Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Difference Between Games As A Product and A Work Of Artistic Expression.

You know, I dog on games like Call of Duty a lot. Constantly, I find myself comparing an artful, indie game to Call of Duty or a game like it. And I am very much guilty of also making the mistake of putting Call of Duty in a position of inferiority, like it is inherently disgusting and shouldn't even exist. Because, despite all of the complaints I've had with the Call of Duty series, I have to admit that for the last three years every single Call of Duty game released was almost a perfect game. You can not deny that Call of Duty is one of the most prestigious, consistently high-octane game series of all time. You have the success of the games alone to attest to that fact. Yet, I can not in good conscience look at the series as a particularly good one, or one that is healthy for the development of video games as a respectable medium of expression. 

With that being said, I think the work of designers like Jonathan Blow, Gregory Weir, and others is far more important to the evolution of games than the near-perfect Call of Duty series ever will be. This is not to say Majesty of Colors by Gregory Weir is comparable in terms of gameplay to Call of Duty. Compared to COD,   this game is nothing- literally five minutes long at the most, with pixelated graphics and one-dimensional gameplay that could never fill a game the size of Call of Duty, but these games have something that Call of Duty and other engineered blockbusters lack, and that's heart. And there's a very good reason why: 

Most Huge Blockbusters Are Engineered To Be Blockbusters.

Why are series like Gears of War, Call of Duty, Battlefield, Madden, etc. so freaking good? Well, part of it is that the people working on the games are very, very talented people who are dedicated to their job and want to make a good product. But the other reason is because the amount of resources publishers have to use on high-profile games is insane. Games are constantly play-tested by non-biased, third-party individuals and tweaked to work perfectly. After all, they can't afford to release a product that isn't as perfect as possible. 
By the time you play a game, it has been turned over and over by dozens of different people that try their hardest to break the game, to find exploits or problems with the gameplay, and to see how accessible the game is. You are getting a highly-refined, carefully crafted product that has been designed with the utmost quality in mind. Which is great, I still enjoy AAA games as much as the next guy. Just a few weeks ago, I basically had a nerdgasm over how freaking awesome Batman Arkham City was. 
However, when anything is distilled- whether it be a game or a movie- the character is often taken away as well. In the interest of making a great game, a game loses the developers touch and the charm associated with playing a game you know was developed by people, not polls and play-tests. 

Recently, I played the indie game Knytt Stories, a Metroid-style platformer full of whimsy and charm. I enjoyed the heck out of the game, devouring the expansions and then going back for seconds and thirds. It was a pure game experience, and my enjoyment of it was comparable to something like Arkham City, which is another near-perfect game. However, this game had flaws, HUGE, GLARING FLAWS! Flaws that could have easily been ironed out if the game was play-tested a few times. But, some of the things that were wrong with the game were also what I perceived as being done right. The game was so charming and fun, it had me spellbound the entire time I played it. 
The game had, for lack of a less-cliched term, character. It had a presence, and the creator of the game created something that was beautiful and unique and awesome. It felt like it's own game, with no ties to anything else in the platformer market. It was pure and unadulterated, and what flaws it may have had were covered up by the sheer amount of uniqueness. 

If we continue to eat up games that are developed like products and not forms of personal expression, if we keep classifying games based on mechanics, if we keep treating games as toys- we're not leaving this spot we are in now, this awkward spot of people pulling in every direction for only AAA games, no AAA games, etc. I'm not saying AAA-games have to go, but maybe it's time we stop looking for perfection in games, and start looking for individuality and fun. Maybe it's time for something that isn't over-inflated and highly marketed. Or- maybe it isn't. I guess gamers will decide that. 

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