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.

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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.

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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.

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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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