Archive

Criticism

What is good art? We are constantly declaring various books and movies and games to be good or bad – we get in arguments about these classifications, have entire professions dedicated to evangelizing them. We go to great lengths to highlight the good points of one thing or the bad points of another, and we rarely bother to define what we mean when we say that it’s good or that it’s bad. Does it just mean that we enjoyed it? No, because sometimes we say things that are harrowing or awkward or unpleasant are good. Does it just mean that we found value in the time we spent with it? No, because if that’s all it was then we wouldn’t get into arguments over it, since there’s no point in trying to convince someone they actually did or didn’t enjoy something (not that that stops anyone from trying).

I don’t think good/bad judgments mean much of anything in the absence of more specificity. Art isn’t good or bad, it’s good at or bad at – good at making you understand the internal conflict of a character, for instance, or bad at presenting a physically convincing reality. These artistic traits may or may not be something you personally are interested in , but they’re something you can make a convincing argument about when debating the nature of a work and what it accomplishes.

Yet it obviously means something when we say that a given work is good. There’s some nebulous but shared set of standards that, when a work excels at them, defines it as good. So we end up with weird splittings-of-hairs – “Oh, it’s not a good movie, but it’s a good action movie,” “I don’t think it’s a bad book but it’s deeply misogynist” – where these standards for what we expect and how we measure quality butt up against one another.

When we say “good” we are secretly saying “good at“, with the ‘at’ standing in for a whole host of assumed criteria for quality: It has to have convincing characters and effects, it has to have reasonably but not excessively attractive people, it has to have an epic or emotionally moving score, it has to be between 80 and 160 minutes, the motion of the plot and systems have to be completely transparent at all moments, to be sexy but not sexual, to deal with pain and violence and sadness and serious things, and it is judged bad if it fails to live up to these standards – regardless of whether these standards were even attempted, whether the artists cared at all in the first place.

Conflicts emerge between our personal style and standards and those metrics of quality that all art is measured against. We may deeply love a work, or merely enjoy it, while the standards of art proclaim that it is shlock, garbage, meritless. We call these “guilty pleasures”: That which lives up to our own personal standards of quality, that we find personally enjoyable, but which doesn’t adhere to the cultural standard, or possibly even attempt to. Yet sometimes, rather than declaim the guilt of our pleasures, we will call something “schlocky” good – not in support of these principles, but in defiance of them. Saying that art which does not adhere to these standards is still good is drawing a line in the sand and saying no, your criteria for quality are wrong and don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes if enough people recognize something the standards will shift: When the game Demon’s Souls came out a decade ago, many players immediately rejected it as confusing, clunky, and punishing. By most of the game design standards of the time, these traits were regarded by many as a sign of bad game design; any developer who put them into a game was assumed to be incompetent, whether or not it was done with intent or artistry. Yet enough people understood and appreciated the intent of the game that the loosely cohesive Souls-like series of followups has gained a massive and dedicated following. Demon’s Souls is still a fairly conventional game in most ways, though: For every Demon’s Souls, there’s hundreds of unconventional masterpieces that never find an audience.

However, as art becomes homogenized towards the Disney manual of style, audiences may come to see anything that deviates from the standards set by mega-corporations as artless, clumsy – not as an experiment in a different style, but as an amateurish bungling of what everyone knows is the correct way to make art. These fears may seem alarmist, but they’re already coming to pass: The scope of what’s considered a valid film, book, or game is vastly narrower now than it was even thirty years ago, and it’s hard not to see a correlation with the consolidation of most mass-media power, which unilaterally declares the standards of artistic merit, into a few wealthy white grasping hands.

If you enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Support at any level lets you read new posts one week early and adds your name to the list of supporters on the sidebar.

Advertisements

Game design is a trust exercise. The player has to be able to trust that the game designer’s decisions make sense, that when they take an action within the system the resultant reaction will make sense and be predictable. “Predictable” might sound overly constraining, but there’s a lot of room in between a “technically possible to predict” result and an “immediately obvious” result – that is, as long as the player can still generate a mental map of how state A became state B the system as a whole will seem trustworthy, even if they never in a million years could have predicted that state B would have been the result.

A good example of technically predictable design is Spelunky: Every object in the game interacts with every other object in mostly very simple ways. For instance, a rock, flung through the air, will damage anything in its path. While each interaction is, individually, very easy to understand, in aggregate, they become wildly unpredictable (while still being technically possible to predict). The rock might only fly through the air and do damage, but in so doing it might also knock out the yeti who falls on the landmine which blasts the rock back up into the sky which knocks down the UFO which falls on you and explodes and kills you. There’s a certain kind of satisfaction to dying to something so wildly improbable and byzantine but completely mechanically predictable.

If the player loses trust in the game design, though, everything in the game becomes suspect. A hilarious fluke may instead start to seem like a dirty trick. Goals no longer seem worth striving for because they could be snatched away. Failure seems arbitrary and no longer worth actively avoiding. The game becomes a gamble, with unknown odds and random payout.

I’ve recently been playing through an extensive Dark Souls mod called Daughters of Ash. There are a number of really interesting ideas contained within the mod, but it’s difficult to trust the decision-making behind it. Part of what made Dark Souls such a valuable experience when it came out was that it flouted a lot of the conventional rules of ‘good game design’ – sometimes it wasn’t clear what the game expected of you, movement was heavy and clumsy, and the story was distant and confusing, requiring careful attention to piece together. However, it established its own set of rules to replace these, rules which you learned through hard experience: Caution and exploration were rewarded, if you can see a place you can go there’s usually a worthwhile reason to go there, and if you pay careful attention then you can usually avoid traps and ambushes.

Unfortunately, while Daughters of Ash correctly perceives that Dark Souls broke many rules, it had little appreciation for the new rules created to replace them. Invisible traps, baffling cause and effect, huge detours and difficult acrobatics to get useless items – in the first place it’s harder to trust a mod than the game it was based on, and each decision like these just makes it even harder.

Trust isn’t uniquely important in the medium of games though. Trust is important in all forms of art. You have to be able to trust the painter for long enough to see the painting properly, to appreciate the forms and structure. You have to be able to trust a movie or TV series to be going somewhere, to have some sort of structure of intent and planned payoff. The recent wave of disappointment in the conclusion of the Game of Thrones series is an interesting example of what happens when you start to lose that trust. Retroactively, people start to regard earlier episodes less well, knowing that they don’t like where they end up, and decisions that people might otherwise be forgiving of are judged harshly knowing that there’s no longer any possibility of a long distant future payoff.

I find myself having a hard time trusting most media these days. There’s a few reasons for this. One is technique: There’s a lot of similarity of approach in most popular entertainment, and once you get acclimated to this you tend to see where each scene is going as soon as it starts. It’s hard to trust the artist to take you anywhere interesting when each step along the way seems rote. The other difficulty comes from my increased critical awareness of the tacit implications and arguments forwarded, often unconsciously, by popular art. The weight of the stories that center around a person who is usually some combination of lone genius, borderline abusive, incredibly wealthy, white, and male becomes crushing, the myth-making of a society that has become overtly and obviously cruel and unjust, creating heroes in the mold that coincidentally resembles those who benefit most from that society.

Thus I have become suspicious. I have lost trust. It sort of sucks, because it means that I can often only enjoy movies on a second viewing, only once I know there’s something worthwhile there. It means I avoid watching television or playing new games a lot because the sheer energy output it takes for me to enjoy things is so much higher now.

I don’t mind, though. I prefer this to naiveté. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing correctly – even if it’s harder to enjoy things, I can enjoy things in more different ways, on more different levels, now. It’s better to be aware, even if it’s more difficult. It’s not like trust is impossible, I just can no longer give it by default. The benefit of the doubt has eroded.

Perhaps trust was always meant to be precious. Do your best to earn it, and do your best to bestow it where it is deserved.

If you enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Support at any level lets you read new posts one week early and adds your name to the list of supporters on the sidebar.

I finished my playthrough of Sekiro a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve had some time to sit and reflect on the experience. If you aren’t familiar with Sekiro, it’s the newest game by From Software, developers of the Dark Souls series, and it’s a continuation of that style of design as well as a spiritual successor of Tenchu, a beloved stealth game which I’ve never played and know very little about. Since I know nothing about Tenchu, I’m going to be talking a lot more about where Sekiro lies as a successor to Dark Souls than as a successor to Tenchu.

The original Dark Souls is still a powerful experience – dark and foreboding and inscrutable, Dark Souls offers many approaches to surmounting its various obstacles but obscures much of its narrative and mechanical breadth behind cryptic clues and interfaces. Sekiro is somewhat different in this regard: While it still maintains several of the mechanics and elements of exploration established by the Souls series, it does not shroud itself in mystery in terms of either its systems or its narrative and it provides relatively few ways to approach any given obstacle. Although I’ve been disappointed by the recent Souls games’ tendency towards simplicity, towards always funneling you into the same approach both in terms of movement through the world and tactics in combat, I enjoyed Sekiro’s even more streamlined approach. Sekiro’s commitment to this style takes simplicity and turns it into refinement.

Combat in Sekiro is usually a duel: Getting up in someone’s face and staying there, answering their every motion, call and response, until the heat gets too much and you need to retreat. While the overall sensation of move in, do damage, move out, is frequently the same as in a Souls, you no longer have the stamina system enforcing that behavior and thus you have much more leeway to keep pressing the attack – and are even encouraged to stay up close and personal for as long as possible before retreating by the game’s posture system, a mechanic of trying to push enemies off-balance through constant pressure so you can deliver a single lethal blow.

However, because there’s no longer nearly as much flexibility in how you approach obstacles – no bows, no bombs, no spells, no shields – the game is rather less forgiving than Dark Souls if you have a hard time engaging with the core mechanic of approach, deflect, counter, and various permutations on same. The game does offer numerous ‘shinobi tools’, such as shuriken, firecrackers, and a flamethrower, to give you these sorts of advantages – but, in the end, they’re all quite limited, and while they will help you they’re not so much an alternate path to victory as a way to gain an initial advantage on the same fight you’d be doing anyway.

Like the Souls games before it, Sekiro is a game about immortality: This thematic element makes a lot of sense as a way to integrate gameplay largely about getting the shit kicked out of you over and over again into a larger narrative. Most games, particularly before the Souls series arrived at prominence, simply narratively discarded any part of your gameplay that didn’t result in success. You reloaded, you rewinded, it never happened, forget about it. What having a game about immortality allows the developers to do is integrate every attempt, every failure, into the player’s story, a story of defeating death itself to right wrongs, of being a ghost or revenant set out to achieve one last vital task. It integrated the video game meta-narrative of undoing failures into an explicit narrative of fighting through them.

(Here’s where I get into the specifics of these games’ narrative. This is what would be considered spoilers for the Dark Souls series and Sekiro, so if you haven’t played these games and want to come to them fresh then you may want to stop here.)

While the immortality of Sekiro and of Dark Souls is treated nearly the same way mechanically, they’re treated quite differently by the narratives of each game. The story of Dark Souls is a story about systems of power and authority, and the existence of immortality within that context is evidence of how those systems have begun to fail – the powers of life and death have started to collapse, and the ancient undifferentiated stasis that held sway before gods and humans has started to take hold. Those who hold the reigns of power try to con those who suffer from this curse – you the player, as well as implicitly a huge number of other undead including all others who may have played the game – into sacrificing themselves in a ‘heroic’ quest to prop up this authoritarian system of divinity… Until it collapses again, presumably, at some point in the future, which the sequels imply happens many many times with each successive iteration becoming more corrupt and exhausted. Alternately, you can choose to subvert the system of divine authority and usher in a new age of dark – which sounds quite foreboding, but is presented more as an age of human self-determination in the absence of the divine than as something eldritch or unholy as standard video game symbolism might have such a name imply. In Dark Souls, ‘Dark’ isn’t so much evil as it is empty, the gaping nothingness we are confronted with when we seek for grand meanings and symbols, terrifying and comforting in equal measure, the pupil at the center of the iris.

However, Sekiro is almost aggressively unconcerned with the systems of power and what immortality might mean within these systems. Sekiro’s story is about what immortality might mean to individuals – old men faced with the decline of their bodies, young men who feel compelled to tackle tasks that are beyond the capacity of any single person, and the children whose youth and boundless potential these men covet and seek to exploit. It’s a game about dropping the ultimate gift of undeath into a world like our own and the strife and desire and bloodlust that would inevitably bubble up around it – in short, a game about greed.

In the story of Sekiro, your first priority is to ensure the safety of your master, the young lord Kuro, a child who has the power to give immortality. Others also want this power, most notably Genichiro who wants it to save the kingdom of Ashina where the game takes place. Along the way other objectives emerge, since Kuro himself decides that this power of immortality is going to keep causing trouble as long as it exists he dedicates himself, and therefore you, to the task of ending immortality, of letting humanity be merely human. Yet, though you are set this grand task, the top priority of the story is generally on protecting Kuro, and you are in the end mostly on this quest because he asks it of you.

Put succinctly, Dark Souls is a game about systems and Sekiro is a game about people, and this affects every aspect of both games. Combat in Dark Souls is largely against huge monsters, creatures who if they ever were human have long since lost contact with that humanity. It is a matter of distance and timing, dashing between gigantic legs or away from gigantic claws to deliver a strike or two and eventually putting the poor thing out of its misery. Sekiro is mostly about fighting people, opponents who move and act very much like you do, who one could easily imagine playing as with only minor tweaks to the control scheme. It’s about pushing up against them, engaging with their every move, answering each motion with a motion of your own, almost collaborative, almost a dance. There’s an intimacy to it, very different in tone to the cold calculation of Dark Souls combat.

The priorities of Sekiro’s story, as well, lie with individuals, not systems: It is a journey to save Kuro and to help him in the gargantuan task he has set for himself. You don’t set out to change the world, only to help Kuro, but circumstances demand that in order for that to happen the world must first be changed. Structures mean nothing without the people that inhabit them.

Genichiro fights to save Ashina, and is willing to sacrifice his people, himself, and his humanity to achieve that – so what is he actually fighting to preserve? An empty name? A ghost kingdom? The battle to save Ashina has gone on so long that the land is deeply scarred, its animals have picked up weapons and learned to fight. The best thing for it would be to let it go. To give up, and see what comes next. The biggest difference between Dark Souls and Sekiro is how they portray giving up. In Dark Souls, to give up is to lose yourself, to become hollow, a shell. In Sekiro, giving up is presented as sometimes the only reasonable option: Lord Isshin, who saved Ashina from a bloodthirsty despot, sits alone in his besieged fortress (aside from occasional outings), content to die while his grandson Genichiro goes to extraordinary measures to save Ashina because he knows there’s nothing there left to fight for. As the player dies over and over, refusing to give up, unleashes a sickness called dragonrot on the world, poisoning all of the people you meet along the way, it raises the question: Is what I’m doing for the best? Or am I just doing my duty, even if it does harm?

Perhaps one of the reasons From Software’s games have done so well is because there’s a certain thematic resonance between their stories and the daily tolls of our lives. Being conned into propping up deeply cruel and unjust systems, feeling hollow but persevering, being caught between an old prosperous generation and a young one full of potential but being pushed into a deeply fucked up world, it’s all a very millennial experience. It doesn’t offer any answers, but there’s something reassuring about believing that at least, somewhere on the other side, there’s something else – an escape, a change of state, or merely progression, perhaps no better than the world we have now, but at least it’s one step away from where we stand.

If you enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Support at any level lets you read new posts one week early and adds your name to the list of supporters on the sidebar.

For those who may be unfamiliar with The Return of the Obra Dinn, it’s a first-person adventure game by Lucas Pope (the developer of Papers, Please – a game which I keep intending to play but putting off, probably at least in part because it seems incredibly bleak). Obra Dinn itself is hardly un-bleak: In it, you play as an insurance assessor sent out to the titular Obra Dinn, a recently recovered wreck of a ghost ship. You are sent to deduce the fate of all those aboard, and deduce appropriate deductions for the insurance company to make. In order to achieve this task, you are given the “Memento Mortem”, a pocket watch which, when presented with the remains of a once-living creature, can take you back to the moment that creature died. Once in these memories, you can find other remains and follow them back further, and move from the moment this person or animal died to the moments leading up to it, following the chain of disaster back to its inception.

The style of the game is eye-catching, and along with the reputation of Papers, Please drove a lot of the initial interest in the title. Everything is rendered in a pixelated black and white style – or a dark color and a light color, the specifics of which can vary, but in each case is styled after a classic computer system. This is an interesting choice, since the style is unusual and the classic computer systems it harkens back to don’t really have anything to do with the plot of the game, but it creates an overall sensation of being unstuck in time. Here you sit, playing the game in the modern day on your modern machine, rendering in a style reminiscent of several decades ago, exploring a ship from hundreds of years ago, exploring memories of sailors who died several decades before. It expresses a chain of time very well, and reminds us that these weird chains of causality, of death to life to death to life, are all around us, and dictate the flow of our lives to this day.

Something that struck me about Obra Dinn was how unusual it was to have a game where death is commonplace, but is still treated with respect. There’s two molds that games usually, broadly, fall into: Either death is avoided strenuously, or it’s so commonplace as to be meaningless. Either you’re a gentle spirit wandering the world and trying to achieve your goals without confrontation, or you’re a murderous monster leaving a trail of hewn body parts behind you. While you do, in Obra Dinn, fit into the gentle spirit mold, the world you are trying to navigate is one of blood, desperation, and violence. It neither avoids death nor glories in it, merely tests its boundaries and affirms, for those of us who might ever forget, that each death is unique, that each death comes from a seed of causality and can be tracked to its roots. No one is unimportant. No one is indispensible.

A naive reading of the design of Obra Dinn might believe that there’s little actual “gameplay” in the game – that is, the majority of the actions the player takes are walking to the next cutscene trigger, activating it, and occasionally marking down one of a few options in the big book of names that you begin the game with. We’re not accustomed to thinking of things like the shape of a character’s face, their accent, who their friends are, what their job description is, as components of gameplay – but each of these becomes important in Obra Dinn. Understanding the relationships underpinning the tragedy of the ship, understanding why characters choose to do the things they do, is necessary to unravel the mystery that brought the Obra Dinn to its current fate. So often the concept of ‘gameplay’ is pitted against concepts of ‘narrative’ and ‘graphics’, as though these are all completely discrete components that have nothing to do with one another, as though pouring more resources into one might steal resources away from another. One might consider this to be most literally true in a game like The Return of the Obra Dinn, made by a lone developer, where time he spends on one aspect is time he cannot possibly spend on another. Perhaps it’s because it was made by a solo developer, though, that these aspects work so closely together – the graphics are exactly what they need to be to support the narrative, the narrative is exactly what it needs to be to support the gameplay. No, even ‘support’ seems incorrect: These facets of the game aren’t separable. What seems most remarkable to me about Obra Dinn is how all of these components we regard as discrete combine together and become one complete work – the graphics are the narrative is the gameplay.

I’ve played games that have had more emotional impact, games that have interested me more intellectually, games that have amazed me more, games that spoke to me more, games I felt were more meaningful – but Obra Dinn is still something special in a different way. It’s finely crafted, like a pocketwatch, and I think though the details of the tragic voyage will fade, the Obra Dinn will stick with me for a long time.

I am tired of video game protagonists. There’s a specific character that gets created over and over again when a video game designer asks themselves “what kind of person would only ever interact with the world through the barrel of a gun?” and it’s a pretty boring character. The worst part of these characters is the ways they try to soften them, to make them ultimately the good guy in a world of bad guys, to make them tortured and conflicted, to make them sad and sympathetic.

The problem isn’t that they try to humanize a character who does violence, it’s the attempt to somehow square the demands of a sympathetic character with the sheer scope of violence that these characters enact over the course of a game. A video game protagonist frequently kills hundreds of people, along with devastating their surroundings in many other ways. This obligatory massacre gets monotonous sooner rather than later, but the attempts to convince us that the concerns of a person who is living this life would have anything in common with the concerns of any actual existing human being are downright insulting.

I don’t mind the violence, but I detest the way it’s justified. Violence can be interesting and fun to explore in art, and it frequently is, but if we’re going to be mowing down swathes of people then let’s at least admit that that’s a choice, that we are reveling in something wicked. If we’re going to be monstrous, then make us monsters. This is one reason why I found Hotline Miami such a breath of fresh air – there is no justification for the kind of violence that the game wallows in, and it at least has the decency to acknowledge that. There’s no grand anti-violence message in the game, as much as people have tried to project that aspect onto it, there’s just the violence itself, unadorned, and how we feel when confronted with that.

The worlds portrayed, in an effort to make violent gameplay seem natural, take on an aspect of propaganda. It is a popular political and sales strategy to make people scared so they are more pliable, to terrify them with outside threats so they’ll open their hearts and their wallets. The ways games portray their worlds as full of militant threats just waiting for an opportunity to strike is eerily similar to the way politicians like to portray borders. Even games that try to have progressive messages often fall into the trap of portraying the world as fundamentally cruel and predatory just so the player is justified in fighting back against it. Of course, bad things happen in the world – but there’s a big difference between portraying the world as a place where cruelty and evil happens versus portraying cruelty and evil as a natural law which dictates everything that must happen.

Games that offer “non-lethal” solutions are often even worse, though. Playing through a game like Dishonored without killing means leaving behind a swathe of injured and very angry people who have already demonstrated themselves to be brutally violent when frustrated or bored, so not only are you still beating the shit out of them, you’re leaving them to continue whatever cruel and oppressive practices they were in the middle of when you non-lethally choked them, non-lethally threw them through a shop window, or non-lethally bashed their faces into the pavement. What’s even worse is that these “non-lethal” approaches are presented as peaceful, as leading to a less chaotic world with less violence at the end.

But non-lethal is not non-violent, and this conflation tells us a great deal about the views of the developers. You have only to look at how the so-called “less-than-lethal” measures made available to law enforcement are frequently used – to intimidate, to torture, or sometimes even just as a joke – to see how creepy and shallow the myths of non-lethality we make use of in games really are. If we introduced, today, the “sweet dreams cannon”, a weapon capable of instantly and comfortably putting someone to sleep and having them wake up refreshed and happy, it would shortly thereafter be used to silence legitimate protests, evict inconvenient tenants, and abduct people going about their business who look suspicious – as well as, of course, many extralegal applications that may be even worse. There is no such thing as a completely benign ability to disable a human being, and the more we try to disguise such inventions as benevolent the more cavalierly they will be deployed. The only situations where non-lethal disabling force is warranted are those situations where lethal disabling force was already warranted, and the role of “less-than-lethal” weapons should primarily be to reduce casualty rates when these situations arise – not to serve as warning shots.

The question raised by any game that presents violence as the solution to a problem, though, is what comes next? Do we use our power to kill and subdue to restore the previous society, even if the systemic issues of that society will inevitably give rise to the same problems? Or do we work to preserve whatever the most amenable power structure exists in the new world? Or do we seek to tear down all unjust systems so that something new might rise in their place? Or do we merely revel in the chaos we can sow, unbounded by society? Most games barely acknowledge these as decisions: In Dishonored, we seek to become re-honored, and that implies rebuilding the collapsing society. In most modern Fallouts, we just pick whatever faction seems least objectionable and back them, whereas in Fallout 76 I guess we just throw around nukes because we can. One of the few games that addresses what comes after the violence in an interesting way is Fallout: New Vegas. While you’re still picking the most amenable of several factions, each fairly closely aligns with one of these options: You can go back to the old world that the NCR represents, back Mr House’s vision of an independent Vegas, join up with Caesar’s Legion if you’re an asshole, or strike out on your own with your new personal army to see if you can make something better.

I just am so tired, not of violence in art, but of the incredible regressive tedium of the narrative violence proffered by most big-budget games. There are so many interesting and powerful questions these games could ask – but it seems they would prefer that we just don’t ask any questions at all.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
All the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers’ trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay
Oh I’m bound to go
Where there ain’t no snow
Where the rain don’t fall
The wind don’t blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

The perspective I usually like to take on art is that we enjoy it because it serves some sort of emotional need for us. We all like a certain amount of joy and sorrow, a certain amount of anger and laughter, and when life can’t provide those sometimes we seek out art to fulfill those needs – or, alternately, sometimes we are overwhelmed with sorrow or anger, or some other strong and unpleasant emotion, and seek out art about and evocative of these sensations to help us make sense of what we’re feeling. This is a helpful perspective to see from, because if a work is extremely popular even though I personally dislike it I can still examine it and gain benefit from it by trying to determine what needs it serves and how it serves them. Inversely, if I like something I can also use this as a lens to examine why, and what part of me is hungry for this kind of art.

This is not to say that all art is equal and that judgment is impossible. Some ways of serving needs are irresponsible or malicious – for instance, it’s quite common to salve the wounds of an inequitable system by blaming all the world’s ills on minorities. Some ways of serving needs are also predatory, selling snake oil or risky gambles. Many things you might consume to serve an emotional need are like drinking sea water when you’re thirsty, seeming to ease the pain for mere moments before they make it come back worse than it was before. In this way, the lens of served need can be turned to also show the many harms that can be done by art, as well as its benefits.

As someone interested in games, then, I start to ask: What needs are served by most games? What needs are served by the most popular games, and what less predominant needs are served by games with smaller followings, and what needs of mine have made the games I love my particular favorites? Most games feed the need for learning and self-improvement: Whether directly, by giving the player a challenge that they can learn to tackle over time, or indirectly with some sort of simulation that recreates the sensation of self-improvement, like an experience system. Others feed a need to feel like we can change the world by making a world malleable, allowing the creation of grand projects, cathedrals and magic machines, in relatively short order. Many games also feed the need to feel that we are gathering things, accumulating wealth or other material to make ourselves feel safer. Some games feel rewarding just because they acknowledge when we do well in a way that the rest of the world does not. Sometimes games are enjoyable just because the tasks that they offer have clear-cut parameters with definite boundaries, so you know whether a task is solved or not in a way you frequently cannot in your daily life.

There’s another step, beyond noticing what needs are fed by games, and that’s then interrogating the systems that give rise to these needs. The lives people lead, and the lacks that they perceive, are going to lead them to seek out different gaming experiences that offer different things. The world we live in, and the governments and systems that organize those worlds, are going to create the needs that create the cravings that create the games. In each instance, once we identify a need that people feel a game serves, comes the next question: Is this an inherent need that is being unsatisfied by the system, or is this a need created by the system in order to sustain itself? That question might not make intuitive sense, so let’s look at the list I mentioned in the previous paragraph, one by one.

  1. The need for self-improvement and learning. This may be an innate need, but it’s also deeply tied into our society’s conception of a human being as a commodity that has worth. By getting better at something, even if it’s trivial, you are demonstrating a capacity to learn and improve, and thus your worth to the system. Do you want to improve for your own sake, or to be a better cog in the machine? It can be hard to tell.
  2. The need to have an effect on the world. This one is, interestingly, relegated almost entirely to indie games – and likely reflects as much of the needs of the creators as it does the needs of its consumers. It’s probably not a coincidence that these building games have achieved their most massive success among children, largely prevented from manifesting any substantial effect on the real world
  3. The need to accumulate material wealth. This has obvious parallels in the capitalistic systems, but it’s also rooted enough in the hunting/gathering survival instinct that one can hardly lay the blame entirely at the feet of capitalism, as much as one would like to. However, the specific model of accumulation favored by games, where everyone has the same capacity to do it and every action has a predictable result, probably serves to prop up the concept of meritocracy, which is a vapid lie.
  4. The need to have one’s accomplishments acknowledged. I think this is an innate need to be seen, but is also exacerbated by a system where excellence is supposedly recognized by financial reward, but where that reward is increasingly withheld to line the pockets of the already extremely wealthy.
  5. The need to have a distinct task. This is probably a relatively recent one. Not too long ago, everyone expected to have basically the same job for life, and could wake up each day with a certain amount of confidence about what to expect next. Though many deride repetitive and simple games as seeming like work, the kind of work they supposedly seem like is becoming rarer and rarer, and some people do miss it.

When making a game, it’s important to think a bit about who wants to play it and why. Are you making something that feeds needs created by an unjust system, something that will only serve to act as propaganda for that system? Or are you creating something to serve a need that the system has failed to serve, something that will serve as an escape? Are you justifying evil, or positing good? These lines can become very blurry.

I’ve been playing a lot of XCOM 2 recently, and after a discussion on the differences between it and its precursor the other day I started thinking about the nature of decisions in games. In XCOM (the first one), you’re expected to make a few very clear-cut decisions in the strategy layer – what to research, what abilities to train, what missions to take, and so forth. Each of these has extremely clear trade-offs. The tactical layer, similarly, has fairly clear-cut decisions, though the effects of decisions can be a bit confusing – it’s not clear, for example, whether you’ll be able to see an enemy unit if you reposition, or see why your odds of hitting are particularly high or low. In XCOM 2, the strategy layer has more decisions with murkier effects: Rather than having a choice of three missions pop up periodically, events you can investigate are constantly popping up all over the map, and since it takes time to investigate these or to do anything else on the map you can realistically only get to so many of them. The tactical combat, however, is much more clear-cut: You can see everything that affects your shot percentages, and the UI will tell you whether you can see an enemy or not when you move, and helpful icons will show if you’re moving a soldier into harm’s way.

It’s interesting to me, given all this, that players generally seem to prefer XCOM to XCOM 2. I think there are a few reasons for this, but the confusing unquantifiability of XCOM 2’s event system is probably the main turn-off, especially nestled, as it is, within the highly regimented and quantifiable decision-making that defined XCOM and, to a lesser extent, its sequel.

It all just goes to make me think about the old Sid Meier quote (or misquote?) about a game being a series of interesting decisions. Though I love XCOM, a game with a relatively few important decisions, a lot of the games I like most have you making little decisions constantly, all of which add up to a big effect in aggregate. In a game like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the decision to crouch or not to crouch, lean or not to lean, go full-auto or single-shot, equip an angled or a vertical foregrip, run into the circle at a 5 degree angle or a 6 degree angle, any one of these can be the difference between life or death – and that’s what makes it, despite its many flaws, still so fun to play for me.

In thinking about this, I started classifying the differences in decisions. In general, I think a decision in a game can be considered in two parts: One, how the decision is made (choice properties), and two, the effects of that decision (effect properties). Each of these have three parts – that I’ve thought of so far, anyway.

Choice properties:

  1. Frequency: How often decisions are made
  2. Quantity: The number of options available with each decision
  3. Temporality: How much time pressure there is to make the decision

Effect properties:

  1. Impact: How much they can change the game state
  2. Clarity: How evident these changes are beforehand
  3. Expression: How much the player can express themselves using the decisions

Different games prioritize aspects of decision-making differently. XCOM has medium-low frequency decisions with little temporal pressure and high impact and clarity, with little focus on player expression. The Street Fighter games have fairly high frequency of decisions, making choices at each moment of where to position yourself and which attack to use, with a fairly high quantity of different attack maneuvers, high temporal pressure and impact and moderate clarity (since move effects depend on what your opponent is doing) and a small-moderate amount of player expression… except, that is, in the menu where you select which character you want to use, which is a single (minimal frequency) choice with large quantity, no temporality, and huge impact, clarity, and expression. Super Hexagon is a game with extremely frequent decisions with almost no quantity (left, right, or neither), unbelievably high temporal pressure, high impact and clarity, no expression. The Walking Dead, Season 1 has low-frequency, low-quantity decisions, with some temporal pressure, moderate impact, relatively little clarity, but a huge amount of player expression.

Genres start mapping pretty closely to different decision models, when viewed in this respect. Strategy games prioritize low frequency and temporal pressure with high impact and clarity, tactical shooters like PUBG value high frequency, quantity, temporality, and impact with moderate clarity, RPGs like Fallout medium frequency, impact, and clarity, high quantity, low temporality, and extremely high expression.

From this viewpoint, it becomes clear why many of the decisions made in XCOM 2 rub people the wrong way. The decisions presented to the player in the strategic layer of the game don’t hew as closely to the ideal of what strategic gameplay decisions look like, and though they’re valid as a design in their own right, and I still find them enjoyable, and while they don’t necessarily make it a worse game, they may, in fact, make it a worse strategy game.

It’s important to know what sorts of decisions you want to present to the player, and what sorts of decisions they came to you to get. Trade-offs which may seem like good design when viewed through the lens of balance or of excitement may simply not fit the type of decision system the game is most suited to.