The Necessitous Split between Form and ReasonPosted by Martin on 24th June, 2012
This is a guest article by friend of the site Ashley Mounsey, whose excellent blog on popular culture, feminism and video games can be found here.
The split between game mechanics and thematic design is an aspect of video games that greatly confuses the induction of progressive ideas. This division of focus, though, is both necessary and problematic for consumers and developers: as long as a player is enjoying the core gameplay they will keep playing, unless they are truly put off by some aesthetic. That’s the implicit idea, anyway. I would be hard-pressed to find someone infatuated, even partially, with the flow of a game’s mechanics, able to dismiss a title out-of-hand for its simplistic narrative or juvenile presentation. Whether a compelling control scheme or an innovative customisation system, these elements come to exist almost independently of the images and narratives that string them together.
It’s not particularly hard to find examples of this, though the variance is enormous. I managed to cling to the Soul Calibur series for years despite its overtly misogynist art direction and perpetually cyclical story; it was (and still is) an excellent multiplayer game. The width of a game’s presentation can allow for an odd middling position that feels counter-intuitive; my nuanced love for a cluster of aspects counteracts the ridiculous. That said, the split can occur in a huge variety of ways. For instance the implementation of LA Noire was, if nothing else, remarkably streamlined; its highest innovation was that it was a sandbox game carefully chiselled into a narrative. When the result of sharp execution is to highlight a clichéd and uninspired story, though, criticism is certainly warranted. But there are good aspects to acknowledge, too; this isn’t ‘You shouldn’t have made this game’, it’s ‘You could do better’. In any case, the occupation of both a gameplay space and a thematic space heavily complicates the act of levying legitimate criticisms.
I don’t feel I have the liberty to entirely dismiss a game that is functionally superb in the light of mediocre theming or misogynist art design, and that seems… accommodating of me. The sad corollary, though, is that I find it more difficult to recommend a game in good conscience that has lacking (or simply unique) controls or a questionable interface, despite whatever affinity I might have for its artistic direction. Presentation takes a secondary position to interaction, even when the presentation is astounding.
Most video game discussions seem to defer to a mechanical dissection, and that seems reasonable. The functions of gameplay are the foundations of the experience and can be articulated, defended and justified easily with hard and ready comparisons; the genres are, after all, based in the mechanics of games, not the narrative or audience. When thematic interpretation is taken to the same level as mechanics are scrutinised innumerable associations are introduced: films, books, television, music, even emotions. The possibilities are too wide to articulate in one stroke, which is why the split is necessary. I don’t think that more genre-boxes to put things in are the answer, but I would ask that people question the ease with which they allow mechanical understanding to take precedent. Considering the effort it takes to correctly analyse the emotional resonance a game’s presentation has, the current oversight is both understandable and incredibly frustrating.
One of the reasons this kind of criticism often hinges on the mechanical conventions of a genre or series is simply a conservative disposition. It is not uncommon for developers to iterate franchises in an apparent effort to refine a single form of gameplay (Wipeout, Mortal Kombat, Halo), nor for the fans of such endeavours to be ever fearful of expectation-crushing deviations from the norm. When developers try to leverage things in a unique direction they can end up with Tekken 6’s single-player: designed (some might say ’twisted’) to present a narrative. The problem is that this entailed reconciling the mechanics of a Fighting game with the narrative progression of, well, some sort of Action-RPG-Thing. I don’t know; it was monstrous. But the point is that the shift in focus away from the conventional sacrificed a great deal of comfort in order to try something that was ultimately clunky and un-satisfying to play. But Namco had the conventions (and popularity) of Tekken’s multiplayer to lean on, and a considerable roster of characters, too; there was room for risk-taking here where developers might otherwise have felt pinned to a more conventional formula.
Ultimately, Tekken 6 was able to tell its story more effectively than the vast majority of Fighting games, but that’s a difficult thing to qualify as positive because of that split between explicit mechanics and implicit ideas. Taking clumsy risks to ensure a story is better conveyed can end up empowering an out-dated, problematic or re-hashed narrative; Tekken 6 was all three. It takes a progressive jump to push for a game that eschews mechanical genre conventions in order to have a stronger story; this is where Tekken 6 found itself. It takes another jump to see that the narrative itself is effectively unique, empowering and subversive. I could say that Namco failed doubly here, although I think that might be a little harsh, especially in light of the excellent multiplayer.
To focus on mechanical elements makes too much sense when critiques of theming and imagery can be pushed aside as ‘personal opinion’ and the more conservative titles can claim the passive benefit of ‘normality’. The critiques of specific controls and UIs are almost never sold as resting on the opinions of whatever writer; they exist in a presupposed (and highly constrained) generic framework whereby, for instance, discussion of a given FPS’s execution becomes implicitly comparative to its contemporaries, and these titles of the same genre are defined by their similar gameplay, with no requisite thematic link other than things being shot from a first-person perspective. The sum of small refinements and deviations from expectations are articulated and evaluated on a completely different level here. As I said before, though: the split is necessary, but this kind of deference to the mechanical is what gives way to one mindless CoD game after another. This isn’t a matter exclusive to progressive-leaning critiques, either: I would also prefer if every Western Fantasy RPG wasn’t ‘Lord of the Rings with a Twist’.
I think voices in the community could do a better job of denouncing trashy concepts, even if they do so alongside a gleeful endorsement of the gameplay. A prime example of this kind of apathetic criticism of lazy content was draped around the trailer for Dishonored. It was discussed on TGS’s podcast at length around the time of its release. They were disappointed at the lack of gameplay shots (of course!), but thought a car on train-tracks was pretty cool. What I truly fail to understand, though, is how they could maintain this facetious demeanour while doing the podcast, and yet, somehow,fail to even mention that the tagline for Dishonored is ‘Revenge solves everything.’ How is that a thing that people don’t ridicule? That might be one of the worst taglines I’ve ever seen, and yet the TGS hosts were more concerned with the gameplay shots that didn’t exist. If I could describe the split brought to its massively problematic head it would be in the act of choosing to imagine/lament fictitious gameplay scenarios while simultaneously ignoring the ridiculousness of the content that already exists.
Developers take their cues from what the fan-bases care about, and it is all-too-often the case that fans and reviewers alike are at their most righteously indignant when it comes to some perceived fault in the controls or the numbers. I think more players should ask themselves what they want in a game when gameplay is off the table. The debacle over Mass Effect 3’s ending marks one of the first times the artistic ideas of a title have been put under extreme scrutiny, and there are a myriad of reasons why so many commentators thought this an excellent thing to happen. For me the positivity of that ruckus is just the fact that, for once, immense (and coherent) dissatisfaction was formed around an aspect of a game that was only tangentially linked to the gameplay. Maybe, for the community at large, tangential criticism is the best we can do at the moment.