How You Got Videogames Wrong #3: You’re Pretentious as Shit

Pissing you off in installments, the monthly series “How You Got Videogames Wrong” delves beyond appearances into the slimy interior of The God’s Truth (about videogames).  This month we’ll be looking at difficulty in games, and what exactly it makes more difficult.


Here’s the situation: You see me outside a coffee shop, a copy of Finnegan’s Wake weighing itself asunder upon my baby-soft palm. You ask if I’ve ever read, say, Animal Farm, and I say to you, “Oh I only read difficult texts…” Then, as if steaming my own eminence, I lift my coffee to my lips but don’t sip, waiting to be un-graced with your presence.

What’s going through your mind at that moment? I’ll tell you what: That guy is pretentious as shit.

And you’d be right.

So why is it if I complain about the level of difficulty in casual games that none of you will call me the same thing? I find that bizarre. It’s as if “hardcore” videogame culture is formed around a double standard: Books and films that aren’t accessible enough are pretentious; but make a game accessible and aw hell naw, them’s fighting words.

Though we believe ourselves to be making a stand against bastardization, we are in fact erecting a wall, a wall that represents something larger than “hardcore vs. casual”—the wall attempts to keep the uninitiated from the over-initiated. And the end result hardly leaves any middle ground at all.

* * *

I say this, but a couple weeks back, a smart dude named Robert Yang beat me to the punch. Sort of. In his wonderful design blog “Level With Me,” Yang wrote

I don’t think I’m demanding much of players because we all already have the ability to read just by virtue of playing. Frank Lloyd Wright could read houses; as Portal players, you know how to read Portal levels, and you know when Portal levels don’t make sense. What if we used the “words” of a Portal level in different ways, to say different things? What if we used the “words” that form video games, and used them in different ways?

Well, he’s definitely on the right track…

There is a commonality between all mediums of expression, what Yang (and others) would call “the ability to be read,” though in all fairness the terms are all pretty interchangeable…I can “play” through The Great Gatsby; I can “walk” through After the Gold Rush; I can “listen” through photos of the Great Depression. The term doesn’t really matter. Though they serve a specific medium, they are nonetheless only medium-specific containers for a medium-common idea: access. It is in admitting that commonality that we can have a true discussion—about videogames, about film, about prose—as opposed to the veiled discussion we have been having.

Here’s where things get complicated, and where Yang will probably disagree with me, though I do think our paths will end up in the same place: All mediums of expression are the same and not the same. That’s right, I just said that. Each medium has a common goal, and that goal is access; and while this access can occur along multiple avenues (playing, reading, seeing, hearing), they are avenues nonetheless, and some allow for a greater range of movement through a specific medium than others. Every avenue exists in every medium, regardless of if we actually use it or not. So in order for us to discuss the matter of “reading” videogames, and thus the matter of doing so “pretentiously,” we’re going to need to figure which avenue, exactly, we’re supposed to be using in the first place. As I’ve said before, I don’t necessarily consider “interactivity” to be the videogame’s avenue (ah there she is), and that’s my business, I guess. But in saying that I do need to offer an alternate avenue, lest games fail at the common goal, which is to have access. And in order to find that alternate avenue, we’re gonna need to have a look-see at other mediums…

Let’s call in the usual suspects: visual art; film; and prose. In each, our avenue of access is centered around a particular trait, a trait that allows for the widest range of motion, though no one trait is exclusive to that medium. Prose can appear in film…Pictures can appear in prose. No, what we’re talking about is a medium’s overwhelming trait (or traits)…that trait which defines the medium, that allows us to draw a line in the sand and say, “This here? This is interpretive dance.” With visual art this trait is, well, visual. Cuz paintings are, ya know, painted and shit. Film’s overwhelming trait is its being visual and auditory, though we might include spatial, too…but that’s another discussion. And prose? Well, that’s language, obviously. So on and so forth.

Now, along each of those overwhelming traits, we can imagine scenarios in which we might mutter under our breath that the interpreter (or the creator, or even the work itself) is pretentious as shit—the artist who soup-cans feces and states to us, “Why don’t you just go back to your cartoons”; the film critic who scoffs at anything that isn’t capable of the opaque reticence of Tree of Life; the book that seems to ridicule us for not having six PhDs and an extensive memory of every instance in which Joyce intertextualized a fart. And in all cases we intuitively grasp this pretentiousness, because we feel that our access to a medium is being unreasonably restricted…that some douche has set up a toll booth right in the middle of a medium’s primary avenue.

And that’s exactly how I feel when I hear that real gamers play Dark Souls–or more to the point, that if I can’t handle Dark Souls’ difficulty, then I’m not really a gamer at all. And why do I feel this way? Because a videogame’s avenue is in its physicality–this is what (overwhelmingly) ties players to the medium’s expression. That’s why I say that Robert Yang was on the right track: We don’t just read a videogame’s levels, we read their physicality, from the satisfying recoil of my finger during a well-timed sniper shot, to the aching of my wrist during a QTE “fill this meter to win” segment; from the Ray Charles-sway of my avatar’s head when a character yammers on too long, to the torque I apply to a controller during a high-speed turn…AND the level layout itself. Game are the art of replicating physicality–to take a “feeling” of the world (literal in this case) and amplify it…abstract it…omit it…towards meaning. Which is the reason why when we complain about a game’s controls we say they feel weird…not that they interact weird. How games reconfigure interaction within their medium is all tied up in our access to that interaction–feeling. And this physicality of feeling–which shows up in both a game’s literal feedback loop and produces itself out of our conceptual feedback loop–is the what of the reading of games.

Games that aspire toward access-based exclusion are games that fear being found out. They erect a wall between you and their inner substance, if there’s any at all.

* * *

On the flip side, I kind of dig it. I think a good text must sometimes fear itself, that art must occasionally wall itself into a corner, hoping no one will discover the truth–that the purest ideas are snack-sized, and without a wall between it and the tireless searcher, something to slow him down, he’ll have come and gone without even noticing any idea at all. The difficulty of Dark Souls is, in that way, essential to the text. If its avenue of access seems overly-convoluted and unforgiving it is because the idea at the end of the path (the audacity of discipline) is so simple you might have overlooked it otherwise. And I’m sure it is this very point about Dark Souls that people were probably itching to make. But in making you itch, by erecting the previous two-page wall between you and me (the true me, the idea-me), I have gotten you to slow down enough to catch your attention.

Because I don’t have a problem with difficult texts. I think they have their place. I have a problem with developers who “pad” an empty text with “astonishing difficulty”…but that’s going to happen, I guess. The more convoluted you make something, so the logic goes, the longer it might take to realize that there’s nothing there but the convolution. And by that time, the sell has been made. No, what we must consider is the efficacy of a text’s inaccessibility–which is to say, the capacity for a text to express itself due to, or in spite of, its exclusionary tactics.

You’ll notice that I’ve been using the word “text” in place of “videogames.” That’s because I’m not just talking about videogames anymore…I’m talking about all mediums that limit access based on their difficulty. So yes, Finnegan’s Wake. Yes, Dark Souls. Both, actually, which I suppose would be a pretty good point to leave off at: There are those among us who laud a game’s insurmountable difficulty, yet groan at books that aspire towards “art.” This bothers me…I have trouble explaining why exactly, but it does. I guess it’s because, somewhere in our gaming-history, we misplaced the truth of videogames, as a medium for expression. We forgot that we were just reading with our thumbs.


  1. Tom Auxier

    I’m glad you brought back your future knowledge to us! I like how it feels like you send all your articles back in time in a lead box, which we do not open for fear of destroying the sensitive isotopes inside.

    It’s funny, though. I’ve had casual gamer friends play (and love) Demon’s Souls. In many ways I would say it is an extremely accessible game, because it’s so physical. Yes, it is “pretentious”, but more than Finnegan’s Wake pretense it feels like Raymond Carver: raw, intense, minimalistic, not accessible to minds used to the popular spew. And yet you give it to someone in a vacuum, free of preconception, and I bet they pick Carver (and Demon’s Souls) over Grisham (or Skyrim).

  2. Very good point, Tom! I like the idea of Demon’s Souls being accessible because it’s so physical, despite the fact that it’s difficult. Hmm. I suppose then that I might have to rethink the criteria a bit. I’ll do just that right now. -think-

  3. I just want to say that I’ve never seen the interactive aspect of games clarified so well as it is here, when you state that we “read their physicality.” I think distinctions like this one are important, as broad discussions of the medium–what gameplay really consists of and what constitutes true interactivity–can get a bit foggy sometimes.

    I’d be interested to hear your take on things like point-and-click adventures and interactive fiction. Are these sorts of games missing the sort of physicality you think of when you think of games, or do they simply achieve it differently?

    Thanks for the enlightening read!

    • Thanks, AlexP! Tell you what, let me ruminate on the question for a day and I’ll post something here, cuz it’s a good question :)

      • Like AlexP, I think, I immediately started thinking of exceptions to the kinds of games that you’re talking about when you say we “read their physicality”. On top of point-and-click adventures and interactive fiction, I was thinking of JRPGs & turn-based strategy games. The FF6 & Tactics, Fallout 1 & 2, Planescape, XCOM, Chrono Trigger, etc. These represent some of my favorite games of all time and yet I’m not sure your point about reading their physicality, as I understand it, is applicable. Much as AlexP, this leaves me thinking that I either need you to judo throw my brain into understanding how it does apply, or if the physicality is critical to a certain genres of games but not at the essence of games since these latter games seem to have more to do with strategy, puzzles, and narrative?

        Regardless, great food for thought and I wholeheartedly agree with the “reading games” kernel! I particularly enjoyed this morsel: “No, what we must consider is the efficacy of a text’s inaccessibility–which is to say, the capacity for a text to express itself due to, or in spite of, its exclusionary tactics.”

  4. Ava Avane Dawn

    You could read Bogosts Unit Operations for a wonderful approach towards the semiotic components of all mediums.

  5. Richard

    nice article. the problem of access is that sometimes the overemphasis of access will dilute the medium.

    take, for example, paul cartledge. he is probably the world’s foremost expert on ancient sparta. what he writes is often completely unintelligible to readers who lack a familiarity with ancient greek history, sparta-specific history, spartan culture, etc. most people would be baffled if he decided to write about, for example, the immediate effects the battle of leuctra on the spartan mothokes, hypomeiones and laconian (but not messenian) helots. and yet, it is an entirely valid and worthwhile discussion for those who are interested. in this case, emphasizing accessibility would completely hamstring cartledge’s ability to even have this discussion.

    in the same way, accessibility is (in my opinion) hamstringing games as a medium of challenge and entertainment. just compare dark souls to say, assassin’s creed (disclaimer: i love both). walking along an edge while getting shot at by one archer is terrifying in dark souls. free running along a ledge while getting shot at by five archers is completely mundane in assassin’s creed. difficulty adds tension and intensity… too little can be just as bad as too much.

    this ‘hardcore’ bit is a backlash against too little spread across way too many games. and because accessibility is tied into ‘casualness,’ it comes across as snobbery (and i’ll be the first to admit, maybe some of them really are unjustifiably snobbish). but the point is valid – for some people, accessibility is actually negatively affecting entertainment value.

    • Richard,

      I agree completely. Overemphasis on accessibility reconfigures the standard of accessibility across the whole, resulting in products that are not so much accessible as they are middling. Take, for instance (and I really hate to harp on her), the writing quality of the Twilight series, or the gradual decline of (what do we call it?) anti-accessibility that led to the Twilight series. Though I have heard several persuasive arguments regarding the usefulness of Twilight, one persuasive argument I *haven’t* heard is the usefulness of setting expectations of writing quality incredibly low–except of course from the publishers, who can pump out lower and lower quality “in” products and turn a quick profit.

      That said, I never set out to write about videogames–or at least, that isn’t my True Purpose. I set out to write about culture, and it just so happens that I relate to (am?) a part of videogame culture. With this piece I was really trying to address the habit that we (gamers I mean, and then only some of us) have of preferring books, films, and music that are very accessible (anti-Joyce, anti-artsy, anti-uncommerical), yet with games we prefer that which approaches the exact opposite.

      On one hand I attribute this to the quirks of the medium; on the other I still find it strange to call Joyce-readers pretentious, but Super Meat Boy players “true gamers.”

      Thank you so much for your methods of addressing your issues with the piece! Most people just come out and bash that which they disagree with; you, however, were totally levelheaded and cool about it. :)

      • Tomas

        IMHO it’s because games like Super Meat boy and other manual dexterity or motor skills-based games have a lot more in common with sports than art.

        To me, sports = mental + physical (motor skills) challenge, while art = pure mental challenge, i.e., trying to “grok” a concept.


        Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t like having to think too hard. Also, a lot of people also don’t like having their preconceptions challenged. So art isn’t seen as “fun”, I guess, while physical challenges are – they aren’t as threatening, even though they can still be difficult. You know more or less what you’re dealing with, there – understanding isn’t the problem. It’s much more about “can I do it?” than “can I understand it?”.


        …it’s not working. ;

        Still, a very interesting discussion. Especially the idea of physics being intuitive (because they are predictable, I guess?) is very interesting to me. It’s difficult for game developers to get players to understand how to actually play their game… but if things are physical, and the physics work like in the real world, that’s something that people should be able to understand quickly.

        But if that’s true, then the opposite of that probably also is: the more stuff deviates from how things work in the real world, the more unintuitive it is and the more it has to be taught. I wonder whether there’s some kind of mental limit to the amount of stuff people are willing or able to learn. It probably differs wildly from person to person, but I guess with every “thing” that people have to learn, you’ll lose audience.

        To me, one of the biggest problems of the games (and other interactive stuff) of nowadays is that they are primarily “products”. As opposed to, say… artworks or works of craftsmanship. I hope (and think) that making games will become much more doable for many more people in the next 10 years and onwards, which will hopefully cause the niches that are ignored by the large publishers to also be served. It’s already starting to happen now.

  6. Jon

    I think the issue being driven at is that despite difficulty being the obvious distinguishing attribute of D[emon’s/ark] Souls, it isn’t the important attribute. The developers gave an interview sometime between the two games where they talked about how they never set out to make the game hard—their goal was always to create a feeling of achievement, and it just so happened that the way they were able to go about this was by making it really quite hard.

  7. Jack

    Personally, I do think that “Finnegan’s Wake” is too much, and, I assure you, majority of – even the most snobbish – literature critics share this opinion. Still, it was an experiment – and it is good to remember that Joyce himself was attempting to create something far bigger than a plain novel (we may justly claim that he did not succeed, but treating it as regular novel wouldn’t be fair to it). Highly complex intertextuality – one, less solitary (than “Finnegan’s Wake”) example of it being the main point of the work, may provide Eco’s prose – is actually a game of intellect (similar in a way to solving riddles, puzzles, chess problems or mathematic equations), so while bragging about it can be definitely considered as pretentious, I’m not sure if it is pretentious itself. And, though I can fully relate to your justified aversion to such works, it does not necessarily mean that every attempt to make something more artistic is at the same time “pretentious, artsy” etc. In my opinion, the problem with nowadays “aspiring” literature, art, movies is that they often focus on being “something more”, “not this pulp”, “something very deep” etc. while not having anything really to say. Hence, all the formal experiments for the purpose of sheer experimenting and pursuing “uniqueness”. Still, putting everything that is more sophisticated and ambitious than the honest entertainment-givers under the tag “artsy” is quite reckless – I think. And also, unfair. There is plenty of great masterpieces that demand a lot form its consumer but also reward him in thousand of ways. And they give us something no entertainment work can give. Some examples: Dostoyevsky’s prose, Antonioni’s movies, Robert Frost poetry, Peter Brook’s plays. Sadly, I do not find the matching masterpieces in video games history, though I would say that Planescape:Torment was near the top ;). Pardon my wall of text not strictly connected with the games topic. You’ve just triggered my “obsessed with literature maniac” switch XD. And, of course, pardon my English (I am not a native user – so blame my pompous tone on that too 😉 ). Thanks for the interesting article.