED him to escape his cycle of violence. Solid Snake is deliberately kept aloof from the player, perhaps to keep the player convinced that they ARE Solid Snake. All that distance did for me was…well, keep me distant from the man whose life was evaporating in front of my eyes.
In fact, I finished MGS4 not in tears but in anger, as Kojima quickly stole what could have been a sublime moment in gaming, and replaced with a happy ending so awkward and false that I can’t even refer to it as Deux Ex Machina. Perhaps Deux Ex Metal Gear is more appropriate for an ending that says “Hey, everything is gonna be alright. The world is a better place! Rosemary wasn’t REALLY married to the Colonel, and Raiden got his arms back. And even Snake is going to be okay! He’s going to live his life!”
The Metal Gear Solid series has been, ever since the first game, a meditation on one question; How does one control? Is Power the means by which the world obeys? Is Information the key to controlling the masses? Does History determine the chain of events that will lead humanity to the brink? Is it Will, even just the Will of one person, that can mold the earth? With each game, Kojima has looked at those forms of control, and has, throughout, tried to determine how the player can be molded and cajoled. Metal Gear Solid 2 perhaps laid out this idea better than any other game in the series, revealing to the player how they had played through the events of the original MGS all over again, and how “context” allowed the designer to mold the player into the engine necessary to complete the game. That’s the principal relationship in the franchise: Player and Designer. Hideo Kojima and you.
But, from the first shot of Old Snake in that E3 trailer so long ago, the entire arc of the final MGS seemed to position itself around Snake himself. His rapid deterioration, the latent Foxdie virus that made Snake a walking weapon; all of these elements throughout the story seemed poised to end Snake’s life in a profoundly sad way. It would the final sacrifice of the man who had been controlled and manipulated all his life. But Kojima needs Snake alive. He needs the player’s avatar to remain, if only to get one last, preposterous monologue from the most ridiculous cameo in the game. The player needs to witness Kojima’s last words, his own final meditation on the video game medium.
Kojima takes Snake’s final moment for himself.
It was a disgusting moment, giving Snake his “happy ending” in a way so false and so out of nowhere that it robbed his sacrifices of all significance.
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is….I wish that MGS4 had more Snake and less Kojima. And I wish the game had met my original expectations for the product.
Clearly, I’m a tremendous liar, a hypocrite, and an overly wordy writer, as it took me 2500 words to say what I could sum up in 3 sentences.
So, I bet Kojima knows exactly where I'm coming from.
Over on Giant Bomb, I host Bomb Should Have A Face, Giant Bomb's Officially Official Community Podcast(an idea I literally stole from the fine guys on the Failcast). Unlike other game podcasts, which are more focused on news, Bomb Should Have A Face is all about the Giant Bomb community; we're pimping the best blogs written during the week( another feature I borrowed from Destructoid, since I love the way every Blog on the site can be viewed by every user from the community tab) talk about the best Wiki pages and guides written, point out the most interesting forum posts, and talk about the continued changes, upgrades, and features being added to Giant Bomb every week(the site engineers tend to add small features every week, rather than have big updates spread apart.
Sometimes, however, we have the pleasure of talking to the fine cats who RUN Giant Bomb, and this week the BSHAF crew had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Gerstmann, Co-Founder/CEOditor of Giant Bomb. Normally, I wouldn't cross post these podcasts(since they're so specific to Giant Bomb and the Giant Bomb Community), but this episode is more of a profile on the year of Giant Bomb; what it's like to start a small website again, how to focus interviews on gaming history(rather than pimping a product), and why so many journalists in gaming are romanticized and idolized!
I'm the awkward, nasally, prepubescent sounding host of the BSHAF. I go by Matt Bodega
Sure, Gears of War 2 looks incredible, but is the game going to turn as much of a profit if everyone buys the game used?
I was really surprised with the discussion on one of my subscribed podcasts this week about the Publisher fear of used games. You can listen to the discussion yourself, but here are the cliff notes; used game retailers like Gamestop( I guess it's pretty much Gamestop at this point) have founded their entire business model on buying and selling used games instead of stocking up on new games(like a traditional big box retailer). Companies are pissed off because used games sales go directly to Gamestop instead of back to the publishers and developers, which means that a single game's sale for a company can potentially become a bevy of sales for this middleman. It sounds like these lost sales are hurting publishers, which explains the new fight against used game sale and resale in the form of downloadable content tied to a one time use serial code(like the Rock Band 2 downloadable bonus songs, and the Gears of War 2 Map pack) as well as trying to provide more compelling reasons to keep players from NOT trading in their games( the Burnout Paradise free content seems, in light of all this, to be EA's attempt to keep the game in the hands of users instead of allowing Gamestop to buy it on the cheap and resell it for profit). It's a sticky situation that seems to make everyone a loser (well, they either lose money or come across as the bad guy/enemy of capitalism).
The key moment in that discussion on the podcast, and the moment that's really had me thinking was a thoughtful comment from Ryan Davis: Why can't this industry function with a used market in the same way other industry's can? Why is the used game market so out of control that it's actually hurting publishers and developers?
My Co-Hosts, Special Guest and I talked about this for a bit on our BSHAF recording on Saturday, but I keep coming back to that comment, trying to work through why the used market has been so damaging to console game sales, why piracy has seemed to lay waste to PC game developers and sales. And make no mistake; the used game market and PC piracy are most definitely linked together; they both represent the consumer's (perfectly reasonable) desire to buy items for as cheap as possible (or free, as the PC case might entail). It doesn't have anything to do with supporting game developers or trying to put down a shady corporation like Gamestop. So why are developers and publishers panicked? It almost seems like this industry seems to be....tearing itself in half.
That's the thought I came to not too long ago. And I don't mean in the sense that all this economic dilemma threatens to destroy video games forever. Rather, it seems like this industry is still functioning like we were still in the 90's: when companies could outspend each other on more and more lavish games, when consumers were so focused on this resolution/texture/lighting/graphical effects war between games, when piracy wasn't nearly as easy as it was today, and the used game market didn't seem to pose much of a threat to the Software Developers/Publishers.
It all comes down to money, it seems. Players want games on the cheap. Publishers want to recoup their dev costs and make a profit. Developers want to hold a job, and certainly wouldn't mind a little kickback from a successful game sale. These interests seem to be in dialectic conflict with the "Bigger, Better, More Bad Ass" expectations that players crave, forcing publishers and developers to spend and work like crazy to meet. Meanwhile, development costs for the 360, PS3 and PC have skyrocketed, and here we are: game's are still so expensive that people will happily buy used products, and developers lose control of their product(as well as cash) to Gamestop and other used retailers.
The very gaming world seems to be trapped between the past expectations of gaming as entertainment, and the future realities of development. The Game business seems to be filled to brim with opposites, design criteria from a bygone age that doesn't in any way mesh with the current consumer market:
Take developer Crytek, which turned out an absolutely beautiful product in Crysis, a game that is still, probably the finest looking game ever released. That's the kind of statement that would have guaranteed game sales in the 90's.....However, what's the active percentage of people who could effectively play Crysis the way is was meant to be played? Brutal system specs guarantee that a $3000 computer investment was necessary to play this $50 game. How on earth could anyone justify that kind of purchase? Crytek shot themselves in the foot by trying to be the "Best Looking Game Ever", and ultimately reduced the number of people who could play their game in the process, on top of what must have been a ridiculously costly development cycle. They made a game that most people couldn’t run. How did they expect for Crysis to be a success?
Between it's massive hardware requirements and the state of PC piracy, how did EA and Crytek expect to make money off this game?
Companies still feel like they need to produce visually stunning blockbusters at all times, forcing them either to create their own expensive engine tech, or go out and license, at the very least, a ton of different middleware products or, at most, someone else’s engine. Those licensing fees must sink into the development budget on a game, forcing the developers to depend on ridiculous new software sales. If the team decides to code their own stuff, they’re going to have to bring in a ton of new employees and workers to try and have the game live up to the unreasonable visual triumphs of this generation, which also eats into development costs and force them to depend on new software sales. Their “bleeding edge” design only forces them to rely more on a consumer base that has no problem paying less money for games, even if that cash doesn’t go to the people who made the game.
At the launch of the PS3 back in 2006, publisher Namco Bandai claimed that games would have to sell more than half a million copies to turn a profit. How many games ever come close to 500,000 sales? Plenty of the games that you and I love would be THRILLED to reach that many sales. How did we let development become so crazy that publishers can’t support the medium we love?
It’s totally crazy that most developers are still trying to outspend the competition, especially when this generation of consoles has provided ample opportunity to make games cheaper, to sell them for cheaper, and to actually see a profit from sales. While most of the “hardcore” on high mountaintops are plenty happy to discourage the Nintendo Wii, it’s absolutely modest(backwards, in fact) hardware power means that games for the system are guaranteed to be made cheaper, and will probably have a better opportunity to make money. GameCube specs be damned, Nintendo proved that consumers would happily and gladly accept cheaper hardware and cheaper games. In fact, one could make a reasonable argument that the Wii’s lower price point was as crucial to its success as the Wii remote. I doubt that a single Wii game cost as much money as the majority of 360 and PS3 games. Developers didn’t need to go too crazy learning the ins and outs of the Wii, meaning games can be produced faster, sooner, for cheap, and for more people on the Wii. Why haven’t more companies jumped ship? Wii owners could use an influx of support from genuine 3rd Party games to stop the rise of casual (crap not to say that casual games are crap, but to stop the influx of the crappy casual games). The Wii, every step of the way, has seemed to offer a ton of potential and reduced expenditures for all parties involved with the system.
Only one game in 2008 forced the player to masturbate with the Wii Remote. You can't put a price on that.
Indeed, compared to the other two consoles, the Wii seems to offer less headaches for consumers overall. Anyone reading this blog is tech savvy enough to appreciate how much better 360 and PS3 games can look with the right setup. But step back for a moment, and think about what it takes to look its best: a $700 dollar or more High Definition Television. Why on earth does it cost that much to get these “Next Gen” games to look as intended? And how many people, really, are able to take advantage of that setup? Stories like the “too small” text in Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts seems crazy for someone that’s been playing 360 games on a proper HD screen…..but I felt that away about those same complaints made about Dead Rising and Lost Planet, and even worse cases like last year’s release of Pro Evolution Soccer, where the game actually had a worse framerate when played on a lower resolution T.V. These complains indicate, to me at least, that there is still a substantial portion of game players who are enjoying their HD outputting consoles and SD sets, and haven’t found enough of a reason to upgrade. Why does this industry seem to want and outspend its users? Why should players need to buy expensive T.V’s to enjoy their games? The Wii doesn’t need an HD signal to look it’s best, and the result is that more people can enjoy the game. Meanwhile, 360 and PS3 owners with SD sets are looking at blurry games that are sometimes boned for those who had the gall to not pony up an extra 600 bucks for a shinier window.
I don't need advanced shaders and impressive lighting to know that KICKING ZOMBIES ARE BADASS.
The Wii isn’t the only system reveling in cheaper development. With the release of Left 4 Dead, Valve will have completed its 8th game released on the Source Engine. 8 games on one engine released in 2004. How many single developers can claim to have stuck with an engine for so long? Epic ‘s Unreal Engine 3 has become the status quo in licensed engines these days, with everyone hoping to get their hands on the tech’s powerful lighting and impressive texture possibilities. They may spend their whole budgets developing one game on that top of the line tech. Meanwhile, Source development, working on a 4 year old engine isn’t going to be NEARLY as expensive to work with as top of the line Unreal Tech. And to top it all off, games on the Source Engine, this aging game system, still look great. The Valve team put the Source engine’s power into more subtle systems—the facial animation, the physics, the actual character and movement animation—rather than other game engines’ focus on the never-ending Texture/Lighting/Draw Distance wars. As a result, those tiny little details still have the power to impress more than any particularly crisp texture of a bombed out building. Look at Left 4 Dead, and tell me what you notice more. Is it the engine’s muddy textures, or the low model poly count, or the simple lighting? Or is it the way character’s display emotion, or the dread of seeing 50 zombies come into the room, knock you to your knees, and starting kicking you, less like zombies and more like angered Soccer Rioters? It’s not even up for debate. There are plenty of things you can do with an older engine if you’re creative. Newer tech does not always an impressive game make. You don’t need to outspend the competition to make beautiful games. Used game sales aren’t going to kill Valve.
Hell, you don’t need to outspend the competition to make games period. Ironclad Games and Stardock made Sins of A Solar Empire for less than a million dollars. Would that kind of cash buy you an Unreal Development license? Meanwhile, the game has sold over 500,000 copies worldwide. The Witcher, an overlooked RPG delight from long time Polish Publisher/First Time Developer CD Projekt, is running on a modified version of the Aurora engine, the same tech that powered Neverwinter Nights 1 back in 2002. That 5 year old engine was still able to produce a stunning game that’s sold over 1 million copies to date. CD Projekt and Ironclad can handle the reality of game piracy, because they both went into development with lower development costs (The Witcher cost 11 million dollars to produce, meaning their 1 million sales covered their costs a few times over). Lower development costs and solid game design means a dev house is naturally going to make more money and it means they don’t need to rely on mass market sales to keep their business running.
We made an RTS so deep and complicated that we befuddled the PC Pirates entirely! Take that, jerks!
And what about the slow, powerful rise of 2D development as a viable game format? As players have begun to look at 2D games not as a technical hurdle but a stylistic choice, 2D games have found a place on XBL and the PSN. Braid is the combined effort of one man under 200, 000 dollars of development cost. Sure, that game wasn’t a complete market success, but those who played that bundle of joy know, intrinsically, that the quality of the game is not equal to the size of its budget. Would the fine folks at The Behemoth find themselves successful 10 years ago as a 2D game going up against the 3D juggernauts? Their Brawl-RPG Castle Crashers, with its lavish 2D artwork and simple, fun gameplay proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that 2D is still a viable format for design, and that 2D games provide opportunities to programmers and artists to make games cheaply and easily (compared to pricy 3D engines).
Do you like cool art? Braid probably cost less than the catering at Epic during Gears development
My point is this; Game developers need to stop resisting the current state of the gaming culture. Yes, people are going to buy used games from crappy retailers like Gamestop. Yes, people are going to pirate games. Yes, people are jerks. The solution, it seems, isn’t to try and push gaming back to its previous “spend-a-thon” ways, hoping they can still spend a ton of money on games and recoup it in full. It just comes across as large corporations trying to beat back against the current, a futile excessive that refuses to see the current state of gaming for what it is: a large population of gamers who want to spend less on games. Instead, publishers need to take a step back and accept that the market isn’t going to change back to its 90’s era self right away and that means making games in a world where they can be bought used or stolen outright. That reality totally sucks, make no mistake, but companies need to start making games for this new era of development. They need to stop trying to outspend the competition, and start using more modest tech in more creative ways to keep players interested. They need to create more compelling, better designed artwork. The rapid growth of this industry in the last few years, and the major company’s devotion to turning a property into an annual franchise is going to drain those publishers entirely.
Adapt developers! Adapt to the new world and the new market! Accept that people are going to be jerks, and accept that they’re going to naturally want cheap games. Make cheaper games. Make games that don’t absolutely require a million sales to recoup their dev costs. Create a business model that understands that games will be misused by derelicts, and respond by making games that aren’t affected by those fools. Adapt to a model that can make money off of less game sales, or that can allow for cheaper games to be sold. License cheaper engines! Make Wii Games! Create smaller teams, and don’t stretch them to the breaking point. Because, as it stands, with ridiculous dev costs and unrealistic expectations for new game sales (amongst a game buying public that wants cheaper games), I think we all lose.
Except for Gamestop. Those Punks.
What do you guys think? What needs to happen to the game industry for developers and publishers to deal with the Used Game market and Piracy concerns?