284850 is a quasi-random number.

Shadow of the Colossus: 98% Lean Beef

August 3, 2009 essay,review

One of the many reasons to admire Shadow of the Colossus is that it did away with the nonsense that many games are constipated with: side quests and collectibles. Back when games were viciously limited by their host hardware, games were just things you played, or perhaps played through. They were not black holes for time and money

what went wrong

Without a timeline in front of me, I’m going to point the finger of blame at Square — specifically, at Final Fantasy VII — for beginning this spiraling trend of superfluity. The complexity of games bumped up the production cost, and the production cost inflated the retail price, and the retail price was mitigated by filler content. “Look“, it was said. “Look at how many hours you can squeeze out of this game. $70 for 70 hours. That’s a steal!” This, naturally, led to the escalation of arms.

This is apparently the norm of games now. Several that I’ve played most recently — Okami, Super Paper Mario, and current No More Heroes — have both of these sins. Okami is loaded with a pile of side quests, doing exactly what Beyond Good and Evil did by hiding findables all over the map. SPM had vast, vast catalogs of hidden trinkets through the whole game. Now, I enjoyed SPM quite a bit; it’s the most fun Mario game I’ve played in some time. However, the sheer time it would have cost to check everything off the list is staggering. I couldn’t convince myself that it was worth it. The game had treasure maps, recipes, and trading cards, along with an assortment of side quests. What is it about trading cards in games? No More Heroes is guilty of this, as well.

NMH seems something like a parody of games, gamers, and game designers. It’s an unbelievable mountain of wish fulfillment. It’s bloody, it has treasure chests where they make no sense, and it has those damn mini games. Even if I could accept the game as being an over-the-top satire of game culture, its mini games and filler content are what bug me. They are slowing me down, deflating any momentum the actual, core game gives me. Why should game designers feel pressured to add such nonsense? Why are they compelled — or cajoled — into littering their game with useless verbs?

what Colossus got right

Shadow of the Colossus shunned this nonessential gameplay and gave you two things to do: go to the Colossi and kill the Colossi. Although the game is not without its findables, it gets that right, as well.

SotC could be thought of as an adventure game with nothing but the bosses. There is no real concept of leveling up. There is no array of impressive power-ups. There is no wave after wave of baddie clones getting in your way. There is no sprawling, elaborate backstory. I make those sound like bad things. Maybe nowadays they are to me. Each year I lose more patience for such things. And shirking those things is one reason, among many, that I admire SotC.

As a game with verbs, it gives me nothing but the tools that will let me complete my mission. I can ride a horse, shoot an arrow, climb, grab, and stab. I do not gain super combos; and cannot bash my enemies’ heads in new and fantastic ways. I do my job. That’s all the game asks me to do. This might even encourage exploration, as I am not worried about dying; I am not worried about maxing my stats; I am not worried about crafting an ultra-rare weapon out of the many components scattered about the world, in its many nooks and crannies. I feel like the game values me, as a player, and doesn’t see itself as a carrot dangling on a stick.

The game does offer a few rewards to curious folk who wander about. The joy of its implementation is that these extra elements are so subtle and incidental that you could, perhaps, go the entire game without them; without even knowing about them. But. Not only are some of it put directly in your path, freely given, but these bonuses directly reward you for being found. They do not simply fill out a checklist. They are not pieces that, only together, unlock a mystical (and only marginally useful) artifact. They contribute directly to you, each individually, to assist you in those two primary goals: find and kill. Again, the game rewards those players who explore a bit, but do not handicap the players who go without; it still treats its player with dignity, without teasing.

The bottom line is this, game designers: I am going to die one day. It is the most inevitable event one can predict. If you are going to ask me to casually invest my money and my ever diminishing time into your game, you better offer me a rich, meaningful experience in return.

games as art

March 16, 2009 essay

You bug me, people who think that games are meant to be fun and that artistry is beholden to that cause. You bug me because I don’t understand you, and you don’t seem to be making a hard attempt to understand “us“. By “us”, I mean the crowd of folks who believe that games can, indeed, hold valid artistic statements as a priority over the vague concept of “fun”. You bug me because your agenda — to have fun, ostensibly — seems to be diametrically opposed to the goal of expression.

It’s strange to discuss the history of games. It didn’t start in the 1970s. Nor the 60s. Nor in the 1900s. Games, of course, have existed probably before recorded history. Even if they were not organized or formal, likely humans played with each other the way lion cubs tumble around: as a means of practice for life skills. But discussion rarely dips that deep into the human psyche. Dice games, card games, and board games have a long history, themselves. Do any of these games have artistic merit?

Consider a musician contemplating sculpture. Consider an architect pondering over interpretive dance. Does the theory of one study carry over to another? How would one bridge that gap of understanding? Can we, as humans, intuit the significance of some item without an artist or historian giving us context? It’s a broad question: when does something transcend into art?

I’d argue that you — the folks who keep games below the bar of art — are not being open enough. I don’t know if this is cultural bias, ignorance, or spite, but completely closing the door on the subject cannot cause me anything but grief. Do you feel that it is akin to religious proselytism? Are you guarding against something that, on the face of it, you simply cannot accept? Do you think that the ludologists are simply crazy people, talking the detached babble of ivory towers?

So, we are at an impasse. How can we open the dialogue? Will you simply forfeit discussion, and return to your artless games, happy with the fun that they provide you? I sincerely hope you can appreciate games — or anything — more deeply than that, just as I am willing to enjoy the fun that a game may provide me.