One final thought on Thomsen’s War And Peace vs. Dark Souls comparison. War And Peace remains one of the definitive pieces of historical fiction. It’s a work of deep significance that’s been studied by literary scholars over several generations. Next to a canonical work of that stature, any cultural artefact – even ones that are praiseworthy in their own right – look shabby and lightweight by comparison. Like when we used to see pictures of Tom Cruise standing next to the statuesque frame of then-wife Nicole Kidman on red carpets.
Is David Simon’s TV series The Wire better than War And Peace? Perhaps not, but who cares? The Wire is still a masterful show, and arguably more relevant to our modern societal context. The Tolstoy contrast is simply meant to shame and belittle. Even worse, it asks us to choose sides. Thomsen pits games against literature and ignores the fact that both are equally valid and rewarding experiences. It encourages the kind of flag-staking tribalism that’s made the so-called ‘console wars’ such a wearying and pointless squabble.
Thomsen hopes to extract from games an intellectual reward (‘meaning’, as he calls it), and preferably at a level that feels commensurate with the time invested. This is an understandable yet altogether cynical measure of play’s value. The subtext of his essay suggests that games are only worthwhile when they resonate on a thematic level, communicating a message that can be parsed and digested as you would the text of a novel.
Play is a primal exercise, perfectly capable of being its own reward. When you file a list of additional demands, you become the equivalent of a professional athlete who once loved the game but now only measures its worth based on the salary attached. Or a business person who has forgotten the simple joy of socialising with a stranger and instead sifts all potential conversations through the sieve of their networking value and how the other person might enhance one's career prospects.
Let’s revisit that litany of questions that Thomsen attaches to the end of his hypothetical sprawling videogame: “Why did I do that? Why did I keep playing? What was I after? Where am I now?” When he succumbs to the sweeping generalisation that “everyone” who has played a 100-hour videogame knows such frustration, he makes the wrong-headed assumption that all his readers demand something from games beyond satisfying, engaging play.
Limbo's terrifying spider chase
I’ve played roughly a dozen hours of Ziggurat on my iPhone over the past week and it’s given me no bankable intellectual reward. All it’s given me is a slightly higher level of skill at timing my laser blaster’s charge state and lining up my shots with the alien freaks closing in on my position. My average scores have gone up considerably, which suggests that I’ve become more skilful at negotiating its mechanics. But I certainly haven’t learned anything about what Thomsen calls “the immemorial questions of human nature”. I’ve simply interacted with a fabulously dynamic rule set that begs to be teased apart and admired, just as a physicist delights in gleaning insight into how the clockwork universe segues from tick to tock.
The thematic wrapping of Ziggurat is just costume. The game would be equally fun if all the aliens were represented by different coloured blocks and the spaceman hero was a projectile-firing triangle. The game is a masterpiece because of the alchemy created by the player interactions enabled by its rule set. The aliens and spaceman are just skinned over the top to provide context for why we don’t want the ‘blocks’ to get close enough to touch the ‘triangle’. Here’s a sweeping generalisation that’s actually fair: everybody knows that eye-ball headed aliens kill spacemen.
Speaking to a journalist from Gamasutra, Playdead CEO Dino Patti echoes this point while discussing the development of his studio’s indie hit Limbo. “What was important was to have the gameplay before the graphics went on,” says Patti. “We had the spider chase, which was a killer box – a red killer box, until very late in production. And it was so fun because it was so scary, this red box. If it touched you, you died.”
Thomsen is unable to engage games on their own terms because he seems incapable of seeing beyond the superficial thematic level. Where a critic who appreciates the art of game design leaps off the diving board into a game as mechanically robust as Dark Souls with a pleasant kersploosh, the critic who only knows how to parse theme smacks into the epidermal layer of that experience like a diver hitting the surface of a swimming pool that’s frozen over.
In a baffling turn, Thomsen derides his fellow game critics for expressing pleasure in how well Dark Souls succeeds at – wait for it – being a game. He characterises their response in the following way: “The game is good because playing makes you feel good, and that goodness is amplified by the recent memory of having been very bad at the game, of taking wrong turns and mistiming attacks against zombies. Think of Dark Souls as a self-esteem kit for people who can take marching orders from giant talking snakes called Kingseeker Frampt and Darkstalker Kaathe without withering a little inside.”