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Dumbness in Games, or, the Animal as a System

Taylor Clark writes about why he called most games “dumb,” exhorting us to make them smarter. His main criticisms are around aspects like story, characters, “insipid dialogue,” and the like (when you are a writer, every problem looks like a writing problem). He cites the example of Vanquish as a mechanically good game that sinks under the weight of its own ridiculous plot and abrasive stock characters. Why can’t we change that around?

For a long time I felt a similar frustration with this industry, wondering why we hadn’t addressed this yet. It doesn’t seem like an overly difficult thing to try to solve. How hard could telling a decent story possibly be? How hard is hiring a real writer?

After nearly ten years of working on the kinds of big-budget titles that Clark implicates, I’m less sure that there is a good solution. It may even be that there isn’t one.

* * *

The people who make games are not, themselves, dumb. Some of them may be emotionally underdeveloped, and very publically so, but for every negative example there are hundreds of intelligent, reasoned, well-rounded people who make video games for a living, whom we haven’t heard of because they don’t blog or Tweet or sit for press interviews. And artistic legitimacy matters to many of these people. There is no shortage of game makers who would like to prove that games can be complex, intelligent, nuanced and everything else we associate with goodness and highness in the arts. Which is to say that if games are “dumb,” it’s not for lack of trying to make them not dumb. So if it was really possible to make a finely-tuned, action-packed big budget video game that is also “smart” and not “dumb”, I want to think that we might have done so already.

Instead, we’re at what feels like a mysterious barrier. We have some of the world’s most talented people and a magician’s box full technical tricks, but something’s not quite right; something always seems to go wrong when we try to put that higher level of emotional maturity into our next big game.

In the course of my career I’ve seen some “real writers” come in to help a game put on a better, more mature face and not seem so adolescent. They prodded the developers to abandon the old stereotypes and helped them invent more complex characters— characters who had a life before and after the events of the game, who were of ethnicities outside the usual Hollywood handful, who mulled over realistic internal conflicts. We spent a lot of time on those elements. These games eventually came out, and while they were commercially and critically successful, they utterly failed in their mission to bring “good writing” to games. In the end, they were what Clark calls “dumb” games.

What was the point where it broke down? There was no evil executive coming in from on high telling us to make the game more lowbrow. The team was not a bunch of sniveling adolescent boys (a couple were, to be honest, but most were of the aforementioned good type). I think instead that the problem was structural— deeply structural to the product itself, at a level where no amount of “smart” versus “dumb” choices can really change things. One of those games centered around shooting aliens with guns and lasers. Another was about navigating an environment and punching people until they died.

The very second you try to wrap actions like those in a “good story” that does not somehow address what happens during the mechanical part of the experience is the second you fail to write a good story. The dissonance of the Uncharted series is a famous example: the experience implies two completely different worlds. One is where Nathan Drake is an affable hero, and the other is where Drake murders hundreds of fellow human beings and feels nothing. Though the developers took care to paint over the seams where they could, even the cleverest narrative design couldn’t change how completely incongruous that really is, on a basic, fundamental level.

* * *

At that point— with the model already broken, what can you do as a writer? Make your main character a sensitive man and he falls flat: he obviously isn’t sensitive to the fact that he just killed dozens of people. Make him a dangerous psychopath and he’s impossible to like, unless, maybe, he’s out for some lazily justified revenge (oh, look, we just stumbled on the plot of so many games!).

This point about dissonance has been made before in several “mechanics versus narrative” debates, though narrative versus mechanics, like art versus technology, is ultimately a false dichotomy. (Someone always points out that lots of games exist entirely free of narrative. To me this is like pointing out that some animals don’t need backbones. It’s true, but that doesn’t help us, because we are animals that happen to need backbones. Some games need narrative in order to work.) It’s the reason why games that explicitly exclude combat— Dear Esther, Journey, and others of their kind— seem so promising right now. As an industry, we still haven’t developed anything as mechanically complex as our combat, but at least we’ve figured out that we can remove it.

To return to Vanquish, then, I feel like you couldn’t really take its “mechanics” or “gameplay” and tell a sensible story around them, because those things are not some kind of discrete element that we can pluck out and place inside another context. A game is a whole system; the pieces that we like to dissect are its organs. You can take issue with and maybe even improve the components, but what you really want is a brand new animal, a new system where all the parts work together. By saying that Vanquish is a great game but could benefit from better story and characters, Clark implicitly proposes a mythical beast— the kind with the head of one animal and the body of another.

* * *

Another way of saying this is: it is extremely difficult— maybe impossible— to come up with a story and characters that, when placed within the context of most current video games, don’t feel inherently silly.

Explaining his choice of the word “dumb,” Clark references Tom Bissell’s thought about great art being “‘comprehensively intelligent,’ meaning that it’s intelligent in every way available to it.” This is a fine notion and I’m all for it. I’m just unsure that this kind of intelligence is truly available to most of the kinds of games we’re talking about here. 

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Reader Comments (29)


Your post got me thinking about UI/UX in games. As someone new to the games industry, I worry constantly about whether or not I underestimate my audience by employing (what I have been taught) proper design practices, and if they’re being perceived as “dumbing down” a game. Designers outside of the Game Industry very often employ methods of, “Don’t make me think,” or “Keep it simple, stupid!(KISS).” I’m very curious as to whether or not these practices are detrimental to the bigger picture of a games narrative. It’s extremely conflicting as a person taught in the ad/graphic design world to watch intelligent design thinking, with the best of intentions, prevent gaming from becoming a more thoughtful and intelligent medium.

I can’t help but to cite Gears of War as an example. Gears of War often resorts to UI prompts (“Hold A”) that ask the user to focus on a scripted events happening in the game. I find that the of UI/UX as something that creates a barrier between the game and the user; it creates a layer OVER the game, rather than within it. In the case of the A button scenario, wouldn't it be better for the game designers to step back and look at problems within their systems that are failing to deliver those experiences to occur organically? I think games like Portal and, more recently, Fez, have done an admirable job at using good UI/UX practices (while arguably more environmental) better serve the narrative in an intelligent way. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think unclear UI/UX can be an offender of a game being perceived as “dumb?”

May 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterT.C. Colby

Videogames and stories are at odds, what gamers want out of videogames and what a minority of artistic types want out of videogames are different.

I want better gameplay, deeper combat, interesting challenges, etc. Story is last on my list in most games. The problem with story is that it shouldn't be in the foreground, it needs to be 'integrated' into the game not forced as if watching a movie. So far only half-life has really managed it well without taking you into 'conversation mode'. Mass effect is different in that it's mostly combat with conservation simulator on the side. Mass effect 3 demonstrates the problem with story based games - notice the game has to be totally on rails and gameplay necessarily has to be simplified to turn the game into a pseudo-movie.

Everyone complaining about how games need to be 'more intelligent' forget that it requires a PAYING AUDIENCE that wants what you're selling. If most gamers want easy to digest entertainment then that will be what is produced.

If anything cinematics and story have had negative effects on gameplay aspect of games because too much of the audience hates deep gameplay.

May 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVGMAN

In my own thoughts on Clark's piece, I wondered if the issue here is one of genre as well. Throughout all these conversations, I kept coming back to the Myst franchise, which, though it has run out of steam itself, was for its time an incredible engaging and ultimately non-violent (at least as the unnamed player was concerned) series of games. I agree with your assessment about characters whose main function in the narrative is to kill their way to success. In other words, perhaps the issue with many of the games Clark critiques is that they are trying to shoehorn narrative genres into what is essentially the same gaming mechanic. However, I did think it was a nice touch in Arkham Asylum that the enemies' chests still move to indicate breathing after Batman has taken them down. This at least suggested that death wasn't the goal, although the effect was probably minimal since violent conflict between human beings was still the center piece of the game's interaction.

May 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJonah Stowe

The question of good stories in games is not really the correct one to ask. Or rather, it is, but you'd need to start by asking why are the stories always about violence, and violence in just one certain way. It's always Die Hard or Terminator. It's very rarely Godfather and never Inglourious Basterds. Violence is practically always presented as justified, handy, quick way of solving problems. It's never terrifying, disgusting, exhausting or emotionally unbearable. And that's just for games that are violent. Where are the games that deal with love? Why is sex either juvenile, non-existent or straight out porn?

Indie games are leading the way, but they still have a long way to go. I liked Dear Esther for what it was, but it showcases one of the great problems of "mature" games: it's artsy, full of "deep" imagery and metaphors. Learn to walk before you try to run: make a game, even one, where the subject matter is dealt with in a straightforward fashion. What would Dear Esther have been like, if the first line in the game was "Today is the day I'm going to kill myself" (or if you think the whole island is a metaphor, "Today is the day I am going to forgive myself")?

August 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjrn
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