Gamer Hate

Belligerently lacking in remorse.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Game Design as Art
Why I Hate Most Indie Games

While I certainly value the opinions of other designers. I can’t help but wonder if they’ve lost sight of what games are really supposed to be about. While I can certainly appreciate the offerings of games such as Passage and Marriage, what they don’t offer is a lot of fun. Once you’ve figured them out, they’re pretty much done. Marriage held my attention the longest, but once I read the developer’s notes about what the intended meaning was, it was pretty much over for me (I won’t ruin it for you though). I got what he was trying to say with the game and then moved on.

The point being, that while these “games” might have their own intrinsic value. They’re nothing more than a couple minutes of ponderous thought followed by… nothing. The replayability is practically nil. What I take umbrage with is the smugness with which certain indie developers present their games and thoughts. Neither Marriage or Passage are guilty of this, but the creator of Braid most definitely is. With a certain smugness he states the following: “if you force people to have what you deem is the maximum-quality experience, you remove the potential for them to have all the other experiences, many of which were probably better than the one you mistakenly chose as the best. ”

The argument here is that if you remove all the parts of the game that aren’t headed towards the best end-user experience, you’re robbing that user of all the other experiences they may have had with the game. Do you remember playing Street Fighter 2 on your Genesis on the hardest difficulty setting? Or not being able to save your game in Super Mario Brothers on the NES (not to mention Bubble Bobble, omfg)? Was it fun when you died and lost hours of progress? Was it a fun experience when you got slaughtered by the computer in SF2 because it CHEATS on the hardest difficulty?

I seem to remember attempting to break my controllers on several occasions while playing certain games. The frustration inherent in a game of Contra when played how it was originally intended (without the 30 life Konami code UUDDLRLRBAstart) is enough to send an adolescent into a fit of rage and an adult on a murder spree. Is that the alternate experience that Jonathon Blow is so jazzed on revitalizing in games? Passage and Marriage are interesting games, but I played them about three times each and I never need to play them again. Certainly they never reached the frustration levels of some of our old school games, but neither did they approach a level of fun anywhere near what I had in Portal, Mass Effect, or World of Warcraft.

What I take particular umbrage with is the assumption that stripping away bad experiences makes the game somehow less. Portal is an amazing game (by any standard) and does have an indie feel to it, but went through a ridiculous amount of quality assurance testing to make certain that there would be a very low level of frustration for the end user. Valve did such an amazing job with portal, that I think their standards should become the standards for the entirety of the game industry (wishful thinking). Throughout Portal I was consistently amazed by the variety of things I could do using such simple tools, and pushed to the edge of my reasoning capabilities by the awesome puzzles. Yet I was never really frustrated with the game, even when doing their advanced puzzle set. Portal, in my mind, is perfection as far as games are concerned.

That’s where Mr. Blow’s argument falls flat. Portal does have a correct way to advance through the game, and Valve’s focus testing is what streamlined the removal of all the things that could confuse the player from that path and added in things to help them think the proper way. That fine tuning is what made the final game so damn good. While Marriage and Passage (among other indie games) have given me some food for thought, none of them have given me more than a moment’s pause. They make their point and they bring up some interesting ideas for interpretation, but ultimately the gameplay is not what I would consider fun, or even worthwhile. Isn’t that what a game is supposed to be? Fun and worth playing repeatedly?

I think that this new development of “art as games” needs a new classification. One that partially removes it from the standard definition of games (which to me means a fun, interactive and usually competitive experience). Cinema has many distinct forms of film which games currently borrow from (Horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc), but games also have the definitions of the styles of gameplay we’re accustomed to (FPS, Side Scroller, RPG, etc). Should indie games have their own classification of style? Perhaps, art?

I don’t know what we should call them, but I hope they get their own designation soon so I know what to avoid. Art games are not unlike going to the art gallery or museum. You look at the painting for five minutes, give it some thought and then move on. Maybe I’m exactly the sort of Neanderthal gamer that Mr.Blow dislikes, but I think that the vast majority of gamers feel the same way. Call them popcorn games or what have you, but Portal is just fun, and the fact that they stripped away all the frustrating possibilities only made the game better, not worse.

I for one look forward to playing Braid for several minutes, pondering what I just experienced for a few minutes more, and then discarding it and forgetting it ever existed.

posted by CommanderHate at 6:32 pm  


  1. Passage was exponentially better than Marriage. Both were still crappy games, but at least Passage had a retro style. Marriage looks like something cobble together in a 7th grade computer science class.

    I’ve always hated 95% of modern and 99% of post-modern art. Certain aesthetics make for excellent games, like

    games that are every bit art pieces as they are ‘games’ in the traditional sense.

    Good art has something to say, and a style to say it. Games are the same way – they can be deep and exploratory like Mass Effect, or as simple fun as Geometry Wars.

    If you take away the ‘description’ of Marriage, what you’re left with is an ass-bad game with terrible graphics and no sound or music whatsoever. I’m pretty sure NO ONE in their right mind would look at it and think “Oh! This represents Marriage!” unless they were specifically told – a tragic enroachment of postmodern art.

    The good news is, BAD art games like this will hopefully be sequestered in the ‘free, shitty indie game’ section, and never clutter up store shelves. Think of it like natural selection.

    Comment by Technohazard — February 25, 2008 @ 7:57 pm

  2. You wrote:

    “I for one look forward to playing Braid for several minutes, pondering what I just experienced for a few minutes more, and then discarding it and forgetting it ever existed.”

    I’ll take that bet. Send me an email and I will give you a preview version of the game (for Windows PCs).

    Comment by Jonathan Blow — February 25, 2008 @ 10:29 pm

  3. […] a blog called Gamer Hate, run by a blogger with the imposing name of COMMANDERHATE. He was predisposed toward hating on Braid, so I gave him a preview version to play. It turns out that he really likes the game, and he has […]

    Pingback by Braid » Blog Archive » Gamer Hate on Braid — March 5, 2008 @ 1:31 pm

  4. I agree with you.
    For one, I would hate to see games go the way of art. I mean, sure, art may be pretty, but you look at it for a bit, and then move on. Sometimes you may not even get the full point of the artwork, and your time is wasted. What is worse, is that this artist spent months, even years, constructing a piece, only to have it be passed by in a matter of minutes.
    Gaming just seems to be so much more of an efficient medium for conveying ideas. For starters, its a mix of art, music, storytelling, and gameplay. Second, it requires that the viewer (player) actually get involved, thus making the experience more emotional. Lastly, it has such a larger audience than art. I mean, anyone can get into a game, but not everyone can thoroughly enjoy a gallery.

    Video games just seem like a more efficient medium than art.

    Comment by downer — March 5, 2008 @ 5:11 pm

  5. Most indie games are really nothing like Passage or The Marriage, though.

    Comment by Zaphos — March 6, 2008 @ 3:34 am

  6. I think you completely missed Jonathon’s point on not removing alternate play experiences. The game examples you use that provoked frustration in you would be an example of the designers making one correct path for you to play, removing all other fun paths. These examples are, in actuality, in direct agreement with Jonathon’s point.

    If the designers had allowed you to save anywhere, that would allow you a wider variety of play; for instance, by being able to load a save game where you have 1 health and the crappiest weapon, but you’re at the hardest boss in the game. It’s probable they decided this would not be a good thing for most players, hence the save system they implemented.

    The difficulty level is similar. The designers created the game to be exactly as hard as it is without respect to the player’s abilities. If they can’t beat it, well nuts to them. If they had provided multiple difficulty settings, then more people could enjoy playing the game, and those who would normally play on the hardest level could experiment playing with ‘god-like’ powers they bring from being able to play on hard difficulty.

    In Braid, Jonathon won’t adjust the difficulty level of the puzzles or remove the puzzles from the game, but the puzzles are optional anyway (from what I understand at this point) so they don’t intrude on the player’s ability to experience the game. So despite what it seems, his refusal to dumb down the game is not in conflict with his own argument. This is possible partially because of the time manipulation elements of the game.

    If nothing else, it should be apparent that by looking at a game, two people can view it in two completely different ways – one supporting Jonathon’s argument, the other diminishing it. In this case, I view Contra as exactly supporting what Jonathon is saying, while you clearly view it as a counter argument to his.

    Comment by Aaron — March 6, 2008 @ 11:07 am

  7. On the one hand I see where you’re coming from, but on the other I’m just not sure if I agree with you completely. I’m going to join Aaron in saying that you missed Blow’s point.

    As for The Marriage and Passage…is it wrong of me to say that I DID have fun playing these ‘games’? You seem to view art as something that shouldn’t be fun and that should be viewed and quickly forgotten–but I’m not sure if I can agree with either of those ideas. A good work of art, be it a painting or a piece of literature should stick with a person–not be forgotten in minutes. A good piece of art shines a light on some concept or aspect of life. A good piece of art bubbles up from the unconscious at the strangest moments.

    And no, not all art is strictly fun…but a lot of it really can be. Hamlet is widely considered art, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have fantastically fun moments.

    We could, I’m sure, debate the merits of The Marriage or Passage. Like I said, I had fun playing both of them. I’d also like to strongly disagree with Technohazard on a number of points. The Marriage DOES have a strong style (simplicity can be a style like it or not–and I’d like to stress that just because you don’t like a style does not mean it doesn’t exist). And while the title does inform the game–the description on the author’s website is not necessary to figuring out how the mechanics relate to marriage. Indeed, anyone who has been in a serious relationship shouldn’t have too much trouble recognizing the give and take represented in the game.

    I will agree with you on one point though, a person LOOKING at the game probably couldn’t tell it was supposed to be about marriage. A person PLAYING the game…probably should be able to.

    I don’t know, I have a lot more to say on the subject, but the ideas are already getting jumbled in my head. I just…I guess I just don’t understand the need for all this backlash just because a few people are trying to do something a little different. I mean why is it so hard to enjoy both Portal AND Passage? I manage it all right.

    Sometimes I just wonder why this kind of stuff scares people. Ah, well…different tastes I guess.

    Comment by Matt — March 24, 2008 @ 12:41 am

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