Artful Vs. Pretentious Game Design or: Why I Don’t Like Many Critical Darlings

*Article partially inspired by Very Very Gaming’s recent write-up on Braid*

Limbo

Games like the Bioshock series, as well as indie darlings like Limbo and Braid all have one thing in common…

…They are all boring as Hell.

Okay, perhaps I should elaborate a bit. Each of these games, as well as many others that have been inspired in their wake in both the indie and mainstream gaming scenes, are all considered to be part of the “artistic” side of gaming, due to their emphasis on aspects like story and atmosphere over “fun.” They’re games that are tailor-made to push the question of “are video games art?” and often receive praise for the massive inputs of their creators over studios, with many people hailing these creators as the video game equivalents of auteurs.

But let’s take a moment to really think about that statement. Who’s to say video games weren’t always art? Just because they were originally created with “fun” in mind, does that really make them unartistic by nature?

"Infinitely more fun, engaging and creative than Limbo could ever be. And thus, it's a better example of video games as art, too."

“Infinitely more fun, engaging and creative than Limbo could ever be. And thus, it’s a better example of video games as art, too.”

It’s all too easy to argue that games like Super Mario World and Tetris, which never even attempt to be anything more than great games, are actually far greater artistic achievements than any ham-fisted Bioshock or Braid ever were. Both Mario World and Tetris, while maybe void of storytelling, are rich and deep in creativity. More specifically, a kind of creativity that is unique to the video game medium. Every stage in Mario World tries something new with the platforming genre, while Tetris is a simple formula that is never the same twice.

By comparison, it’s all-too easy to say that Bioshock simply has a lot of cinematics with a rather pedestrian attempt at social commentaries padded on to disguise what is otherwise a by-the-books first-person shooter. Similarly, Limbo is a platformer so empty in gameplay and content, that claiming it to be a game where all you do is go right wouldn’t be an inaccurate statement, and the only reason it’s remembered is because it throws some stylized visuals and atmosphere on top to compensate for its lack of anything else.

Point being, games like Super Mario World and Tetris have timelessly proven what video games, and video games alone, are capable of, whereas something like Bioshock (most specifically, Bioshock Infinite) and Limbo are rather inept in their own medium, and simply decorate what little they have with “themes” and “artsiness,” which only ends up making those attributes feel shoehorned and meaningless.

What of these so-called “video game auteurs?” Ken Levine, creator of Bioshock, and Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, are often seen as artistic visionaries in the video game medium. But why, exactly? For the simple reason that they have more creative control over their projects, more or less. While having such input and influence on one’s creations is something any creator strives for, it also doesn’t innately make everything they touch a work of genius. This may be an unpopular statement in this day and age, but big studios are very much capable of creating art. While it may be easier for personal artistry to shine through when a creation is helmed by an individual, that doesn’t necessarily make them innately superior on an artistic level (after all, when George Lucas had full control of Star Wars, we ended up with the prequels. Disney gave us The Force Awakens).

I am very much in support of the Andy Warhol view that the desire to make money off of one’s art doesn’t demean its value as art. If anything, I’d have more respect for someone who creates something and has a desire of making money off of it, than some pretentious hipster who gives the same, generic “I’m not in it for the money” spiel whose work oozes with self-righteousness.

Long story short, it’s not only possible for a big budget, major studio game to be art, but they’ve actually accomplished this feat countless times through the decades. Often times, they did it without needing to tout their own horns.

"Braid is basically what would happen if Mario gave up fun and decided to start looking down his nose at people, all while having a stick up his ass."

“Braid is basically what would happen if Mario gave up fun and decided to start looking down his nose at people, all while having a stick up his ass.”

Jonathan Blow, for example, is always quick to speak about why games “need to be something more,” and yet is quick to make blanket statements like “I don’t play Japanese games anymore.” or refers to games like Farmville as being “inherently evil.” Basically, it’s the same kind of hypocritical, self-indulgent jargon you always here from such pseudo-artists. They love talking about their own work as artistic intellectuals, and then write off differing works with ignorant blanket statements and name-calling. I can’t remember ever hearing of Shigeru Miyamoto or Will Wright giving themselves such pats on the back.

"I'm only disappointed that the critics bought into this hook, line and sinker."

“I’m only disappointed that the critics bought into this hook, line and sinker.”

Then we have Ken Levine, a man who loves implementing social commentaries into his games, but does so about as effectively as a college freshman in his first week of a political science course. The allegories are so blatant they can hardly be called allegories at all (Gee, d’ya think the dude named Andrew Ryan is like, referencing Ayn Rand?), and his themes often have prominent contradictions (Bioshock Infinite can’t give itself enough praise for pointing out the ugliness of prejudice…and then showcases a blatant prejudice against the religious… so I guess open-mindedness only goes so far). The point is people will hail the likes of Ken Levin as artistic geniuses simply because the themes are attempted, but it seems like no one ever stops to actually analyses how effectively (or should I say ineffectively) they are implemented. Just because the man has a voice and puts it in his games doesn’t mean it’s worth listening to.

The major problem here is that there has been a growing mentality that these kind of games are art, and games that may only aim to be “fun” or “creative” are not. It’s starting to grow into something much worse, with some people even having the mindset that any game that emphasizes entertainment and gameplay is inherently bad, and that only these  pretentious “artsy” games are good. It’s a similar mindset to what some film critics and film award committees have, where they’ll only praise/award the works that conveniently pander to their preferred styles and ideals.

What makes this all the more concerning (should I say depressing?) is that, for the longest time, video games were seemingly immune to such things. Because of the unique nature of video games as a medium, no one used to care about how much plot was in Mario or what social commentaries games were carrying. There were still plenty of games with complex plots, and games with themes and commentaries, but they coexisted within the realms of “fun” and “entertainment.” No one wanted games to be anything more than fun, but when they had other attributes, it was seen as a bonus, not the sole requirement.

This put video games in a very unique spot that made it one of the few mediums that could be appreciated for its artistry and enjoyed for its fun factor. Perhaps the only other medium to prominently showcase this combination is animated cinema (most other films choose a side between artsy and entertaining, whereas animated films seem more readily able to be both). But while animated films continue to keep a hold of that combination, it seems like video games are becoming more willing to abandon it in favor of pandering to the “artistic” crowd.

"Undertale tells a meaningful story while also being a fun game that isn't afraid of being weird, silly and immature. You're doing it right!"

“Undertale tells a meaningful story while also being a fun game that isn’t afraid of being weird, silly and immature. You’re doing it right!”

It’s still very much possible for artsy games to still be great games, with the likes of Undertale and Papers, Please proving that indie games can be genuinely rich from an artistic level and engaging from a gameplay standpoint, and titles like Shadow of the Colossus being able to tell stories as only a video game can, while still being a fun game to play. But then we have this increasing wave of developers who, like Jonathan Blow, claim that “video games don’t need to be fun,” which really just seems like a convenient way for them to justify the lack of actual game design in their titles. Perhaps a game doesn’t need to be immediately “fun” on the surface, but it should definitely be engaging to play. No amount of atmosphere, story or social commentary can entice me to pick up a controller if the game itself is flat-out boring.

Would we rather see video games continue to go down a similar path to animated films, which can create works that are unique to their medium, can be both fun and artful, and that we all remember? Or would we prefer them to go the route of the Oscar-bait/arthouse film, which might give a few pretentious snobs something to yammer about for a few minutes, and then have no lasting appeal or value?

Video games have always been art, but the more they try to prove that they’ve “become” art, the more they lose the things that made them art to begin with.

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6 thoughts on “Artful Vs. Pretentious Game Design or: Why I Don’t Like Many Critical Darlings

  1. Matt

    Amen to that! Even though I like Limbo and Braid. =P

    As you said, game design is hard, and saying that games don’t need to be fun does seem to be an excuse for lack of creativity.

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  2. AfterStory

    Oh boy you are quite the steaming kettle aren’t you? 😛 well I’m not the biggest advocate for Limbo and I’ve never played Braid so I can’t provide much insight or defense for them.
    Having just recently finished the original Bioshock, via the collection that released early last week, I can say that I still absolutely love that game. Granted I do agree on some of your points. Spiraling down Rapture once again showed me that the game isn’t nearly as smart as I thought it was and certain elements were poorly executed. The writing is not nearly as good as I thought it was, audio logs, exposition, and environmental sounds overlap one another, but its certain themes are poorly executed. They do stink of self-righteousness and emit a pompous nature that aren’t properly developed and feel rather shallow. However while its thematic elements and storytelling fluctuate, I have always felt that Rapture was the true show stealer of BioShock. The sheer atmospheric lore of Bioshock is more pertinent and engaging than the derivative audio logs or audio exposition. Plus I’d have to disagree in regards to Bioshock’s fun factor. I honestly forgot how fun the game could be and I almost forgot its very subtly but effective RPG elements. From a gameplay standpoint, everything was well paced and was invigorating from start to finish. But my god that final boss fight was exceptionally awful.

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  3. Justacommenter

    I’m not a very deep person myself, as such I can hardly really appreciate the more “artistic” side of things and I might dislike more abstract concepts like allegories or symbolisms hidden in stuff, so I can’t say I can ever look at that side of things with videogames. What I can say is that, as videogames, all the games mentioned failed to entertain me for one reason or another, but I guess at the very least I can still call them games. Have you seen David Cage’s titles? Now those I can hardly see as games at all, they are interactive as games included on a dvd bonus section. And now I’m hearing of stuff like Dear Esther that are just walking simulators were you see or hear a story as you go forward, there comes a point where I wonder what’s the point of making it a videogame anymore? Games can be mainly story driven, there’s a reason why I love Ace Attorney, but even that sort of game still requires some input and thought process from the player in order to progress and see the story unveil.

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  4. Red Metal

    The correct answer to the question of “Are video games art?” is “Well, duh.” When you think about it, the AAA approach of turning games into films and the stereotypical indie approach of pursuing some nebulous high art standard aren’t so different. Both approaches seem to be resignations on the developers’ parts – as though the very idea of making an experience fun or interesting somehow negates its artistic merits, and as long as they continue to exist in their current form, they will never be anything other than children’s toys. They’ve effectively bought into the common public perception about video games, and the reason Undertale works so well is because it doesn’t push the medium’s conventions away, instead choosing to embrace them and creating a unique story that can’t even function without the player. While I’ll admit certain big-budget games don’t help assuage the common perception, I find it interesting how quick outsiders are to dismiss them while equivalent works in other mediums are more likely to be swept under the rug. It’s certainly not like any other medium has their fair share of dumb works that somehow gain popularity, is it? I mean, that would just be insane.

    There are almost always those conspiracy theories that pop up whenever these artsy games become critical darlings – that someone “got to the reviewer.” Of course, the truth is much more boring – that critics likely love these kinds of works because they’re different, and thus stick out to them more than “Generic Cover-Based Third-Person Shooter #61 in F-Minor.” This isn’t an issue for non-critics, and so when a game with barely any gameplay gets rave reviews, a backlash almost always ensues. I’m a little surprised because I often find myself siding with fans in cases like this instead of critics because I have played games such as Mother 3, The Stanley Parable, and Metroid: Other M which all proved to me that a work being unique doesn’t make it good. Along the same lines, after playing Spec Ops: The Line, I can declare something that I’ve suspected was true, but wasn’t confronted with much evidence until I played it – that a deconstruction of a genre can actually be significantly worse than a straight example. The thing to take away from this is that critics aren’t infallible; they enjoy trashy works just like everyone else – works that they go crazy over are merely a different variety of trashy. It’s like how two movies released in 2009, Knowing and District 9, fail exactly as hard as each other – the sole difference is that one happens to fail in the right way.

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  5. Revaryk

    Personally, this stuff is the reason I dislike Walking Simulators. Listen, you can have an “Artful” and “Fun” game! Undertale is a great example of that. Heck, I could give names to many games that succeed in that aspect.

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  6. Mr. Panda

    Well said! As long as I find a game fun, it doesn’t matter to me whether it’s artistic or not. In fact, I find games that are aesthetically well-designed games to be pleasing. If it’s just that, then I can praise it on its artistic merits, but not as a game. On the other hand, great games don’t have to look good because a game’s purpose is to provide an entertaining, interactive way for a player to control someone/something. Being art is a bonus, and one that I appreciate. It’s true that some developers can get pretentious about this, acting as if their game is true art. Without the bias of the creators, I still find games like Limbo and Braid fun. I especially enjoyed Braid’s unique time travel platforming and have honestly not played anything like it before that game. Sure it’s artsy, but it effectively uses its own mechanics to entertain gameplay-wise as well as tell a deep story (with some fancy music and art). Limbo’s a little more artsy, but I enjoy the kind of cinematic puzzle platforming that the game uses. Anyway, all I’m saying is that great games can be great, whether or not they are artsy or made by pretentious developers. If a game goes an Oscar route, that’s fine with me as long as it’s a meaningful worthwhile gaming experience.

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