Friday, March 09, 2012

Long Games Are Worthwhile

Note: I have a lot of things to say about this particular subject, so there may be moments where I rapidly digress and I hope I don't confuse anyone by doing so.

It has recently come to my attention that a writer named Michael Thomson at Slate took a less than loving look at a game called Dark Souls and in doing so, he ended up taking a rather wide swipe at video games in general. The subheading for the title was "Is a 100 hour video game ever worthwhile?".

Now I am not going to stand here and tell you that every game that I've played that required that kind of commitment was worth that time. But some of them were in much the same way that there were 1000 page novels, television series that stretched a narrative across more than a hundred hour-long episodes and so on that fit into both categories.

It seems that the difficulty of the title was the main issue for Thomson, but there are lots of other difficult things which force you to work so you can appreciate them. To give you some context on where he is coming from:

Dark Souls takes so long to play because it refuses to tell you its basic ground rules, then kills you over and over again for failing to understand them. As a player, you proceed not by thinking through problems but by randomly trying anything and everything until something haphazard sticks. The game is teaching you, but it's not teaching you anything worth knowing.

As soon as I read that particular line, I thought of a piece of art from another medium: Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. It too doesn't tell you the basic ground rules of the narrative, it makes you work harder than you ever thought possible to understand it and to do so, you are going to have to backtrack and reread passages to understand it, but people still do it, and in general, it is never implied that those people are idiots who are wasting their lives.

Because the argument that instead of playing a game, you could be reading War and Peace or learning a new language isn't really relevant or fair. It is true, but only in the same way me saying you would be wasting your life reading War and Peace because you could be volunteering at a soup kitchen or building houses for the less fortunate or another activity which isn't so solipsistic would be fair.

I am not telling someone else how to spend their time, and I think it is foolish for the writer in question to do the same. As Jason Killingsworth at Edge Online notes, comparing almost any work to War and Peace, let alone work in another medium, is really not fitting since nearly everything would pale in comparison to it. If I said, have you seen Breaking Bad and you responded with "Yeah, but it is no War and Peace," you could technically be right but it avoids discussing the merits of that particular series by dismissing it.

But the repeated mentions of Tolstoy and War and Peace in that article brings up a particularly good point... some stories need a longer amount of time and space to express their narrative in the stylistic conventions of their medium. Yes, you could probably tell the entire gist of War and Peace in a few pages, but it would lose a lot by doing so. In much the same way, condensing a long game into 5 hours would also diminish it. While I am a huge proponent of narratives in gaming, I know that the story and character are fundamentally tied to the gameplay in determining the quality of a game.

Games have their own language, a language which players generally all understand but to outsiders they are foreign concepts. I am not talking about a language spoken in words, but in a common set of actions and gestures which apply situationally across titles in a genre and it is the way a designer follows or subverts those expectations that is half the fun. But if you aren't familiar with how a particular genre of gaming works, you will not fully appreciate what you are being presented.

It is like if you were to start to read T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and you were not familiar with the various works of literature that were alluded to... yes, you may get something out of the experience, but someone who was better educated about classical literature would derive far more meaning from reading it.

If one was to complain that The Waste Land was needlessly difficult and obscure, and did so because they were willfully ignorant of the underlying themes and language underpinning it, their opinion would be marginalized. If someone had complained that the idea of The Artist was stupid because who would ever want to watch a silent movie, they'd be laughed at. If you do the same kind of thing when it comes to gaming, no one really bats an eye.

There was also more than a little of the attitude that the audience for that game (and games in general) being merely entertained wasn't enough, a certain condescension which critics in the already established and recognized art forms seem to have for video games as a whole.

I've been moved by games, both long and short, and put into situations which have made me think critically about the real world and philosophical dilemmas. In Morrowind, I had to ask myself can I really be the hero if on my way to that final battle, I do evil things? I could certainly get away with murder, especially in many of the scenarios presented, but how can the person who is destined to save the world act that way and still be good. Or Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas where because of the pressure being exerted on the lead character, he was forced to murder countless, largely-innocent people to protect his brother with the long term goal of destroying networks and killing people which are far more evil.

And in thinking of the long, narrative game as a form, the one that I kept coming to mind was Persona 3 FES. That one had to be long. You as the player had to live with those characters, day after day, to understand them on a personal level, to feel the pressures they were under, see their struggles, their resentment, their love. On an emotional level, it was a masterpiece, and to discount that because of an arbitrary number is wrong on so many levels.

That being said, in writing the article, Thomson name checked and linked to another article on Slate which had named Dark Souls as the 2011 Game Of The Year. But he seems to have ignored a passage which was about games in general, but which applies to Dark Souls specifically as well.

Much of what I’m calling "style" can be attributed to careful craftsmanship that extends through each element of design. The visual palette for games has expanded, and developers are incorporating a wider range of artistic styles in their visuals. Great visuals don’t necessarily make a great game, but when their expressiveness extends through the sound, the music, and the overall feel of the gameplay experience, they can elevate an otherwise conventional game into something that feels very special.

And I've played many games like that, both long and short. I don't discount a game's artistry because of its length. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, who liked the Thomson article: "No good game is too long and no bad game is short enough."

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