No Time To Play

Gamexistential ennui

by on Nov.29, 2013, under Miscellaneous

My first reaction was to retweet this article, but it does such a good job of describing how I’ve been feeling about the gaming world as of late, and by extension why it’s been so quiet around here lately.

This Is Videogames 2013

At first I thought it was just because I’ve been dedicating myself to writing as of late, and maybe also because of programming burnout. Both excuses are true. But the real problem is…

Look. As of this writing, videogames have existed (as more than isolated experiments) for about 40 years — longer than I’ve been alive. And if you want to insist on that dumb comparison with movies that everyone makes, videogames should be at the stage where movies were in 1935.

Which, quite clearly, isn’t the case.

No, I’m not holding my breath for the “Citizen Kane of videogames”. I did say the comparison was stupid, right? And there have been quite a few games already that everybody can agree to call art (apart maybe from Robert Ebert, but he left this world not so long ago). We obviously DIDN’T need ultra-realistic graphics to achieve that. But nobody can seem to figure out what does make those masterpieces so great, let alone replicate their success. Maybe it’s because videogames are so much more complicated than movies. I don’t know. I’m too tired of my own failed attempts.

Worse, I’m tired as a gamer. Can’t remember when I last played anything that wasn’t a text adventure… written by a friend. I know someone who buys every Humble Bundle on principle but never plays any of them. I know another someone who buys games on GOG by the dozen and also doesn’t play any. The only people I know who still play at all are into Guild Wars 2, Wizardry 101, or else some version of Pokemon. Even on the Metro, you wouldn’t believe how many of the many passengers with large-screen smartphones play… some implementation of Same Game. Out of literally millions of possible choices.

In the mean time, literature is getting better than ever (despite doomsday predictions by a publishing industry nobody needs or wants anymore), and even amateur short film — a laborious form of art to create, even moreso than games! — has reached the point where YouTube is full of little masterpieces. I keep meaning to watch more of them, and somehow never succeed. All this while videogames have been going exactly nowhere, despite an increasingly frantic output by industry and indies alike.

I don’t think we know where we’re going. I don’t think we’re making any progress either. Not even in circles.

And that’s why as of late I’ve been going back to my lifetime passion of reading and writing. I’d change the main topic of this blog (seriously, I’ve been tempted), but that wouldn’t be fair to my readers, I think. The two of them who are still out there, anyway.

Funny how easily literature has moved away from experiments such as Dadaism, and yet is still thriving on the same good old principles that were already established by the time Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe.

But videogames don’t yet have such established principles. We never bothered acquiring any.

After all, we could always rely on hardware getting more powerful, right?

5 Comments for this entry

  • Zesago

    “Ennui” is a very fitting term.

    In the past five years, I’ve bought and played a handful of new games (well, new-to-me, anyway), but I keep finding myself drawn to the classics. Maybe I’m an old geezer, but there are highly-configurable games that fulfill entire genres.

    When I want an FPS, I use either Quake 3 or UT2k4. RTS? StarCraft 2 (this is one of the new games) but it’s not remarkably different than any other genre-defining RTSes (Age of Empires, etc). TBS? Civ 3. Arcade? Any number of classic collections… Racing? Screamer. Adventure? Nethack.

    There exist a wealth of games for DOS or ZX Spectrum that keep me occupied that I don’t really look at new times with any seriousness.

    I find a lot more fun in creating games than playing them. I wonder, though, if this is the case across the board.

  • Felix

    I used to feel exactly the same, hence why I kept this blog for so long. But lately I’ve been too burnt up on programming, and without a desire for making even experiments, there’s been little to write about…

  • Alex

    Just stumbled in from a google SERP while researching game rules systems and it’s nice to see someone who shares some of my dissatisfaction with the state the medium finds itself in.

    I’d say if anything, now is no time to be hanging up your hat when it comes to commentary. In fact, I’d say now is the best time as there seems to be a glaring absence of dissenting views. Consider your contribution more a discourse analysis. ;)

    I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about what it is that bothers me so much about computer/video gaming these days and I’ve narrowed it down to a few trends & observations:

    - There’s a fixation on visuals nowadays that is much more sinister than hype over “good graphics”. It seems like people rank their response to a visual style as more important than what they actually experience for a game system. This is something even the indie community is guilty of with their fixation on the 8-bit visual style. Which I think speaks to the fact that people still seem to buy games, but never play them. The actual gameplay has become so predictable that it doesn’t even merit pursuit.

    - There’s almost zero information architecture in the games we see today. Whether it’s a heartfelt, quirky and oft-successful amateur stab or a fully fleshed out, contrived and decoupled model. It seems no point on that spectrum finds favour with the originators of games today. Which is why you’ll often see a lot of derivative works after any successful title. Each one trying to capitalize off of or even re-canonize the small scraps of genuine inspiration found in a wasteland of posers.

    As a result of these two observations, games are usually doomed before they’re even finished. Whether you want to compare games to movies/television, between people playing the same game, or two titles to each other, there’s no differentiation.
    Most titles, you tend to find the rails in pretty short order and then it’s 15-30 minutes tops before you turn it off mid-action and never play again.

    I think if we’re ever to see a gaming industry again, some things need to happen:

    - Games need to be much longer so that people can commit to them without feeling like the ownership and visuals meta-game is the game itself.
    - Companies should commit to expanding games with more than just cosmetic adjustments after release.
    - Goes without saying at this point, but big studios cannot be trusted, Kickstarter I think is emerging as a savoir there.
    - Programming budgets should vastly outweigh static asset budgets. Movies and books produce artwork at ridiculous margins, games shouldn’t. They’re supposed to feature an interesting and nuanced graph with dynamic interactions, not be glorified animatronic rides.
    - People need to take more risks with the technology we are seeing these days, because there’s a lot of cool stuff out there I could only have fantasized about in high school!

    I could go on about this for hours, but it kinda leaks out of my head as quickly as I can type it. Feel free to respond!

    Thank you for the great blog.

  • Felix

    Hi, Alex, and thanks for the encouragement. I needed it! Doubly so as a game developer — I’ve always felt guilty for making games that focus on systems and mechanics instead of graphics. Not that assets are entirely unimportant: The simple addition of sounds brought Square Shooter to life in a way that nothing else did.

    Otherwise, I don’t really know what to say. I agree that games should be their own thing, and that means emphasizing interactivity over handcrafted content, but that’s not easy either; concepts like information architecture pretty much fly right over my head, to be honest. But your bullet points at least show a possible way, which I’m willing to explore, if only through a telescope.

    Let’s see if I can still contribute something to the discourse.

  • Nightwrath

    Well, since I just talked about this to Felix – I guess it’s a good time add a comment here as well.
    I think the state of the gaming industry is not that grim at this point (like it used to be a few years ago).

    I have been looking on some of the 2013 titles and came up with an interesting list: ‘Spelunky’, ‘Hotline Miami’, ‘The Stanley Parable’, ‘Papers, Please’, ‘Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons’, ‘Gone Home’, ‘Rogue Legacy’. Yes, those are mostly indies, and yes, the list is incomplete, however no one can deny the influence of those titles on the industry (you can look up on ‘gamasutra’ to see what I mean).

    I kept this to PC only, because Nintendo also had some darn nice titles last year (‘Ni No Kuni’ or ‘Fire Emblem’ for example), even playstation had some interesting exclusives I think. The real loser of the bunch seems to be xbox, the console which seems to focus on only some kind games (COD etc.)

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  • Weekly links #10 « No Time To Play

    […] that’s not the only danger the industry is facing. Back in November, I complained that game developers don’t really know what they’re doing. Turns out, other people are reaching the same conclusion. No wonder that when the makers of Candy […]

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