Over at the Rampant Coyote blog, Jay Barnson is at it again, writing an article I wish had occurred to me. Namely, about the way games trying to be art at any cost is a trap. I would add that trying to make Art on purpose doesn't work. Indiana Jones never tried to be more than good old pulpy action fun; it only ended up having such a tremendous influence on subsequent cinema because they did what they set out to do as well as they could. Which just happened to be very, very well. Same with the Barsoom series, Conan or any other classic franchise you care to name, regardless of medium.
This is especially relevant to me, because for the past two years or so I've been writing a bunch of science-fiction (which is why I haven't been so active in the game-making department), and one of the most common accusations leveled at my writing has been that it's pulp.
And you know, that had me a little miffed at first. What's wrong with focusing on what the protagonists do? I can't stand reading page after page of internal monologue; like in real life, only actions matter in the end. That actions should also have meaning -- and I certainly try to make it so -- is another story entirely. Pun not intended.
But then I noticed that readers actually like my writing, and do find meaning in the fictional events I portray, though not always those meanings I had intended. (That's a fascinating trait of fiction which merits ample discussion, but is outside the scope of this post.)
And then I remembered my days at the Planetar writing circle (see my account here), when any story that was actually readable and lacking in intellectual pretentiousness was automatically labeled as "commercial", with a mix of envy and condescension. My esteemed readers can presumably imagine how constructive such an approach was in affording the aforementioned critics the good graces of a publisher.
See, I can use long words just fine if I want to.
I can write long paragraphs of deep philosophy, spin sophisticated descriptions and make my characters engage in complex dialogue for pages on end. (And by the way, I could never understand why certain aspiring writers find it so hard to write decent dialogue; don't they ever have serious conversations in real life?) But all of that is for naught if my readers don't enjoy the story for what it is in the first place. Not necessarily in the sense of "fun" -- though I do indulge in a certain degree of escapism; real life is nasty enough by itself that I don't need more nastiness in my fiction -- but in the sense of getting something out of it, enough that they stay with me to the end and don't regret doing so. If in the process they end up having some profound revelation and hailing my work as Art with a capital A, great. But that would never happen if I tried to be a diva and go for such an effect in the first place.
It's the same with games. If it's no fun to play, whatever gameplay happens to consists of in any given title, I sure won't notice, let alone care about, any deeper meanings. Especially if, as I wrote so many times as of late, you feel a need to fight against the medium instead of working within it to convey your message.
Games should be good games first. Let others worry about what else they may turn out to be.