Tricks are for Kids

On November 11, 2005, in Games, by psu

Sometimes you have to feel sorry for the gaming industry. Here we have a medium that is in the beginning of its life, struggling to be taken seriously. It has slowly scratched its way to the big time as a source of commerce, and you can almost see the collective strain on the faces of game developers as they strive to turn games into art, whatever that means. I bring this up now because the main subject of our gaming discussions this week was Shadow of the Colossus, which has the distinction, along with its predecessor, Ico , of being among the few games that actually succeeds in achieving something like art. Both games are rare in that they elicit an emotional response in the player that is more complex than the standard childish rush of victory.

This is important, because nothing enrages the average fan boy more than accusing his favorite game of being “too kiddie”. This is a charge that is often incorrectly directed at Nintendo, and it always brings howls of defensive anger from the Nintendo faithful. I think this anger originates in some deep insecurities that we gamers have about games. We desperately want games to be thought of as something serious, something profound, and most importantly, something mature. The fact that the ESRB has an “M” rating for games has no real bearing on this question. While there are games that deal with subject matter that is not appropriate for children, games that you can actually call serious or mature are extremely rare, if they exist at all.

Games generally have a streak of adolescence about them. This is not surprising given the origins of the medium, especially in the home console arena. But while some would claim that games are evolving towards a more mature treatment of subject matter and presentation, the evidence indicates exactly the opposite. Aside from the odd cerebral simulation or strategy title (which, incidentally, is probably not as good a game as Advance Wars), the “mature” games of this generation are anything but mature. Where you might hope for games with a varied emotional palette and sophisticated narrative, we instead get and endless stream of gang members shooting cops, aliens attacking the earth, mindless zombies, mythological warriors skewering hundreds of faceless enemies, and the occasional martial arts hero tale that makes an old Hong Kong Jackie Chan movie look like a high British costume drama.

What exactly is mature about these mature games? The fact that when you shoot a Resident Evil 4 villager in the head it explodes into tiny little pieces and a giant insect-like flailing beast comes flying out and pokes you in the eye? The three-way mini-game, or better, the “drop the poor caged prisoner into the raging fires of Hades” puzzle in God of War? Collecting gay porn in Shadow Hearts? The fact that there are two narrative lines in Knights of the Old Republic that are cleverly intertwined to contain the same plot points? Or maybe it’s how in Halo, you know you are playing as that Arbiter guy because everything on the your HUD is purple, not blue. It is not an insignificant fact that the games listed above are among the cream of the crop for the last few years. Even the good games do not reach for a very high level of discourse. Think back on all the games you’ve played and examine them with the same critical eye that you would a serious book or film. Do any really speak in a way that goes beyond “huh huh huh, cool, that boss is dead”?

Now, this is not an entirely bad thing. Games are supposed to be fun, and adolescent power fantasies, science fiction opera stories, and of course, stories involving jumping plumbers are a lot of fun. So it is not surprising that this is what designers go after and what we players slurp up like the obedient little lap dogs that we are. All I am saying is this: if the “industry” wants to get the serious attention that many appear to believe that it deserves, then I think that they have to start to rethink what it means to create a “serious” or “mature” game. Games have to look beyond the aesthetic sensibilities of the 16-24 year old, even though those sensibilities are apparently an almost endless source of easy revenue. Furthermore, game players and journalists have to stop giving juvenile games that happen to get that “M” rating a free ride with respect to alleged maturity.

This is my core objection to the notion that Nintendo only makes “kiddie” games. My objection is not that the statement is misleading and narrow, even though it is. Nintendo makes excellently designed games. It just so happens that many of them use characters that are appealing to children. This appeal is an incidental corollary to the fact that the games are excellent to begin with, and actually appeal to everyone with a pulse. My main objection is also not that the statement is derisive and filled with contempt, even though it often is. No one should mock, or hold Nintendo in contempt for what they do. My real objection to such statements is the implicit assumption that the other players in this industry are not making childish games. This is false. Everyone is making almost nothing but childish games.

If we want people to take games seriously, we have to make, and buy, games that deserve such treatment. In other words, everyone, not just Nintendo, has to start thinking about how to make games that are not “too kiddie”.


8 Responses to “Tricks are for Kids”

  1. peterb says:

    Damn you. I really wish I had written this.

  2. Mike Collins says:

    God of War really is the epitome of the “maturity == t3h b00bies” mindset that bothers me about a lot of the ostensibly mature games – kind of summarized when Penny Arcade did that American McGee’s Strawberry Shortcake poster a few years ago. And really, given that God of War is child-ish, and Katamari is child-like, I’d rather play Katamari simply because the child-like aspects of it are charming, whereas (especially when you hit the the cage sacrifice part) GoW is just off-putting.

    Did you run through any of the Director’s extra’s in GoW? If you want a mind that never left puberty, there’s a rather depressing example where you can hear commentary obsessing about a cyclops’ penis. I’m not sure that “childish” is the right term so much as “painfully arrested adolescence”.

    The question now is, what games aren’t like that? Trinity tried something interesting there, we can always point to U4 (and I think it says something about the poverty of the genre that we’re going to ALWAYS end up pointing to U4 at some point). Thomas Disch tried something with Amnesia, and there are a few more experimental games from the mid 80′s like Portal.

    What really bothers me the more I think about this is how much of what’s coming to mind kind of peaks around 1988 – then we’re frozen into genres and downhill from there. “Interactive Fiction” as a concept more or less devolves into a hobbyist community and a lot of largely ignored research.

    O’course, to go back to a previous post – isn’t this partly a function of the craptacular criticism for games? It’s not exactly like folks are getting challenged that much on the intellectual grounds (I’m imagining a seperate “imbecility” score for games. GoW could get a 9.5 for graphics, an 8.5 for gameplay, a 9.3 for imbecility).

  3. Adam Rixey says:

    Out of curiousity, have you tried Indigo Prophecy? It’s been recommended to me as a game that actually deals with adult themes and relationships in an intelligent manner, with real characters. (Well, and also themes of death cults and stuff…it is still a video game).

    I thought the demo had a lot of potential, and Gamefly should have it in my hands in a few days…

  4. psu says:

    I have not tried Indigo yet. Might get to it after Half-Life 2 for the xbox (I have no PC)

  5. Zaphod says:

    Nice post. Echos a lot of my thoughts.

  6. David says:

    Isn’t this just another symptom of the big business industry that gaming has become? Creativity is not reward by these corprations only the ever popular (amongst the «EOs at least) guaranteed sales.

    They are pandering to the broadest appeal base and once again the tastes of that group are anything but impressive. I don’t see it getting much better either.

    Nintendo has always been safe zone. I know there is a large enough fan base to keep them in business and they really do crank out some phenominal games. As long as they are around I am pretty confident I will have something to play.

  7. psu says:

    I don’t think you can lay this completely at the feet of the faceless men in black and their profit motive.

    After all, the film industry somehow manages to make movies that step beyond the 16-24 demographic.

    I think that at least part of the problem is that game designers have no interest in looking past the infantile and the adolescent. I also think that there are some hard questions around exactly what it means for a game to be “mature.”

  8. David says:

    I would bet (being too lazy to do the harder challenge of actual fact checking) that the percentage of movies outside of the 16-24 range being made and getting distribution is about the same as the number of less adolescent themed games being produced.

    Time and again developer are complaining that they are not being allowed to express creative ideas because they never make it past the “faceless men in black’s” review.

    It seems everytime a large gaming conference crops up Game Developer magazine is filled with angst ridden commens from big names in development complaining that ingenuity is dead.

    In fact the Indie development scene has all the same feel as the Indie movie industry.

    Its not all the faceless corporate evils fault of course but they are definitely not helping at all.