So there’s this technique that developed in painting hundreds of years ago called impasto. Basically, artists cake on a bunch of paint, and instead of shaping a specific two-dimensional image, that we can all take pictures of and be happy with, the artists take all this extra paint and use it not only to give texture to the image, but to play with the way light works with the painting. In contrast with the more traditional thought process of “I will make this picture out of colors,” it’s a very radical approach, but one that’s worked brilliantly for artists over time.
Impasto represented a new way of thinking about an old medium, one that has improved the medium it’s in, but not totally supplanted everything that came before it, either. We’re going to be exploring the same basic idea—rethinking the way we approach video games—but at the same time, it’s important to recognize that not all games are going to benefit from this rethinking. There’s no reason to change, say, Chess because of this. Some video games are nothing more than simply what it says on the tin: “video games.”
Other games are something more.
Other games take us to artificial parallel realities. Other games have stories to tell us. Other games take us on emotional journeys through sights and sounds. Other games… aren’t really benefited by being called video games.
But so many of us are all too literal.
In her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards touches on the notion that part of the reason people have so much trouble drawing, not to mention suffering from a wide variety of mental tics and illnesses, is because society pushes us towards inhering in a state of left-brained logic. The idea is that we don’t really use our right brains, because society doesn’t encourage it, and I think I know what she means: these days, society is all about science and stuff. The “smart people” are generally seen as people who talk in dry, boring terms, or people who focus on math and stuff. Nobody looks at a writer of fiction and says “he’s really smart,” unless that writer eschews genre fiction for “literary fiction*,” focusing on words more than story, but anyone will see someone who can do math well and say “oh, wow, they’re a really smart person.”
We’re focused on math and science, wonderful things, but that focus comes at the expense of our focus on all that juicy, lovely right-brained stuff like emotions and feelings and the things that help center us as well-balanced, healthy human beings. We need a balance, and we haven’t really got it.
When it comes to video games, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that gameplay is king, even from designers whose games don’t really reflect that.** Go read an interview or whatever with game writers, and they’ll talk all about how the story has to be chained to the gameplay, as if the gameplay’s the most important element of a video gaming experience, because “game” is in the name of “video game.”
“Video game,” I think, is a bad name for the medium. Interactive Digital Entertainment would be a more accurate name, but that’s kind of boring and doesn’t really matter because we’re basically stuck with the name “Video game,” for good or ill.
So I’d like to suggest this: gameplay isn’t the be-all, end-all of every video game ever. In fact, for every game that’s got a story, or that’s trying to put players in a new world and give them some sort of experience, a focus on gameplay as the most important aspect is downright silly.
Last week, we talked about Citizen Kane, and the response was overwhelming, both positively and negatively. The negative responses in particular were really interesting to me, because I saw a repeated trend of not really understanding, or even trying to understand, why Citizen Kane was so amazing at the time (it’s still amazing!). Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of other dismissals, and some of them were actually really enlightening, and I can totally agree with some of their remarks, but the “no, Citizen Kane isn’t a very good movie” remarks were seriously disheartening.
Imagine a world where Orson Welles had thought “I am making a movie. That means I am making a thing about moving pictures, and that’s all.” Imagine if he, as some of the responses to me in the thread, had recoiled at the notion that his film should use elements from other media. If you’re familiar at all with film, and more specifically with Citizen Kane, you know the movie just would not have been as good.
Citizen Kane is a movie that can’t even be colorized. It was a movie designed for black and white, it seems, with each shot, each element of lighting working towards one singular purpose, and that wasn’t to make a series of moving pictures.
If I were to tell a large crowd of people that I wanted to make a video game focused entirely on story, a good portion of that crowd would get rather upset, telling me that I can’t make a good game if my focus isn’t on gameplay. But the name isn’t the thing. Saying that gameplay is the most important element of a game is like saying that the photography is the most important part of a movie. It’s silly. It’s absurd.
…and it’s an idea that’s everywhere.
The prevailing argument is that gameplay must be king, because if gameplay isn’t king, then the gameplay is going to suck, but I’ve got to disagree with that. In my experience, only one concept is so selfish, and that’s storytelling. In a film, absolutely everything exists to tell a story, even the cinematography. In many cases, rather than the story somehow sabotaging the cinematography, we see that the cinematography serves the story. Now it’s not just wonderful cinematography for the sake of being beautiful for beauty’s sake, it’s wonderful cinematography because it serves a greater purpose.
And gameplay, I think, can be the same way. Gameplay doesn’t have to be inherently worse as the result of being subservient to story—it can enhance and uplift the story. The gameplay can be absolutely excellent in a way that makes the game’s story or point or emotional resonancy or whatever other kind of artistic point you’re making—even better.
To put it plainly, if you’re a developer, and your story is suffering because of gameplay, then either you’re telling the wrong story, or you made a choice to create gameplay that’s incompatible with the storytelling.
No single element that defines an artistic medium is the most important part of that medium. Words are not the most important parts of novels. Cinematography is not the most important part of a film. And gameplay is not the most important part of a game. That’s the stuff that makes the medium distinct; as an art medium, the art is still the most important element of the pieced.
It should be obvious that some works of art just don’t work in some media. You can’t really do Disney’s Fantasia over the radio, because it’s designed to capitalize on visuals. Alan Moore intended Watchmen to be pored over; his paneling is incredibly deliberate in the way it draws the reader’s eye around the page… sure, it was filmed, but many argue that the end result isn’t as good as the comic***.
So when it comes to making a game, it would be wise to look at what you want to convey and go “okay, what gameplay best conveys this idea?” For instance, if you want to make a video game that’s about being the dictator of a small island republic throughout the years, you probably don’t want to make it a puzzler-platformer. If you want to make a horror game, you might consider that the first-person perspective enhances the experience by limiting the player’s perspective, and you might want to think about balancing your weapons so that they actively scare the player.
If we think about games in terms of gameplay, I think we hit a kind of stagnation. We tend to think about permutations on a given theme, on imitating genres that already exist. We create genres first, then fill in the stories to explain them. Sometimes, our stories suffer because we have to use silly story bits to explain gameplay ideas (“so yeah, you’ll get points for military perfection if you can murder people inventively while drunk!”), when we could have explained it in different ways.
Don’t get me wrong; I know from experience that not every game idea comes from an experience first perspective, but… what if we thought about game design differently. Instead of thinking “let’s put gameplay first,” why not ask ourselves “how do I want to make players feel at this moment in time? Does my gameplay make the player feel the way I want them to?”
In Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, the players are given a gun. They use it to fight enemies, as people normally would. The thing is, DCOE’s a horror game, so after the game lets the player feel familiar with a gun, it takes the gun away, making players feel way more vulnerable than if they’d started the game without a gun and continued on. Then it gives the gun back, but with the understanding that using the gun may make things worse. It’s a very specific choice in the way the game’s been designed, and it all works towards crafting one of the best horror experiences in video gaming.
Max Payne 2’s slow-mo combat and oneiric level design works handily with the game’s fusion of psychological thriller, action, and neo-noir storytelling. The narration helps make the game even more dreamlike, more strange. The sound of rain on the corrugated steel roof of the warehouse in the opening level, contrasted with the tinny audio of the televisions, is absolutely amazing. Every single aspect of Max Payne 2 works together to create one cohesive experience that features some of the best shooting mechanics that have ever existed in a video game. The game puts the players on edge, then makes them feel absolutely amazing for pulling off complicated takedowns.
Plenty of games do this. You move in Halo differently than you move in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, because in one game, you’re a super-soldier on an alien artifact that generates a peculiar amount of gravity, while in the other, you’re a regular soldier in a Bay-like military action experience. The weapons and health systems are different, because Halo wants you to move around, while COD4 wants you to pop in and out of cover, establishing the feeling that you’re in a firefight. Bulletstorm brings COD4’s regenerating health into the mix, but gives the player considerably more health, so the player doesn’t even have to think that much about finding or managing their health, so they can focus on getting the best combos possible. FEAR gives the player super-speed to move around, but provides limited health kits, thus adding a degree of tension even with the super-speed.
But still, those games are the best of the best. Many games will give players regenerating health when a health kit would be better, both in terms of narrative and gameplay. One critically-acclaimed game featured a cutscene that shamed white people for killing bears, while giving bears an AI that makes them incredibly aggressive creatures—I’ve been attacked by bears that charged me from the woods and murdered my horse for no reason whatsoever. Some writers excuse poor writing as the result of the story being subservient to gameplay… and, I can’t agree.
I think part of the reason that the medium’s kinda stuck not being a fine art is because too many people are thinking in too limited a perspective about the creation of video games. I think if we approach games with the primary objective of shaping an emotional reaction within the user, using every single tool available to us, from gameplay to sound to graphics to art to storytelling to everything else, then games will be way better than they currently are.
Instead of focusing on gameplay, coming up with an endless series of permutations on existing mechanics, let’s focus on the experience, creating a cohesive experience that works together to really mean something to people.
When we do, we get games like Journey.
Don’t stop believin’, guys. I’ll see you next time.
I write stuff on TAY, but also post it on my tumblr or twitter feeds. I’m a guy who really, really wants to make video games with other people, who loves talking about entertainment forms and how they affect us, and I’m a dirt poor student working on my journalism and film degrees, while spending the rest of my spare time working so I can afford to buy groceries and pay the rent. Because of this, I only ever write this stuff in one draft; I wish I could afford to do more, because I love chatting with you guys, and really want to write the best stuff I can!
*Literary Fiction is really just a kind of genre that’s more or less centered around liberal, upper middle-class characters and their normal, boring lives, and some epiphany that they have; I read this essay one time that was all about how the author wished people would stop reading detective books on his morning commute and go read a bunch of various authors. I looked up those authors, and it turns out that the book each author was most famous for had essentially the exact same summary. Some upper middle class person has a problem, isn’t really a likable person, the world is mundane, stuff happens, someone in the book comes to realize that they’re gay, and if that isn’t the protagonist, then the protagonist has some epiphany and then everything’s okay or whatever. Honestly, ‘literary fiction,’ in what I’ve read, seems to be more about linguistic masturbation than telling a good, interesting, and human story. Words are no more the end result of fiction than gameplay is the end result of gameplay.
Oh. Crap. If you read this footnote, you may have spoiled the article for yourself.
**It could be argued that those designers believe that “gameplay” includes “watching ‘cinematic’ things occur on screen.”
***As a former comic reviewer, I must say that I don’t agree with popular opinion in regards to Watchmen except on a technical level. I think Alan Moore really dislikes humans and only sees the worst in them, and as such, he can never tell worthwhile, human stories. He can tell you a lot about comics, and he has a unique way of thinking about comics, but it doesn’t connect on a human level, so it falls flat. In a way, his writing, is, I think, very lacking in merit.