How You Got Videogames Wrong #4: "Your Games Just Suck"
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 how ideas change, and how we should be careful with them.
Yeah we all heard: Phil Fish opened his big mouth at GDC this week and looked like a giant douche. I can’t get upset really. I’ve been a douche before, and still am from time to time, regrettably. These moments dot the landscape behind us; become the mile-markers of our transformation into non-douches. One day, with luck, we will be able to look back at the unfortunate wake of our development and say, “Geez Louise…I said that? I got here from there?” So don’t worry, friend…I ain’t mad at cha.
I, for one, can’t even say that I completely disagree: Most Japanese games do suck. But that’s because most of everything sucks…Books. Movies. Games. Suckage knows not such boundaries as “nation.” Even then I realize that Phil Fish’s words were clutching within their douche-tendrils a reasonable, even realistic assessment: Japanese games have several major hurdles to overcome in order to remain relevant. Tru dat.
Ah but here’s what worries me…Most people, and when I say most people I mean gaming culture at large, they won’t realize that anything at all was encrypted within the statement “Your games all suck.” No, for them, the meaning will be much, much simpler. And the damage much greater.
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Here’s where I’m going with this: In 1953’s “Language and Thought,” American philosopher Susanne Langer once wrote, “The difference between a sign and a symbol is, in brief, that a sign causes us to think or act in face of the thing signified, whereas a symbol causes us to think about the thing symbolized…Animals think, but they think of and at things; men think primarily about things.” The distinction between signs and symbols is crucial to my feelings about Fish’s statement. You see, symbols are what we do when we’re “all grown up.” In terms of thought, symbols are our big boy britches. I like my big boy britches…They allow me to speak of concepts, to see beyond the rudimentary, to comprehend that a stop sign doesn’t just mean “stop”–it also symbolizes a fundamental system of society, of rules, of authority.
The symbolic allows us to think abstractly. In Fish’s case, it allows that his game-to-fame, Fez (a game that is, I’m just sayin’, conceptually the child of a Zolofted Super Mario Bros. and an underachieving Echochrome), be understood by people not possessing the particular “psychosis” of the author himself. And that’s good and nice and all that. But: Now there’s a problem: because when it comes to abstract games, the Japanese take the cake. From anime eyes, to mushroom powers…hell, even tentacle porn–especially tentacle porn–the Japanese have us Western developers beat all up and down the street and back again. And the street is a singing banana.
Because–and let’s be honest here, Fish–what do we have in the majority of Western games? Pure signage. For your average gamer, the gooderness of a game is dependent on its “believability”–taken often to mean, unfortunately, “actualness.” A Galil isn’t a Galil no matter how faithfully it abstracts Galil-ness. Oh no. For Western gamers, a Galil is only a Galil when it achieves the basic sensory qualities of a Galil. It must look, feel, aim, reload like one.
“What’s the problem with that?” you ask. Nothing, I guess. Signs are crucial–without them we would have nothing upon which to build symbols. But I can’t accept a world in which signs are all we have. And it seems to me that the West–again, broadly–is moving in that direction. Just think about the way that your average gamer refers to the “artistic” capacity of a game–the oft-sought “game that will make me cry.” Yeah. Crying. Real complex…Because art is the mental equivalent of getting punched in the nuts. Hell, even the distinction “Art Games” is signified as fuck—do you know what the Japanese call their artistic games? Fucking games.
“So why,” you prod further, “are we plummeting into the Concrete like, well, concrete?” I’ll give you one guess, and whatever you say I’ll pretend I heard “Capitalism.” But that’s a discussion for another time.
Besides, I know you want me to get to the point. Here ya go: Western gaming culture’s complete dismissal of another culture’s artistic structure on the grounds that JRPGs are (generally) crap fails to recognize that our culture is otherwise slipping into a loving death-embrace with the cognitively simpler mode of expression–pure, animal-like signification–over the inherent complexity of abstraction.
How did I get there? Well…
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Sometime around the mid-2000s I started hearing it: “JRPGs suck!” The origin of the statement is simple: The Xbox had allowed American PC developers to get a foothold in the console world, and a few of them, namely Bioware and Bethesda, “redefined” in the average gamer’s mind “how the West do.” Now I’ll be the first to say it: If I had to choose, I’d take a Western RPG any time of day. JRPGs are just, well, old hat; a moment dotting the landscape behind me; leaving me sighing to myself, and saying, “I used to play that. I got here from there.”
But here’s the thing: Phrases tend to stick, even when the ideas themselves have evolved beyond the phrase. But the evolution of ideas isn’t necessary for there to be a problem: a phrase can sometimes supplant the ideas themselves and become the whole of the argument in people’s minds, despite the fact that the phrase itself only represents a wildly truncated, even if remotely accurate, idea. Take, for instance, “Opinions are like assholes—everybody’s got ‘em,” which I harped on a while back. Or how about “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Both statements have taken hold in culture, and have had their roots penetrate deeper than the discussions themselves, to the extent that when the average person begins a discussion on the subject of opinions or teaching, their mind-Google only fires back the phrase itself, which they take to mean the whole argument.
And what happens when the idea itself becomes nebulous? It begins to warp…to change into another idea entirely. And this is why I decided I just had to write up an entire column on Fish’s statement…on an event that’s been covered plenty already: Because I believe his comment to be an offshoot of that basic idea, “JRPGs suck!” twisted into something else, warped nearly beyond recognition. I believe Fish–in that he seems to be a capable and intelligent dood–is proof that our comments can take hold and (I’d only use the word if it seemed appropriate, and it does) infect our thinking.
And why do I give a damn? Because I worry that, in our nationalistic oversimplification, we will lose something.