yeah, okay, so i don’t like prestige games, and i think i get why
So, the other day, as I was trying to keep myself awake, I decided to write about a topic that was bothering me — the way some games I felt had serious issues ended up getting critical acclaim. I felt there were similarities between these games, and I was interested in exploring why that was. It was a single draft, “hey, let me get some notes down so I can talk to friends about it” type of essay, because this blog is an informal space. If you want my formal work, please check it out at places like USGamer or Kotaku. This is a blog where we spend 6,000 words on the open world design of Days Gone or 7,500 on a single gun in Destiny.
This is a place where we talk, passionately, and in-depth, about the nuances of game design. It’s rough, it’s weird, it’s a place to talk about things that won’t fly on a commercial games website.
Some people suggested the tone was a bit too angry or condescending. I agree. It’s one of those things you’re supposed to fix in edits, and I did not do that. My bad.
But most of the responses?
Some people suggested that my piece was an “anti-Sony bias,” because apparently the only studios Sony owns are Naughty Dog, who began making video games with Uncharted 2 in 2009, and Santa Monica Studio, whose first ever video game was 2017’s God of War.
Please ignore the fact that I wrote over 6,000 words on how the exclusive Days Gone was brilliant, I guess.
A sidebar, using quotes because I don’t know how to do it otherwise, lol
Do I have problems with Sony? Yes. Absolutely. They’re the company that fucked up the lovely PlayStation Vita by forcing people to use poor quality, exclusive-to-the-Vita memory cards that were overpriced and prone to breakage. They’re the company that banned my best friend from his games, account, and online play after they switched PlayStation Plus back on when he had it turned off and charged him for it. My friend was in poverty! They turned his PS4 into a paperweight. They did it to several other friends as well, myself included, but we weren’t quite as poor as my best bud, whose account went in the negative and whose bank started charging him exorbitant fees because of it.
A multi-billion dollar company engaging in theft and banning people for trying to fix it
They’re the company that basically laughed at me when I asked to cancel a preorder and said “there’s no law that requires us to give you your money back.” They’re the company that made a console with symmetrical sticks. So fuck Sony, okay? They’re the reason I can’t play Alienation with my best friend anymore.
When it comes to the games though? I’ve got 250 hours in Digimon Cybersleuth and Hacker’s Memory. When I returned home from GDC, I found I suddenly couldn’t access my saves. Turns out that turning PS+ cloud saves on isn’t enough, you actually have to manually upload each game’s saves to cloud. That sucks, but I mean, that game was a PlayStation exclusive and I loved the shit out of it.
I’ve got nothing but kind words to say about Until Dawn, Hidden Agenda (well, other than using a phone as a controller), Ratchet & Clank, God of War Ascension (I liked 3 but hated Kratos and need to finish 1 and 2 + the PSP games), Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker on the PSP, every single Infamous game, Resistance 3 (I love it more than Half-Life 2)… I could go on and on. I actually love a lot of PlayStation exclusives.
But you know what?
Let’s make a venn diagram of a representative of Sony games I’m interested in and those I’m not. Because this is an informal blog, it’s very important I make this in MS Paint.
Now, obviously, this is a sample. But right away, we see something really interesting… which is that all of the “dislike” games are over the shoulder ‘cinematic’ games, and all of the “like” games are not that thing.
Then there’s Days Gone, which is in the middle. We’ll get back to that later.
Originally, when I was writing the essay, I was going to call them Sad Dad Games. I’m not sure when the term originated, but I became aware of it with the release of Bioshock Infinite in 2013, a game in which a dad struggled to rescue someone who turned out to be his daughter from an alternate dimension version of himself. A lot of people were like “wow this is so amazing, a game about fatherhood,” ignoring the fact that Bioshock 2 already did that and was amazing, and… then we got a lot more of those.
Now, to be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with games about fatherhood (see Bioshock 2), but I did feel that a lot of people went “because it’s about fatherhood, it’s good and deep,” and not “it’s good and deep and it’s about fatherhood.”
There was a correlation issue.
This is something we see in games a lot. I don’t like the game Gone Home, for instance, because it’s about rummaging through an abstract, empty space, or Dear Esther, which is about meandering until you jump off a radio tower, and so on and so forth. To me, it seemed that a lot of people were saying “because this thing is about an important topic, the thing itself is important.”
Imagine someone saying that Adam Sandler’s 50 First Dates was an important movie because it was about mental health struggles, or that Green Book was a great movie because it was about racism. There are good movies that deal with those subjects much better, like In The Heat of the Night or Lars and the Real Girl.
When I was attending the IGFs, two games were in serious contention for the Game of the Year award: God of War and Red Dead Redemption. To me, this seemed like a predictable outcome. Years prior, a friend had pointed out to me that a major game publication’s Game of the Year list was almost virtually identical across all its staffers — and it consisted of a lot of games like God of War and Red Dead Redemption.
Some people will tell you that it’s because only the best games rise to the top, so it is perfectly natural that God of War and Red Dead Redemption, the two objectively best games of 2018, would be up for the GOTY award. Monster Hunter World, Obra Dinn, Hitman 2, Mutant Year Zero, Forza Horizon 4, and other games that impacted me a lot more that year just weren’t good enough.
I don’t think that’s true.
When I was a journalist, I tried pitching articles at various websites, I’d routinely hear “no one cares about [pc exclusive], why don’t you pitch something about [big AAA game] or [classic nintendo franchise] instead? Man, I really wanted to write about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. It’s my favorite game! Let me!
I also noticed that certain games, even if they were the absolute best in class games in their respective genres — like Forza Horizon 4 or Cities: Skylines — never got nominated for the big awards. People might throw hundreds or thousands of hours at them, the games might consume their interest, they might, by any objective metric, appear to value those games a lot more (I put 1,000 hours into Destiny because all I wanted to do was keep playing it; surely that says something about how good it is?), but then at the end of the year… it sure seems like one kind of game wins game of the year awards, not because those games are better than playing Factorio for 9,782 hours, but because they feel important and Factorio doesn’t.
I’m talking about games that want to be movies.
I believe there are two reasons these games tend to show up as Critically Acclaimed Game of the Year games a lot, and I explored a big chunk of that in my first post, which is that a lot of people want games to be taken seriously by the rest of our society, which is why the “are games art” debate is such a big deal for so many people. I think that’s a big, huge rot at the core of our nerdy souls that needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the light and examined and addressed.
Some people took issue with my approach, which was super unrefined and clumsy, and felt I was talking down to them and saying that anyone who likes games I thought weren’t great was an inherently stupid person. I clearly fucked that up. I was trying to say that I felt some people were praising games not on their merits, but because enjoying the games made them feel important and sophisticated. A lot of people feel that liking The Last of Us means they have Good Taste and I must have Bad Taste if I don’t like the game. This makes it hard to talk about the game in an interesting way, because a lot of people want to shut down any discussion about it.
If I say “hey, I think Half-Life 2 has a bit of an issue in the way it jerks off the player ego and constantly tells us how good we are, and to me, that feels unearned, which breeds some resentment against the game’s experience,” I’m doing so in good faith and want to have an engaging discussion about that. What’s the meaning of ‘resistance?’ Does the narrative earn what it’s trying to do? Should players have their ego massaged in games?
But a lot of people are like “you don’t like this game! aaargh i’m so angry!” And a lot of that seems to come from a place of insecurity, a worry that criticizing Big Important Games somehow is an attempt to invalidate the artistry of the billion dollar corporations they love.
I feel like a lot of the anger that shows up to kill discussion rather than the passion that is there to enhance discussion comes from insecurity. I think a lot of the breathless praise about certain games and the declaration that this, finally, is Gaming’s Citizen Kane (which, like I said in the last essay, was not widely recognized as great for most of Orson Welles’ career and nearly destroyed him completely, so the reading of Citizen Kane as ‘finally, people take movies seriously’ is ahistoric).
I think there’s another problem.
Critical acclaim is down to the critics, right? I mean, it’s right there in the name.
If the critics hire people who ‘fit the culture,’ because it’s easier to be friends and coworkers with someone who is passionate about the same games as you than it is to hire someone who grew up with, say, nothing but PC games and never fell in love with all the Nintendo games you loved… then maybe that site won’t really get the whole picture. It’s like a blind man trying to describe an elephant solely by touching its trunk and declaring the elephant “long and thin.” There’s a lot more elephant; this ends up creating a distorted perception of the world and sense of values.
I hope this doesn’t sound self-aggrandizing, but when I first conceived Paratopic, I was influenced by several first person games, like The Darkness, Duke Nukem Forever, and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. These are all first person games that did really interesting things with world interaction, from social stuff, like walking around Innsmouth with people just looking at you suspiciously, or drawing dicks on a white board.
…aaaand when people reviewed the game, most of them said “it’s like Silent Hill,” which is a third person game about navigating a semi-open world and solving puzzles and fighting monsters.
That’s their frame of reference.
That’s not necessarily bad! Having a specific interest is okay. Having a very limited frame of reference is okay too. Like, hey, I wasn’t allowed to watch most movies made after 1970 for most of my life. In fact, I can’t think of any other than Fox and the Hound and Fiddler on the Roof. For the first two-thirds of my life, I had an extremely limited frame of reference.
In my last piece, I wanted to criticize the act of choosing to say “well, this is good enough. I don’t have to try new things. This is the best and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong.” I think that’s unhealthy. I think that prevents games from becoming better.
Having a limited understanding of something isn’t bad if that means you’re just getting started on your creative journey! If you’re going “I don’t know much but I’d like to learn,” then that’s awesome and there are a million people out there who would love to support you in that.
But there are people who want to Get In The Way, who want you to settle for less and say “there is nothing better than this,” because they don’t want to go to the effort of having to learn or expand their horizons, and it’s when they try to ruin art for other people by holding them back that I have an issue with it, because, well, I have a past as a guy who wasn’t allowed to see most movies made after 1970, so I tend to resent being held back like that.
I think if you love an art form, you want to become literate in it. If you’re the kind of person who says “sorry, shounen manga is the only good sequential art,” that makes me sad because you could discover so much joy reading everything from Siegfried to the Metabarons to Transmetropolitan to Sandman. There is so much joy you have yet to uncover.
But back to the culture fit thing.
So, as I mentioned earlier, a few years ago, a friend pointed out to me that a major game publication’s GOTY lists were almost homogenous. If you take a random sampling of human beings and the games they like, you’re going to find a huge degree of variance. Go to PAX next year and just walk around asking people what their favorite games were. You’re gonna find a ton of completely varied opinions! Some people only like Japanese games, some people exclusively praise farming simulators! Shit’s wild, fam.
But games websites seem to be really self-selecting. You have a lot of people moving from site to site, you have editors saying “I only hire people I know” (seriously, I had one editor I’d worked with for years telling me he wouldn’t hire me full time because we’d never met in person), you have editors mostly hiring for people who live in the most expensive cities on earth, so there’s demographic differences based on class and place of birth.
A games website run by a lot of midwesterners who grew up with blue collar parents is going to be very different in what it values than all the games websites based in San Francisco, where everyone has spent some time at basically every site. It would also be a site I read religiously.
These publications are hiring people who fit the culture, they’re hiring based on common ground. The money to run these sites and the people who get hired to run them are people who have a lot of very similar tastes and backgrounds.
The end result is that “what’s important” is dominated by a specific group of people (who I genuinely love and respect despite this) because they don’t intentionally hire people who have wildly different interests in video games.
When “what’s important” gets dominated by one perspective, “what’s important” starts getting taught in schools, it starts being interpreted as The Only Way To Be, it becomes the default.
Think about how much we lose because of that.
When so much critical acclaim is heaped upon one specific genre of video game, think about how much we lose as a result.
Remember when Call of Duty 4 sold a billion copies and suddenly everyone was trying to make a Big Cinematic Linear Corridor shooter? We went from a huge variety of games like The Darkness and Prey and Halo and Battlefield: Bad Company to a bunch of games that were… just… well…
Even Halo 4 tried it and didn’t do so good. Best selling launch in history, because people tired of Call of Duty style games were excited to get back to a different kind of shooter, but it had one of the fastest playerbase dropoffs in Halo history and, according to someone I know who worked at 343i, so negatively impacted the studio that they had to completely reboot Halo 5.
Was Call of Duty 4 a great video game? Yes. Absolutely.
But when everyone decided “this is what a great FPS is, this is how FPSes need to be,” we lost almost an entire video game generation to people who just wanted to make Call of Duty 4, and they nearly gave us a fuckin DOOM game like Call of Duty 4.
When one path becomes the True Path Of Making Games, we all lose something beautiful. We cut ourselves off from possibilities. It took way too long to give us the Doom that we actually wanted, a Doom like nothing we’d ever seen before that still felt like what Doom should be.
So, yeah, there’s the worry that if we decide “this thing is about an important thing so it’s inherently important,” or “this thing is coded as being an important thing, so it’s important,” or “this thing won a lot of awards, so this is how games should be,” we lose. No one benefits, except in the sense that a few people get awards and money, but it takes years for us to recover artistically from that.
This is The Sopranos, a show that some consider to be the beginning of the idea of ‘prestige tv,’ or ‘peak tv,’ or something like that. When I chose to call certain games ‘prestige games,’ I was thinking about prestige tv.
HBO, which produced The Sopranos, makes prestige TV almost exclusively, from Deadwood to Game of Thrones. Other networks make things like Twin Peaks: The Return, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and so on.
A common theme with my failure to explain the term ‘prestige tv’ was that people said “well, lots of games are prestigious, like minecraft or overwatch. What makes ‘prestige tv’ different from ‘prestigious tv’?
Here’s a tongue-in-cheek article defining prestige tv.
Do you need help recognizing whether the show you’re watching is good, serious TV? What if you thought the thing you’d fallen in love with was high-quality entertainment, but actually it’s just cheap trash? Or maybe you’re a showrunner who needs to make sure we all understand that you’re not just sending random episodic pabulum out into the universe? How can you signal to your audience that what they’re watching is valuable and important?
I would suggest that appearing on a legendary show like The Simpsons is prestigious, but ‘prestige tv’ refers to a specific type of TV that’s trying to be like a movie, has a really high budget, usually serialized in nature (as opposed to episodic, like CSI Miami), heavily rooted in dramatic storytelling (not high school drama, but Serious Actors Being Serious And Sad Sometimes drama) and character work. These shows often have a similar look (moody lighting), deal with ‘mature’ themes like sex, grief, and other stuff, and are just generally shows that want you to take them really seriously, unlike sitcoms.
I’d say ‘prestige games’ are kind of similar. High production value, dramatic games dealing with Serious Themes and a desire to be a lot Like A Movie. It’s entirely possible to enjoy these games if that’s your interest. I think Days Gone is real fuckin good, for instance, and that was a case of someone very clearly going “what if Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead had a baby!”
Please refer to my very professional chart above.
You notice that Days Gone isn’t in a bubble in the chart, right? That is because I realized after I made it that the chart didn’t make any fuckin sense because there’s no overlap on the circles (which was kind of my point) but then there was one game that had overlap — elements I really disliked from Prestige Games, and elements I really liked from Not Prestige Games.
Having talked it through with some people and refined my ideas, which is the point of writing articles about games in the first place — I write so that I can say “here’s what I think, what do you think?” and learn from the really cool people who know about stuff more than me — I have decided to be somewhat more rigid in my criteria about what a prestige game is, and so I will do that by posting a picture of Resident Evil 2, which is not a prestige game.
Resident Evil 2 Remake is a brilliant video game, and I’ll talk more in-depth about it in the future, but for now, I want to call attention to its design. Nothing is out of place. Everything that happens in Resident Evil 2 is meticulously designed. It’s all a piece of the game.
If you’re unfamiliar, the majority of the game takes place in a police station, then in some sewers, and finally in a set of labs. Each one of these areas is a sprawling complex of interconnected levels.
Way back in the day, I wrote an article called “there is no such thing as a cinematic video game,” where I argued that a video game fundamentally cannot be Like A Movie because the tools used to make a movie and the tools used to make a game are Incompatible concepts (in a follow up, I talked about Hitchcock and how he used the friction between audience knowledge and protagonist knowledge to create tension and why games can’t do that as effectively).
Resident Evil 2 crafts tension through Familiarity With A Space. In the police station, you have a gun. You run through a room with a broken window. That looks spooky. You run past. Later, when you return, a zombie crawls through the window to attack you! Eventually, you realize you can pick up boards and board up windows, but there are only so many things you can carry, only so many boards to board up windows on the map, and as a result, a decision to make about where you think you can survive in case a zombie comes through a window you were unable to board up.
When you go back through that area, remembering you didn’t board the window up, suddenly, you find yourself worrying: did a zombie get in this time?
Games create tension in a different way.
You think about whether or not you’ve got enough healing to get from point A to point B, whether or not your gunshot will alert Mr. X, that invincible hunter whose only goal is to murder you, to your presence. You start making decisions about a space, and the more you play, the more you begin to understand and relate to the game space.
This is the brilliance of Resident Evil 2.
Every narrative and game design decision works in constant to create a thrilling survival horror experience.
I think a prestige game is defined by its slavish devotion to story. It is, first and foremost, a story. But I think that’s… actually kind of a relic?
Look at games like The Last of Us and Max Payne 3 (a game with cutscenes so long my controller once did its auto shut-off during it and I died because the cutscene ends with you in slow-mo bullet dodge and my controller couldn’t reconnect in time) and compare them to gameplay-driven games like Doom or Super Mario Bros. 3.
In Masters of Doom, John Carmack is quoted as saying:
Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.
More recently, he’s said:
But yeah, a lot of people are very much of the opinion that games are either About Story or About Gameplay. Remember when I said I didn’t like Gone Home because I didn’t think it was engaging? A lot of people told me this meant I was a person who just didn’t care about stories.
And like… as the student of a novellist who worked for William S. Burroughs and a screenwriter who won a fuckin Oscar… man, I care about stories a whole lot. I literally have a bachelor’s, both a major and a minor, in storytelling.
I care about it a whole lot.
But I think that games, historically, have done a poor job of utilizing gameplay to tell the stories they want to tell. I remember getting into an argument with Duncan Jones because he didn’t think first person games could have stories and that System Shock 2 didn’t have much of one, lol. His belief, as I recall, was that because System Shock 2 didn’t tell a story Like A Movie, it was telling stories wrong.
I think a lot of the people who make Prestige Games are heavily invested in making games that tell stories like movies… and I personally feel that games have a completely different way of telling stories that are unique to them.
Here is the book House of Leaves. It tells a story in a way only a physical book can. An ebook can’t do this — as you flip through House of Leaves, you find that the physical act of flipping the pages and the visual impact of the words-as-images is just… it’s not possible to get this impact anywhere else. Even this screenshot isn’t really doing the total experience justice.
Hitchcock can put a bomb under a table and make us panic because we’re helpless to tell the protagonist that there’s a bomb there. In a game, we would simply steer our character away from the bomb to safety, and get mad at the game designers if they didn’t ‘let’ us do that.
Different mediums have different methods of storytelling.
And I think we should take advantage of that to tell the best stories possible.
Further, I think it’s irresponsible not to do this.
Here’s Uncharted 2 breaking the 180 degree rule because it wants the cinematic shot of Nathan running away from a bridge collapsing behind him. It’s a really frustrating gameplay experience because you can’t see what’s ahead of him — it doesn’t really take care to be aware of the player needs, and that 180 degree shift can be pretty disorientating.
It tries to ape the appearance of cinema, buuuuuuttt… it makes itself a less good video game in the process, and as a movie, well, you’d be better off watching any Indiana Jones, even that bad TV show… where some not-Harrison Ford guy played Indy.
Prestige Games want to emulate the form of movies, and I find that really fascinating, because I think they should be trying to use their own methods to achieve the function.
I’ll give you an example: in Paratopic, jess came up with this amazing idea of making you wait for the elevator. You could walk around an empty room, put out a cigarette, watch the elevator slowly, slowly, slowly make its way down to the ground floor. It captured a sense of boredom beautifully, and then when you got to the top, it was nothing. Bing! Now you’re at the top.
I’ve seen a lot of movies that try to express player boredom, and they do it through things like montage or performance, like the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
jess, on the other hand, came up with locking you in a room and making you wait for an elevator. I can’t remember which one of us thought it would be hilarious to then just instantly teleport you to the top, but it’s a really good joke we pulled with video games.
This is a distinctly video game solution to achieving the same sensation for the story’s emotional impact.
So when I play a game like, say, The Last of Us, and I have this really long sequence where I just push forward on the stick until I get to the Designated Combat Area, the story stops, combat happens, and then the story starts up again… and the story itself feels like someone just borrowed scenes from Children of Men, The Road, and followed Save the Cat like their story bible… it leads to a sense of disconnect. You get an experience that just doesn’t work.
The Last of Us could be so much more potent than it is. Trying to wring a powerful emotional experience out of it is like trying to get high off the weed odor on someone’s clothes.
(hey, as an aside, i’m not trying to say paratopic is a brilliant work of genius. like… we made it between september 28th, 2017 and like march 14, 2018, on a budget of $0 and I worked so hard I went to the ER and got diagnosed with a congenital heart defect that no one had caught until overwork on paratopic and freelancing to pay the bills nearly killed me. we had limitations. the game tried new things but i’m not trying to say ‘paratopic is objectively better than a naughty dog game’ or anything like that lol; this is just a thing I’m not NDA’d on that I can talk about that I had personal experience with)
Put another way, I don’t think games like Bioshock Infinite, Red Dead Redemption 2, or Max Payne 3 utilize their mechanics to tell their stories in compelling or meaningful ways a large part of the time.
That’s not always true, though!
The Last of Us has that great giraffe sequence, which is entirely reliant on your motion through a level. Red Dead Redemption respawns all of its animals except bison, so if you shoot all the bison, they die, which is a really cool reference to the way Americans drove bison extinct in the 1800s because they believed extinction wasn’t a real thing.
These games absolutely have things I wish I’d thought of in them. There is a massive load of talent and intelligence brought to bear to make these games good… and yet…
It seems like so many of these games fall back on very similar systems and approaches to design.
I think in the case of both God of War and The Last of Us here, the skill systems don’t really make the game better any more than God of War’s tiered loot system does. These systems seem to exist because… well, that’s what other, contemporary games do.
But when you look at a game like Resident Evil 2, you realize that the game’s entire ‘loot system’ is designed to enhance the emotion of the experience — terror — because it’s all about saying ‘you can’t carry all of this, you’ll have to plan routes, come back later, think about risking it…’ like… the reason Resident Evil 2 is a work of genius is because its systems all exist to further the primary emotions the game wants you to feel.
God of War and The Last of Us just have them to keep you from getting bored.
And that… that’s the feeling I kept driving at.
You see, I have no problem with upgrade systems or the old Dark Age of Camelot loot rarity tiers (got this wrong in the article, said it was Blizzard, and while Blizzard did do a tier system, a friend of mine says the current system we know of can be traced to Dark Age of Camelot. Since he knows more about MMOs than me, I trust him on this one) or any of that stuff. There are some games that this is entirely appropriate for.
But I think a lot of prestige games are so focused on Telling A Narrative Like A Movie that they just kind of throw in gameplay stuff. Sometimes, a lot of work is put in to make it feel great (God of War 2018 feels great! I love that axe), but the systems themselves don’t contribute to making the game better.
I suspect that if God of War was more dense, say, 15 hours long, and really focused on upgrades to the axe that allowed you to access certain areas and that was it, it would be a lot tighter and more interesting than what it is now. Looking at Ocarina of Time or Metroid Prime for influence would help it out a lot, in my opinion.
I guess what I’m saying is… I look at these games and I look at why the mechanics are there, and I feel that many of them are disconnected from the experience, where they should be supportive. How does Kratos getting a new chestpiece impact the narrative? How does it support the story? It doesn’t. It’s uncommented on.
I’m going to criticize these games for not being focused, and yes, I realize you can bring that back to me and say “well, doc, this piece wasn’t focused,” but I’m a guy with no medical coverage sitting on a chair at 6:22 AM feverishly working out a blog post because I want to talk about game design with my game designer friends, and the people who made Red Dead Redemption are literal millionaires who can hire John fucking Hillcoat to make a cute little fanfic video about their game.
It all comes back to this: I love games that are designed with a meticulousness, like this year’s Ace Combat 7, Resident Evil 2, Days Gone, Control, and Gears 5. You can see this in older games too, like Resident Evil 4, where every single encounter is people playing with the boundaries of their mechanics to do interesting things.
I like games where the game design never suffers for telling the narrative — the game never stops being good for the sake of a story beat.
I think a game like Red Dead Redemption 2 has moments where it’s simply a Bad Game because it has to be in order to tell the story with filmic affectation, and… I mean, what’s the benefit? Is the game really better for this?
Is it telling a truly great story?
Here’s Red Dead Redemption 2 copying a scene from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford:
The Rockstar game is way less artful and meticulous. It’s just not as powerful a sequence because it’s trying to imitate the movie directly rather than using a game’s strengths to do this in a much more compelling way.
This is why I made the cargo cult metaphor — we’re talking about these huge, high production value games that do all sorts of amazing things to feel artistically relevant… and then they turn into Nic Cage’s twin brother, Nic Cage, from Adaptation, asking a screenwriting guru who only ever got one mediocre movie made how to make a Good Story.
The two most popular books about storytelling in games and cinema are Story, by Robert McKee, up there, Save the Cat, by the guy who wrote this movie:
Neither guy was a particularly successful filmmaker. They made their money offering people a formulaic way for telling stories, and the suits thought “wow, this is great, an algorithm for writing good stories!” and suddenly you get studio notes on great scripts saying “but didn’t McKee say you need a twist on page 14?”
Where I’m at is this.
A lot of these games have a lot of adequate systems. They have some moments that might be good and some moments that might be bad. But we have a lot of people who believe that the affectation of importance makes them important. Ah, this game is lit like a Serious Movie, therefore this must be a Serious Game. Hey, this game features a Dad who is Sad about His Child, therefore, this must be a GREAT game about parenting.
Being about an important topic doesn’t mean your movie is good…
Bad Parents is no Kramer vs Kramer.
So when we sit here and go “hey maybe this thing is about an important topic, or has surface level similarities to an important thing,” and we don’t look at the ways the mechanics fail to support the narrative or whether the narrative itself actually works on a structural level, we end up closing ourselves off to our potential.
Games could be so much more than they are. Why should we settle?
I said I’d come back to Days Gone, so here goes.
I think Days Gone does a lot of Prestige Games things. The story it’s trying to tell, like I said, seems like Sons of Anarchy meets The Walking Dead. The pitch is uninspired as hell.
It has systems that don’t really help it — the game actually sucks until you get the one shot kill crossbow ability or snipers that can one hit headshot generic mooks — but a surprising amount of the game’s does. The bike actually starts to make sense over time, the game’s distinct approach to fast travel is more simulation oriented than just an annoyance. XP is framed as community relationships, and each community has its own XP system.
Days Gone is a game that really put some work into most of its systems and its world design in a way that feels super bespoke and clever and compelled me to play the entire damn thing. I love how I can logic out where the hordes are.
This is a game where the systems don’t feel that superfluous, where the game actually tries for a range of emotions. It is, in my opinion, a better written game than anything Rockstar or Naughty Dog has ever done. One reason is because it tries to be a television show, with naturally rising and falling arcs and multiple plotlines; the open world design compliments this really well. Instead of trying to be a Really Long Movie With Filler, it’s, well, yeah, a game about being Sam Witwer acting his heart out at the end of the world.
And I loved it.
I think I’m turned off by most prestige games because they’re so self-serious but don’t put the care into their narratives or their mechanics, just their art and their performance. Days Gone feels like the only Prestige Game that works, and that’s because it’s not really a cargo cult game. It totally understands what it needs to be. That’s the kind of game I want to play.
also hey, some people asked why I didn’t think Gears 5 was considered a prestige game, and that’s because it’s a third person shooter with cutscenes. Like… Gears 5 is very much “combat space → moving on and taking a breather → combat space” and it’s not making you wait for extended periods of time to do Story Things that get in the way of play. It uses its mechanics in really clever ways and I love it. The brief Beast Mode homage was superb
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