It's important to me for you to know that I'm not a troll. I'm going to say things in this article that will irritate a good chunk of you, and I need you to understand why. Pulling a page from Douglas Adams, I will alleviate you of any stresses or anxieties you may feel while reading this by saying that I've played the titles I crucify in this article, from start to finish, multiple times, and enjoyed doing so. I need you to know this so that you will understand when I say that these are terribly designed games, and that the quality of a game's design does not directly correlate to the amount of fun one may have while playing it. Fun is subjective. Quality of design is objective.
I was asked some months ago by a friend of mine whether I felt that large, complex games lacked the ability for strong design and construction that seems almost implicit in more minimal titles, and while my answer to that question was and still is "no," it certainly raised the issue of a possible bias, which I'm willing to acknowledge here and now. It's true, I'm more likely to buy a game made by Team ICO than I am nearly any other group or developer, but it's not because I have loyalty to the brand so much as what they've put out into the industry.
I prefer the simpler things in gaming. I would absolutely qualify that preference as a bias.
There's a (perhaps unfair) perspective that the more a company attempts to hype a game before its release, the more likely it is that that game will probably not be too great. Whether deserved or not, I tend to feel that same way about the level of production value that goes into a game. Knowing that a company has dumped millions of dollars into licensing fees, voice acting, and technology almost always makes me immediately suspicious of the true quality of a title. This apprehension, I suspect, stems from the feeling that a well-designed game relies on a solid construction of control and level design, as well as an ingenious implementation of story if necessary. If the money and time are being dropped into celebrity voicing, new technology, and orchestral scores, then clearly the much more important foundational elements of the game should be polished to perfection, right? I've seldom found this to be the case.
Take, for example, Super Mario Galaxy, a game that has received what should certainly be called unanimous praise and tremendous commercial success. I hate it, honestly and sincerely. I've gone so far as to consider putting a bounty on my soul, because to hate a game that everyone loves means that I must not have one, or that it's at least vacated its vessel. But it's true, I view Galaxy as a terrible example of quality game design due to its spoon-feeding puzzle and level construction, its arbitrary gameplay mechanics, and its unnecessary control decisions. So much of the experience is based on the wow factor supplied by the game's impressive musical score, visual gusto, and technical wizardry that it is so incredibly easy to completely miss the fact that it mostly plays itself and treats its players like idiots.
An easier example could be found in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, one of the most expensive games ever made (around $60 million), as well as one of the most terribly designed. So much was piled into the theatrics of the title that it somehow managed to digress into parody, collapsing under its own weight because the mechanics of play couldn't support the indulgences of the plot.
I've even stated my apprehensions about Metroid: Other M, which has yet to even be released. It's a title that appears to have more production value pumped into it than any of the preceding titles in the series, one that will focus much more on story and the communication of plot, which I fear has the potential to completely unmake the gameplay that I treasure and revere in the Metroid franchise. I haven't played it, and I haven't read any reviews of it. Do I have a reason to trash-talk it? Absolutely not. But I am suspicious.
My qualm is based in a theory of necessity, that the elements that do not directly enhance gameplay will instead hinder or distract from it. These unnecessary additions should be purged, stripped away, until such a time that they are valuable to the overall experience instead of trying to be the overall experience. In other words, I am a minimalist.
It should be no small wonder that games like Another World, ICO and Shadow of the Colossus are landmarks of game design to me. I don't feel that Mario has quite reached the bar he set in Super Mario Bros. 3. I still feel that Super Metroid is one of few uniquely sublime game experiences. What sets these games apart is that their mechanics and controls are simple but compelling, their level design brilliant, their environments telling what story you actually need to know. You are not constantly buried in exposition, forced to endure cutscenes that rob you of the experience of plot through play. You are not told how you should feel, you simply do it.
These are titles that prove that the mechanics of a game don't have to be incredibly complex to be good, they just have to be strong, sturdy, capable of holding up the structure of the entire game. Just as a car without an engine is just a shell, a game that's not propelled by play is not a proper game. Without strong gameplay, you can't have the type of level design that truly takes advantage of those mechanics, and if you don't have that then why should anyone actually care about the type of story you're trying to tell? These games tell their stories through the worlds that they pull you into. Those worlds are communicated through the atmosphere of the game's levels. Those levels are made possible by strong, fundamental design.
Maybe you could understand how, after years of watching games of this caliber float under the radar while truly mediocre big-budget games reap big profits, I have begun to equate production value and hype with a notable lack of quality. Believe me when I say that while for the most part I feel this is typical, I also realize that this is simply not fair to hold it as a rule.
It's so easy for me to overlook true quality in games with a high degree of production value. The Gears of Wars and the Half-Life 2s are easy for me to ignore when they garner such a high degree of universal praise, as though the recognition of the world at large absolves me from recognizing their greatness. It is truly an elitist stance to suppose that I must champion the more experimental and minimal games, upholding them as the model of what every other game in the world should aspire to be like. It rarely dawns on me that the fact that these games are the exception is part of what makes them exceptional.
Minimalism is not a guarantee that a game will be any good, but the ones I prefer tend to have minimalistic qualities to them, which indicates my bias against games with greater production values. I must constantly remind myself that large, complex games are not unlike Howard Hughes' H-4 Hercules, in that the scale or weight of the undertaking is well and truly irrelevant; so long as it follows simple rules, it can fly.
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