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
, 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.
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.
LOOK WHO CAME: