Posted by: Tom | February 23, 2010

So, what do games mean to you?

Well, that didn’t take very long did it?

My claims of avoiding gaming topics has lasted all of two posts. In my defence, I’m being reactionary, and the stove is hot.

There seems to be a divide forming among both gamers and critics alike over just what video games are or, at least, what they mean to individual people. What they represent, what a player wants when he sits down in front of his console.

The video games as art debate has been done to death (I’ve done it myself, in print and everything). In my eyes, it’s over now. The experiences I’ve had as a player over the years are now easily as exciting, emotionally resonant and affecting as all those books I’ve read, and all those movies I’ve watched. That’s what they mean to me, I don’t need anyone else to dictate that to me. Spreading the love is a different matter, but I’m doing all I can with that.

Crucially, the reason they have such an impact on me is not because they are trying to be movies, or literature, or anything else. Sure they take influence and inspiration, but they excel because they are games. They excel because they could not be done in any other medium. They excel, because of their interactivity. I could write a thesis on this, but apparantly I have real work to do, so that will have to wait.

Anyway, the gaming landscape is constantly shifting. And it’s now got to a point where the choice of experience-the variety of it all- is vast. This throws up a conundrum, that divide I mentioned. And as a sometimes-game-journo myself, it’s quite interesting to me as to waht impact that has on games writing.

Shane Richmond, our head of tech, sent me a link to this blog: http://infovore.org/archives/2010/02/23/the-most-compelling-case-should-be-for-game-ness/

This was the second catalyst  for this blog (I’ll get to the first in a bit). It raises quite a few interesting points, not least about the structure of games reviews. Many, many, many reviews do indeed tend to box themself in with their structure. There seems to be this expectation to cover, in no particular order: graphics, sound, story, gameplay. It’s all you can do to to stop imagining subheads floating above each paragraph.

I can’t pretend that I’ve never done that in a review myself, of course, that would make me a big fat liar. Although I’ve always strived to avoid using that appalling catch-all phrase “gameplay” unless absolutely neccessary, as it means precisely fuck all in real terms. If I can’t convey how a game feels to play and experience, without saying DA GAMEPLAY IS GUD AND IT HAS LOTS OF GRAFIX, then I’m not doing my job properly.

This habit of addressing components seperately is terribly rigid. Being able to break it down as such is far too reductive for what the medium achieves. (Disclaimer: sometimes a game is so functionally made, that this kind of critique is appropriate)

I like reviews that crack the heart of what the experience of playing a game is, how the whole affects me rather than how well all the little bits are constructed. As mentioned in the link above ‘game-ness’ is exceedingly important, having that feeling that you couldn’t have this particular experience in any other medium. Certain websites and magazines are brilliant at this, Eurogamer probably being the best example.

The other problem that’s emerged recently, however, comes in how you define what a ‘game’ is. A concept that’s becoming increasingly blurred. Some players -critics included- are so locked into what a game should be, that different approaches are met with mild befuddlement.

I’ve been playing Silent Hill Shattered Memories. It’s a quite brilliant psychological chiller, impeccably directed in order to burrow inside your head, blurring the lines between in-game reality and hallucination, and even spilling into the real world via the Wiimote speaker. In doing so, however, it sidesteps many gaming conventions. There’s no combat, when the beasties come-a-calling, your only option is to leg it. And most of the game is spent in relative ‘safety’, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying.

The game currently stand on a respectable-enough 78 on Metacritic (incidentally, I also think that scores are the bane of video game criticism, but that’s for another time) but many reviews bemoan things like ‘lack of challenge’ and ‘ponderous exploration’. It just smacks of missing the point, the for me ‘ponderous’ was soaking up the chilling atmosphere. It never bothers me that I can’t ‘die’ during that time either, I’m frightened enough by how the game fucks with my head. I don’t need the extra stress of dying, and then having to reload and repeat the section again. The game’s pacing and intent dictates that that would be a massive error in judgment. And for what? To appease the notion that death and trial-and-error must be in the makeup of a video game?

The thing with Shattered Memories is that, despite ditching some of gamings more regular tropes, it’s an experience that could only ever be a video game. Your interaction is essential for it to tell its tale and dig in its nails (it could only be done on Wii too, incidentally, but that’s yet another discussion). It’s a similar story for Heavy Rain, despite the grandiose talk of Heavy Rain ‘blurring the lines between games and cinema’ its brand of digital theatre, that experience, could only be as effective with a pad in your hands, you directing the path of the story.

I should point out here that I am most certainly not of the opinion that all games should go that route. ‘Traditional’ gaming is just as an important facet of the medium. Ask me what my favourite games of the last decade are and you’ll get answers like Super Mario Galaxy, Bayonetta, Resident Evil 4; all titles that excel at the most traditional aspects of gaming of all.

My point (if I really have one) is that there should never, ever be a prescribed way of evaluating video games. What we have now in the medium is too diverse, it’s what makes them so bloody fascinating. You won’t find film critics lambasting period dramas for their lack of explosions now, would you? Everything should be taken on its own merit.

And last but not least, and my favourite point from that link I posted earlier. We should never, ever apologise for loving video games. There is definitely a habit in mainstream coverage to go on the defensive about how eclectic the medium is. Needs must, I guess, but let’s not drum into people what the medium isn’t. Let’s celebrate what it is.

Links
My two favourite Silent Hill Shattered Memories reviews: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/video-games/7028312/Silent-Hill-Shattered-Memories-video-game-review.html

http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/silent-hill-shattered-memories-review

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