Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Problem With No More Heroes 2

Charles J. Pratt made an interesting point to me during the after-party of AHoG about my discussion of Retro Game Challenge over at Brainy Gamer. He disagreed with my comment that the game essentially took 8-bit classics and “fixed” them. To paraphrase his argument, they simply modernized their design to suit this era’s tastes. While I thought they had fixed all the broken elements of Galaga to make a much smoother game, he claimed they took out all the things that made the title what it was. A design aesthetic is never improved, simply changed to suit another person’s tastes.

That’s a concept I’m continuing to struggle with as I find myself steadily more perplexed with mainstream games. Take something like Farmville. As companies start to plant DLC in their games and now withhold content just to make sure they can skim off the top, the question Farmville raises is how is an AAA game different in terms of purpose? It may not be fun to you, but a Zynga game and a Bioware game are both making money by convincing players to give them cash for imaginary crap in their game. One is some kind of monopoly money for buying stuff, the other is a quest you’ve never played. While people can and will argue that they aren’t even remotely similar, from a creator perspective they intrinsically have the same goal. That’s not a bad thing. This isn’t a value judgment, money doesn’t grow on trees, and it’s not like there is a lot to go around these days. It’s just a part of the overall aesthetic of an easy, accessible game meant to sell as many copies as possible. Just like every other game that has come out the past few years.

This conversation is incredibly important if the critical community is ever going to open itself up to make room for new and innovative video games. Leigh Alexander posted a very effective rebuttal to the ”NMH2 is over-designed” complaint and she also referenced this point in her Gamasutra piece, but I like her better when she’s being blunt. I cite her points in the essay to illustrate that accusing this game of losing its character is not an exercise in pining for a busted game. As I continue to struggle with how I’m supposed to feel about one of my favorite games from 2009 being an awful broken mess, the solution does not really seem to be an elaborate logic bender of ‘Bad is Good Sometimes’. If you’re going to say that bad design is acceptable, why even call it bad anymore?

During the Q&A after a talk on the parallels between the avant garde and video game development, I asked a question in response to a mod shown of Quake by a person named Jodi. He removed the graphics and barriers, but left the design in so that you moved through this elaborate abstraction of the game to create a new experiential system. Feeling the overwhelming urge to be a little bastard, I asked what the difference was between that and a game like Big Rigs. The answer is contextual intent, but that didn’t stop me from dragging the joke out all weekend to the point that I think a few folks were ready to strangle me by Saturday. Like any rhetorical device, the reverse can be said about a game that’s well-made.

What is this crap?

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