Oh, hello. I didn't see you come in. I hail from the now-defunct 1UP and am looking for a new home/community for the grand reopening of my blog. Why I didn't think of Destructoid earlier is anyone's guess, but it seems like things will be a good fit here...or at least I hope they will. If you like esoteric ramblings on small, nitpicked issues in gaming, you've come to the right place. Maybe I take things a little too seriously, but I like to think of it as passion rather than pretention. Please to enjoy.
Can someone please explain video games to me? Honestly, I'll take whatever you've got. If you can tell me how to define them, how to identify them in the wild, please do. If you can tell me why they're special, why they're so beloved, I'd love to hear it. If you can tell me why the people who love them so are the way they are, I'll have a pen and pad at the ready. Because apparently I seem to have forgotten something. Most likely, it was my pair of rose-colored Gunnars, but I'm open to other leads.
Once I fancied myself quite the connoisseur of video games, playing the latest titles and keeping an eye out on those to come. Which was a lie, clearly, but one I could convince myself and others of well enough all the same. Yet as the years have gone by, I find myself increasingly weary of maintaining that illusion to both myself and others. I now acknowledge fully my physical inability to consume every video game released contemporaneously, but if I'm to be honest, deep down, I believe I was aware of this all along. This handicap of time isn't what ails my mind at present, at least not any more so than usual. What is, however, is the encroaching blackness on the outskirts of my vision in my search for silver linings, redeeming qualities, and excuses. Much of it has already been eaten away, yet still I fear the perfect cynical darkness that awaits.
There exists a miasma of dissatisfaction and wariness accumulated over the years around my person, tinging every breath with disappointment. No longer do I find games to be such pure, rarified air, able to be drawn in and pushed out with relative ease. No, every breath is now a calculated maneuver, taken as to avoid as much of the taint as possible. And even when successful in that aim, every expenditure takes the form of a beleaguered, wet cough whose sputum can be found throughout this very blog. The chances of this entering remission seem very slim.
Yet it didn't used to be like this. I could spend hours, if not days playing video games and find the entire experience not only enjoyable but worthwhile as well. Silver linings were abundant no matter where I looked, and evaluations were taken with only the most miniscule grains of salt. A glowing review put stars in my eyes and charges on my credit line, as these elite were of course more knowledgeable than I, and nines and above were clearly worth my time.
But that grain of salt has only grown over the years, from a pebble into a boulder, one I find myself burdened with every day, one I desperately wish to shirk. Recently, I find it so inescapable that I have begun to fear that not only am I tasked to carry this weight eternally, as Atlas before me, but that I myself am attached to it somehow, that it is no boulder, but a tumor, growing with puss and bile with every breath and step. This fear has only intensified upon the arrival of a perhaps unlikely game, one which is undoubtedly being enjoyed by countless players even now as I compose this sentence: Shovel Knight.
Shovel Knight, which has incidentally been receiving rave reviews, perfectly encapsulates my progressively strained relationship with video games as of late. My peers will laud its merits and encourage my playing it, but like so many others before it, I know I will be left wanting. Rather, to be fair to Shovel Knight, I will find it wanting, for I am entirely open to the possibility that I have begun holding video games to an unfair standard, a standard I use along with few others, it seems.
Shovel Knight is, from what I can surmise, a well-constructed game. The mechanics are consistent and fair, the progression in difficulty is smooth, and the game itself runs stably. The art and sound designs similarly look sturdy upon further inspection, replicating their influences while establishing themselves as distinct entities all the while. All of this I understand. Perhaps unfairly, all of this I also find wildly underwhelming.
I find it underwhelming not from lack of appreciation for the game's technical merits. Those, again, I will gladly acknowledge. Rather, it is from my distaste for the experience of playing such a game. More accurately, I know it to be a game which places its stock in the immediate actions taken by the player in order to facilitate its enjoyability; it is a game without especially engaging context for one's actions. Shovel Knight does indeed have a story, but it is my estimation that such a narrative is not what is intended to propel players throughout the experience. And it is this that has soured my palette.
For what is a video game without engaging context? Is it not simply a compilation of tasks requiring various degrees of skill set before its players? A game in the abstract, no matter how well-designed, boils down to that essential truth, no? And the merits of its design come from the arrangement of those tasks in a tantalizing manner for players. Typically this manifests itself in a gradual increase in the skill required for performing said tasks, with incentives, rewards, and penalties littered throughout the experience in a tantalizing trail of bread crumbs to propel players with even more force towards the game's conclusion. Games differ in the particulars of these tasks and their trajectories, of course, but their presence is a constant.
Without context for one's actions in a video game, it seems to me that the experience of playing a title such as Shovel Knight is simply a well-designed roller coaster of strife and accomplishment. It provides all the highs and lows of a carnival ride, but by its end, one still exits from whence one came with only a fleeting sense of euphoria to show for one's ordeal. The stronger the sense of euphoria felt, typically the better-designed a game is thought to be. The more "fun" it is thought to be.
Or to put it another way, take bowling as an odd but apt analogy for video game play. The essential task of bowling is to take one's ball and knock down as many of ten pins positioned just so down a polished wooden lane as possible. It's a task presented without frills and without context. One's aim is clear and unobfuscated: to throw this molded stone at those wooden sticks and make them fall over. And when they do fall over, the feeling of accomplishment will be such that I'll wish to retrieve said stone, reset said sticks, and do it all again. It's a ridiculous and artificial task that's being performed, but one the human psyche still possesses a bewildering capacity to find intriguing, with some harboring a greater capacity for intrigue than others. But is it really any different from the tasks asked of us in video games? Encounter a foe. Defeat that foe. Receive a virtual reward. Receive endorphins and dopamine for accomplishing that task and receiving that reward which will help in the continued accomplishment of said task in the future. Encounter a new, slightly more difficult foe. Defeat that foe using one's newfound skill and/or resource(s). Rinse. Repeat.
How has this been established as the measure of quality for video games? Perhaps in the medium's infancy, one would be excused for handling it with kid gloves, but games now have an over forty-year history in consumers' homes, yet pursuits of quality have yet to progress en masse beyond this realm of visceral reaction. This would be akin to films being evaluated on what moving lights, colors, and shapes appear on the screen and their ability to titillate, with little attention being paid to what said lights, colors, and shapes are or represent. It is an appraisal of the basest element of a medium, which in-turn appeals to our basest desires from said medium. From film, we desire movement. From games, we desire accomplishment. Yet film has long come to understand that movement can be used for a greater purpose. Even at forty years of age, it had understood this. Movement is now an essential vessel for artistic expression within film. Games, meanwhile, largely seem content with accomplishment being its own reward, so to speak. Exceptions exist, to be sure, but far too few for the medium to lay any claim of aesthetic equality with the likes of film at present, as many seem wont to do. Perhaps the potential for artistic expression within both is equivalent, but its numbers in application are not.
As one who has devoted much of his life to the enjoyment of video games, I believe this to be the ultimate source of my current affliction. My belief in the potential of the medium to ascend to a higher plane. My hope for a brighter tomorrow wherein the days of my life required to complete a role-playing game yield an intellectual or emotional impact greater than simply the sense of accomplishment for besting the game's final task. And the deluge of wholly adequate babes spewed forth from the industry's loins whose sheer numbers starve and dehydrate the truly exceptional specimens in vying for our attention, whose adequacy has been established as some perverse gold standard upon which the entire litter is evaluated, thus casting the withering elite further and further into the darkness. As I sit, weighted to my seat by this inescapable mass, from behind this hovering miasma, through the clouded cataracts of my cynical eyes, this is the vision I see. Perhaps it is illusory, perhaps it is confused; I would love nothing more than for that to be so. But this I believe I see, and in that, I am not wrong.
If you've been playing video games released within the past ten or so years, chances are you've by now encountered some manner of dating simulation. Maybe it was as simplistic as seducing a dancer in Grand Theft Auto V, or as in-depth as romancing a shipmate aboard the SSV Normandy in Mass Effect. The number of games featuring some aspect of dating simulation has only grown in recent years as video games have expanded the breadth of their simulations to more closely resemble life in the non-virtual world. And in comparison with games which don't acknowledge player sexuality at all, these games are excelling in that pursuit by default. However, when it comes to the accuracy of the dating mechanics themselves in resembling real-world romance, not one of these games are successful. Moreover, in addition to being inaccurate, these mechanics also reinforce a specific set of common, toxic misconceptions of romance simply by virtue of their design, misconceptions colloquially referred to as "nice guy syndrome."
For the unfamiliar, nice guy syndrome is a relatively recent term codified through online discussion used to describe a particular set of beliefs held by an alarming number of men. The term itself is multifaceted and can used to describe different yet related phenomena depending on what context its used in. Here, it will be used to describe only one specific facet of itself, the facet most pertinent to the topic at hand, and will be defined as such: believing consciously or subconsciously that women will or should reward acts of kindness with romantic interest and/or sex. While the term itself can technically be applied to a number of different configurations (men pursuing men, women pursuing men, women pursuing women), the behavior it describes is almost exclusively men pursuing women, hence its engendered title and definition and my subsequent adherence to them both.
Nice guy syndrome understands women as little more than dispensaries for sexual gratification and romantic fulfillment, taking in payments of kindness and dispensing sex and affection accordingly. It refuses to acknowledge women's autonomy and right to choose sexual and romantic partners while assuming both of their male suitors inherently. Power is given exclusively to the pursuer so long as he provides sufficient levels of gift-giving and niceties to his prospective mate. Should the woman still deny his advances after receiving these forms of payment, she's thought to be either ignorant of the transactional arrangement that's been implicitly struck between herself and her suitor by virtue of her gender, or crooked, failing to provide the man the good and services promised by her gender in exchange for his payments of attention and common human decency. In the eyes of the afflicted, these women owe a debt to their suitors which can only be paid through sex or romantic affection, a debt some rationalize collecting by force. In this sense, nice guy syndrome is often rightly accused of reinforcing rape culture, that set of cultural attitudes and constructs which condones, promotes, tolerates, or excuses sexual assault and rape in whatever capacity.
Another classic nice guy concept
The transactional nature of sex and romance according to nice guy syndrome is virtually identical in kind to dating mechanics found in video games. Dating simulation effectively boils down to a transaction between the player and an NPC paid in small increments over long periods of time. Often times this is represented by a meter or counter detailing the level of "affection" a romance-able NPC feels towards the player's character, with kindness and generosity towards that NPC moving the meter up, and malice and selfishness moving the meter down. Upon reaching a certain level of affection, the option for sex with that character is unlocked and the transaction is complete. Some games provide additional meaningful interactions between the player and the conquered character after that sexual Rubicon, but far more place sex at the tail end of interpersonal character arcs so as to deify the act even more, to treat it as a prize to be claimed as well as a commodity to be purchased. The NPC is treated simultaneously as a miser to be bartered with and a challenge to be overcome, not as a fellow autonomous agent capable of denying the advances of those who clearly view her as nothing more than a gatekeeper of sexual gratification.
There are variations of this mechanic, of course. The most common among them is the two-pronged relationship arc which allows the player to chart the path of his interactions with romance-able NPCs towards either a romantic or platonic end. Another variation is the evaluation of most every major decision made by the player by whichever characters are present at the time. Both of these can be seen in action in BioWare's Dragon Age series, a game often lauded for its emphasis on interpersonal relationships, but unfortunately neither do much in rectifying the problems inherent to contemporary dating mechanics in video games. Two-pronged arcs fail to actually change the nature of the romantic arc in any way and grant the player the exclusive power to decline romantic entreaties while failing to do so for NPCs. Ever-present evaluation, while an improvement in theory by simulating the slow revelation of the player's personality and moral compass to potential partners, is still far too easy a system to romantically min-max, especially if the player is set on pursuing a particular character.
The only variation I've personally experienced which even slightly counteracts the toxic nature of dating simulation can be found in Persona 3 Portable while playing as the female protagonist. The PlayStation 2 versions of Persona 3 both prominently feature romance game mechanics, but these simulations fell into the same nice guy trappings that befall most games with dating simulations. In the female arc of Persona 3 Portable, there is an NPC who can be romanced, but can never be romantically conquered. He harbors no romantic affections towards the player despite his sometimes flirtatious tone, and when confronted with the prospect of dating the player, politely denies her advances, explaining that his heart lies elsewhere. Nothing the player can do can change this as his affections rely heavily on factors outside of the player's control. While this may be an alien idea to the sufferers of nice guy syndrome, it is a familiar scenario for anyone who's fallen for someone unavailable, and a far more honest and healthy depiction of romance than most dating simulations offer.
But even this variation has its problems. Firstly, this character is only found in the female arc of the game, thereby still granting him, the man, romantic autonomy, while denying it from the female half of the equation. The reasons for this are likely innocent enough, especially when taking the plot of Persona 3 into account, but it's unfortunate that a similar NPC is nowhere to be found in the male protagonist's arc. Secondly, the more glaring issue with this variation is its impact on the overall enjoyment of the game. One character here and there who is already taken or is romantically unavailable for other reasons is certainly fine, but at the end of the day, games are still an escapist medium. Dating simulations which perfectly reflect the difficulties and setbacks of modern dating, particularly for those historically unlucky in love, would surely hinder any pursuit of enjoyable escapism for players, thus defeating a central purpose of playing a game to begin with. Then again, is that not the point? To stop portraying dating and sex as mere transactions, thus reinforcing those toxic beliefs held by large populations of men known as "nice guys?" It's quite the conundrum.
The only solution readily available at present is for games to simply abandon dating simulation altogether, but such a nuclear option is entirely unsavory for those of us who believe in the medium's artistic potential. No other medium treats dating and sex as taboo subjects, and video games shouldn't either, even if there has yet to be an example of either being handled healthily. After all, there will never be an example if the pursuit is abandoned entirely. But in order to accomplish that goal, we need to begin by acknowledging that there is a problem with how we're doing things now. At best, dating mechanics are perpetuating a feedback loop for players with unhealthy, transactional conceptions of dating, and at worst are quite possibly informing the burgeoning opinions on romance for the young and impressionable, thus spreading nice guy syndrome even further, though I'll admit that is simply a suspicion as there have yet been no formal studies on this phenomenon. Regardless, change is necessary; I only wish I knew how best to bring it about.
I have a confession to make: I often listen to podcasts while playing video games. It's something of a shameful secret of mine considering my championing of the artistic medium of video games. That said, I know I'm not alone in this. Maybe it's a show or movie playing in the background, maybe it's music, or perhaps the radio; whatever the distraction may be, the presence of one while playing games is common practice. A common practice, I believe, that's indicative of a much larger problem plaguing video games as a whole.
When one engages in any manner of media, be it active like a video game or passive like a podcast, what is the essential goal of that endeavor? In my mind, the least contentious answer to that question is that one seeks to be entertained. Why one is seeking said entertainment to begin with, be it boredom, escapism, emotional catharsis, or whatever, is besides the point. With entertainment as one's goal, what is to be concluded from one engaging in multiple forms of entertainment simultaneously originally intended to be experienced distinctly? While this answer will be more contentious than the first, in my mind, it seems to be that one doesn't find either form to be wholly entertaining separately, and thus combines them in their pursuit of entertainment. The only other answer coming to mind is one simply lacks the time required to experience both individually as intended, and while this is technically within the realm of possibility, surely this answer only applies to an insignificant number of instances and can thus be disregarded for the purposes of this post.
If my conclusions are correct, then what does this say about the entertainment one derives from video games? It seems to me, in accordance with my reasoning above, that when one enlists the aid of an additional form of entertainment whilst playing video games, one does so to account for whatever deficiency in entertainment one finds in playing video games. Meanwhile, speaking personally, rarely do I find similar deficiencies in television, film, or literature. Instances exist with particular shows, movies, books, etc. when I will boot up a game or put music on, I will admit, but they occur not nearly as often as when playing games. Accordingly, I believe it reasonable to conclude that I personally find more video games to be insufficiently entertaining than I do works in most any other media. If I may be so bold as to speak for others, I also believe it reasonable to conclude that many of my fellow podcast players feel the same, even if some are reluctant to admit it.
As I mentioned at the outset of this post, I don't resort to other media for every video game. Games such as The Last of Us and The Walking Dead are prime and relatively recent examples of those I prefer to experience individually. These titles and those like it are typically narrative-driven experiences wherein important information would be lost if podcasts were playing over them. They are games which feature relatively tight pacing, infusing even their more action-oriented sections with snippets of dialogue and characterization to further narrative threads along. Even titles such as Grand Theft Auto IV, a game which affords the player large, indeterminate stretches of time without any narrative progression whatsoever, fall under that same banner by continuing to build the world around the player while not directly furthering any plot, often through ambient NPC dialogue or and radio stations in the case of the Grand Theft Auto series specifically. Even a title like Journey, which features no intelligible dialogue whatsoever, commands one's full attention by the pacing of its nonvocal narrative and the sheer beauty of its design.
Meanwhile, for me, titles like Dark Souls II or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim are usually prime candidates for podcast playing. These games typically feature extremely large portions of time with no significant narrative progression whatsoever, or narratives so poorly done that their progression is uninteresting. Too many RPGs to count, both Japanese and Western, exhibit one or both of these characteristics, instead letting stat progression dominate the bulk of one's interest in playing them. Action-heavy titles, brawlers, MOBAs, fighters, RTSs, and the like, meanwhile, either fall into the latter category or simply forgo plot entirely, focusing instead either on character progression or competition and leaving a narrative vacancy that can easily be filled by a podcast or show playing in the background. In my experience, games primed for podcast playing are those that feel the most like virtual taskmasters. They are games which fail to provide compelling reasons for the player to best their challenges besides a promised feeling of accomplishment. They are usually, but not entirely, games without message or artistic expression (the Souls series being a notable exception). They are games designed to occupy the player's time with little to no return beyond improving the player's skill at the games themselves.
That isn't to say these games can't be fun or enjoyable. I will gladly admit to enjoying my time with many of them, Dark Souls II being amongst the most recent. However, I understand that my enjoyment of these titles wasn't of a similar depth as it was with games like The Last of Us. I didn't enjoy Skyrim for its artistic merits as a piece of interactive media, but rather as an escapist power fantasy that indulged my innate desire for personal growth by allowing me to fill up tiny progress bars with every enemy I killed. I did enjoy Gone Home because of its artistry in conveying personal, affective, non-linear narratives through the interactive exploration of a three-dimensional space. I did listen to podcasts while playing Skyrim; I didn't while playing Gone Home. One wasn't wholly captivating as a solitary work while the other was.
I believe, then, that when games are living up to the artistic potential of the medium, they demand more of our attention than those that don't. They dissuade the use of additional media in one's pursuit of entertainment by providing engrossing experiences throughout. Meanwhile, those games which allow for other media to be experienced simultaneously likely aren't what most would consider to be works of "art," enjoyable though they may be for whatever reasons. Therefore, as one who wishes to see artistry flourish in video games, I've resolved to ween myself away from those games I don't find wholly engrossing and encourage you to do the same. You may have your own criteria for which games command your full attention and which don't, and that's perfectly okay. It could be that the games you find fulfilling are the ones I don't and vice versa. However, regardless of your criteria, we've reached such a critical mass of video games these days that there is virtually no reason for us to be spending our gaming time with anything we don't find wholly engrossing. Not every game need be the best thing you've ever played, of course, but at the very least, you can find ones which don't feel in part like wastes of time.
After finishing my first playthrough of Dark Souls II, reflecting on the experience left me with a feeling of awe. Awe not at its improved combat systems, leveling mechanics, or game engine, but rather at its story. Specifically, the story of the protagonist him/herself. The narrative surrounding the protagonist has always been an intriguingly obtuse component of the Souls series, and while the protagonist's narrative has been similar throughout all three games, it has culminated in such clarity and poignancy in this third installment that I believe I finally understand From Software's vision for players and their experiences with Dark Souls II.
For the uninitiated or the unobservant, the narrative I refer to follows closely along these lines: the protagonist begins her quest seeking to right some wrong that has befallen either herself or the world at large. Through toil and hardship, the protagonist succeeds in conquering whatever it was she set out initially to conquer. However, being bound by some otherworldly force, either by fate or by curse, the protagonist is doomed to repeat this cycle of conquest again and again ad infinitum. It is a pitiable fate, to be sure, but one that is expertly presented in Dark Souls II.
How it differs in Dark Souls II from its predecessors comes largely by way of the narration within the game's opening cinematic. Its cryptic tone bears no small resemblance to the opening of the first Dark Souls, but its actual content couldn't be more dissimilar. Rather than introducing the player to the world and its lore, Dark Souls II's narration instead introduces the player to the role she is about to assume: a person in the most dire of straits, traveling to a land shrouded in mystery and rumor with hope of a cure. A person cursed with an appetite for souls and a memory swiftly fading. A person of cyclical fate, doomed to exist in perpetual strife for all time. While this role is consistent with the Souls series' protagonist narratives, more than in any previous installment, it becomes clear that this narration isn't directed solely at the player's character; it is directed towards the player as well.
En route to Drangleic
The player, by seeking out some manner of fictional entertainment, is turning away from her life in some respect, if only temporarily. That isn't to say her life is in a similar state of disrepair as the protagonist's appears to be in Dark Souls II, but perhaps there is some real-world impetus for her seeking out works of fiction, be it loss, disappointment, or sheer boredom. In any case, both the player and the protagonist find themselves in the world of Drangleic for their respective reasons. Yet once they arrive, as is our human wont, merely existing within that new world fails to suffice. The urge to explore sets in, be it the physical space, one's physical limitations, or the extent of one's agency within the world. Through their exploration, the game eventually pits the player against enemy combatants should they wish to proceed onward. Initially, the enemies she faces are relative pushovers. In time, they grow in both strength and numbers, until eventually, she cannot best them. At least, not in her initial state. That is when the thirst for souls, the economic and leveling currency in the Souls series, sets in. For it is through souls that the player can gain enough power to best the foes impeding her progress. Eventually, given the sheer difficulty of the game and its enemies, souls become virtually synonymous with progression in the mind of the player, and the pursuit of souls becomes ever-engrossing. Yet even after every facet of exploration has been exhausted, every boss slain, every weapon and spell acquired, every secret unearthed, the desire to explore and grow fails to tire. Eventually, the player elects to begin the cycle anew, albeit with stronger faculties and against stronger enemies, allowing herself to continue pushing the boundaries of her prowess with each repetition, time and time again. And thus, the narration's prophecy comes to fruition for protagonist and player alike.
Furthermore, what's equally intriguing about the prophecy of Dark Souls II is its remarkable and presumably intentional similarity to the metaphysics of self in Buddhism. For those without any degree of familiarity with the religion, the grossly oversimplified version goes something like this: life is suffering. Suffering is begotten from earthly desires. So long as one still suffers by maintaining these desires, one remains in an infinite cycle of death and rebirth. Only by achieving enlightenment and transcending those earthly desires can one be released from this loop and finally extinguished. Now, by replacing the concept of life here with one's time spent playing the game, and earthly desires with the pursuit of progress and souls, does this not sound virtually identical to the situation the player finds herself in in Dark Souls II? One continues experiencing the same hardships again and again in the pursuit of a currency that will only temporarily alleviate some of one's suffering. The only true end to one's strife lies in recognizing the futility and fruitlessness of that pursuit and removing oneself permanently from that cycle, i.e. cease playing the game.
These same parallels could be sussed out of both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls as well, to be sure, but it has only been made obviously clear in From Software's latest. Which makes sense; launching a series where the player's explicit goal is to stop playing the game would likely not have fared terribly well, and even in Dark Souls II, while every other aspect of the player's condition is explained upfront, its remedy isn't. Which is somewhat unfortunate, I think. To have a game whose expressed goal is for players to stop playing it would be fascinating to say the least, especially if it reached the same heights of popularity as the Souls series has, for that would surely mean that players were intentionally disobeying the game's orders. But I digress. To have a game that implies as much is fine for now, I suppose.
I'm a sucker for tycoon games. The Roller Coaster Tycoon series reeled me in at an early age, and while my tastes have expanded to city-builders and 4X strategy titles, I still yearn for the days of five dollar bathroom admission fees and colliding coasters. While Sony's BigFest likely/sadly won't feature either of those things, the novelty of its concept could very well make up for their absence. Assuming, of course, it manages to avoid the obvious pitfalls set out on the path ahead of it. Given their sheer numbers, though, it seems almost inevitable for the project to stumble.
The fundamental ideas behind BigFest are actually rather enticing. Players are tasked with the management of a music festival à la traditional tycoon games, providing amenities, setting concession stand prices, and drawing in paying crowds. The twist here is that players can also select the music played at their festivals in a non-trivial capacity. Real-world music will be featured in the game, and the songs and artists featured at highly-attended concerts will receive in-game notoriety as well, giving them more exposure to BigFest players as they ascend the in-game charts. It's a symbiotic relationship of sorts between virtual concert promoters and real-world musicians, with each satisfying the unique needs of the other. With the addition of an Animal Crossing-esque online component where players can attend rival festivals, however, the game also provides players an outlet to put their musical tastes on display for friends, allowing for the introduction and sharing of new music in a more intimate setting than the game's global "Hot 100" list.
There's a lot to BigFest that could go right, especially if its gameplay is satisfyingly deep and its online components are handled well. However, for every thing that could go right, there seem to be ten things that could go wrong. For starters, note that the game is being published by Sony. On one hand, this could be something of a blessing; because this is a Vita title, Sony may be able to advertise this game more than it likely would be through a third-party publisher. A higher playerbase is always a good thing for any game, but with BigFest's focus on online music promotion and festival sharing, it seems especially vital for this game in particular. On the other hand, Sony has a horse in the music race already through Sony Music Entertainment, and it's unclear as to how that might influence the very structure of the game. The reveal trailer states that at least some of the music offered in BigFest will be from unsigned bands, which is great. In theory. Because this is from Sony, however, how this music will be obtained is at this point questionable at best.
Like them or not, an entire library of KoL knockoffs wouldn't be good for anyone
The worst thing that can happen to BigFest is having an overly-curated music library for players to choose from, and because Sony is in the business of music, the pessimist in me foresees only that future being brought to fruition. Sure, players can promote unsigned artists, but what if those artists are prescreened as potential (read: commercially viable) additions to some Sony-owned label? What if those artists with the highest rankings get fast-tracked to record deals? While this arrangement may be beneficial for Sony and the select artists who rise above the chaff, what was once a symbiotic relationship between them and the players of BigFest would become an almost parasitic one, with Sony all but neutering any sense of musical discovery afforded to players while manipulating them under the guise of gameplay to act as focus testers for their next musical investment. It's a pessimistic prediction, I'll admit, but until Sony offers more details on the matter, it seems to me a more likely course of events than the idealized alternative.
In order to retain that symbiotic relationship between players and musicians (and publishers) which makes BigFest so promising in the abstract, I feel as though a Bandcamp-style business model would be the way to go, albeit with some tweaks. Any artist whatsoever would be allowed to upload music to the service, and any player would be allowed to host that music in their festivals for the enjoyment of their virtual audiences and any visiting players, perhaps for a certain fee of in-game currency to stay true to the actual world of concert promotion, with fees getting higher as songs and artists get more popular, and lower as they get less so. In addition to their global leaderboard standings, this could also be a good metric for bands to gauge their popularity amongst players should they choose to care about such things.
Much like bandcamp, artists could also allow for downloads of their music that could be linked to the player's PSN account, redeemable on any device capable of accessing the PS Store (PS3, PS4, Vita, computer, etc.), either for free or for a fee as designated by the artist. Paid transactions could be handled through the PS Store and Sony could take a percentage of the sale like Bandcamp does, ostensibly eliminating any need for curation on Sony's part as they would inevitably see money coming in from players who make these purchases. It really is a win for every party involved when it comes right down to it. Players will have access to a substantially larger library of music to pick and choose from, thereby allowing a greater sense of musical discovery, as well as offering more opportunities for personalization, which is always a plus as any Animal Crossing player will tell you. More musicians will be allowed to access what will for them be a promotional tool and will have greater control over how their music can be consumed by fans. In addition to any introductory price points they may wish to charge for the game itself, Sony will also see returns from this system by way of those musicians who decide to charge players money to download their music, all without alienating players or less commercially-viable bands in the process. So Sony, if you're listening, please don't go down the road I think you will with BigFest. As gamers, we can often tell when we're being used or manipulated, and mismanaging your approach with this game is a surefire way to lose consumer trust and loyalty in turn.
Before reading this post, please take the time to watch the video in question in its entirety. If you're feeling particularly bored, I would also recommend their previous two videos on the topic as well, though I believe they're listed under "Game Addiction" rather than "Game Compulsion." They aren't prerequisites for this post, but they're good watches in their own right. While I'm generally a fan of the Extra Credits series, there are occasions when I take some issue, often a minor one, with the stance it takes regarding a certain topic. This is one such occasion, though the issue I find myself taking with this video isn't so much what they are actually advocating. I do believe that game "compulsion" is a real issue that plagues a lot of players in some capacity, and I agree with many of their postulates of the sources for game compulsion amongst a large majority of those afflicted. I even have a couple blogposts which detail my own experience with game compulsion which some may find interesting. Rather, the problem I have with the video is the naïveté of its message.
The message is naïve in two ways: it belittles the problem of game compulsion, and it grossly misunderstands the nature of today's gaming landscape in kind. The final minute or so of the video more or less boils down to, "buck up, kid," offering little to no practical advice beyond simply telling players to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and overcome their problem with game compulsion. Which is unsatisfying to say the least. How do you overcome game compulsion? By overcoming game compulsion, of course. Thanks, Extra Credits.
I don't want to be too harsh with my tone here, as Extra Credits is one of the few outlets I've seen address this issue beyond the more extreme cases like those who die of starvation at the hands of League of Legends. But there's only so much credit one can give to those who offer such an impotent and ineffectual message. "Using" the feeling of accomplishment in games to compel oneself to action in real life is much easier said than done when actually gripped with game compulsion. The courses of action one could apply that feeling to in real life don't simply appear to be greater obstacles than we feel we can accomplish; they seem less important as well. Making progress towards one's virtual goals begins to take precedence over making progress towards one's tangible goals, and soon enough, those goals get pushed to the side in order to power level a character for yet another 14-hour day. One's virtual goals not only begin to feel more attainable than real-life goals (because they intentionally are), but especially within RPGs or other narrative-driven experiences, they begin to take on more significance in one's psyche. Saving the world feels a lot better than retouching your résumé, even if it doesn't yield tangible rewards, but that immediate feeling of accomplishment you feel from games begins to overwhelm any sense that the endeavor is ultimately an under-productive (if not unproductive) use of your time.
And that's even after one has come to terms with how patronizing video games are at their cores. Virtually every video game is crafted to be completed by its target audience, and as such, the obstacles games present offer enough challenge to make the player feel accomplished after overcoming them, but not enough challenge to prevent that same player from surmounting it. The feeling of accomplishment in games is ostensibly an empty one, yet even being presently aware of that fact, there is a comfort in being all but guaranteed success in one's endeavors, be they virtual, tangible, fruitless, or rewarding. When one is suffering from game compulsion, that comfort can be intoxicating, making tasks without that safety net feel not only more daunting, but futile as well. Why try and possibly fail when given the opportunity to try and almost always succeed, especially when the fail-safe task is so much more interesting than the minutiae that plagues our everyday lives?
The industry is, in many ways, well award of this mentality, and it could be said that many are exploiting it for financial gains. That Extra Credits failed to mention the outright Skinnerian feedback loops that developers often consciously design into their games is a terrible shame, as gaming compulsion could easily be thought of as a two-way street rather than a solitary addiction. Some obstacles and tasks offer greater challenges, some offer less, each offering rewards of corresponding values to the player upon their completion, and game designers, especially those who design MMOs, are perfectly aware of how best to craft the experiences of their games so as to provide the optimum experience of progress for their players. Whether that gambit is being employed to extend players' accounts beyond monthly subscription dates or to coax players to purchase some time-saving mount using microtransactions, it's not-so-ulterior motive is always clear: keep them playing. Get them hooked, make them come back for more. More and more MMOs are going free-to-play these days, and the cynic in me thinks it's because MMO and mobile developers are finally learning that the first hit should always be free. Not everyone's going to come back after the initial taste, but those who do will be hooked for quite some time and eager to pay for more.
Game compulsion can be a serious problem for gamers, and isn't something to be brushed aside in the manner Extra Credits was apparently wont to do in their most recent episode on the topic. It's a surprisingly intricate issue that can't simply be addressed and corrected en masse in one web video, especially one that glosses over nearly everything that gives it its depth. Attempting to do so doesn't respect those who have experienced game compulsion in the past nor those who are experiencing it now, and it's sad to see an institution I otherwise have little issue with make such an error.