We live in complicated times. The modern blockbuster title demands twelve buttons and three directional pads, some buttons doing different things when pressed in combination. There are multiple situations your character gets stuck in. You’re no longer just running around until you find a boss: now, you have to do a flying level to get there, solve eight puzzles designed like a game from the 80’s, platform up a building the size of the Statue of Liberty with obvious hand holds, and watch a 15 minute cut scene for each 5 minutes of gameplay against an easy, repetitive boss, before you lather back on the variety.
My favorite game of the year so far has been VVVVVV, a retro platformer which has three buttons, one mechanic and two goals: finding your crew members scattered around the map, and not dying from the horrible things you find. That’s it.
Simplify, simplify. It’s been a recent theme of games journalists to hammer home simplicity: the more complicated games get, they reason, the fewer people will play them, and the more mechanical the works become. If Henry David Thoreau were alive (and played video games, which is doubtful, unless they were made out of nature), he would no doubt say that a simplified video game is a better one.
The trick is, simple doesn’t have to mean basic. It doesn’t have to me visceral and film like, especially When we look back on the history of games, games like Chrono Trigger and Super Mario World and Mega Man 2 and the lot, these are simple games. Chrono Trigger features three buttons that do anything of importance: yes, no, and a menu. Mario has always had two buttons. Mega Man had two buttons. They feature few cutscenes, and tell their story through gameplay. These are simple, simple games.
But that doesn’t mean they are basic. They are just focused in their mechanics. The simplification video games does not have to start at their mechanics, but rather has to start at the bloated trappings of cinema that have been sewn onto the slowly dying corpse of video gaming.
Baldur’s Gate, that fat, unwieldy body of a video game, provides the perfect example. It is a game overwhelmingly complex; everything is a statistic of some kind, everything codified in the morass of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. To the layman, the mechanics in the game, THACO, decreasing armor class, damage being done in d6’s instead of as nice, whole numbers. The game is complicated beyond belief.
The thing is, when you get down to it, Baldur’s Gate is a very simple video game, as simple as Mega Man. There is one mechanic, and that mechanic is bashing people’s faces in. There’s remarkably little conversation that matters all that much, stealth issues are minimized and avoided by frequent quick saving, and while the mechanics are complicated, they boil down to one thing: whacking people in the face with variously sharpened sticks.
Playing Baldur’s Gate after all these years reveals startling simplicity: go there, hit that. There is not particularly much conversation. There are no cutscenes besides the iconic first one, with all drama played out in descriptive text. There are no minigames, definitely no minigames. Yes, there are complicated mechanics governing how everything works, but they serve one unified purpose.
Simply put, a modern reviewer would slaughter it for lack of variety. You are doing one thing for sixty hours of game, and that one thing is killing. And you know what? It is gleefully more enjoyable than nearly every game made in the past five years, simply because of its simplicity. It does one thing, and it does it so well that we cannot help but enjoy it.
I wish to live deliberately.
The modern game is afraid of being deliberately simple. It is afraid of attempting simplicity, because it is afraid of failure. The most insipid art is produced by those who are afraid of failure; most successful artists don’t fail because they somehow magically lose their touch, but because they become afraid of failing, and begin to hedge their works. A character who might before have been a powerful gay warrior with none of the stereotypes becomes a sexed up goddess who is hung up on the main character, because people are less threatened by the second character and more likely to superficially love her. Instead of just showing up in the action, games add ill-conceived mini games and cutscenes to hold the player’s hand from point A to point B because 24% of a focus group had trouble connecting the dots.
So games are dressed up to detract attention from the main mechanic. Scribblenauts, for instance, was a game with completely broken core mechanics that added in a lot of memes and awesome items to detract from that fact. People don’t get excited about a game where previewers have trouble not discussing the broken mechanics, but they have no trouble when the game allows them to pit Cthuhlu against Albert Einstein and Keyboard Cat. They have a hard time focusing on an interesting, mature plot, but a much easier time with a game where you can punch out hookers in the back seat of your car and shoot everyone.
That’s what has fueled the independent revival over the past few years: deliberate design. Games like VVVVVV feature very little to distract you from the game. Sure, there’s a plot, and there’s the fantastic aesthetic choices, but these are part of the game, tied to the mechanics. They are synergistic. Were VVVVVV a big budget production, there would be lavish splash panels whenever you found one of your crew members, describing in detail the story alluded to through the snippets of conversation. There would be an area where the mechanic didn’t work properly, and you had to work as a team, jumping on each other’s heads to conquer a level. A gun would have been added, and enemies who you could kill. You’d find locked doors occasionally, and would have to play a simplified version of Robotron 2084 to unlock the door. Instead of having to find your own way to the next area, through atmospheric exploration areas, you’d get there in a first person chase scene, following the enemy. Oh, they’d add an enemy, and an end boss. Probably the horrible crying elephant. He brought you there! It’s his fault! Blame him!
None of these things add a lick to the game, of course, but it’s what we want. What we say we want, at least.
I hate to say that we are the problem, but we are the problem. We demand these things. We make big noises about games having awesome comic book cutscenes and having exciting unlocking mini games, and we complain, pre-release, if these things aren’t there, loud enough to make some higher up who has no idea how video games work force the developers to put one in there.*
And you know what? In sixty hours of playing Baldur’s Gate, not once did I desire the human drama of an unlocking mini game. Rather, I felt happiness when I was able to unlock a chest, and disappointment when I couldn’t. Of course, disappointment is bad, and therefore has to be removed, but that’s another show. What is important is that the human drama would just have wasted my time, time I prepared really hard to avoid wasting.
Fallout 3 is an example of the other way. I invest 100 points in lock picking. This does not make lock picking easier in any way, it just makes it so that I can *try* to pick difficult locks. It gives me access to a human drama. Doesn’t that sound awfully complicated? The difference between direct statistics determining success and direct statistics determining access to a mini game is simplicity. One has one step. The other has two. And you may say, “But I liked lockpicking!” You know what? So did I. That doesn’t mean the game wouldn’t be improved with its absence.
Where games need simplicity most is in the trappings, not the meat. It’s like making a fancy dinner. You don’t need potatoes au gratin and asparagus in lemon butter and bread when you’ve got a 20$ rib eye in the pan. You only need those things when the steak is too tough to eat. And that’s where we’ve gotten. Many video games are too tough to eat nowadays, because of the bloated central mechanics. We are not overwhelmed by one very detailed, very complicated mechanic, but rather by a dozen decently complicated one. They make the game dense and alienating and, ultimately, dead.
A living dog is better than a dead lion.
Ultimately, that’s the question we’ve come down to: do we want the big, bloated corpse of modern gaming as it is, where everything is a mini game, a cut scene, or a non-core mechanic, or do we want something leaner and more functional? Non-core mechanics being so prominent give the game a feeling of impermanence; for example, I played Metal Gear Solid 4, but I feel like I haven’t, because I was always doing something else, something designed to keep interest away from the exciting central mechanics. I loved Enslaved while I was playing it. I felt it was brilliant. But it left no lasting impression, no desire to play it again, ever again, because I never got into a rhythm of doing the “fun” thing (whichever that was). I never want to play Red Dead Redemption again, because while the shooting was good fun, I feel like I never got into big shootouts, the part of the game that was fun.
And why hide them? If there’s a reason games are becoming less memorable, it’s because no one has any faith in their ideas. No one thinks you could possibly be amused by a game where you’re a spy sneaking around a complex, collecting weapons and selling them to upgrade your own unless there were an overblown story, and no one thinks that jumping through a post apocalyptic world could be fun without a stick to beat people with, and no one thinks that a game about cowboy shootouts could be fun unless you had to hunt rabbits and ride a horse for hours to get to the shootouts.
The most memorable mainstream games of the past five years, in my book, have been Okami and the two Persona games, both of which are very confident in letting the player have control of the game and do what they want. They’re replayable, too, because the gameplay doesn’t hinge on distraction, but rather on the core mechanics of the games. Yes, there are mini games, and cut scenes, but there is a dominant mechanic that is the unapologetic core of both games. Bioshock, on the other hand, is almost impossible to replay happily, because all its shock and awe was exhausted in the first playthrough. Now, to do it again, it is all noise, no game.
Game developers need to simplify, and slim down their games, but not until they are Pac Man or Tetris or something modern like FarmVille. What they need to do is cut the fat, and deliver actual games. Because we remember games for their games, not for their stories**. Story is gravy, and the game is the steak, and it’s awfully unpleasant to drink gravy.
*Perhaps to my detriment as a writer, perhaps because I want to write a different piece on the topic, *the* example of this is the revival of the X-Men. If you’ve read the letters accompanying the first dozen issues or so after the revival of the series in the 70’s, you know exactly what I mean. Everyone hated Wolverine. His character hasn’t changed (much; he did get a mutant power!), except…people love him enough to support individual books and clones and individual books for clones nowadays. Why? Because fans are retarded.
**I am reminded there is another thing here, that we do remember some games for their stories. Some would say these are successes of storytelling, and I would say they are failures of gameplay. I remember the story, and the writing, of Bioshock because the gameplay was so mediocre. No one would remember Planescape: Torment, scion of storytelling in games, if it had not been backed by the rock solid Infinity Engine, by the idea that you could solve all your problems through story. Story was the mechanic. In Bioshock it was, too, but it got dressed up with too many other things; fortunately, the story had such superlative staying power that we still remember it, despite the distractions.