Just returned from Moles where I saw the Punkles. These group of gentlemen - possibly old enough to be the fab four themselves - wore mop-top wigs and Jam-style suits with zine-kid badges, and played the Beatles back catalogue in the style of the Ramones. What's more depressing is that despite this spitting-on-history style approach, the Beatles still managed to win out with the closing Hey Jude and All You Need Is Punk slowing down from the Blitzkreig Bop to the Beatle's tempo. Guitars remained, but it reduced to metal stains rather than punk.
Stuart stood slack jawed. Chrissy stumbled off. I blog.
Anyway, here's something I've been hammering out today. A few weeks ago the good gentlemen of Public Beta asked if I'd be interested in answering a questionaire for inclusion in their first book, Difficult Questions AbouT Videogames. The format is, essentially, a load of questionaires from a selection of people across the videogame industry and its perpheriaries. The questions are hugely simple, and could be answered in a line. It's reliant on the respondants willing to actually respond. I gave it a quick, rambling shot.
If you think that you may be suitable for the project - or are just interested - have a look at their web page about it. It's an interesting project, and God knows we could do with a few more books about videogames.
And here's my answers.
Difficult Questions about Videogames
A PublicBeta book
Q. What is a videogame? (and what isn’t a videogame)
I used to have a lot of hard and - in restrospect - brutal responses to this, but I’ve grown bored with playing the enfant terrible. I used to take a certain joy in excluding things from the pantheon, playing the radical for all it was worth. Now, I tend towards the other, more inclusive, end of the spectrum. Rather than saying – for example – Final Fantasy or Dance Dance Revolution aren’t real videogames, I’d rather just accept everything that could possibly be included. To do otherwise is to try and force the world to fit your dogma rather than trying to make a theory that actually fits the actual facts.
So, banally, videogames are games enabled through a computer system. Except even that doesn’t really set the boundaries far enough apart – there’s examples of things which are clearly videogames where the actual gaming part is almost completely vestigial. People have argued that the ten minute sequences in Final Fantasy or Metal Gear Solid where you’re not actually interacting makes it not a videogame but… well, they’re videogames. Just deal with it. Argue against them in terms of quality, sure, but don’t deny the fact they really are part of the family, because by doing so you make the critical lexicon smaller for no other reason than your own rigidly defined thought-structures. Because a strict ludological approach to what a game either removes or diminishes things like – say – the first half of Thief III’s “The Cradle”, the entire opening of Half-life or the puzzle/reward structures of Lucasart’s adventures. People have got powerful emotional reactions from these games. Your theories are all the weaker if you choose to just reject them out of hand.
Personally, I haven’t got a single theory which I place my boundaries specifically. I’ve got a good half-dozen different definitions which I apply at different times to get different results. My most general one posits that “videogames” are strictly speaking not actually essentially true games at all, but actually a subset of multimedia presentations. It’s about an input/output loop between the user and the game itself and – well, even that wanders a little close to one of my older theories that deliberately said that all multiplayer games were outside the lexicon of “true” videogames because the system, because what’s unique and interesting about videogames is that they’re games only possible because of computers, rather than a game that’s merely facilitated through a computer.
And while that does help us understand why online play is never going to remove the single-player game, because there are huge swathes of game experiences that are simply impossible, it’s clearly full of shit.
So, for now, I like to keep it basic: You interact with a computer. It shows you a response. You interact with a computer again. It shows you some more stuff. Loop that forever, and that’s all it is, really. Structure, levels, lives and challenges are all things that one or more game has successfully removed and still clearly remained as something that is a game (To use my example: Structure in the case of “true” simulators, “levels” in god knows how many freeform games, “lives” (aka The Failure State) in a whole selection of adventure games, notably the lucasarts ones and “challenge” in the number of games where it’s made it literally impossible to fail (A number of experimental IF stuff comes to mind, but the most mainstream games are built on the idea that a game is an experience, not something for you to beat. I remember Gary Penn cleverly noting that AI aren’t antagonists – they’re entertainers. That’s entirely right, in most games. They exist to entertain you, not to beat you).
If you’re catching me in a flighty mood, I’d probably describe games as a Digital Hallucination or something, but that’s only because I’d like someone to mistake me for Huxley one day.
Q. How can you tell if a videogame is rubbish?
Secret of the reviewing trade: the best way to judge a game’s quality is to lob it onto a scale and weigh it. A CD storing a good game is physically heavier than one storing a poor one. This has caused theoreticians to worry that a game of sufficient quality would collapse into a singularity but – y’know – fuck it. Makes reviewing easier.
Facetiousness apart, by playing it.
Even more facetiousness apart, there’s a couple of kinds of “rubbish” you can throw at a videogame. The first is mostly objective, the second is mostly subjective. Not completely in either case, but certainly nearer one pole than the other.
Objectively, if a game doesn’t work in a real way, it’s rubbish. If the disk doesn’t load. If the game crashes constantly. If basic functionality is prevented by technical errors. This goes down to less game-killing faults, such as opponent AI which doesn’t respond to your presence and all the usual array of bugs. If a game amasses enough of these, it’s clear that it’s rubbish.
Subjectively, if you don’t enjoy what a game offers, it’s rubbish. As simple as that.
Except – it isn’t really that simple. Just because something is a subjective viewpoint doesn’t mean that it isn’t actually a good general rule. To choose a deliberately extreme example, I like receiving oral sex. Clearly, this is a subjective viewpoint. But it’s a subjective viewpoint that will be shared by almost everyone reading this. They’ll be a few exceptions for the rule out there, I’m sure, but the act of oral sex creates certain pleasing physiological and psychological responses. It’s a technique that causes pleasure in most people. In the same way, there’s techniques games offer which are more successful than other techniques at creating a pleasure response in most people.
And the objective side isn’t quite as objective as we pretend. Sure, some elements may be rubbish – but there’s plenty of games with objective rubbish elements that still are highly enjoyable. In fact, many games held as classics are riddled with technical faults (Take, for example, Deus Ex). However its positive qualities outweigh the huge elements that are rubbish – its general techniques for creating pleasure are enough to make you forget about its failings.
But I return to my answer: you play a game and examine your emotional responses to it. An honest dialogue with yourself is the only way to judge whether a game is rubbish for you or not.
Q. Who do you make videogames for?
I don’t make videogames for people.
Not quite true – I’ve written games in my teenage years, dabbled in script work for a company and created an extremely well-received Deus Ex Mod (The Cassandra Project). In the middle-case I did it for money. In the former and latter cases, I did it because I was in love with the form and wanted to see what it could do. In other words, I made it for myself and anyone like me. Art for art’s own sake, really.
Who /should/ developers make videogames for?
Well, the accepted answer for professional game makers would be for their audience. Letting themselves get into it too much is pure ego. And… well, I don’t really agree. Games where the developers aren’t putting any of their own hopes and desires are pallid, despicable things. For example, The Sims isn’t just a people sim – it’s a people sim built around Will Wright’s preconceptions of what a people-sim should be. I like games developers who engage with their subject matter. Of course, some people’s egos lead to terrible game design decisions but… well, they’re just bad game developers, really. The sort of developer who enjoys doing tricks where he auto-kills someone is being true to himself… but the “himself” he’s being true to is a bit of a dick.
Take an acting metaphor. An actor is working for the audience, yes, but if they’re a blank supplicant to their whims, they fail.
So you’re making a game for your audience, yes, but that’s not /everything/. Even my art-for-art’s-sake stuff was done on that rule. It wouldn’t matter what I did, if it didn’t have an audience playing it.
Where I think most developers fuck up, however, if failing to grasp who their audience are. There’s hundreds of audiences, and no matter what decisions you make, you can never please them all. In fact, you’ll very much end up pleasing no-one. I can’t help but think of Hasbro’s final few flight sims, where they cut out anything that’d alienate a mainstream crowd… but all they did was make sure that /no-one/ wanted their game. The Propellerheads turned their nose up at it. The mainstream equally didn’t care.
3/selling and buying
Q. What makes a game good value-for-money?
Seriously – I honestly don’t know.
Games are an expensive cultural form. Ten hours tops to go through Max Payne II for £30+ isn’t exactly a high ratio of time to money. However, on the PC especially, you could go back to Max and play further downloaded user-made adventures forever. Look at Half-life. You could have bought it six years ago, and never bought another game again for the amount of user-created content. There’s people who just play a single mod for a single game, and nothing else. For years. That’s /incredible/ value for money.
At their heart though, games are a luxury item. It’s not a sensible thing to do to throw down the best part of fifty-quid on some random game. And that’s the thing: the value of money isn’t constant. If you’re broke, fifty quid is the world. If you’ve got a decent income and no responsibilities, you can throw that down on a whim. Depending on how the individual’s situation, whether a game leaves you feeling elated or ripped off is going to vary hugely.
Does quality trump quantity? Mostly, yes. You may be able to play a random RPG or strategy game for 400 hours, but if they’re tedious, I’m unlikely to get past the first few. In which case the slight-but-delightful Thief III’s 15 hours (plus replays) walks all over it.
But it varies.
So I don’t know.
Leave me alone.
Q. Why do you play videogames?
A. Have you got all day?
A fellow game writer came up to me in a club the other night and told me why we play videogames: Achievable Goals. There’s some truth there.
Because they’re the newest cultural form on the planet, and on the cutting-edge of culture is where there’s the most interesting thinking going on. I’m a neophile. I like new things. Games are the newest thing there is.
Because of an immediate affinity with the things. First time I heard about a game, it seemed to be the most amazing thing I’d ever heard of in the entire world.
Because I’m constantly disappointed with them and want to see the potential fulfilled. When I finally saw a real game on my friend’s spectrum, my entire brain screamed “Is that it?”. That shout reverberates through me still.
Because I love the feelings they provoke in me. A game is unlike any other cultural fom in the world. I occasionally get the urge to arrange re-written musical numbers from South Pacific, and have my fellows and I running around singing “There is nothing like a game”.
Because I’m an addict.
Because it’s my job.
Q. Where do you play? How often? For how long?
A. Good question, and one that I never particularly enjoy answering. As a journalist you wonder what’s too much – and what’s too little? And if it’s too little, are you a fake?
Generally speaking, I play less that I used to, except when I’m deep in a review rut. If I’m reviewing a game – and a major game especially – I’ll do nothing but obsess over that piece of software, playing it for huge periods of time, at strange hours, until it’s finally finished.
However, even when playing games for my own abstract pleasure, if I fall in love with one I’ll stick to a fairly similar abusive relationship. I’m very much torrid affair gamer rather than the steady marriage. Not for me the length relationship with Championship Manager or whatever. It’s rare that I don’t burn out on any game within a month, and then desire to move onto the next thing. Serial philanderer of software, that’s me.
This boom/bust cycle does mean that I can actually go some time – not /too/ much, but some – without playing a game seriously, especially if I’m not reviewing anything. But even if I’m not playing about them, they’re a constant pressure on my thoughts and my life. It’s not that I can just forget them.
6/forwards and backwards
Q. What were the key moments in gaming for you in 2004?
A. For me, personally?
Well, I wrote a game script, which justifiably got me called a sell-out a lot. I wrote a manifesto for games journalism, which got up people’s noses but has mostly been a force for good. And between the pair of them, I was forced to buck up my thoughts on the industry and the medium, because I’d been coasting for a while.
Game wise, Thief: Deadly Shadows genuinely broke ground… only to see its Project Lead being fired a few weeks before the game had finished. The game was great – and the Cradle is the gaming achievement of the year - it was his vision… and they lose him for some political reason or another. More than any anecdote, that sums up the problem with 2004. Wouldn’t it be nice if greatness wasn’t achieved without adversity for once?
The MMORPG bubble finally starting to burst is probably also note-worthy, as people realise that there’s only so many people who have a lifetime to devote to playing an MMORPG – and even these can only play one game at once. We’ll see more thing like City of Heroes which can be actually enjoyed by people with a relatively minor commitment – or, alternatively, burnt through in a month as you would a normal single player game.
As a PC chap, the big guns finally re-emerging is interesting. It’ll be more so when the dust has settled and we’ve examined it more. People seem to enjoy Doom III, but realise that it’s just a corridor shooter when they were expecting something more. But… why were they? Original games are where you find original things.
The Manhunt controversy in the UK sets a new precedent for reporting stupidity, and the fallout will be interesting to trace.
Q. What is going to be important in Videogaming in 2005, both to you and to the business in general?
The new consoles will be stirring. Clearly, this is the most important thing in the industry but I’m worried that this is the one where it’s going to go all wrong. In fact, it could go so wrong that it’ll be the start of a genuine crash ala Atari in the early eighties. The industry seems to exist at the edge of a catastrophe curve, with budgets increasing far faster than sales, with even some big hits losing money. It’s only the ultra-hits which make serious money, which concentrates the profits – and power – in increasingly few hands. I mean, look at the money Atari have thrown into Enter the Matrix last year and Driv3r this year. They needed to be hits. If they didn’t, they company lose incredibly. Expand that across the industry, and if several companies have several flops then it all comes tumbling down.
And this is made more likely because the next generation of consoles don’t appear to be offering much above what we have already. Graphics will have more polygons, sure… but we’ve already got enough polygons to render a vaguely convincing image of everything. The leap in terms of qualitative difference is nothing compared to the leap from – say – SNES to Playstation 1. Equally, marry this to the decreased number of original games appearing and the reliance on sequels. While the big franchises like FIFA sell hugely when people have a new console, they’re not the Killer-App style game that actually makes someone go out and blow a couple of hundred quid on a new console. Does anyone remember how slow the PS2’s start was? Then came GTA3 – an essentially new game – and people finally had a reason to throw some cash down. No Halo, no X-Box sales.
So – with everyone well used to the idea of GTA and Halo and such, what’s going to inspire people next time around, when everyone is working on stuff people have seen before.
I’ve already said that I’m a neophile. But people have tended to forget that this is a neophile industry, and the very biggest sellers have only been made by someone offering something genuinely new rather than the pure franchises.
If something equivalent to GTA or Halo doesn’t appear early in a new console’s cycle, the big players could have an extremely difficult time of it.
Enough about the industry.
For me? Hoping all that I’ve written doesn’t come true, as I’ve got no desire to go back to working bars for cash.
Q. What will Videogames become?
A. God knows. That’s why it’ so exciting.
I’ve set up an apocalyptic scenario above, but even if that happens it’s not the end of gaming. In some ways, it may even be better for it. People all have PCs. If there’s no big games, the independent sector will try and take up the slack returning to small teams making focused things, aimed at a specific group of players (look how X-Plane sells to a hardcore community, or Combat Mission to another). Essentially, a post-apocalypse games scene. From that, anything could grow. Sure, there wouldn’t be any money… but that wouldn’t kill gaming. Gaming seems, to me, to be a fundamental response of a certain mindset to technology. Look at the people who invented Space-War: The second a technology allowed it, they’d made a game with it. As long as there’s computers and that brilliant-minded coder/designer cross-breed, someone will be making a game. They won’t be able to stop themselves.
Could go the other way, clearly: increasing budgets, the New Hollywood but… well, I’ll leave that prediction to someone else to deal with. Apart from my being-out-of-a-jobness, I find the New Hollywood as a destination for games far scarier than the New Dark Age.
Could you tell us a few things about yourself – this will form your biography in the back of the book.
Ideally we’d like it to include:
Your Name: Kieron Gillen
Profession: Freelance Writer
Relationship to Videogames: My Dad was a Defender Cabinet and my mum was an early Melbourne House adventure.
Anything else we should know?: Worked for five years on staff on PC GAMER (UK), eventually becoming Deputy Editor. Left to go Freelance. Now subsist on the kindness of commissioning editors.
Kieron Gillen's Workblog, foo'.