I Win: Developer versus Audience, or Process versus Result, Pt. 1

This is part 1 of a 2 part series exploring a collection of diverse ideas. Primarily they tie into a QoTW posted here on Arcadian Rhythms a while back. However, there are various other articles also  involved. Links will be provided where necessary.

This rumination began with an interview with Yoshinori Ono (director behind the rejuvenation of the Streetfighter series), in which he made some pretty sweeping generalisations about Eastern and Western development philosophies (this article and thoughts will be explored in part 2), but the genesis of this set of articles actually came from a recent HAWPcast (check it out here).

In this particular broadcast Ashley Burch nailed something that I’ve been struggling to articulate. She expressed how she was feeling uncomfortable with the idea that she was moving away from artier films with more obtuse perspectives. This was not because she didn’t like them but because in some ways she was tired of unravelling their mysteries. I believe it was Anthony that then added it felt a little like if you didn’t understand them then you had in some way failed and the director had won.

The conversation then descended into David Lynch discussions, and I don’t want to go down that road partly because David Lynch has frequently talked about how he doesn’t really know what his films are about, and partly lest this turn into a transcription of a podcast which you should probably just go and listen to yourself.

Developer versus Audience

I think everyone has experienced a moment where they have battled with the odd sensation that they may like a piece of painted art, music or film, and maybe even a game, simply because they feel they are supposed to. Deep down they may just not get it, but to admit that they don’t would be to invite derision from their peers. It is almost as if there were a group of cognoscenti who get to decide what is acceptable and what is not. The difference is that due to the nature of gaming’s evolution the standards for these elevated games seems to have moved in a directly inverse pattern to all other art forms.

Talking to a non-gamer friend (at least, she hasn’t been a gamer since the N64 era) it was fascinating to hear about the limitations of her possible enjoyment of the medium as it currently stands. The crux of her argument was that games were too overwhelming and the controls too complex. Yet as we talked it became apparent that she had probably never completed a game in her life, despite having played a lot of games in her time – games with much simpler input requirements. This was either because the game was an infinite loop with no chance of resolution, only presenting harder and harder scenarios, or else the developer had made the game hugely difficult.

What interested her most about modern gaming were some of the themes that many titles and developers are now trying to explore; we were primarily talking about BioShock. Even that game was something she struggled with. From my perspective, as someone who has stayed abreast with the skills required to explore videogames, this notion is a little difficult to grasp. Although the input devices and motor skills required have frequently evolved – more buttons to press, more sticks to waggle – some of the mechanical and structural design of games has become ever more simplified.

To me games have become, with a few exceptions, easier. However, I am not looking at it from the viewpoint of someone who finds the idea of placing a reticule on a target whilst under stress from multiple other angles a daunting proposition. So from this one can propose that while games have evolved and made the entry level for a layperson higher, those more familiar with the medium often find themselves in a situation where the resulting experiences sometimes feel shallower. The majority of production costs and time seems to be spent on making sure that the fidelity of the experience is very high, while the mechanics tend to be geared towards the shallow end of the pool.

It is a weird dichotomy that games by Jason Rohrer and indie affairs like Limbo go some way towards addressing (simple mechanics with more complex ideas behind them). Now I am not arguing that every game needs to be Inside a Star-filled Sky, and I also don’t think that videogame appreciation needs to be taught at schools as with other arts (err, actually… – Ed). Instead I am saying that there is a missing element to the newly blossoming audience around videogames. The new generation of gamers being drawn in are not comfortable with failure, and may not be familiar with the idea that the persons creating the entertainment before them actually want to challenge them – and in many ways want them to fail.

The difference, again, is that we fail all of the time at other arts but they don’t tend to rub our noses in it when we do. I never finished reading Lorna Doone. I’m pretty sure that everyone has fallen asleep during a film on multiple occasions, always failing to see the end (Anti-Christ and The Negotiator) and yet it never bothered them that, technically, they failed.

The reason we see games becoming more intricate yet easier is because attitudes have changed, both among players and among developers. The latter is not just a financial demand; developers genuinely want you to see the content they have created because it has meaning to them and they hope that it has meaning to you. I can’t say that I like this trend but I can say that I understand it. Development teams don’t always want to fight us, and they no longer need you to keep putting pennies into an arcade machine. They are growing up.

Well, most of them are. Thankfully From Software continues to make games that do the gaming equivalent of running up and kicking you in the crotch.

Still, what this burgeoning audience needs to understand is that in play there are always cops and robbers, there are always two teams in a game of football (American, Canadian or otherwise). Yet, with developers mostly taking on the role of benevolent games master, there still exists the concept of failure and its incorporation into play that needs to be addressed.

[Part 2 coming next week…]

[To find out more about Superior Software and Citadel (the game only briefly mentioned in the excerpt) check out this website.]