Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Justifying Games to the world.

I loved Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Loved it. According to Naomi Alderman's guardian article ahead of the this year's BAFTAs, she loved it too. In fact, the headline tells us that it's the "best game ever". Is it?

No. AC: Brotherhood is definitely not the best game ever, but that's not really what made me want to write this. What I'm writing about is how in her article, Ms Alderman tells us that AC: Brotherhood is the best game ever because it makes some points about the world, about government, and (for a large part of her article) because it's historically accurate enough to make young people interested in Renaissance Rome.

Ok, well, let me explain why I don't believe AC: Brotherhood is the best game ever. It's because after ten hours and a ton of side-quests, it's obviously pretty repetitive; because there were quite a few too many situations where the game assumed I wanted to jump off of an enormous castle to my death when really I just thought I could make that sideways leap to that ledge on the left; because I got so frustrated with its controls that I had to stop playing and go to bed seething with anger; because, addictive as it was, grinding collection isn't a substitute for gameplay; because it suffered from many of the control and camera issues that any third-person 3D games suffer from, because... well, as great as it is, it's still a flawed game, like any other game.

Well, not every other game.

Pac-Man Championship Edition DX came out last year, and while there's no way I'm going to make any 'best game ever' claims, I will say that for my money, it's the best game I played all year. I think it's flawless, and if it isn't, then at the very least it's as close to flawless as I've found in a game recently.

Everything works. Everything controls exactly how you want it to all the time, it never has to second-guess what a player expects to happen; there's a clean, symbiotic relationship between what you're thinking and what is happening on the game. Your hands, the controller? They're not invited. It's like there's a USB cable plugged into your head and wired straight to the controller input.

Thousands of tiny little design decisions all contribute perfectly towards Pac-Man CE DX's extremely elegant but utterly thrilling whole. It's maddening at times sure, but a joy all the same, and dangerously addictive.

It's just a very good game, honed to its upper limit. Design-wise there is nothing I could think of improving in it, no remaining problem that needs to be solved. So why would the Guardian think that AC: Brotherhood is that much better? 

One of the things I love about a game like Pac-Man CE DX, is that it isn't a game that needs to justify its quality to the world outside of video games. It exists for itself and its player and it delivers on that promise of a thrill 100% of the time. Games don't have to reference the world outside of the console, they don't have to provide social commentary, they don't have to get kids interested in their subject matter, they don't have to educate, they don't have to make you brush your teeth more, they don't have to be more than games. If games do these things, then perhaps that's admirable, but it does not make them better games than the games which don't. It might make them more interesting, sure, it might even help with immersion, but that's not enough to make me ignore what are pretty obvious flaws in a game.

Video games still do get pretty bad press outside of our 'gamer sphere', and of course we can manage how much by being responsible with our content (or not, if we like), but we shouldn't be beholden to that world, we shouldn't feel like we need to make games right-on for the naysayers in order to be perceived as good.

I catch myself qualifying games to non-gamers in the same way I used to qualify comics to outsiders when I was a kid; "it's a big business", comparing the maturity of some of the content with film/ tv. I regret it. We don't have to do that. A game is a game, and while these angles might appeal to the layman or even the games audience, they are never really what makes a game a good one.


  1. If it helps, I don't actually write the headlines, just the article :-). The subs pick a title which they think will get people to read it - and of course a majority of the comments just respond to the title not the piece, a shame.

    I agree you sometimes end up jumping unexpectedly, but nonetheless I think AC:B has probably the smoothest and most enjoyable-to-use controls of a third person game character that I can remember. (Contrast with anything made by Rockstar...) I even love the grinding missions, although those frickin 'hide from the guards' missions annoy me.

    As to the main point - I really think that games can do better than they're doing right now in the *writing* and this was where AC:B impressed me. Graphicswise, gameplaywise, I think they haven't got much further to go. But writingwise, I think most games lag far behind the excellence of their other features. I loved that AC:B's writing was so intelligent. One of the signs of great writing is that you want to find out more about the setting or characters afterwards. Like watching a great movie and then being inspired to learn about the country it was set in. It's not that AC:B is 'justified' by being educational, but that it's so good that it inspired me, at least, to find out more about Renaissance Rome, because I didn't want to leave that world behind.

  2. Hi Naomi, thanks for responding.

    I felt like I was responding to the article most of all. I referenced the headline, sure, but the point I was trying to make was that writing, setting and period are all things that can be part of a game but don't have to be for it to be something very special.

    AC:B impressed me with its story and its quality of writing too, but again not something I think has to be there for a game to be heralded as excellent. My point was that story, writing, cultural reference or making an important point about the world are the kinds of things that are typically used to justify games to the world outside of people who care about games and I think that's a shame. I'd like to see people justifying games purely by the thrill of playing. To me that's by far the most important, most impressive, most immersive thing about a game; the feel of playing it.

    I'm not saying story or setting doesn't have a place in games, I'm saying that a game without one can be every bit as good because that's not what makes a game.

    Increasingly, to make a game that's a blockbuster, these story, setting, character and graphic-realism elements are required because that's what the mainstream is used to getting from a blockbuster product. I understand that and most of the time I do enjoy playing those games. You can tell from my article though that I probably enjoyed playing Pac-Man CE DX more, and i think it's a shame that this game could never be the smash-hit Assassin's Creed Brotherhood was today, just because it doesn't tick any of a blockbuster game's 'like-a-film' boxes.

    We're seeing games trending towards being more and more like films nowadays and that can be a good thing enabling us to bring a new audience in, to make them realise that games can be worthwhile things. We can however, also teach those people that games are a unique form of entertainment, that a player can create narrative in a game on their own, that games are truly a 21st century medium and that they don't have to correspond to 20th century story-telling conventions if we don't want them to.

    Games do offer a unique experience, that's what I would like to see celebrated about them in the mainstream rather than celebrating the veneer on top of that, especially when that veneer (given a big enough budget) is easier to implement than a fun, compelling core game.

    I appreciate your response. My piece was only meant to further the debate. I hope that's how it was received.