Wednesday, March 19, 2014

This Miraculous Money Of Old People.

Who is this game aimed at?
As a crunchy old fart of the indie gaming industry (started company in 1994, blah blah blah), I often get e-mails asking for advice for getting started in the biz.

My first piece of advice is always to keep your budget and scope under control and expect a rough ride. All of the easy money in indie games is long gone. But enough bad news.

My second piece of advice is: If you're small, there's still a lot of money in games for old people.

Don't fight for 13 year olds. The big-budget, big-marketing AAA lords of the industry have them locked up, and they aren't letting go. If your little game is all first-person zappy-pow for the adrenaline set, you may have a problem.

(Oh, and it's so poignant that anyone thought the Thief reboot might have any of the charm of the original games. Thief 2 is still one of my all-time favoritest  games, but I gave up hope the reboot would be good for me three seconds after it was announced. Teenage boys don't have the patience to lurk in shadows for five minute waiting for a guard to pass, so that was never ever happening. Every AAA game now has to have Titanfall/Grand Theft Auto nihilistic boom appeal, for the kidz. "But teenagers aren't allowed to buy Grand Theft Auto!" Ha ha ha you are adorable.)

But games for grown-ups? Short games? Intricate storytelling? Slow pace? Turn-based? Hard puzzles with actual thinking? Art? AAAs have given up. This is the land of the small and nimble now.

Why? Because of The Way Things Are ...

The Fundamental Fact of Video Games Now

There are two unquestionable, fundamental facts behind pretty much every debate about games and what they should be like and where they should go.

One of the key memories of my childhood was my dad coming home and telling me about this cool thing he saw and how much he thought I'd like it. It was a weird thing called "Pong."

I'm old, but I'm not THAT old. I'm a few steps into middle-aged. And yet, I have experienced pretty much every step of video games as a thing regular people do. That is how amazingly young the art form is. One not-too-old person can have seen the entire thing.

In the beginning, young people were the target audience. Old people tended to avoid those weird, electronic contraptions. Video arcades (a thing that used to exist) were full of kids and young adults almost exclusively.

And then we grew up. We matured. (These are not the same thing.) We had kids. Our tastes changed. Our supply of free time changed drastically, but we still loved video games. We grew up with them. And when I say we, I mean men and women. It took longer for females to get into gaming then males, but the percentages of each who play games are now roughly equal.

Games are in our DNA, but they've struggled to grow up with us. Which leads us to Fact #1.

Fundamental Fact 1: Video games have never had a large percentage of its audience be women and older people, but that is rapidly changing.

Who would look at this image and say, "I want to know more."? Who is this being sold to?
We Change. The Games Don't

But who is writing the games now? Back in the day, it was mostly young men. Now it is ... well, it's mostly young men. Video game makers are paid a pittance and worked like dogs. They tend to leave the industry early on for jobs that pay more for fewer hours and give you a shot at raising a family.

The industry is then happy to harvest a new crop of young, cheap, starry-eyed victims: Plentiful, desperate and loaded with debt. Clutching expensive DigiPen degrees good for nothing else, and the cycle continues. Which leads us to Fact #2 ...

Fundamental Fact 2: Video games have never had a large percentage of developers be women and older people, and this is changing slowly, if at all.

Put facts #1 and #2 together, and you get the key corollary ...

Corollary 1: The audience for computer games is split into two factions. There are young men (at which almost everything is and always has been aimed) and everyone else.

Add these three statements together, and you have the heart of every debate in video games. I'm going to move fast and engage in gross overgeneralizations from here on out. These are all things indie developers looking for a niche they can occupy and flourish in should bear in mind. I've been getting feedback from gamers of all backgrounds for a long time, and I feel like I'm on solid ground.

One. The Role of Women

Probably the most passionate argument going now.

Women want to see themselves in the games they play as more than just eye candy.

A large number of young men see themselves represented just fine and may kind of lack the empathy to see the issue from someone else's viewpoint. Criticizing the games they like is often taken personally for some weird reason, resulting in a lot of angry arguments on comment boards.

I'll tell you something I learned in 1994, when I started writing RPGs that had interesting female characters and an equal number of male and female player icons: Including women in your audience is highly profitable.

(Hot market research tip: Buy and play To the Moon.)

This is not for kids. Though, trust me, it's hilarious to watch them try.
Two. Game Length

Young people have little cash and tons of time, so they want their games to stretch 20, 30, 40 hours. Young people finish the games they pay for. A game like Gone Home that charges twenty bucks for two hours of fun will make them angry.

Old people have more money but limited time. They almost never manage to finish the games they pay for, and it sucks. A game that costs only twenty dollars and provides a satisfying experience they can actually finish is awesome.

(Hot market research tip: Buy and play Gone Home and Stanley Parable.)

Three. The Impact of Violence and Death

As gamers age, many of them are starting to have kids and experience the deaths of those they love. They are far more likely than young people to be extremely disturbed by, say, the heaps of dead children in The Last of Us. I'd bet money that most of the people who game me flak for complaining about the hideous violence in Tomb Raider are young.

I was really pleasantly surprised by the number of reviews of Bioshock: Infinite that called it out for its violence. The term "ludonarrative dissonance" got kicked around a lot, but that's not necessary to describe their basic problem: They kept getting pulled out of the touching story to watch their character flay the faces off of racists with his horrifying robot hand.

Often, the more of a personal experience you have with death and violence and what it really means, the less tolerance you have for that kind of thing. Games that really understand and depict what violence means can be both unique and incredibly effective.

(Hot market research tip: Buy and play Papa & Yo.)


I was going to put a Gone Home image here, but it's already been overexposed, so here's another shot from To the Moon instead. Such a good game.

Four. Storytelling

Old people want it. We've heard a lot of stories, seen a lot of movies. We're harder to impress and harder to surprise. Just having a story isn't enough for us anymore.

As much as I rag on video game reviewers, it was a huge relief to me to see them take a break from their 9/10 Grand Theft Auto V reviews to point out that the main characters just aren't very interesting. Because they aren't. We're old. I've met lots and lots of people, and that makes poorly drawn, fake people much more bothersome to me.

People tend to develop more empathy as they grow older, and experiences that enable you to experience life in someone else's skin can gain passionate adherents (and thus make money).

(Hot market research tip: Buy and play Papers, Please!)

So What Happens Now?

Well, it's great news for indie developers, who seem to be the only game writers who've realized that there are a lot of markets out there. The AAA developers are on their high-poly, mega-budget death march, fighting tooth-and-nail over the young, male portion of the market. A portion that is a smaller percentage of the video game audience every year.

As a result, people who make thoughtful games like Papers, Please and Stanley Parable will only do better and better.

These days, most major movie studios have sub-companies that make artsy movies. I honestly believe that the big publishers will do more of this as time goes on. After that, it's up to old people to spend enough money to justify more investment.

Until then, the indies are always there. Underserved niches keep us in business.

---

Edit: Tweaked the description of the Thief reboot to make it less unkind.

I am on Twitter, but who isn't? 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Twitch Plays Pokemon, Self-loathing, and Never Being Able To Predict Anything.

None of us is as insane as all of us.
If you are in any way hooked into the bleeding edge of this weird thing we call Internet Culture, someone might recently have talked your ear off about Twitch Plays Pokemon.

I'm going to talk about it now. So, if you were bored about it by your [child/weird friend/acquaintance you always secretly suspected has Asperger's], you can now do what you wish you could do then: tell me to shut up by closing this browser window with extreme prejudice.

(Pause.)

OK. You are still here. You want to learn what Twitch Plays Pokemon is, so that, for once, you can know about the hip internet thing before it ends and becomes as tired and old as those captioned cat photos your parents send to your aunts and uncles.

My explanation of what is happening will take the form of a Socratic dialogue between me and the voices of self-loathing in my head. Take it away, voices!

I HATE YOU SO MUCH!

Hey, pace yourself there, sparky. We have a lot of ground to cover. Many miles to go before we sleep, and all that.

Sorry, nerd. "Twitch Plays Pokemon"? How is that even a phrase in English? Why should I ever care enough to continue?

Well, I don't know how "interesting" or "significant" it is. I'm sure some kids in some PhD mill somewhere will write a thesis on it or whatever.

But the main reason I think it's interesting is because it is so weird. I mean, thinkers like Isaac Asimov and William Gibson and Neal Stephenson always try to predict the future. Then, when the future actually shows up, we find their predictions to be just sort of weirdly sterile and unimaginative and just kind of off.

What actual humans do when given any sort of resources is always really weird and chaotic. (Except for porn. There's always porn. Now in HD.) Those above world class thinkers never imagined anything close to tens of millions of people trying to play a 20 year old videogame together as a maddened hivemind because why not.

That's because they were people who had it together and could get dates in high school.

I got dates!

They hated you more than I do.

Well played, brain. But you're stuck here with me, so let's describe Twitch Plays Pokemon.

Sometimes, I get into things just for the fan art.
Fine. What is Twitch Plays Pokemon?

Well, it's a channel on twitch.tv. As of this writing (Monday, Feb. 24), over 63000 people are watching/participating and over 27 million have dropped by to watch.

And what on God's Green Earth is twitch.tv?

It's a video game streaming web site. Basically, when you're playing a game, you can also enable other people to watch you play it.

WHY WOULD ANYONE DO THAT?

Beats me, man. Look. The Internet is now as big as human experience. Which means that 95% of it will be stuff you can't comprehend the value of, forever and always. So you'll just have to take the value of twitch.tv on faith.

So people go there to watch cool games like League of Legends and Call of Duty.

Sure. It's a dream come true. Though, lately, the most popular channel by a margin has been to watch people play Pokemon Red, a Gameboy game from 1996.

The confused fellow to the lower left is you. 
What is Pokemon?

Oh, give me a break. You're reading a game blog. You must have heard of Pokemon. At the very least, it's 10% of the cultural DNA of anyone in their 20s. Basically, you catch monsters and they're your pets and you use them to duel other monsters.

Part of the cultural DNA of boys, you mean.

My daughters would vigorously disagree.

But back to the channel. In it, they're not watching the game. The multitudes passing through are also playing it.

So I assumed. How does your little nerd-conclave work?

People type the controls they want to press (up, down, left, right, A, B, start) into the chat window, and the game processes them. This results in a very slow, very chaotic game.

So 50000 people are typing in commands and they're all processed?

No, it's more complicated than that. There are two modes for how the commands are taken: Anarchy and Democracy, and people vote on which control scheme is in place at any one ...

OH GOD KILL ME.

Sorry. You're right. It's boring. I'll sum it up. In Anarchy mode, a few commands are selected at random from what people enter, resulting in slightly directed chaos with lots of weird, interesting things happening. (Assuming you are capable of finding any of this interesting, which I do, but I'm weird.)

In Democracy mode, people vote on what the next move is and a move is taken every 20 seconds. It's more directed, but painfully slow and boring.

It has arguments about politics AND religion? Sign me up!
And how long has this travesty been going?

As of this writing, 10 days and 20 hours, 24-7. It's a global project. When one continent goes to bed, another picks up the slack.

OK. Fine. They're playing an old game in a stupid way. 

It's even worse than that.

How is that even possible?

You see, there is a 10-20 second lag between what happens in the game and what you see on the screen. So when you enter a command, you're not saying what happens now, but what happens in 20 seconds. This means that even if everyone involved was united and smart, some chaos would be unavoidable.

One happy side effect of this is that it's very difficult for trolls to sabotage the project, because having any sort of directed input by anyone is very difficult.

This all sounds stupid.

Oh, it totally is. But stupid things can be interesting and fun.

But isn't it gross to care about something like this, when, say, people in the Ukraine are dying protesting their government?

Haven't you been reading? It's a global thing. I bet a bunch of kids in the Ukraine are playing the game to distract themselves from the terror and uncertainty.

Anyway, that is a dumb standard. Our ancestors fought and died in part so we could occasionally relax and do something frivolous.

Fine. An old game, in a stupid way, and it barely even works. Why on EARTH would so many people care?

Three reasons.

Oh, Lord.

First, it's a big experiment in the fascinating field of collective intelligence. It's the idea that a lot of people giving tiny inputs is smarter than any one person. A lot of research into this idea has taken place, and it is genuinely cool.

Because the most surprising thing about Twitch Plays Pokemon is that it's working. It's slow, but this confused random input is beating bosses, solving side quests, agreeing on what path to take among many possible choices, and generally getting it done. Sometimes the Hivemind even plays WELL.

That is pretty cool.

Really?

We are, after all, dealing with Gamers here.
No. Psych! Loser. What's the second thing?

The second interesting thing is the constant debate between democracy and anarchy. In other words, between slow, methodical success or fast, inefficient chaos. Anarchy is winning. In other words, people as a mass would rather do the thing in the chaotic, slower, harder way simply because it's more cool. That, if nothing else, should give you some faith in humanity.

And the third reason? If it involves fan art, I'm so out of here.

Third, the fan art.

[Sound of running away.]

Sorry, brain. You're stuck in here with me.

Ahhh. It burns us.

Twitch Plays Pokemon has evolved its own weird, funny, sometimes tiresome backstory and mythology. It is in human nature to anthropomorphize things. Elaborate stories about the insanity of Red (the main character) and the relentless voices in his head that drive him on have been crafted. It's actually kind of cool and poignant.

It helps that the chaotic interface results in a lot of painfully self-destructive behavior. Red constantly destroys his own best pokemon, throws away valuable items, and flings himself off of ledges. Twitch Plays Pokemon is truly unpredictable. Tell me, how many things in your life are like that?

Fortunately, there's not cosplay yet, but give it time.

Twitch Plays Pokemon has the XKCD Seal of Nerd Legitimacy.
What is this Helix Fossil everyone goes on about?

It's an item in Red's inventory that gets used accidentally like ten times a minute. Lots of jokes have arisen around this. It's the Cake Is a Lie/Arrow To the Knee of 2014.

Hasn't that joke been run into the ground?

To everyone who has been paying attention, yes, but new folks are hearing about the stream all the time, and it's funny to them. Also, um, how should I put this delicately? The Twitch Plays Pokemon diehards might not be the most socially-aware folks on the planet.

But the whole cobbled-together Twitch Plays Pokemon backstory does include a pretty amusing, made-up parody religion. I suspect that appeals to the demographic of the player base.

And who is doing all this? Shut-in boys, right?

Ummmm ...

ADMIT IT.

The only survey I could find of players is here, and, yeah. Guys. Which is, itself, interesting. I don't know if this sort of activity has inherently higher value to men, and, if so, why. Maybe if Anita Sarkeesian reads this, she can tweet something.

So how will it end?

Nobody knows! It is completely unclear if the hive mind can finish this stupid thing, which adds a pleasing sense of suspense to the whole thing.

But if you want to help find out ...

I don't. Oh lord, I don't.

Humor me.

Internet culture moves fast and is unpredictable.
Fine. What would I do if I cared?

Well, if you want to read the history of the thing and see a lot of surprisingly funny and elaborate fan art, go here.

If you want a live update of what is happening, go here.

The freshest fan art is here. http://www.reddit.com/r/twitchplayspokemon/

My personal favorite pieces for fan art are here and here, though you need to know the culture a little to get it.

I still don't see why anyone should care.

Because, try as I might, I can't think of any analogue to this in human history. The duration, the planetary scale, the chaos, the joyous frivolity of it.

Unprecedented? Really? What about Second Life? SETI@home? WIKIPEDIA?

OK, you're right. I got a little overexcited there. How about this? Twitch Plays Pokemon is a reminder that we have not even begun to scratch the possibilities of what the hordes on the Internet can do when something piques their interest. And, sometimes, like with Wikipedia, those things Anonymous spits out can be genuinely valuable.

God. You're even more pathetic now than when you were telling everyone who'd listen about Doctor Who back in the 1980s.

And now everyone watches Doctor Who.

And that's why everyone who reads this should go to Twitch Plays Pokemon and enter just one command. I don't know if this is a harbinger of bigger things or not, but, if it is, don't you want to think you were on the ground floor?

OK. Fine. I went and voted for 'Democracy.' Happy?

Filthy casual. Anarchy or riot!

Everyone who reads this will laugh at you.

I love you, brain.

Virgin.

--

Like all the cool nerd kids, I'm on Twitter.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Why Indie Developers Go Insane

We all have our little mantras we use to get through the day.
After I started writing games in 1994 and went full-time in 1995, I soon came to a conclusion about the people who do what I do for a living: "These people are all crazy."

Then, as I got older, I realized that I am crazy too.

Then, as I got even older, I switched to a better truth: Everyone is crazy. Every human has his or her damage. Nobody gets out of this world alive.

It's just that indie developers tend to have high visibility, high stress, and small support groups. These factors mean that, when these devs break, you see it, and it's spectacular. Twitter has only helped to make self-immolation faster, easier, and more public.

A lot of people love indie games because they can so clearly be the product of real people. They aren't focus-grouped, penny-pinching, soulless chum. At their best, they have character. You might not like my games, but you can tell I CARE. They're works of love, recognizably the product of passionate brains.

And, since we care about the product of these brains so much, it's sometimes worthy to look at the brains themselves. Brains that spend half their time receiving more accolades than they deserve and half their time being the target of laserlike hate. These crazy, crazy brains.

I wanted to write a bit about the brain of the indie developer under stress. I don't want pity. I just think someone might find it interesting to read what it can be like to be in this particular box.

Simple. Free. Ad-supported. Indie. Popular. Addictive. BURN IT!
What Brought This On?

For years now, the iTunes (and lately Google Play) app store has been this gigantic, rushing torrent of infinite money, and everyone has scrambled to grab their piece.

It's the most soulless, joyless, metric-obsessed market/ethics-free-zone imaginable. There is nothing that can't and won't have all fun and creativity sucked out of it to earn an extra penny from the "whales" (i.e. compulsives) who will happily shell out a hundred bucks a month to get Candy Crush Saga to let them play Bejeweled. (Hot tip: Uninstall Candy Crush Saga and play all the Bejeweled you want forever ad-free for three bucks.)

So for the last couple weeks, people, when they weren't raging about EA's pillaging all of their happy memories of Dungeon Keeper, were noting the runaway success of a tiny, free, ad-supported game called Flappy Bird.

Let's be clear. It's not a great game. It was written in three days by a young Vietnamese man named Dong Nguyen. It's really simple, crushingly difficult, pretty derivative, weirdly addictive, and marketed purely by word of mouth. And it became a huge hit, sucking the attention away from a million equally derivative money-sinks.

According to the author, Flappy Bird was averaging $50K a day. So here come the haters ...

Shut up, canada.com.
If You Think There Is Something Bad About Flappy Bird, Here Is Why You Are Wrong

The Internet exists to crap all over everything. And Flappy Bird is simple, silly, derivative, and casual-friendly, so it was sure to bring the self-styled Defenders of Gaming out of the woodwork.

And why do people object to it?

One. The gameplay is similar to many earlier games. Well, of course. Flappy Bird is very similar to a host of press-the-button-to-make-the-helicopter-or-bird-stay-in-the-air games going back years. So what? Here's a news flash. If you write any sort of simple game, there is a %99.999 chance somebody already did it.

You can't copyright gameplay for a reason. If you could, small developers (including me) would never stand a chance.

(Many have claimed that Flappy Bird is a ripoff of a game called Piou Piou, which is laughable if you bother to actually try the games. They play entirely differently.)

Two. The art style is super-similar to early Nintendo games. Yes, Flappy Bird's art is reeeeeally close to some Nintendo games that came out in the last century. I've never seen proof that assets were lifted. It's just similar.

So what? Again, you can't copyright an art style, for a reason. If your art style could never be similar to someone else's, small developers (including me) would never stand a chance.

Three. The game is pretty rough. So what? If people choose to play it, nobody voted you the Queen of Gaming. It is so, SO not your business. I think players of Candy Crush Saga or mobile Dungeon Keeper are getting rooked and could get a lot more similar fun elsewhere for way less money, but I'm not running up and down the subway slapping the iPhones out of their hands.

Want to see people hate on Flappy Birds for no good reason? Look at this gross bit of anti-journalism from Kotaku. As of my writing this, the article begins with an update that basically says, "We changed the title of this article as it was pure slander." (Kotaku has since apologized for this piece, so thanks for that, I guess.)

Or look at this vicious example. Or this straight-out slander from the famed game critics of, um, canada.com. (At least Kotaku apologized.) Or, on in the best pretentious grad student style, this hilariously bizarre article in The Atlantic.

Or read the petty, jealous comments of any article on it. I promise you the author has. Every single one. Which is why this happened ...

Going ...
Rough Lessons In How Humans Work

Dong Nguyen quit. A fortune coming through the door, and he walked away. As I write this, Flappy Bird has been removed from app stores.

Think about this. I mean you, personally. Think about what it would take to make you run from a gold mine like this. Really. Think about why someone would do this.

This is not about money.

If you've experienced any time as a public figure, especially one that is mainly hated on, it makes a lot of sense.

Dong Nguyen is a young guy. He wrote a game for fun, put it out there, and found himself at the target end of a massive wave of attention, much of it negative. I can't stress enough how insanely terrifying this can be, and he wasn't ready.

Hardly the first time this happened. Remember when Phil Fish, the successful author of Fez, canceled Fez 2 and quit the industry in a fit of pique? I've never been Phil Fish. I don't know exactly what was happening in his head when this happened. But it did happen, and I can totally relate.

It can be hard to understand why someone would kill a product that's making a fortune. Anyone can say, "Oh, gee. He has money. Who cares?"

Well, I promise you, there are things that money can't buy. If you are going mad, you can't buy yourself sane. Some people can take this sort of attention. Not everyone. And some people can take it, but it makes them ... weird.

... going ...
I'm Crazy Too.

I've been the target of my fair share of hate. Real example: E-mails from angry schizophrenics. People who tell me they hope I go out of business and my kids never go to college. Pictures of me Photoshopped in various unflattering ways.

And, of course, the occasional truly unhinged message that I forward to my friends and ask, "Tell me honestly. Should I be worried about my safety here?"

I've been doing this for a long time, and I have a pretty thick skin. Even then, this stuff has an effect. You can't help it. It's part of being human. One angry message has more effect than ten friendly ones. It has a real psychic weight. And, once you know it's there, turning off your computer and avoiding Twitter doesn't remove it.

When my games had their own Humble Bundle, I should have been happy. I mean, I was, in a way. It'll help send my kids to college, and who could argue with that?

Yet, I spent that week in my room quivering with terror. When my developer/writer/artist friends find themselves in similar situations, they are often the same. I've been asked, "This is going so well. Why do I feel horrible all the time?" We neither expect nor deserve sympathy, but that's what happens.

And when an indie dev becomes the hate target of the day, isn't up to it, and loses it a bit, the public responses are the same.

Suppose one day I get one insult too many, I go nuts and quit or freak out. Here's what people will say about me: What a weakling. What a wimp. What an idiot. Why does he care? Why doesn't he just turn the social media off? Why can't he be tough and awesome like me? Screw that guy.

All this, of course, from people who have never experienced being in even remotely the same position.

A Quick Aside

Everyone jokes about how supposedly soulless PR and marketing people are, but dealing with the masses is difficult, time-consuming, and an actual skill. To survive emotionally in a high-profile situation, you need a layer of protection between yourself and the raw feedback of humanity.

If Dong Nguyen got a PR flack, stayed off forums, and just wrote games, he could make a lot of money. However, as he has said himself, this isn't the sort of life he wants to live, and I can't blame him.

But if you've ever seen a public figure (politician, actor, musician, and yes, game designer) have a weird, inexplicable public flame-out, it might make a little bit more sense now.

... gone. You see? Trolling does work!
Nothing Can Be Done, Of Course.

Reality is what it is. We devs would never have our attention and success without the Internet, but you have to take the good with the bad. If you want the attention, you also have to face the Hate Machine.

Sometimes it seems (accurately or not) like every gamer on the Internet seeks out their own little rantbox. A place to direct rage at their chosen target. Young male teens on one side, social justice warriors on the other, general cranks everywhere. Everyone has their axe to grind, and shouting is fun.

People have the right to give feedback, too. If I want to call out the Dungeon Keeper app or the hacky articles I linked to above, it's something I should be allowed to do. If you make your work public, people get to respond.

Trolling is annoying. (Though one man's troll is another man's brave truth-teller.) People troll because it works. When someone writes, "[Some developer] is a moron and his games suck," and the developer reads it, it hurts. You can't prevent it. It's just how our brains work.

I don't think this can ever change. (Though less slander from reporters who should know better would be nice, of course.) It's not about a broken system. It's about understanding, empathy, and remembering that the work you are shouting about was written by another human. An actual human, with feelings and stuff. And humans can be surprisingly fragile.

Saying that won't make any difference, of course. Haters gonna' hate. Trolls gonna' troll. But it feels nice to remind people occasionally, just the same.

---

Anyone who wants to hear more of my ramblings can follow me on teh Twitter.

Edit: Fixed a typo and made it clear one of the pieces linked was not actually by a grad student.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Whining About Grand Theft Auto V, Part 2: Gunplay and Power Fantasy.

Grand Theft Auto V DLC just announced.
This is the second part of my big, scattershot critique of Grand Theft Auto V. (Part 1 is here.) Things it did well. Things done not so well. Ways it could have, with minimal effort, made the flat parts much more interesting.

My problem with Grand Theft Auto V is not what it tries to do. It's that it doesn't do a good job of doing what it tries to do. Grand Theft Auto V tries to sell this badass thug life fantasy, but it undercuts itself at every turn.

The main reason I'm howling into the void like this is because I want Grand Theft Auto VI (or the next game to sell the same thing, Saints Row-style) to be better.

This is who I want to play.
A Brief Note About Stories About Scumbags

Writing a story centered around criminals and killers is hard. Making these characters likable is really hard. Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of success. The Sopranos. The Godfather. Quentin Tarantino movies (especially Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction). Wolf of Wall Street does a great job of it, and it's in theaters now.

How do you make a scumbag likable? It's all about fantasy. They don't have to be witty, but it helps. They don't have to have lots of fun, but it helps. What you need is a feeling of power and of getting to live outside of society's suffocating rules.

The most important thing: You have to believe that, for all of the danger and the fear, these characters LOVE the life they live. They wouldn't have it any other way.

But what if your criminal characters are constantly miserable and dour and gray and joyless and you would rather spend a lifetime as a Walmart greeter than five seconds in their shoes?

This brings us back to Grand Theft Auto V.

My favorite was the unhappy one.
Three Characters. Kind Of.

It was huge news when it was announced that Grand Theft Auto V would have three main characters. As if this is an exciting development in storytelling, which it isn't. The Seven Samurai came out decades ago, and it had SEVEN characters! (Not to mention Ocean's Eleven.)

It really only has one playable character: An unhappy, crabby criminal who wants to score big robberies to get rich. There's the young version, the old tired version, and the midlife crazy version, but they're basically the same character. (With the crazy version coming closest to being a fully realized, believable person.)

The sameness of the three characters is a sad missed opportunity. Here's my suggestion: Why do all three have to be on the same side? Why couldn't one of them be a corrupt cop trying to bring the other two down (like Vic Mackey in The Shield). When you play him, there are corrupt-cop minigames like shaking down drug dealers. Then, when you switch characters, the game would actually change in a meaningful way.

Or, want to keep the three criminals working together? You could make the whole thing twice as interesting in a second by making the young black striving criminal a woman. (Want to know what I'm picturing? Kindly Google Pam Grier. Or watch Jackie Brown. Yeah, I know. Tell me that wouldn't be awesome.)

Of course, then you run into the problem that some young male gamers are afraid of playing female characters, which is weird. Still, awesomeness is its own reward.

Do You Want To Be These People?

I can't remember any gaming story as dour and joyless as Grand Theft Auto V. It's these three miserable, clueless people, griping at each other and failing at everything they do for hour after hour. These people just aren't fun to watch.

This game needs a lot more Pulp Fiction. As it is, it's like watching some 60s French film about the Meaning of Sadness.

A Brief Side Note About Video Game Stories

By the way, a quick tip for the uninitiated. When people say a video game has "a good story," what they mean is that it has "a story." When they say it has "interesting characters," what they mean is that it has "characters."

These things get graded on a curve.

My Perfect Example Of the Problem

The game constantly rubs your nose into how powerless your power fantasy avatars are. Favorite example: The minigame in which you can fondle strippers during a lap dance, but only if the bouncer doesn't see you. If the bouncer sees you, you get thrown out.

Let us set aside for a moment that a game where you are groping women who doesn’t want to be groped is just super-ultra-gross.

But seriously? You're playing these awesome psycho badasses, yet they don't have more juice than a strip club bouncer?

You think Tony Soprano ever gets thrown out of a strip club? I'd like to see some dude try. They'd be pulling chunks of him out of the Hudson River for years.

OK. I put the box on the other box. When do I get to shoot all of these people?
About the Heists

One of the big features of GTAV was the heist system: You would choose a target for a huge robbery, and then you would laboriously go through all the steps of planning it out. Sounds cool.

But why were the steps of planning the heist so tedious? Drive across town to buy a mask. Drive back across town to steal a truck. Wander around a jewelry shop and take pictures. At one point, I swear to god, you pretend to be a dockworker and use a crane to move boxes around.

I totally see what they were going for here. They want to show how these big crimes come together and give the player the feeling of putting something big together. It just doesn't play well.

A Final Thing. The Gunplay.

Grand Theft Auto gameplay has two dominant components: The driving and the shooting. The driving, as I discussed in the previous post, is awesome. Sadly, the shooting is kind of a mess.

I'm far from the first person to observe this ... here's how the combat works. You press the left trigger, and you will be auto-aimed at the center of the torso of the nearest enemy. Press the right trigger to kill him. That's it. Left trigger - right trigger - left trigger - right trigger, until you win. It's not that fun.

GTA apologists are already storming to the comments to angrily point out that you can turn on free aiming in the settings. Well, yeah, you can. But so what? 95% of players never dig into the Settings. The default version of the game IS the game.

But even if lots of players knew about and used this option, isn't this weird? I mean, why is such a fundamental part of how the game plays left to a check box buried in Settings? I mean, isn't that kind of peculiar? Why is that?

I think the real reason for the simplistic combat becomes very clear whenever you're in a fight where autotargeting doesn't work. In other words, in one of the many fights where it's nighttime and you have a sniper rifle and you NEED TO SHOOT THAT ONE GUY RIGHT NOW OMIGOD NOWNOWNOW!!!!!

And I'm desperately looking through the scope into the darkness, trying to figure out which gray patch on a gray patch I need to shoot to not instafail the mission. Honestly, so many of my mission failures happened because I was squinting at the screen trying to find my target.

This is the problem: Because of the art style and the huge variety of targets, settings, and times of day, you will often be in fights where you just can't see your enemies clearly. It works, though, because the magic left trigger always finds them for you. Left trigger - right trigger - left trigger - right trigger.

I don't know how to solve the problem (which existed in GTA4 too), but having an aiming-free shooter isn't a great solution.

You see how badass and non-depressed these people look? I'll come back when I can play them.
In Closing

For all its supposed edginess, Grand Theft Auto V is the most conservatively-designed, risk-averse computer game I've ever played. Is the content edgy? Maybe? I suppose? Kind of? In 2013, selling a game to teen boys where you fondle strippers and torture swarthy foreigners is not a big risk.

Of course, there's no way they will care about my criticism. Nor should they. It's not my risk, not my hundreds of millions of dollars sunk into the game. And because this game is massively successful, the next Grand Theft Auto will be the same thing. Same lavish setting, same nihilism. Honestly, the best thing Rockstar could do for the next game in the series is a three-word design document: "Same thing again."

However, this leaves an opening for a canny competitor. The Saints Row games have thrived by keeping the sense of fun and silliness the Grand Theft Auto games abandoned years ago.

My main problem with Grant Theft Auto V is that it was just a huge downer. It was sad and dour and all too frequently tedious. It never did what the Grand Theft Auto games were always so good at: making me smile.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Yes, It's a Game. They're ALL Games. STOP ARGUING.

Yes, in fact, I do have Know Your Meme bookmarked. Why do you ask?
I've been taking a long break playing through the dozens of unplayed indie games in my Steam queue. My biggest surprise was that all of my favorite experiences were what I privately call Storytelling games: Games with minimal gameplay, that mainly exist to tell a story.

You've been hearing about them for months. Gone Home. Stanley Parable. Papers, Please. (In my opinion.) To the Moon. Amnesia: Machine For Pigs. Storytelling Games really broke big in the last year.

But it's still the Internet. There is no conversation so interesting and new that someone won't break in and try to derail it into a pointless argument. So ...

Stop arguing about whether a game is a game or not. It's a useless distraction. STOP IT.

Why?

When someone says, "That isn't even a game," they are actually saying something else.

One. It's Impossible to Define What a Game Is.

No, seriously. Try it. Whatever definition you come up with, half of everyone else will disagree. The other half will instantly poke a ton of holes into it.

We're talking art here. Getting a firm definition of anything is impossible.

Consider Big Fish Games, a hugely successful publisher of casual games. Think of it as Steam for your grandmother.

Have you looked at casual games lately? One of the biggest categories on Big Fish Games is Hidden Object Games, which is exactly what it sounds like. "There is a squid somewhere on your screen. Click on it."

This is an activity that doesn't involve pwning a dozen robotorcs while cycling through a dozen hotkeyed abilities at top speed, so plenty of hardcore gamers wouldn't consider it worthy of the lofty title of "Game." But Big Fish Games does sell games. You can tell because they have "Games" right there in their name.

(Of course, whenever anyone says, "That isn't a game," it's just thinly disguised bragging about how awesomely hardcore they are. Whatever the filthy casuals are doing over there, it doesn't deserve to be lumped in with the cool kid stuff we do.)

Personally, I think a Hidden Object Game barely even counts as an "activity." But it's still a game, and if a Hidden Object Game is a game, everything is.

A screen from the delightfully aggressively named Witches' Legacy: Hunter and the Hunted. Now click the squid. Click, it, DAMN YOU! CLICK IT!

Two. Dividing Games Into Games and Not-Games is Useless.

I mean, why would you even want to come up with categories like Game and Visual Novel and whatever? It wouldn't do any good, as everyone has a different idea of what a game is.

You know something? I've decided that I don't think simulators should be considered games. Gone Home is like a Hidden Object Game, so it's a game, but Call of Duty is a war simulator, so it's not a game. So there! (Drops mic.)

What did you think of that last paragraph? Do you think I sounded like a crazy person? Well, that's how YOU sound if/when you say Gone Home isn't a game.

Coming up with different ghettos to stick games into doesn't do any good, and it keeps us from doing what's really interesting: Talking about the works themselves.

Three. You Really, Honestly Can't Come Up With Something Better To Talk About, Seriously?!?!?!?

This is a time of wonders for gamers. 2013 saw the release of a huge number of fantastic, innovative, and ground-breaking titles, on the indie and AAA level. It was a year of delights. Even games I had a lot of problems with were still super-fun.

We should be spending out precious and limited time talking about the games themselves. What they did right. What they could have done better. What is still technically or budgetarily impossible for them to do. (The last one is a really important, under-discussed topic.)

That someone could be greeted with all of these delights and all they can do is pick a semantic argument? The art form is growing fast now, guys. It's way, WAY too early to start pigeonholing things yet.

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As always, we're still on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Whining About Grand Theft Auto V, Part 1. Cars Are Awesome, and Girls Are Icky.

Sigh. OK. Let's do this thing.
"[GTA V] is the endpoint of the American dream."
- Dan Houser, Rockstar Head Writer and VP

I think we can all agree at this point that Grand Theft Auto V rests comfortably at the absolute pinnacle of the game industry.

Its Metacritic score is an impossibly high 97, head and shoulders above any other game anywhere ever. It took only a few days to garner over a Billion-with-a-B dollars in sales. While it's nowhere near as dominant in the Game of the Year awards as I expected (perhaps some of the lavish acclaim has been rethought), it is still doing respectably well.

Is there any standard, critical and financial, by which this game can't be considered the finest our industry has to offer?

And yet, is there anyone who can look me in the eye and tell me that it is not a flawed piece of work? Now that the dust has cleared, will anyone step forward and give an unqualified endorsement of it? Practically every lavish review comes with a huge qualification. "It's a fantastic experience, just ignore the [boilerplate missions/flat characters/hideous torture scene/misogyny]."

I played through about 2/3 of the GTAV storyline before I lost interest.  This pains me greatly, because I am a huge, HUGE Grand Theft Auto fan. I have unapologetically defended the series for years. You know how serious a fan I am? I finished Grand Theft Auto IV! The whole thing! Who did that, seriously?

I found fun bits, parts that are done really well, and a lot of stuff that just doesn't work. It is an important, ambitious title, and it deserves a solid dissection. Not just a "Fine. 10/10. Whatever. Is Battlefield 4 working yet?"

I've read a million reviews and analyses of this thing, and I have a few critiques I'd like to add (not that anyone from Rockstar will ever read them or care). Not as some moral scold. I'm not morally better than this series. I'm just a dedicated gamer who wants to love these games again.

At least we now know how Rockstar pictures their fans.

Don't Blame the Reviewers

Reviewing a game like Grand Theft Auto V is an incredibly thankless task. You're flown to a hotel. You get the disk. You let out a long sigh. You play for 10 hours straight. You go out for a stiff drink. You give it 93/100. You go out for a stiff drink.

What's the alternative? If you actually engage the flaws of the game, you get millions of belligerent (and even threatening) messages, and NOBODY enjoys that. Then there are demands that your site does a new review. Then you might lose your advertising dollars (and your job).

A perfect example is the Gamespot review by Carolyn Petit. It's a lavishly positive 9/10 review, that just happens to mention that the game is "profoundly misogynistic". (Which it is.) The comments thread on the article is, as of this writing, over 22000 (!!!) posts of rage.

Reviewers are humans. Editors are humans. Having this much anger directed at you, even from anonymous ghosts over the internet, is shaking, even before you consider the real business punishment that can result from actual criticism.

It's a bizarre system, one determined to punish honest feedback, replacing it with an avalanche of meaningless rating scores.

The next part is the one that'll make people mad. As a calming influence, here is a bunny.

Oh, and About the Misogyny Thing

Every reviewer goes on, rightly, about the incredible scale and depth and detail of GTAV's game world. The game is amazingly big and lovingly rendered. It does an excellent job of evoking real-life Los Angeles.

And yet, with all the money and effort that went into making the world, you know what there wasn't room for? A single female character that wasn't a hooker, a stripper, or a shrew.

And let's be super clear. I'm not saying every story everywhere ever needs to have women in it (or men). But what I AM saying is that GTAV's story would be improved by more variety in the cast. It's all grumpy, bitter dudes grousing at each other for forty hours. It's dour and repetitive, and it needed something to liven it up. (I'll get back to this in detail in Part 2.)

But back to misogyny. Of course GTAV is misogynistic. It's not a bug. It's a feature. It's a selling point. And that is not a crime. Some people simply want their fantasy world to be a He-Man Boy's Club, and Rockstar is making infinite dollars selling it to them.

If that's what you want, fine. It's not against the law. But at least admit it! Don't freak out when someone points out the obvious.

Young men, you already won. You got the game you wanted, and you made it a success. Thus, you will get plenty more of what you want. However, the rest of us are still allowed to say that something is gross. You can't keep us from expressing opinions. That is one thing the game industry cannot bend over backwards to give you.

Yes, I'm about to tie Gone Home into this. This is a Difficulty Level 4 Game Critic Maneuver (DL4GCM). We'll see if I stick the landing.

Some Things GTAV Gets Perfectly Right

No series becomes such an institution without getting some things right, and GTAV has mastered two elements that explain most of its everlasting popularity.

First, the world is mind-boggling huge and rendered to exacting detail. This sort of thing is a huge and expensive job, but it results in a kind of miracle: A world that is fun to just wander around in. See a pretty house up on a hill? You can go up there, poke around, find people sitting by the pool, and murder them.

The transgressive joy of being able to wander anywhere you want is one of the key features of the series. (Just as one of the most fun things about Gone Home is the evil pleasure of simply going through peoples' stuff. And, yes, I did just come up with the long sought-after Grand Theft Auto-Gone Home connection. You're welcome.)

Second, driving around is fun. The weird clumsy driving in Grand Theft Auto IV is gone, and peeling down the roads in a sports car at a zillion miles an hour is a simple good time.

Also, and this doesn't get appreciated enough, the driving AI for the characters is amazing. I played a bunch of missions involving high-speed chases through busy streets, and all of the cars moved perfectly believably and never ran into things in dumb ways.

It's one of those super-fiddly technical accomplishments that's really, really easy to underrate. I can't imagine all of the hours it must have taken to get that to work right.

Every plane offers a free one-way teleportation to the nearest hospital.
But That's Just the Cars

It's a constant of Grand Theft Auto games. They find the person on the team who is the biggest enemy of fun, and they put that person in charge of the planes and helicopters.

I mean, my God. The driving is so forgiving that if you roll your car onto its back (always the insta-fail kiss of death in older GTA games), you just need to waggle the joystick a few times and it magically flops back onto the tires. It looks goofy.

But when you have to land a plane, you better have your ailerons and rudders and propellors and landing gear and what-nots just so, or else! If not, well, you fail and get to try again after five more minutes of flying. If you don't have the patience for an hour of this, I believe the XBox Skip Mission button is the blue one.

(A Skip Mission button is, itself, a confession of flawed game design, but that's a battle for another day.)

Part two. TWO. I can't recommend this video highly enough. Skip forward to 2:40 or so. The delight at spending only a few imaginary dollars to sleep with an imaginary stripper is the opposite of infectious.

Another Thing GTAV Gets Perfectly Right

The wish-fulfillment.

And I'm not talking about the obvious wish-fulfillment, like the violence or the drugs or the ludicrous way you can get strippers to sleep with you.

I'm talking about the little, more relatable things. In particular, I'm talking about how, early in the game, two of your three characters can actually own a house. A nice house, with tasteful furniture, a view, and no crushing mortgage I can never pay off.

You want an impossible fantasy for the young people playing the game? Can't beat actually owning a nice house.

All they need is a side-mission in which you pay off your suffocating college debt, and the game will be complete.

(This is the first half. I go on about the storytelling and characters next week.)

Friday, December 20, 2013

Games As Art, the Toughest Standard, and Not Having To Worry About Ebert Anymore.

Art in video games is a boring topic, but it's my blog, so I indulge occasionally. For the rest of you, here's a funny YouTube video.

This week, I'm gonna' get all good and pretentious. I've been playing a lot of terrific games lately, and I want to engage in my tedious, semi-annual rant about the state of video games as art.

I am a lifelong fan of Roget Ebert, and I was greatly saddened when he died. And yet, in nerd circles, every mention of his name must now be marked with anger and bitterness. Not by me, but some.

Near the end of his life, he committed the greatest of crimes, the one thing no geek can ever forgive. He told us a truth we didn't want to hear. Here is the introductory sentence (context can be found here), written in 2005, that started the whole mess:

"To my knowledge, no one in or out of the [video game] field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers."

He said that video games had not yet produced a work of Great Art, and he did not yet see how they could. Which, in 2005, was pretty darn reasonable. We had barely even set out on the path. But nerds, being, as they are, a tense collective of eternally exposed raw nerves, reacted with limitless rage. Which is how we know he really struck that nerve.

(The old aphorism: The truth hurts. That's how you know it's the truth.)

The problem here, I think, is simply one of not yet having defined our terms. He was just using a different vocabulary, a different standard. A tough standard. We video game fans tend to be systematically uncritical of the products we play, which is a key part of the problem.

But I get what he meant. How can I not? The quote above threw down the gauntlet. Only now are we starting to be able to pick it up.

(Disclaimer that you should read: If you only want action and distraction from your video games, Candy Crush Saga and Battlefield 4 style, there is nothing wrong with that. This just might not be a conversation you care about. We're still allowed to have it, though.)

Still with us? Good! Here is a funny YouTube video!

But Why Would You Bring It Up Now, When Everyone Was Sick To Death Of Talking About It

Good question. After all, before he died, Ebert wrote that he was sick of the whole thing and wished he'd never brought it up.

But I think this is a perfect time to start hashing it out again, because games are getting better so quickly. Fantastic, innovative titles are coming out almost every day: Games that approach video game storytelling in fresh ways that really take advantage of the medium. Really good, emotionally involving stories that could only be properly told in video game form. (My examples: Gone Home. Stanley Parable. The Last of Us. Papers, Please.)

Ebert is, sadly, dead, and I won't mention him again in this piece. We don't have to care about impressing him, and we never should have, anyway. He wasn't the final arbitrator of art truth, he never claimed to be, and the way nerds fetishized his opinion bothered him.

Instead, we should set higher standards for ourselves and then meet them. I dream of a video game that is a piece of Great Art.

But what does that mean? And how will we recognize it when it arrives?

What Makes a Work Perfect?

A theatre professor I really respected once lectured a class I was in about the distinction between a Perfect piece of art and a Great one, and, the longer I live, the more truth I see in it.

A Perfect piece of art is, just that, perfect. Without flaw. It has a goal, a story to tell, and it does so in the most efficient and skilled way possible. You look at it, and you can't see a thing you'd fix. It's just really good.

He gave the example of the play Cyrano de Bergerac. I'd suggest Casablanca. Raiders of the Lost Ark. I just played the indie game Gone Home, and it was Perfect. Loved it. Have a lot more to say about it some time.

Being Perfect doesn't mean you have to like it. Tastes differ. It means that the work achieved its goals in the most successful way possible. It's really hard to do.

Perfect video games come out all the time, but they aren't Great, because the goals they achieve perfectly are so terribly low. And that brings us to the place our young art form has never reached: Greatness.

Halfway there. Time for a break. Here's a really cool YouTube video!

Perfection Versus Depth

Perfect doesn't mean Great. Thinking otherwise is a common mistake, but a key one. Here's why. It's a matter of depth.

Consider Raiders of the Lost Ark. I've watched that movie a million times. It's terrific. However, whenever I watch it, it's the exact same experience. Indy runs from the rolling boulder, and it's exciting. He kisses Marian, and it's sweet. The Nazi's face melts, and it's awesome. Done. It's immensely enjoyable, but there's nothing else there.

When you play Gone Home to the end, you're done with it. You can spend two hours giving everything in that game full and proper consideration, all the songs, all the secrets, and then you're done. Return to it tomorrow, and the characters probably hit you the same way. Same with five years from now. It might be tinged with a bit of nostalgia, but there will be nothing more to learn. It's a good story, but a simple one.

And that is enough. Not everything has to be Great, but the distinction exists.

What Makes a Work Great?

It's not perfection. Great works are rarely Perfect. They're too complex.

What makes a work Great is a mystery, a depth, an ambiguity of meaning, that is best detected in this concrete way: You can return to it every few years, and it's meaning to you can entirely change.

I am a fiend for Hamlet. I try to see that play at least every five years. Every time I do, it hits me differently. Someone who seemed sensible now seems like a jerk. Parts I never noticed before suddenly slay me. I'll have a better understanding of how someone acts the way he or she does.

This is what a work being Great means. You never truly get all of it. You never will. Every time you're sure you Understand it, give it a few years and that certainty will slip away.

Great work is rare. You can only get so many powerful, enduring pieces of art in any given century. That's why so much of it is so old. It's not the sort of thing that, once you have it, you let go to waste.

It is the most subjective thing there is. I know lots of smart, sensible people who hate Hamlet. Other works affect them that way. Maybe The Godfather. Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. The Girl With a Pearl Earring. (The painting, not the book, of course.) Ulysses. Infinite Jest. Leaves Of Grass. 

And It Takes Time To Find the Great Ones

It's completely subjective. I listed several works just above that are commonly hailed as Great, and there's one of them I can't stand. On the other hand, I consider The Stranger by Billy Joel to be a true masterpiece, and believe me, there are plenty of people who would disagree with me vigorously about that.

The process of finding Greatness happens inside all of us, a quiet personal thing, and then we bring our opinions out to the world and see if any trends emerge.

If enough people find a work Great for them, it eventually gets elevated into The Canon and kids are forced to suffer through it in school.

Great works are usually difficult. They take time. It's not all on the surface. It may take those repeat visits over the years to get what they're going for. What makes them Great is the way they, for some many people, reward the effort.

You are not obligated to like any particular work that has been christened Great. In fact, I guarantee there will be many that do nothing for you. However, if you never like ANY Great work of art, it is possible that the problem is you.

That's right! I just put The Stranger on the same level as The Godfather! Nobody can stop me! Here's a disturbing YouTube video.

But Back to Video Games. 

To find a work that has Greatness in it for you, you need to live with it for years. You need to see if it has that lasting effect on you, that it grows up with you. Key point here: Video games are young enough that, even if we have produced a true masterpiece, it's too early to know.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe, generations from now, people will still play emulated copies of Journey and Gone Home and go back and forth about what it means to them. I really, super don't think so. There are games I enjoyed very much. They're Perfect. Sometimes, when you're talking about a work enduring for decades or centuries, that's not enough.

God. We Embarrassed Ourselves.

When the challenge was given, we gamers gave our pitiful examples of works to be judged. Flower. Braid. Portal. Shadow of the Colossus. Fun, worthy games, all Perfect. But more than that? Something that can stay with you for a lifetime, constantly offering new emotions and new meaning?

Are you kidding me?

Hey, Flower is ... Well, it's kind of fun. It's pretty. Relaxing. I imagine, after a bong hit or two, it's fantastic. But would you go up to people who cut their teeth on King Lear and La Dolce Vita, offer them that glittery trinket, and expect them to slump away shamed? Embarrassing!

At least, that's what I think. I also might be wrong. It's not up to me.

Almost to the end. If you are fading, here is a controversial YouTube video.

Here's the Great Part

Maybe I'm wrong. I don't know the future. I don't know what's in your head. It is possible that Flower and Gone Home might strike a chord in peoples' heads, and they will still be played in fifty, a hundred, a thousand years.

Video games are young. There is no canon, no room of musty old dudes with tenure saying what you are obligated to love. Are there games that are Great, that have what it takes to keep you engaged through a lifetime? I don't think so, but I only get one vote.

You get one too.

One of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog is that I get to use my little voice to push forward things that are worth emulating, and say why. I don't think video games have produced anything truly Great, but I see the potential coming forward more and more every day.

Papers, Please, for example, is a work of art. It's a fantastic window into a different world, a foreign way of thinking. It's even fun.

I bet a lot of people who bother to read this will come away from it feeling angry and cranky. "How dare Jeff Vogel say Bioshock: Infinite isn't a game for the ages. What a dick! And his games suck anyway!"

So fight. There's a comments section below, and a lot of industry people, actual game makers, read this blog. I hear from them in private all the time. As I never tire of saying, the art form is new.

If something in a game really affected you, shook you, moved you, and you keep going back to it, say it below. If you see a little glimmer of Greatness somewhere, make your case. It doesn't have to be a whole game, just one section, one moment. If you want to join the argument, you can do it in a constructive way. Try not to be an asshole.

We don't have a grown-up art form yet, but we're getting there. And it's pretty fun to watch.