Review: WTF Is Wrong With Video Games?

A couple of entries back I mentioned having my brain tickled by an excerpt from WTF Is Wrong With Video Games: How a multi-billion-dollar creative industry refuses to grow up, by Phil Owen. Curious how much further the author’s premise developed in the book, I went ahead and bought it for my Kindle.

The book’s been brigaded with 1-star reviews, because the excerpt drew the attention and ire of the Internet’s gamer manbaby population. Sigh. There’s enough worthy thought in there that it doesn’t deserve that treatment, but it doesn’t shine as a stellar example of games criticism, either. I rated it three stars of five.

WTF has nine chapters, but divides conceptually into three parts:

  1. That exasperated grumble about AAA video games’ failures as art;
  2. A mini-memoir of Owen’s time working as a games journalist, serving as a light exposé of the games industry as a whole;
  3. A retrospective on the Mass Effect trilogy, the closest anything has come to satisfying Owen’s AAA-art-game itch.

It’s a shame that part 1 has gotten so much attention via that excerpt, because part 2 is the strongest stretch of the book, with some eye-opening anecdotes about games development and the gaming press. I’ll go further to say that if I’d been Owen’s editor (did he have one?), I’d have urged him to scrap parts 1 and 3 and unfold part 2 as the whole of the work. It could have come together really well, interweaving stories of Owen’s life and career with the arc of a few case-study games from initial concept to critical reception. Owen appears to know enough about the development of Uncharted 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example, to have spent much more time and word count on them. The book would still have been brigaded by Gators, because Owen rightly bears no love for GamerGate and that factors in his life story, but it would have made the book a better catch for those of us who don’t venerate hate mobs.

Part 3, a sort of extended Mass Effect 1-3 review occupying the longest chapter of the book, serves to show that Owen doesn’t hate video gaming universally. He praises the games’ storytelling and replayability, while continuing to highlight the design and writing choices he found incongruous, such as the seeming irrelevance of Mass Effect 2‘s plot to the trilogy’s overall arc. The chapter illustrates that Owen’s skillset remains in critique of individual works, and would have made a fine article on any of today’s big-name games writing sites.

That first part, though!

Owen’s premise, that AAA games don’t cohere as works of art, is a head-scratcher in that it’s trivially true. Of course they aren’t great art; they’re mass-market entertainment. You could as easily say that summer blockbuster popcorn action movies aren’t very good art–and in fact Owen goes there in one chapter, discussing the goofy disaster film San Andreas as a parallel example to his gripes about AAA gaming. Owen comes perilously close to recognizing that he’s barking up the wrong tree, mentioning in a couple of places that perhaps AAA games are designed to maximize addictive fun factor rather than to make thematic statements. If he’d recognized the merit of that and focused his attention there instead of on the art angle, he’d still have a strong critique to make: AAA games often suck at being fun, too! But he waves that away, taking the AAA industry’s occasional lip service to artistic aspiration at face value.

The paragraph that disappoints me the most with Owen’s approach, though, is this bit about indie games, from the introduction:

I’m also not going to delve too deeply into the realm of indies because there’s far too much variety there to make the sort of grand, sweeping statements I’ll be throwing down here. I can, however, confidently assert that the indie space has many of the same fundamental issues as the bigger budget projects (AAA), as that sphere is largely made up of the same kinds of people.

Owen’s dismissal of indie development makes me sad, because it’s in the avant garde of video gaming that he’s most likely to find what he’s looking for. Design the from top down, start to finish, with the purpose of delivering an artistic theme is exactly the sort of thing that altgames go for. Perhaps Owen’s experience with “indies” is limited to the likes of Braid, whose convoluted puzzles and collect-every-widget victory condition do no service whatsoever to its aim of deconstructing “save the damsel” storylines. In that case I can understand how his frustrations would be the same as with AAA games. It’s not a sufficient pool of experience to “confidently assert” anything, though, in that case, and assuming low-budget games have “the same fundamental issues” shakes out to be pretty nonsensical once he gets into discussion of AAA corporate structure and marketing.

I’d thus exhort Phil Owen: come over to the altgames side, we have what you’re looking for! Play some Twine games designed to enlighten cishet white dudes about the lived experiences of the marginalized, like Bloom or 12 Hours. Wade into some of the weird, political, artsy stuff that comes out of game jams. Widen your narrow focus, currently fixated on the $60+ shelf. You’ll wonder why you ever went looking for love in AAA places.

Blood Isn’t Good to the Last Drop

I respect feminist games criticism because it shows us how much better we could do with our designs. Many of the tropes dissected aren’t behind the times only in social awareness, but in the state of the art in gameplay. Where you find a lazy portrayal of gender, race, or violence, lazy design choices often follow, and we can improve both by amending or eliminating our use of trite patterns.

This excerpt from Phil Owen’s WTF Is Wrong With Video Games? and this tongue-in-cheek list of in-game activities that would count as war crimes in real life primed me to think about these topics in my current gaming. (Both articles have their problems, but I can appreciate and recommend them for getting those thoughts rolling.) In particular, Cracked‘s critique of “giving no quarter” resonates with gameplay irritations I’ve run into in both video games and tabletop RPGs. Why is it still so often necessary to kill every opponent on a map before concluding a mission?

Feeling the itch for some turn-based squad tactics (perhaps in anticipation of XCOM 2?), I’ve recently restarted playing the WWII skirmish game Silent Storm, originally published in the early 2000s. It does one thing well with respect to the No Quarter trope: mission objectives almost always require that you obtain information, not kill everyone. Your goal on a given map is to procure documents, film reels, prototype technologies, etc., or to subdue and capture personnel with crucial intelligence. I find that quite refreshing! Real-world military objectives–at least for forces we see as admirable or heroic–rarely focus on annihilation, and it’s great to see that in a game.

Unfortunately, the rest of the game’s design undercuts that commendable concept. Level layouts, enemy AI, and the fact that you can’t leave the mission zone with visible enemies even if you’ve accomplished all objectives, mean that most of the time you must wipe out all opposition to advance anyway. The intelligence targets you must capture don’t surrender; you have to fill them with lead to “knock them unconscious” and carry their limp bodies away. (There are a few nonlethal weapons in the game, but their game statistics are terrible, heavily disincentivizing their use.) Enemy units sometimes flee, but they can’t actually leave the level, so they reach the black expanse of nothingness at the map’s edge, then turn around to start shooting again.

We see this trope time and again, and invariably it makes for a worse game. I love the XCOM series, but especially in the earliest versions, hunting down the last alien on the board to complete a map was an exercise in tedium. It comes up in tabletop play, too. A common complaint against the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was that battles took too long to complete, and often at least part of the problem came down to playing things out until every monster in the encounter was dead. We’ve got No Quarter burnt into our heads by long exposure, but it’s a bad pattern.

We have the technology to do these things differently. The XCOM games already have morale algorithms, where enemies panic in the face of impending defeat, dropping their weapons and fleeing–but for some reason, the games haven’t taken the logical next step: have said enemies surrender, removing the necessity of blasting them to end the level. (Yes, you can knock them out with nonlethal weaponry in XCOM, which is a nice touch, but it’s still a waste of time and verisimilitude that you’ve got to hunt down and shoot routed enemies at all.) I appreciate the design patterns in Dungeon World, in many ways a superior set of tabletop play tech than D&D, whose principles of fictional flow and “bring every monster to life” lead naturally to combatants fleeing, laying down arms, or otherwise changing the nature of the conflict before they’re all dead.

These are more humane, progressive, feminist, etc. approaches to violence and victory than the tired No Quarter trope, and they make for better games too!