Some time ago, a friend of mine told me that he did not like big, Western video games. I asked him why, and he explained that the Western games were soulless husks that only existed to make money and Japanese games were pure achievements of artistic merit.
I did not agree with my friend because of the ludicrousness of that sentiment — that cultural differences make one kind of game more authentic than another because Westerners ostensibly only treat game development like a 9–5 and Japanese game devs treat it like some blacksmithing master slaving decades to craft the perfect samurai blade — however, I do find, years later, that… well, there are some games that I would not consider artistic achievements, and there are other games I absolutely would.
Here is a game I do not think is an artistic achievement:
It is called The Last of Us. If you haven’t heard of it, well, let me tell you, a whole mess of people think it’s the single greatest video game of the last technological generation, and when it was rereleased for modern video game consoles, a lot of players said it was the greatest accomplishment of this generation too.
When I played it, live, on the streaming service mixer, using the conference call feature of discord to stream some of my friends reactions as well, I found myself uncannily predicting what would happen next. See this guy? He’s probably a cannibal. See this part of the map? I bet we fight people here. That guy? He’s gonna die. He’s definitely gonna die.
My predictions came true.
It’s not because I’m some great genius or anything, because I’m not. I’m a 30 year-old disabled guy in the middle of Kansas who was lucky enough to convince people to let me write about games in exchange for money for a few years.
The reason I could predict everything that happened in The Last of Us was because it had already happened elsewhere, most notably in the movie The Road. Nothing I saw in The Last of Us surprised me, because everything in The Last of Us was carefully derived from somewhere else.
For all the money, time, blood, sweat, tears, divorces, and whatever else was put into The Last of Us, the end result was a game I’d finished before I even hit the on button on my console.
A game developer friend of mine told me that games were often constructed at Naughty Dog by finding bits and pieces of movies and television shows, screening them, and going “okay, we’re going to make this.”
It is, in my opinion, a kind of cargo-cult storytelling, a means of placing the things that awe us in an order that those of us without media literacy will fail to recognize. Stuff that gets an emotional response not because it’s earned but because it copied moments that were earned in the hopes it will do well.
I think this is stuff that… well, preys on the “now the mainstream will finally accept us as art!” sensibilities. It preys on the weak and the insecure, the people who so desperately want to be taken seriously for enjoying the things they enjoy. Listen up, Jimmy Gamerman, your parents think you’re a loser because you’re a millennial trying to get a job in this economy, struggling to get by, and of course they blame your hobbies for it. Just because USA Today posts an article saying The Last of Us was an artistic achievement doesn’t mean your mom and dad are going to respect you.
I should know. I’ve worked on several critically acclaimed video games, directed one, and am working on one that a publisher I pitched it to called “genius,” and my parents still think games are the devil’s work and will ruin my immortal soul.
The simple fact of reality is that no one takes you seriously for the art you consume. They only take you seriously for the art you produce.
And here in games, we have an awful lot of people thinking that good art is art that makes the mainstream take us seriously. That “are games art” debate isn’t really whether or not games are art, it’s whether or not games are high art. Kids want games to be taught in schools (in art history classes), they want game designers to be treated like movie directors (because they don’t understand that hollywood is an industry built on Image and there are armies of people called ‘publicists’ that aren’t really employed in video games, so that just isn’t going to happen). They want games in the libraries and the smithsonians, they want to talk about Dark Souls at the watercooler in their 9–5s. They want games to be as integral to society as movies, books, and music are.
In 2007, a game called Bioshock shook the industry. I recall a games critic saying something like “Bioshock wasn’t particularly deep, but there was something about it that birthed a lot of game critics.”
I think it’s because, prior to Bioshock, most video games were busy going “aliens are attacking! go shoot the aliens!” or something. I loves me some Halo, for instance, because it is a game that transports me to a breathtaking world and an adventure I can partake with friends, but if you were expecting to go into Halo with the expectation that it would Have Something To Say About The Nature Of The Human Experience, you’d be sorely mistaken.
Personally, I don’t really think the Hallelujah Chorus does either, but it’s sublime and everyone considers it high art. We’ll get back to that idea later.
The picture above is from Bioshock Infinite, the third Bioshock game.
When it released, it was overwhelmingly praised, like so:
Bad take from a guy who makes really good fuckin video games, but that was a pretty common sentiment by an awful lot of people. Bioshock Infinite, a game that was True Art, because it Said Stuff and Didn’t Do The Stuff Other Games Did.
It’s a dumb idea, not just because Bioshock was a game that basically said “games aren’t real worlds,” which, no shit, sherlock. Imagine being the guy during a screening of Old Yeller who runs down the aisle yelling “the dog isn’t really dead! it’s all acting and editing!”
(in film theory, there’s this idea called suture, which is essentially a contract that the art makes with the audience: for the next 90 minutes, you believe I’m real, and I’ll do my best to pretend to be real, and that way, you can go on an emotional journey)
(when a character died in a recent video game, my friend went “oh shit, his father is going to cry, and I’m going to lose it.” He didn’t go “oh man, the voice actor is going to perform sadness,” he said that the character would be sad, and it would make him be sad. that is how suture works)
Bioshock is stupid.
Bioshock Infinite, on the other hand? That was… uh, a mess. You jumped through like 5 different timelines, which basically meant that no choice you had mattered. Then the end of the game was like “uh, there are a shitload of realities out there, and they’re all video games, variations on a theme, so nothing really matters, I guess.”
Bioshock Infinite is also stupid.
But, hey, Bioshock tried to do something other than just Be About Going From A To Be and a lot of people noticed, myself included. Then I discovered Marathon Infinity and that was like, whew, a whole thing. More sophisticated than just about anything out there these days.
Bioshock could be powerful at times — who could forget that first interaction with the splicer, or the golf club moment? — but by going “hey, I’m About Something,” a lot of people who were desperate for games to be taken seriously made the mistake of assuming that being About Something made you inherently intellectual.
People do the same thing with Christopher Nolan films.
A movie industry friend of mine once said that Christopher Nolan was attending the world’s most expensive film school, because every film he made was teaching him stuff he should have already known. But, hey, throw in a messy metaphor for the surveillance state in The Dark Knight or whatever and people think you’re a fuckin genius.
The myth of the nerd/jock dichotomy is that the nerd is sensitive, introspective, and intelligent, while the jock is loud, ignorant, and stupid. The nerd reads Batman, therefore the nerd must be intelligent. The jock uses his body, therefore the jock must be an idiot. You can see this with MBTI profiles, or introvert memes that talk about how intelligent introverts must be because they spend all of their time thinking.
Did you know that in medieval times, having muscles meant you were a laborer as opposed to someone in the nobility, which meant that if you looked like Captain America, all muscular and tanned and an absolute fuckin hunk, you were probably a fuckin moron?
Obviously, the reason laborers were ‘dumb’ and noblemen were ‘smart’ was because laborers had to work with their hands and noblemen got to stay indoors all day, reading books and shit because they could afford that?
The jock/nerd dichotomy is class bullshit, nothing more.
Anyways, an awful lot of people think that consuming entertainment media makes them intelligent, so enjoying The Dark Knight or The Last of Us makes you Smart, and not enjoying them means you’re not sophisticated, and if you aren’t sophisticated, you must be dumb.
[I cut out a paragraph here which seemed too self-aggrandizing. Here are two new ones.]
When I was in film school, a student told me that I didn’t deserve to be there because I didn’t love Christopher Nolan or consider him a great action director. I was a bit taken aback. It was like someone eating a gas station pizza and telling me I didn’t deserve to study to become a chef because I didn’t think that greasy shit was the best food ever.
There is some degree of frustration with people who are eager to declare something as “the best ever” but adamantly refuse to experience more than that. If you only ever eat gas station pizza, how can you know it’s the best? How do you know you haven’t settled? Can you imagine how frustrating it is to hear people put down the things you love or call your own expertise into question because they settled for the first thing that seemed cool? If I read a book I thought was good, I’d want to read more good books. It seems like some people read See Spot Run and decided that it was the best and everything else could go fuck off.
Which, hey, back to the cargo cult.
This plane cannot fly.
It’s not even powered — there is no engine to spin that propeller fast enough to generate thrust, the curvature of the wing is not adequate enough to generate lift. Its frame could not handle being buffeted about by storms. On and on I could go.
This is a cargo cult construction.
Here, we have a lot of people who saw something and did their best to recreate it. That’s admirable. It’s fascinating. It is, in fact, a valid means of artistic expression. There are some game ideas I have had, for instance, because someone described something to me and I did my best to create something inspired by the description rather than the source (ostensibly, this is how unicorns were invented; the theory goes that someone tried and failed to describe a rhinoceros).
I think the wonderful people who built the cargo cult plane knew their plane would not fly and weren’t trying to say “we can make a better plane than the one that was here six months ago, and everyone should take us seriously as True Aeronautical Engineers.”
But that’s what happens in games.
Look at how, after Game of Thrones started, suddenly, a lot of Game of Thrones actors found work in video games. Look at the explosion of Games Clearly Inspired By The Prestige TV Boom. We had a lot of people going “wow, that was something I really enjoyed… I want to copy that.”
They’re making planes that can’t fly.
I call ’em Prestige Games.
For a long time, video games came in two varieties. You had PC games, which predominantly targeted adults (people like Roberta Williams and Al Lowe have talked about this), and you had console games, which were meant mostly for children. Nintendo, to this day, thinks of themselves as a toy manufacturer.
When Sony entered the market with the PlayStation, the games that defined their system were things like Final Fantasy VII and Spyro the Dragon. Cartoons. Stylized graphics were great because realism was really hard, so you had stuff that was cartoony — it lent itself well to kids. The PlayStation 2 wasn’t that much different, but more realistic graphics had developers itching to try something more serious.
Enter Naughty Dog, a studio that made games about this guy:
A long time ago, I heard that Phil Harrison, who now runs Google’s Stadia, but used to run Sony’s department, made the demand that for the PlayStation 3, Sony’s studios needed to make ‘realistic’ looking games, in order to show off the ‘power’ of the cell processor (which was actually not as powerful as people thought; the ps3 wasn’t even as powerful as its competitor, the Xbox 360, even though Sony tried very hard to convince people that it was far more capable). Sucker Punch went from the cartoony Sly Raccoon games to the realistic-looking Infamous, Insomniac went from the cartoony Ratchet & Clank to the gritty Resistance games, and Naughty Dog, the makers of that weird looking Crash Bandicoot up there?
Well, they made something called Uncharted.
That’s the game up there with the shotgun man.
I actually liked Uncharted quite a bit. Amy Hennig, an amazing, legendary writer in video games, came up with the whole thing, as I understand it, and she led the narrative side of the first game. It had some issues, most notably with how it played — aiming and moving weren’t super great.
This wasn’t really Naughty Dog’s fault, mind you. The current modern control scheme for moving and aiming in 3D is that the left stick controls how you move, the right stick controls how you look around, the left trigger zooms in to aim, and the right trigger fires. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s the gist. This scheme first showed up with Alien: Resurrection in 2000, Bungie went with a modified version in 2001, and then a lot of people spent the next 5–10 years trying other methods of control until they exhausted all the options with very little refinement, other than Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s major refinement in 2007.
That was the year when everyone went “okay, geez, fine, I guess this is how games should feel.” 2008 was the first year in games when everyone finally kinda got on the same page as to how these games should control.
This is all an aside but this is my blog and I can talk about weird esoteric stuff like this because it’s interesting and I don’t know how to fit it into something much bigger.
So, Uncharted, like Mass Effect, like a lot of other games at the start of the generation, didn’t quite have it all figured out, but it was a really interesting attempt.
Then Sony fucked it up and tried to make the sequel.
I streamed Uncharted 2 earlier this year.
I have a system that rates games, and it goes like this:
S: All-time great. There are only four games on this list. Maybe five.
A: A game I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone.
B: A really interesting game with some flaws that bothered me.
C: A game that did not stand out to me.
D: A game that was not very good, had major flaws, did not have enough moments to make me want to revisit.
F: A failure.
I gave Uncharted 2 a D.
I gave it a D because the game starts out with some Kinda Okay Encounters That Aren’t Super Fun, eventually gets into Genuinely Bad Encounter territory when its contemporaries, like Gears of War 2 and Dead Space, were more varied and interesting and competently constructed, there were moments that downright sucked (looking at you, ‘running away from car’ sequence), and the game just loved taking away camera control to show you cool shit instead of letting you do cool shit.
There were a couple good moments (the sign), but by and large, Uncharted 2 was a game about this guy, Nathan Drake, who wanted to stop another guy, Lazarevic (this isn’t a Cher situation, I just don’t remember his first name), from drinking the sap of a tree because it would make him like… idk, bulletproof? Or something?
I love dumb premises!
What I don’t love are dumb premises that try to be smart, and in Uncharted 2’s case, we had a Not-That-Great game (this is my favorite article about any game that I personally didn’t work on and you should read it) with an ending that was fucking stupid (wow, the bad guy just wanted power! he shot his own guys to prove to you that he was A Bad Guy!), a story that just wasn’t intelligent or interesting suddenly being praised as The Most Important Game Of The Generation.
If you read that post-hype article I linked, you may notice this passage:
Like I said, a lot of people in video games really want you to compare games to movies, and Uncharted 2, even though it most definitely wasn’t as good as the movies it was being compared to, a lot of people felt that it suddenly made their interest in games legitimate.
There are few things more potent than someone feeling validated.
When a dumb nerd watches a really simple movie like Inception and can follow the plot, they mistakenly believe they are some sort of Super Genius Tactician who is better than everyone. When people play a game like Uncharted and go “wow, it’s like a movie,” they are inclined to champion it until the end of the world because It Makes Them Feel Valid.
Sony isn’t the only studio to get these accolades. I mentioned Bioshock earlier, and the publication IGN once claimed that Grand Theft Auto IV…
…gives us characters and a world with a level of depth previously unseen in gaming and elevates its story from a mere shoot-em-up to an Oscar-caliber drama.
Rockstar’s next game, Red Dead Redemption, would get even more praise.
The thing about Rockstar, makers of Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, and Max Payne 3 (not 1 and 2 though), among other things, is that all their games are clearly lifted directly from movies, with some bits here and there to make sure no one could tell the homework was copied, you know?
Grand Theft Auto IV lifts from Scorsese, Red Dead Redemption leans heavily on Peckinpah, and Max Payne 3 is really, really bad Man on Fire fan fiction. Seriously, it even lifts the visual affectations of the movie, where words flash on the screen. It also has no less than five sequences where you can’t move and just shoot at things as they fly past you.
I’m not really here to give you in-depth reviews of these games. I’m here to talk about that weird cargo cult trend, that desire to Make Something Prestigious.
Back when Uncharted 2 came out, the big debate of the era was “what is the citizen kane of video games?” Citizen Kane is often thought of as the movie that got people to take movies seriously, as more than just academic entertainment. That’s not really true, of course. There was no Watershed Moment Of Being Taken Seriously. It’s a gradual thing. It always has been and always will be. It is a societal process. TV was big and dumb and now Breaking Bad is Emmy-winning True Art™. That’s just how it is.
When Sony got ahold of the whole “wow, people will take us seriously if we make games like movies” thing, their eyes went like this:
or maybe this
Sony realized that if people could look past the bad shooting, weak encounter design, and poor storytelling of their games and go “wow, this Feels Important,” those people would give their games prestige, and prestige means coverage, and coverage means money.
Also, Sony, the company that made The Emoji Movie wanted to be taken seriously as an artistic force, so there’s that.
Anywho, Naughty Dog went from One Of The Studios to The Prestige Studio, so they set about ripping off John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and pretty much any other apocalypse movie they could get their hands on. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve seen the “actually, this guy was a cannibal” plots I’ve seen.
It’s a lot.
There are some good moments in The Last of Us, but by and large, it’s a game with substandard controls and mechanics (there are four different puzzle types in the game where you move an object so another character can move, and you do them All The Time. Moving ladders so characters can climb, jumping in water and moving a pallet so a character can hop on it and swim, you get the idea), really poor AI, and a super, super predictable narrative.
But, hey, it looks pretty, there are some moving moments (huge shout out to the giraffe sequence here), and they actually do try to earn their reactions, which is nice. But the protagonist is an irredeemable asshole and the game doesn’t really know what to do with that.
You end up with a game that copies homework, a cargo cult game, an experience like so many others. But it looks really pretty and the presentation is Expensive so it gets All the Praise.
Sony’s dollar-sign-eyes meant that they were gonna do A Lot of These Games.
Not all of them turned out well — the reveal of the PlayStation 4 started talking about Terrorism In Airports and other serious stuff and then ended up being… an Infamous game. I like Infamous a lot, but man, they really wanted us to Take It Seriously.
Naughty Dog, of course, released two more Uncharteds and is about to release another The Last of Us. The studio’s been plagued by accusations of sexual harassment and assault, crunch, and several high-profile leads have all left. Its games are some of the best-looking games I’ve ever seen, but they’re all, and I do mean all, super derivative games that take What’s Popular Out There I Guess and This Movie I Saw Last Week and make the prettiest dang direct-to-dvd games they can.
You know, when I was streaming The Last of Us, several people commented, saying “oh yeah, I played it once and I loved it, but I’d never play it again.” Of Uncharted 2, I had dozens of conversations with people who were like “wow, Uncharted 2 was an amazing game. Oh yeah, I’m not interested in playing the sequel.”
That’s the kind of thing someone says when they didn’t actually like a game, they liked the initial impression it left them with. Production value is what makes that happen.
Critical discourse for Bioshock Infinite was that it was The Best Video Game Of All Time, True Art, RIP Roger Ebert, until a few months later, someone made a metaphor that “it’s kind of like a theme park, isn’t it? not a very interactive world, just a lot of rooms to right in?” and everyone picked up on this and suddenly you had dozens of takes not crediting whoever had initially made the metaphor with everyone pretending they’d come up with it.
An awful lot of people play a game and judge it not based on what it is, but their perception of the game. I loved 50 Cent: Blood in the Sand, for instance, but at the time of its release, the context was very much “this is an ego trip by a B-tier rapper set, tastelessly, in the middle east.” Nowadays, “this is a fascinating game that should never have been made with surprisingly tight gameplay that feels like commentary on games set in the middle east rather than just a game capitalizing on a current trend.”
I think the mark of a good game is somewhat defined by how easy it is to find intelligent writing about it — not entirely, because sometimes, your editor won’t let you publish articles about games you love because it isn’t profitable — but at least somewhat.
When it comes to games that get breathless praise, like The Last of Us, most of the coverage is a whole lotta nuthin’. In 2017, Sony rebooted God of War, it won all the awards (I know, I was on the show floor about two tables away from Cory Barlog when he picked up the award for directing the damn thing), a lot of people did the whole ‘this makes the world take video games seriously’ song and dance.
(He seems like a really cool dude and a lot of people I know who know him seem to love the guy)
Fun fact, a lot of people talked about how God of War was this Amazing Artistic Accomplishment for being a one-take game. What does that mean? It means the camera never cuts. Your perspective in the game never wavers.
In movies, it’s something truly special. I know, because I’ve done it myself. I have been the director of photography on a project with a long take. It’s very hard to set up and it almost never pays off. But still… there are times when it absolutely blows us away:
In games? A bit less so. There’s some trickery required to make the loading work, but the fact is, developers were doing it back with Dead Space in 2008. Heck, Valve did it with the first-person Half-Life back in ~1998~, though it was understandably a bit rough.
Nobody ever really praised those games for doing that or being True Artistic Achievements the way that God of War did, and the only reason they did it for God of War was because it was mentioned as part of Sony’s marketing push.
The critics and the gamers just did not understand their history enough to know that this had been done before, it wasn’t unique, and… honestly? It didn’t benefit the game. Gamers are often preoccupied with whether or not something is A Technical Achievement and even when they’re right, they confuse this for quality.
Being really good at making beer out of piss doesn’t make it not ‘beer that was made out of piss.’
So many people care about the perceived importance of a thing more than what’s actually there.
Me? I always cared about what was actually there.
Which leads me to the whole prestige games thing.
What is a prestige game? That’s hard to define, because different studios make different games, and these games come in a lot of different packages. Like, I’d argue that prestige games are predominantly third person games, but I’d also argue that Bioshock Infinite is a prestige game. I could argue that a lot of prestige games deal with Being A Father (God of War, Red Dead Redemption, Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us), but not all of them.
I’d say that prestige games are expensive AAA-type games that imitate better art without really understanding or improving upon them in any way, often using fairly boilerplate mechanics to accomplish this.
“But wait, Doc, doesn’t god of war have that axe you can throw and call back?” yes, yes it does. fun fact, I was working on a shooter where you had a drill on a cable you could shoot and retract, as well as a shooter where you could throw things at people to stun them, and if you weren’t carrying anything, you could throw your gun, which was on a retractable cable, so it would come back to you and you could shoot people. So I really like the mechanic and was glad to see it in God of War.
However, I don’t believe that a gimmick frees a game from this loop.
Look at, say, Crackdown 3. Crackdown 3 is a game with lock-on instead of aiming. It’s a game where Doing Things makes you Better At Doing Things. You find dead bodies and turn them into characters you can play as. There are a lot of really cool, fascinating, fun things in the game, like the ability to pick up a car with your friend in it and jump through a checkpoint in a race that he was having a hard time ramping through. It has a spider-car. There is no game like Crackdown out there. None. It is so huge, different, weird, wonderful, and insane, and I love playing it so fucking much.
If Crackdown played like any other video game out there but had a gimmick where your car was a spider-tank, then yeah, I don’t think that would be interesting. Crackdown is a game with a really smart ‘you get xp based on how you killed an enemy, so try to do as many different types of damage to an enemy as it dies’ gameplay that is thrilling. The whole play experience is special.
Above, you can see Shadow of the Tomb Raider. As you can see, it has a skill tree. Way back in the day, people progressed through games via encounters — walk into a room, fight two spiders, then a zombie jumps at you, oh no! Walk into the next room, here’s two spiders, two zombies, and a rhinocerous! You get the idea. Each encounter was different and progress was made by going from A to B.
Then, somewhere along the way, people figured out that you could use psychological compulsion mechanics to get people to stick with games, so they started bringing in level-up mechanics from RPGs into things like action-adventure games.
Suddenly, you need to play long enough to get the XP to unlock the ‘night vision goggles’ skill, which is a thing in Ghost Recon Breakpoint, apparently.
It’s not exactly a bad thing — as open worlds have gotten more popular, we need ways to give players a sense of progress. Linear games could let you go from zone A to B to C and you could start in the middle of the night, go into a tunnel, and walk outside into the early morning. Big open worlds with day/night cycles can’t do that kind of progress. XP systems can.
But… for some weird fuckin reason, a lot of people making prestige games have decided to break up the skills into three distinct trees with three distinct ‘themes’ for those skills, like Tomb Raider above. It’s not really interesting or unique, it’s just something a lot of games do for no really good reason.
Then there’s the loot system.
Some time ago, the folks at Blizzard decided to invent a rarity system for loot (as far as I can tell, it was Blizzard). They decided that white loot would be common, green was uncommon, blue was rare, purple was legendary, and orange would be exotic. The names change depending on who’s making the game (I used Destiny’s name system), but the colors and system progression are the same.
On one hand, this is quite useful. It helps to have this commonality between all games, and it helps to be able to find an item in the world in a game and instantly recognize it as an upgrade over what you have or not.
On the other hand… it’s in a lot of games where it doesn’t really seem to need to be, like God of War.
I get why it’s in Destiny — that’s an MMO, a game where you get weapons as a reward for completing content that you’re going to complete hundreds of times — but God of War? It’s… just kinda a way to say “hey, I guess you’re progressing, dude.”
When I write about a game, I sit down and I go “what is interesting about this game? What does it do well? Why did the game designers choose to build it the way they did?” Then I do my best to write a compelling essay about the decisions behind its design and how they make the experience meaningful.
With a lot of these prestige games, the mechanics seem to be there because the designers needed to put some mechanics in to justify telling this story as a game. Uncharted 2 never does anything mechanically compelling aside from the fight on top of a sign, where you are hanging from a sign, clambering around it and using it for cover. Beyond that, it’s just kind of… an acceptable third person shooter.
If you want an interesting third person shooter, try Gears of War 2, a game that released the year prior, where every single encounter is unique and interesting, where you can use a gun with a chainsaw to duel with enemies, where you can shoot berry sacs on the ceiling, causing them to drop so that giant, bulletproof worms will crawl around the arena so you can take cover behind them.
Prestige games don’t seem to care about their mechanics. God of War isn’t really better for its loot system (honestly? I think they should have looked at Zelda for a more interesting progression system). Shadow of the Tomb Raider or Spider-Man aren’t really improved by their three-tier skill systems. The Last of Us has a reticle that doesn’t really seem to make a lot of sense — I don’t think it’s well designed.
They’re always passable, easy enough to sit down and play without hating yourself (except for Red Dead Redemption’s ‘mash A to run,’ which is not disability friendly), but they’re never excellent. There has never been a prestige game that is as good at combat as any Gears of War game, for instance, where designers did all sorts of cute little things like “the final bullet in the chamber does 25% extra damage so every so often, you clinch that kill without needing to reload and fire one more bullet to kill the enemy so you feel good.”
I think Shadow of the Colossus is probably (I haven’t played it yet) an incredible artistic achievement, but I’m more inclined to be favorable to it because it’s a game with only 16 enemies, each one lovingly designed, with no silly XP systems or sidequests. That’s a game that appears to deserve the prestige.
I’ve often argued against the idea that every game Has To Be Original, but I do think that every game Has To Be Excellent. Take some pride in your work! There’s a difference between A 2D Platformer With A Gimmick and Bungie sitting down and going “okay, let’s design four really, really distinct enemy types — grunt, jackal, elite, hunter — and then build an entire combat sandbox around those four enemy types so that every single encounter feels immensely satisfying, not just on the first playthrough, but on every subsequent playthrough.”
A lot of these games seem to be… well, passable, the Gas Station Pizza of game design.
Then there’s the story.
So many of these games have stories that are clearly lifted from elsewhere, but lack the brilliant performances, character work, or drama that make these stories so compelling. Max Payne 3 isn’t as good as Man on Fire, Red Dead Redemption’s ending was obvious in the opening cutscene, The Last of Us will never surprise you. They’re just taking what’s there, slapping a new coat of paint on it, and hoping you won’t notice.
So many people fail to notice because they lack that essential literacy. They’re getting the watered down version and thinking it’s the real deal. It’s like thinking McDonald’s is a real burger.
Things shouldn’t happen because we’ve seen them happen in other stories, they should happen because the characters do what those characters would do under the circumstances they find themselves in. I should only be able to predict a story because I understand the characters deeply; if I can predict it because I’ve seen a dozen movies with the same premise, and this always happens in movies, you have a major fucking problem.
I don’t like prestige games because they aren’t good games, they’re expensive games, games that look great and play adequately, games with stories that just don’t thrill or entice me.
This year, the games I’ve loved most are Control and Gears 5, games that constantly shook and surprised me, games where everything that happened did so because they were earned. These were games with characters I loved and mourned for. These were games that made me shout “holy shit” and “what the fuck.” These were the games that wouldn’t leave my head.
I wish we’d shoot for more.
Over the years, I’ve had people accuse me of hating Sony games (I loved Until Dawn, Ratchet & Clank, Digimon Cyber Sleuth, Tetris Effect, plenty of games that were PlayStation exclusives, so this obviously isn’t true; Sony just makes the bulk of prestige games out there and I don’t like that kind of game). I’ve had people accuse me of hating popular games (please explain why I love playing Call of Duty and Halo?). You don’t really get it.
I love games that tell stories that surprise and delight me. When a game fails to do that, I stop caring. I like going to worlds that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I am enthralled by games where real thought and attention was paid to the mechanics, I mean real fuckin thought. Where everything in the game is integral to the game, not just thrown in because that’s what other people did.
My buddy Cory and I finished Gears 5 this morning.
We sat there in stunned silence. I wanted to cry because of something the story absolutely earned. I was thrilled and gobsmacked and heartbroken and so much more. It is the best game I played this year. Cory, as we recovered, kept describing it as ‘lean.’ There was nothing unnecessary in the game. If it was there, it’s because it had to be there.
Gears 5’s design was so thoughtful, so aware of what it was doing and how to accomplish that. It’s a thoroughbred of a game, a brilliant thing, a truly special game. It felt like playing an AAA game for the first time, seeing what that was truly like.
It’s hard to define a prestige game, but I guess what I’d say is that a prestige game, like Red Dead Redemption or The Last of Us or Uncharted 2 or Max Payne 3, is a soulless game, one that just seems to go through the motions, imitating other, better games and pretending it can hang with the best of them.
I resent that notion.
Games can be better than this.
They so often are.
HERE’S A FOLLOWUP
a tiny edit: hey. some people suggested this piece was ‘angry’ or ‘condemning people for not being literate.’ i’m very sorry about that. i was not angry when writing it, though i did write it in one draft and was doing it while trying to stay awake until a reasonable sleeping hour. i was hoping to condemn BEHAVIOR — to say ‘hey it really sucks when people like a thing because they think liking it makes them good,’ ‘im not a big fan of games that imitate successful things and misunderstand the dramatic cause/effect of what they’re copying,’ and ‘it really sucks when people say “I don’t need more than this, this is the best and fuck anyone who disagrees.” I want to live in a world where people want to discover things that bring them joy, and where people want to bring more joy into the world.
if you like what i do here, i have a ko-fi at ko-fi.com/stompsite. my last doctor’s visit was $225 so any help would be appreciated, but honestly, i’m very happy to read all those tweets saying “I don’t agree with this 100%, but it’s really interesting.” That means the world to me.