Truth be told, I think I’ve become jaded. Perhaps it’s because the console cycle has gone on too long and developers are doubling down on their successes, trying to build their war chests for the next generation of games, when they will need to experiment to recapture their audiences. Perhaps it’s because I am a father now and my priorities have changed; I don’t have as much time to browse through a wide range of games in search of curious design experiments that portend the future. Perhaps it’s because the ‘capital I’ Industry is so badly broken, its focus now on making larger and more content-centric games with bigger budgets and higher production values, games to which companies hope players will be attached for longer.
Whatever the case, when I sit down and look at what my gaming options are, I increasingly feel like the majority of games are not worth the time or the effort. I now probably spend more time looking for games to play than playing games. This is not unlike the feeling I had for many years when I subscribed to cable television. I would flip through the channels looking for something interesting, stopping every time I looped around through the 80 or so channels to look at the listings, see that there was nothing really on for another 30 minutes, and then click some more. Of course, there were lots of things to watch – 80 of them – but none seemed worth watching.
But recently, as I scanned across a row of unopened 360 games on my shelf, trying to decide which one to play, I stumbled upon what would become my criteria for deciding which games to spend time with. I came up with three filters that I feel a game should be able to pass in order to be genuinely worth playing.
The first filter is: does the game have a coherent theme? Theme is embodied in the dynamics of play, and if the game has a story, it should be carried through in the story as well. Making a game where theme is expressed in dynamics and narrative is exceedingly difficult and notoriously unsuccessful from a critical and financial perspective, so it should not be surprising that the number of existing triple-A games that pass this filter can be counted on my fingers. Of the unopened 360 games on my shelf, zero of them qualify. This doesn’t mean continuing to try to make more coherent games is fiscally irresponsible – on the contrary, creating thematically coherent culture is probably, in the long run, the most profitable thing you can invest in. It’s also worth noting that in the indie space, a great many more games are at least striving for thematic coherence; perhaps 15 per cent of indie games are trying to push the medium forwards in this way.
The second filter is: do I care about this theme? Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation is a game whose dynamics are about trying to manage the needs of your creative career and the needs of your family. When I first played the game in 2009, I ‘got it’; you have a child that needs attention, and you have creative urges you need to follow. The two needs draw from one another and feed one another. It’s a good game and well designed, but in 2009 I didn’t care about these themes. I played Gravitation again last week after talking with Kent Hudson about the themes of his upcoming The Novelist, and I realised how relevant those themes were to me now that I was a father. So while this filter is important, it’s also variable, and whether a game passes the filter or not can change over time with life experience, interests, or even just my mood on any given day.
The third filter is: does the game add anything to my appreciation of these themes? In general, this question is impossible to answer until I have played it, so perhaps a more useful filter would be: is the game likely to add anything to my appreciation of these themes? Regardless, I’ll leave it as is, because I will likely play any game that gets past the first two filters, and I find coming back to this question helps me better understand what good games are and how they work.
Even though conflict, struggle, victory and defeat are central to most games, it is hard to imagine a videogame that could speak to the themes of the honour and the pride won through struggle and defeat with the sophistication of Homer’s Iliad or Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea. That said, our filter is not whether a game is better at addressing these themes, but rather whether it adds to our appreciation of these themes in a way that other media perhaps cannot. With that in mind, I feel that games like Shadow Of The Colossus and Demon’s Souls perhaps succeed to some extent in broadening our experiences in worthwhile ways.
I find it interesting that when I first articulated these filters, I felt certain that I was listing them in order from least to most strenuous. Certainly, this would be the case for any established medium, yet for games it appears to be the opposite.
Fortunately, all we need to do to rectify that is endeavour to make thematically coherent games that pass the first filter. The other two filters fall naturally into line after that. I can’t imagine anything that would transform our medium more powerfully or positively than that.