The middle child at peace

It's been close to two years now since I made a provocative wager on this blog. Most commenters at the time took me up on it. Recently, the underlying question seems to be on some people's minds.

Chris Hecker's recent IGDA keynote fretted about how video games might avoid ending up in the "cultural ghetto" along with comic books; Matt Burns wrote a piece, seemingly at least partly inspired by the keynote, on video games and cultural legitimacy. Harvey Smith (on twitter and facebook) took issue with games industry people for their tendency to denigrate the achievements of comics as a shorthand for highlighting video games' failings.

But the more I've thought about it, the more I wonder: what if this cultural ghetto isn't so bad after all?

There's danger in putting too much emphasis on an analogy. And while much is analogous between the history and state of video games and comics, people tend to get lost in the specifics, and wrapped up in the emotional investment they have in each medium. The point isn't to argue for the merits of either, but to recognize that most people just don't care.

And then I start to wonder, seriously, why do we care if the world at large cares about us? Why do we need the cultural legitimacy merit badge? And I start to wonder if it's not all just insecurity on our part. And if maybe we're not seeing the value and beauty of the space we're in because we're too busy looking over the fence at Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles.

I'll reiterate that, despite my original argument's oversaturation of bile and dissatisfaction, I still stand behind the wager. Video games will not achieve the same cultural stature as film, television or the novel in our time. But I regret that everyone got too wrapped up in defending comics to note the more useful and relevant section of the argument: on investment versus passivity, and how video games' nature and inherent strength is also, in the quest for mass acceptance, their major weakness.

Passivity and disposability are the currency of popular media. Experientially, the value of film or television for most viewers is the ability to sit back, turn off, and consume. The most popular entertainment is the work that requires the least foreknowledge, the shortest attention span, that supplies the most instant gratification-- the entertainment that requires the lowest investment. This all translates to accessibility, which is the key to wide appeal: anyone-- ANYone-- can simply place themselves in front of the screen and watch. Great art may take mental investment to appreciate, but a film doesn't simply stop if you don't "get" it.
Hence, the potential audience for any kind of expression in that medium is near-infinite, all viewers being equal in the watching of the thing.

Whereas games require comparatively enormous individual investment. The chosen input device (and there are many) must be learned and become natural to use. The inputs for the individual game you're playing must then be mentally mapped to the input device. The rules of each individual game must then be learned and internalized. And then, while the entertainment experience is ongoing, each player is actively judged for their performance: did you make that jump? Did you hit that note? Did you kill your enemy? Did you clear that map? Video games are the only popular entertainment that you can actually fail at. And so many potential players ask, what's the point? Why do I care whether I'm good enough to be entertained? And games have lost them.

The other issues of technical requirements, exorbitant prices, embarrassing content, weak public image and such do contribute, but distract from the core of the issue: that interactivity is itself a barrier to entry. And games are interactivity. The human mind will never change so much as to favor our work on the whole over the allure of the passive. Video games present interactivity as a language with the potential to say great, meaningful, important, timeless things. And it's a language many people simply aren't interested to learn.

This leaves us, then, as something of a middle child. I'd wager that we already mean more to more people than comics do (and if we don't, who cares?) and that conversely we'll never be a behemoth to match truly passive media. And maybe this is the best of both worlds. An audience that, having crossed the barriers to entry, is by its nature more invested in our work; a public profile by which we have the means to occasionally reach into the mass consciousness, but which affords us the freedom to continue experimenting with subject, form, and style; an industry which is truly international; which is capable of producing both multi-million dollar blockbusters and single-creator labors of love (and releasing both on the same platform); which manages to be neither too big nor too small, and is the more vital, unique and exhilarating for it. We are a medium for us, and while there are more and more of us every day, we'll never be for everyone. In a way, it's liberating: freedom to make incredible things, without being everything to everyone. It's why I still stand behind my wager that we won't be the next film, books, or TV. But I no longer look at it in terms of the qualitative. It's simply true. And possibly reason for celebration.

The urge to outgrow what is already our little brother is only a sign of insecurity; the urge to overtake our big brother, to destroy and subsume passive media, is vanity. The assumption of inherent value--that to be the biggest, the most dominant, the one new medium of the century, is in fact desirable at all--is perhaps natural, but also seems a fairly limited interpretation of the media landscape and our own role in it. We should be proud if anything that we are marginalized for the very thing that makes us great; that we are not less than what the mass audience wants, but different. In acknowledging the strengths of the lot we occupy, we might strive to accomplish those
great, meaningful, important, timeless things within it, instead of looking always for a way out.

To be at peace with our identity as the middle child is to be comfortable in our skin, secure in our nature, and hopefully to one day fulfill our own potential, not anyone else's. We are what we are, and what we can be no one else can. If we make the most of it, we'll hopefully someday lose the urge to talk about ourselves in terms of what we aren't.

[This post continues in the comments below, wherein Chris Hecker helps me expand my thinking on the issue.]



Design of a decade

It's near the end of the decade, and everybody's making a list. Why not?

These aren't my favorites. If this were a list of my personal favorites, Fallout 3 would be number one, and Hitman: Blood Money would be number two. Metal Gear Solid 3 would be near the top as well.

Instead, here's my idea of 10 titles that defined the state of the art in game design in the 00's:

10 Ico. (Sept. 24, 2001) Fumito Ueda's first game took the puzzle-platforming of Prince of Persia or Out of This World into 3D the way Mario 64 did for action-platformers. It introduced an AI-controlled companion that the player developed a bond with entirely through mechanics and animation, as well as a cold, mysterious, wondrous, desolate fantasy world, all near-wordlessly and with absolute grace. Ico trumpets the possibilities for deep emotional resonance with person and place using only the means that games handle best: play and atmosphere.

9 Peggle. (Feb. 27, 2007) The ultimate development of the casual game explosion over the course of the 00's. It is everything that a casual game can be: skill-based but random, accessible but surprisingly complex, both turn-based and realtime, clever, fresh, instantly gratifying but rewarding to the devoted player. Like Tetris, it relies on mechanics only a video game can provide, as opposed to being a digital tabletop game-- physics are its lynchpin, but in a frame that any player immediately grasps. It's a sensation: Breakout meets Pachinko. It's a perfectly-constructed core loop that lends itself to endless variation. It's everywhere, and it deserves to be.

8 BioShock. (Aug. 21, 2007) It was an incredibly unlikely phenomenon in a number of ways: A revival of System Shock 2's FPS/RPG gameplay, set in a mid-century undersea city based on the Objectivist philosphy of Ayn Rand, populated by little girls that drink blood and their hulking, diving suit-wearing protectors. And it became a critical and popular hit. The storytelling was a triumph of economy, being all the more impactful for taking place almost entirely off-screen; the twist not only revealed unexpected aspects of the story's major players, but commented deftly on the role of the player of a video game; the open structure of the levels and the myriad combinations of abilities never took the player for granted; the city of Rapture near-instantly became one of the signature locations in the history of video games. In contrast to its peers, it demonstrated what else the FPS, and story in games, could be.

7 Portal. (Oct. 9, 2007) Above all, the design of Portal is incredibly economical. Built out from one central mechanic, the final product felt lean and focused, while the presence of GladOS-- a disembodied voice for most of the game-- gave it heart. The mechanic itself-- creating arbitrarily placed and spatially contiguous portals on walls, ceilings, and floors to solve puzzles-- was one of a kind, and its mind-bending possibilities were exploited to the utmost by the designers at Valve. Refusing to overstay its welcome, Portal introduced you to its mechanics, setting and antagonist all in step, saw them through to their logical conclusions, and provided the player resolution in a few scant hours. If only all games knew themselves so well.

6 Katamari Damacy. (Sept. 22, 2004) Keita Takahashi's interactive manifesto on play and whimsy came out of nowhere and floored us all. Using simple graphics in service of powers-of-ten gameplay, Katamari Damacy introduces us to a gonzo conception of modern life, and invites us to roll it all up and fire it into space. Mechanically unprecedented and immediately engrossing as pure play, the game worked equally well as an ambient commentary on the absurdity and disposability of consumer culture. The visceral sensation of growing from the size of a pea to the size of a city in the span of minutes is unmatched anywhere else; the game takes this constant outward expansion to its logical conclusion in a perfectly pitched end credit sequence. It's a brilliant, self-contained statement of intent and followthrough upon it; it is a creator's worldview expressed through atmosphere and interactivity.

5 Deus Ex. (Jun. 22, 2000) A love letter to player agency, in both mechanics and story; a paranoid fantasy about all those conspiracies being true after all; a meditation on the blurry line between man and machine, between progress and self-destruction. Equal parts George Orwell and William Gibson, the world of Deus Ex is one rife with conflict, and asks the player what kind of mediator they might be. In speech: straightforward, or deceitful? In action: loyal, or self-interested? In combat: all sound and fury, or silent interloper? Deus Ex trusted the player-- trusted them to build their abilities the way best suited to their personality, to help or hinder the people they encountered as they saw fit, to explore the gameworld and draw their own conclusions. Deus Ex is, above all, an experience defined by the player, and ably provides a gameworld begging for the player to define it.

4 Animal Crossing. (Sept. 15, 2002) This disc does not contain a game, but a place. Playing off of our natural alignment with time and season, Animal Crossing makes itself real by matching what you see on screen to what you see out your window. In the morning the sun rises and animals get up to start their day; at night the shops close and everyone goes to bed. This isn't only the game's clock-- it matches the clock of the real world, a little autonomous town puttering by in time with our own. In this way, it presaged the current trend of low-pressure, near-ambient games that have gained popularity on social networking sites, while providing a much fuller experience when you did decide to spend a few minutes (or hours) in town. It also bucked the standard of high-pressure video game pacing, implicitly encouraging players to relax, only play for a little while, and be patient: letters sent by post take days-- real days-- to be delivered. Insects go into hiding in the winter, and the player waits months-- real months-- for them to reemerge. A year in the life of Animal Crossing is a singular, rich experience, one that teaches moderation through practicality and that good things come to those who wait. It's an experience only a video game could provide-- a simulated, parallel other place, humming along almost perceptibly inside your Gamecube even when it's turned off, just waiting for you to visit, if you want.

3 Passage. (Dec. 13, 2007) The last few years have seen the rise of the indie game to greater prominence, and the one work that expresses the promise of this movement most clearly, succinctly, and affectingly is Jason Rohrer's Passage. It exploits the symbolic quality of Atari-era graphics towards a sharply-honed observation on youth, memory, companionship, and the emphemerality of life. It has no tutorial, but its mechanics aren't obfuscated-- movement is your only verb; that and perhaps taking the hand of another. The implications of these simple inputs say more in just a few minutes than do the reams of dialogue of a thousand big-budget console games. Passage is a deceptively simple, elegiac and touching meditation on our path through life that gains its power as you tease out its meaning through interaction. Along with Braid and Flower, Passage sits at the crest of a wave we're only just now seeing break the horizon. These games will likely define our next decade even more strongly than they did this one.

2 Grand Theft Auto 3. (Oct. 22, 2001) It's rare for a game to come along that creates a new genre unto itself; for the 90's it was Doom, and for the 00's it was Grand Theft Auto 3. The open-world, "sandbox" aesthetic exploded from this point forward, but what impresses most is how GTA drew from the past: while everybody else has spent the decade adding "RPG elements" to their games by way of stats, loot and leveling up, GTA brought the overarching RPG structure to the masses by stripping that all away. Think of it: what other game has a wide-open world for the player to explore, a cipher protagonist who who starts as a nobody and ends up turning the gameworld on its head, a series of questgivers that can be visited in an arbitrary order, optional side-quests that can be opted into for better money and equipment, and takes 40+ hours to complete? Ultima, maybe? Fallout? Baldur's Gate? The creators of GTA saw in traditional RPGs an incredibly compelling structure for play; the brilliance was in building a convincing, familiar, modern setting around it, and stripping out all the math and inventory screens. The delaying action became car chases and shootouts instead of turn-based battles and loot collecting; the fiction played off of its setting and mechanics by placing the player in an over-the-top vision of modern American life populated by sociopathic criminals and consumerism gone wrong. And from all this arose a new popular framework for game design based on player freedom, easily expanded upon with new settings and mechanical innovations, the same way so many had added onto the work of id a decade earlier. Has there been a truly new, game-changing epiphany following GTA3, as Half-Life was to Doom? Maybe, if only in the incredible immersiveness and relative gravity of Rockstar's own GTA4, which succeeded in making Liberty City that much more vibrant, alive and real (which perhaps casts GTA4 as Quake to GTA3's Doom... with a Half-Life moment still to come.) The existence of Liberty City, in its original and then next-gen form, may be the crowning technical and creative achievement of video games this decade. And amazingly, that's not even half of why GTA is so significant.

1 The Sims. (Feb. 4, 2000) But then, a true sandbox is nothing except four walls, some rolling sand, and the toys you choose to put in it. And while lighting the fire of a new genre is quite the achievement, doesn't creating an absolutely singular design-- one which is a genre unto itself and which practically no one has even attempted to match-- mean more than spawning a legion of imitators? The Sims, in all respects, stands alone. Will Wright dared to take the pieces of our daily lives and recast them as the toys in that sandbox, and in doing so, The Sims became a lens through which we reflected ourselves-- our visions of prosperity or squalor, of harmony or discord, of fancy or practicality; it let us play with the possibilities of the world we know, to faithfully replicate our own house, friends and family, or instead to imagine a world in which that's all completely different. Its underlying structure implies a simplified vision of the bootstrapping American dream, where anyone can start out in an empty lot with a few bucks in their pocket and end up being a celebrity or CEO. And it acknowledges the modern implications of that dream-- to end up with an ever-expanding house, filled to bursting with the most expensive furniture, appliances and knick-knacks you can find. It's a view of the allure and emptiness of consumerism through the most open, unfettered kind of play-- like SimCity, all that's defined by the designer is the bounds of the sandbox and the identities of the toys that can go in it; the rest is up to you. But the rules also result in an almost Tetris-like determinism: no matter how successful you are, you'll eventually run out of rungs on the career ladder, run out of tchotchkes to buy. And what are you left with? A big house filled with expensive things, and a life you're most likely bored of living. It's been said that Passage was "the first interactive memento mori." I'd have to disagree. While Liberty City is an amusing and wry parody, The Sims presented us with a concentrated abstraction of the comfort and futility of 21st century America, and let us realize that grim system entirely through our own means. It is play, self-expression, aesthetic, and message all rolled into one, and its overwhelming success-- selling millions upon millions of copies to the very demographic it depicts, and millions more expansions containing fresh junk for them to pretend to buy-- is the confirmation of its thesis. Will Wright intended The Sims to be a simulation of ourselves, and we proved him right. If great art is both a reflection of its society and is reflected in it, then it's hard to argue that The Sims is any less than the defining game of its era.


  • Where is World of Warcraft? Call of Duty? Halo?
These games had a huge impact on gamers, but their success was much more in refinement of existing designs and strong production values and usability than in achieving the kinds of design breakthroughs outlined above. WoW is Everquest shined to a blinding sheen, Halo is a standard PC FPS executed superbly for a home console, and so forth. This is the same reason I highlighted GTA3 instead of GTA4, or The Sims over The Sims 3; the latter are more refined but are not the original conception of the thing.

  • What about Shadow of the Colossus? Resident Evil 4? Metal Gear Solid 3?
Again, if this were a list of favorites, it would be different. Oh fuck it, here's my list of Personal Favorite Games of the 00's, written up hastily and with little forethought:

25 Kane & Lynch: Dead Men

24 Yakuza 2

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time

Metroid Prime

Far Cry 2

20 F.E.A.R.

19 No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way

18 Bully

Resident Evil 4

Deus Ex

15 BioShock

14 Grand Theft Auto 4

13 Super Mario Galaxy

12 God Hand

Shadow of the Colossus

10 Portal

Silent Hill 2

8 Ico

7 Dead Rising

6 Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence

5 No More Heroes

4 Katamari Damacy

3 Animal Crossing

2 Hitman: Blood Money

1 Fallout 3

Thanks, and here's to next decade! See you on the other side!