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Video games don't want to be movies, they want to be steak

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

Video games and movies are often compared to each other in derisive ways. Some video games, like the recently released PlayStation 4 game The Order: 1886, are criticized for being too much like a movie. That game was knocked for its supposedly short length and reliance on cinematic storytelling and QTEs over skill-based gameplay. Movies are often described as "video game-like" when a critic wants to describe something that's full of gunfire, high speed violence or hyperactive special effects.

Comparing a movie to a video game is a vicious takedown. But some video games intentionally strive to be more cinematic, often to their detriment. While they may aspire to be like film, if they go too far, players and critics will shred them for betraying the interactive medium.

One beloved thing that video games should aspire to, based on 10 years of food-based analogies, is steak.

It's actually a fairly common comparison, one we were reminded of in an interview with The Order: 1886 game director Dana Jan. He spoke to Develop recently over concerns that his studio's game was too short for a $60 product. This is his video game steak analogy.

"If you go and you eat a steak, if you pay $100 for a steak that tastes like the best steak you've ever had in your life but it's only 200 grams versus paying the same price for the worst steak you could want — but it's all-you-can-eat. There's an argument to be made that one is better than the other depending on who you are. If you just want to be full all the time then all-you-can-eat terrible steak, maybe that's for you?"

In order words, an expensive, but smaller and tastier cut of steak is often preferable to, say, the 96-ounce steak from Paul Bunyan's Cupboard steakhouse.

Many creators see their games as steak. Probably a filet mignon. A well-prepared steak is the pinnacle of food. Meaty. Video games want to be meaty. (And sometimes bloody, visceral, satisfying... like a steak.) Video games have sizzle reels. Steak sizzles! However, they never want their game to be hamburger — even though everyone loves hamburgers. Steak is where it's at.

Borderlands? The original game was steak, according to Borderlands lead designer John Hemingway. He told Eurogamer in 2012:

"I like to think of it as a steak. This is a game that's really a steak. It's deep, it's juicy, it's good. And tomorrow, I would love to have another steak. Some games aren't like that. They're much more like candy or cake. Oh, I'll eat cake, and now I'm sick of cake, I don't want it any more. I'm done. Borderlands is such a good game that it doesn't do that. It's got some magic there."

Here's Funcom's Gaute Godager, claiming that Age of Conan was steak. (Other MMOs at the time were hamburger, which is the worst.) He told Eurogamer in 2008:

"I enjoy playing WOW, I enjoy playing Lord of the Rings Online. But you know... I'm going to be a bit cheeky now, but if you've been to McDonalds for four or five years, and had your burger and your Coke, sometimes it's great to just have a great steak and a glass of good wine. I think that's what we're trying to do. It's more expensive, it's not for everyone and perhaps it's not as easily accessible as WOW is. But it could be more meaty."

Former Gears of War lead Cliff Bleszinski, now at Boss Key, had a warning for steak/gaming enthusiasts back in 2005. Do not play PlayStation 2 game God of War, lest your other games transform into the worst caliber of steak. He told Gamasutra:

"I'm playing a lot of [Xbox] Live. Unreal Championship 2 and Halo 2 on Live. Live is just hilarious, it brings out the best and worst in people. I just played a bunch of Darkwatch, which was... cool... but jumpy. Played some Battlefield 2, God of War was great. I warn you, though, if you play God of War, other games aren't as good anymore. It's like eating a really good steak, and then going back to Sizzler."

Steak is wonderful, but not at Sizzler. It's probably cooked well-done and full of gristle and hormones. No one wants to be a big hunk of poorly cooked red meat from Sizzler.

Video game consoles, not just the software, are also steak. But some video game consoles are steak and lobster. (Again, to be clear, that's better than a hamburger, which is what the PlayStation 2 had become by the time the PS3 was out.) So said former PlayStation executive Jack Tretton, issuing damning food analogies of his competitors to Gamepro back in 2007.

"I think the PS3 is the Surf 'n Turf. You want the lobster and steak and you're going to give yourself the treat of getting the best thing on the menu. The PS2 is your favorite burger restaurant -- you go there for comfort food and it's just always good and is a good value.

"[As for the other two consoles], one [Wii] is a lollipop, and I'm too old for lollipops. The other one [Xbox 360] I get sick from once in a while because the cook isn't always reliable."

Metal Gear series creator Hideo Kojima also thinks video game consoles are steak. But what differentiates them is the environment in which you eat those steaks. This is an important distinction, and required a careful preparation of metaphors back in 2005. Kojima told Boomtown:

"Xbox 360 will still be a special dinner so you might go there two or three times a month on the weekend or something. Revolution is the kind of great dinner that you have everyday at your home. What I want to emphasize is that all three are dinners meaning that they have a salad, they have a soup and maybe have a dessert but they are a little differently, maybe other dinners have two salads or two appetizers or maybe extra coffee on top of that. The point is that they are all individualistic dinners. So if they are all dinners, like a steak dinner, the choice is up to the users and the game designers at the same time.

"If the game creators and the users want to have a great steak for their anniversary, they go maybe to PS3. But if they want great dinner, great steak with their family, a little bit more casual during the weekends, they might select Xbox 360. Or why not have a great steak at your house everyday, they might choose Revolution. So my impression of the battle between the consoles is, it's not about what kind of dinner it is. It's more about how much the dinner will be. Will it be worth the cost of being served? Or where can I have this dinner — number of restaurants, is it near my house or do I have to take a cab or train or bus? I think the battle amongst the next-gen platforms lies in that area."

A year later, Kojima later clarified that the three consoles were actually a movie theater with a THX sound system (PS3), a DVD (Xbox 360) and cable/over-the-air television (Wii). Since it's impossible (or dangerous) to eat those things, the metaphor just doesn't make any sense. Because we're consumers. We consume video games and sometimes steak.

Even a company known primarily for its mobile games, Puzzle & Dragons maker GungHo Online Entertainment, recognizes that traditional consoles and portable game systems are steak. (Mobile games are either hamburger — yuck — or snacks.) Here's GungHo founder Kazuki Morishita responding to a question about making Vita games and buying Grasshopper Manufacture, despite having a hugely profitable mobile hit.

"I don't know why people are negative about us doing this stuff. Smartphone, or PlayStation 4, or Vita, they're all just platforms. It is our initiative. We get to decide which platform to release a title on based on the ideas we have, as a game concept. Definitely when you compare them, obviously the smartphone market is growing, and that's obvious from the outside as well. But there's no reason to focus only on smartphone because of that.

"I still play console games. I'm more of a console gamer. They may be similar, smartphone games and console games -- but they're different as well, completely different beasts.

"The whole approach of creating games for both consoles and smartphones is completely different. With console games, you have more of a loyal following and you're catering to hardcore users. With smartphones, it's less hardcore, more casual, and obviously it's more how to kill your time instead of how to spend your time. It's the difference between TV and movies. It's the difference between eating potato chips and a full-on, four-course meal. Just because McDonald's opened up their stores doesn't mean that we stopped eating steak and lobster, right?"

One classic video game was almost — disastrously — not steak. Here's veteran game designer Eugene Jarvis telling Polygon about a design decision in the arcade classic Defender that almost prevented it from being like delicious steak, the type you might find in a hearty bowl of stew or pho.

"It was too bland. It was like making a soup and just putting great steak in water and, oh man, this needs something more, so I threw in some carrots and some onions. I was continually sampling and always wanting to put more stuff in. That was a lot of the motivation, to make a game that would be fun to play for days and months."

Not all video games that are also steak are traditional console and PC games. Some free-to-play games, the type of thing you might actually see on Facebook, are steak too. Relic's Company of Heroes Online? That game was steak, said producer Greg Wilson in an interview with PC Gamer.

"With Facebook users, we're looking at that and we're seeing amazing things with the casual gaming space. What we're thinking is that some of those players will get tired of that fast food style of gameplay, and they'll want to graduate to something a bit more - whether that's a triple-A PC title or something in between. We know there are new gamers being exposed or created every day based on this social gaming phenomenon and the fact that it's free. It fits another time-niche. We're hoping that people will want to gravitate towards something with a bit more meat on it. You get tired of eating MacDonalds everyday and you want a steak sometimes. We're the steak."

So there you go. This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, because even Braid developer John Blow and Journey composer Austin Wintory have dabbled in steak analogies.

The takeaway is this: Video games — if they want to be good — should be like steak. Any video game developers who don't already know this, it's time to update your GDC presentations.

Disclosure: Polygon's development codename at Vox Media was "Freezer Beef," so even video game websites want to be steak. Read Polygon's ethics statement here.

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