WTF is Wrong with Video Games?

In Phil Owen's new book, he sets out to examine games from a critical standpoint. In his own words:

"After decades fighting the perception that video games are little more than diverting toys, the games industry won its most important battle: in 2011, the United States Supreme Court classified games as speech protected by the First Amendment. Games had arrived as a legitimate form of art alongside movies and music and books. Or so the industry and community claim.

Phil Owen, disrespected video game journalist and critic, believes otherwise. In WTF Is Wrong With Video Games? he sets out to lay bare all the fundamental issues with games, and the industry that makes them, that are holding this burgeoning medium back from fulfilling its true potential as interactive storytelling art."

We've included a brief excerpt of the first chapter, "Art." You can purchase a kindle version of WTF Is Wrong With Video Games? on Amazon for $2.99 or on Gumroad at a pay-what-you-want price of at least $3.

In the film Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a minor character accidentally inhales a drug that makes apes more intelligent. The drug has an insidious effect on humans, however, and this character starts to get sick because of it.

I was watching the film on Blu-ray with some friends, my former co-worker Phil Hornshaw and his wife Caitlin, who had not seen it before, and when his first symptom popped up — he sneezes — I made an offhand remark about this ill scientist being fucked.

"Spoilers, Phil Owen," Caitlin jokingly chided, saying my full name because her husband is also named Phil.

"Spoilers, Phil Owen," Caitlin jokingly chided, saying my full name because her husband is also named Phil.

"Well, everything that happens in a movie matters," the other Phil chimed in.

What he meant is that in popular storytelling media, a sneeze always means something. It's calculated as either a thematic device or, in the case of this specific sneeze, foreshadowing. This scientist had been infected by what would later be known as the simian flu, and it was going to kill him.

Foreshadowing is a crucial aspect of storytelling, particularly as a method of engagement. Well-implemented foreshadowing functions as a teaser for what's to come, an indicator that the author is setting a calculated chain of events in motion rather than just presenting a random assortment of scenes fished from a stew. A sneeze works well as a tool for foreshadowing because it naturally draws attention to itself. And those things in a story that draw attention to themselves are by necessity going to be important. So we always know when watching a film or TV show that a character sneezing has meaning, even though in real life a sneeze rarely warrants legitimate concern.

wtf is wrong with video games cover
Cover art by CJ Miozzi

In film, we sort of subconsciously pick up on these clues and internalize them, because we've been watching movies for a long time and we understand how they function as art. Movies have a language of their own through which they communicate ideas via every tool at their disposal, whether it be dialogue, facial expressions, lighting, any number of other visual or audio cues or, yes, a sneeze.

Films are calculated works from start to finish, and as my friend said, everything that happens in them matters to the work, or at least that's the goal. Because that's what art ultimately is. It has a purpose, to communicate something to you. Sometimes something other than what the creator intended comes through, which is fine and speaks to the fluid nature of art as a concept.

And the word "art" is not a label of quality, by the way — it's just a term that describes a very broad form of expression.
Video games work quite a bit differently most of the time. You won't see all the key elements contained within the full package that is a AAA video game have the meaning that a sneeze will in a movie.

Even when we look at those games considered to be the best that the medium have to offer, we see this problem constantly. The Last of Us, which some had referred to as "the Citizen Kane of video games" when it was released in 2013, is rife with arbitrary design choices that hold no meaning for the complete work of art.

Video game logic isn't inherently bad...

One of the primary gameplay mechanics in The Last of Us is the crafting of tools to help you survive the zombie-infested world you're trying to navigate. The item you'll likely end up crafting more than any other is a shiv, and in a bit of blatant absurdity you'll need to scavenge four scissor blades and some tape in order to make one. The reason you'll find yourself making so many shivs, though, is that these monstrosities can only be used once, either plunged into the neck of a human or zombie, or to unlock a jammed door. Later in the game, you can find a "training manual" that will improve your crafted shivs so that they can be used twice before breaking.

...just as the concepts of magic or superpowers in fiction aren't inherently bad.

As a mechanic, these shivs are just as logically fragile to me playing the game as they are physically fragile within the game. Why you would need four scissor blades to make a single shiv is a question so silly as to be pointless. How four scissor blades taped together could possibly break or become otherwise unusable and unsalvageable when you stab them into a human neck isn't even a question I would bother to ask because I already know the answer.

That answer, by the way, is that The Last of Us is a video game, and video games operate under video game logic. Video game logic isn't inherently bad, just as the concepts of magic or superpowers in fiction aren't inherently bad. But in the case of these flimsy shivs, as with most arbitrary video game things, there is simply no meaning to be found there beyond their being a gameplay device.

The context of The Last Of Us itself actually works against the shivs; we're playing the story of a curmudgeonly middle-aged man and a teenaged girl traveling across a post-apocalyptic United States, and we're expected to believe he, someone who has been living in this world for two decades, doesn't have or at least attempt to obtain a reliable knife. The shivs exist as an element of challenge for the player, but they are not part of the art created by the writers and designers at Naughty Dog.

the last of us

Players are generally not enamored with crafting shivs in The Last of Us, but it is something they just accept because they're playing a game. I brought it up as an example because that game has been as widely praised as any other in the last decade. And it does deserve some amount of that praise. The Last of Us is a conflicted experience for me, because it's paced decently well and for much of its length I can play without it feeling like I'm doing chores. The main characters — Joel, Ellie, Tess — are well sketched out, and I enjoy their interactions with each other and the world around them. The plot itself is a bit paint-by-numbers for a post-apocalypse story and a zombie tale (the real monsters are people!), but the characters make the journey seem a worthwhile one to take with them.

But even while I find what I might call the "art stuff" in The Last of Us to be compelling, I'm constantly distracted by how much of a video game it really is. Your path is nearly always perfectly linear, and that path meanders so oddly at times — as you traverse Boston on the way to the state capitol, for example, you'll find yourself wandering far up into a broken skyscraper, full of fungus zombies, rather than making progress toward your destination for reasons unknown. Joel will often point out which direction the group should go, speaking as if there is any alternative on this straight and narrow road ("I think we should go this way"). Instead of creating a variety of environmental obstacles to traverse as you travel across the country, there are only a couple, repeated ad nauseam: you need a wooden plank, one always conveniently and inevitably located nearby, to move past a gap that's too far to jump; and since Ellie can't swim, any bodies of water will require you to find a wood pallet for her to float on. Occasionally you'll also get to search the foliage for a ladder to place next to a wall that is too high to climb.

The point of its existence is to be an obstacle course

While, sure, The Last of Us manages to avoid being mind-numbingly dull in the way so many games are, it is definitely still a regular video game that has gameplay and a story that want little to do with each other. There is art in The Last of Us, but the game itself doesn't really function as such. It's as if an art gallery curator constructed a very long obstacle course with the art you came to see sprinkled throughout it. Except that analogy doesn't really work, because an art gallery curator would probably have some point to make in building the course. The obstacle course that is The Last of Us is just an obstacle course for its own sake. The point of its existence is to be an obstacle course, and the art is a bonus for getting through sections of it. And so it can be a real slog at points as you have to sneak around/fight through groups of bad guys that are of sizes quite disproportionate for the situations you find yourself in. Because it's a game.

That is the norm, and we've been evaluating games thinking that's how it should be for as long as video games have had stories. I used to say I play games for the stories, and what that meant was I would struggle through the gameplay to get to the art. Most of the time I didn't enjoy the act of actually playing a game, at least not for long, but sometimes I liked the stories enough that I could convince myself it was worth it. The Last of Us is yet another game I get to say I'm playing for the story. And it's yet another game that doesn't ultimately aspire to be a work of art in full.

gears of war

On the other end of the spectrum, you get many of these meaningless mechanics that players do actually love, because on their own they're really solid and engaging just from a gameplay perspective. Active reload in Gears of War is one such thing. In Gears, you have a small meter that shows your character's progress in reloading his gun, and if you hit the reload button again at the right moment, the reload finishes early and your shots do bonus damage for the duration of the new clip. Mistime the button press, however, and your reload takes extra long. It's an added bit of challenge, with an added bit of reward.

The lead designer on Gears was Cliff Bleszinski, or Cliffy B, and he often extols the virtue of "the thirty seconds of fun" that you repeat over and over for as long as the game lasts -- one of the more obnoxious concepts of mainstream game theory. In a shooter you're obviously going to have to reload your gun a whole lot, and so the active reload in Gears is a key part of that endless cycle. Even that doesn't give the active reload real meaning, as it's ultimately a concept created in a void, with the only concern being that it doesn't break other functional elements of the game.

It comes close to having some greater meaning, though. A successful active reload, in terms of what your character is actually doing, involves jamming in a new clip quicker but more haphazardly than usual, as if you're doing it blindfolded. Getting the timing wrong means you have to try again but pay attention to what you're doing this time, which naturally is going to delay your ability to blast bad guys for a second or two.

But active reload goes too far by providing a damage bonus, as if slamming the new clip in real fast magically transforms the bullets into different, more powerful ones. There it crosses the line from being an interesting bit of mechanical expression to being an arbitrary video game thing that provides an arbitrary video game reward to the player for doing something right. It becomes a reminder that you are playing a game that is ultimately just concerned with being fun.

The idea that the gameplay and the story are working in tandem, or that they should be, is not part of the discussion all that often. For a medium everyone claims is inarguably art, that makes no sense — being that a work of art is generally an idea or sentiment communicated through whatever form that work actually takes.

For a medium everyone claims is inarguably art, that makes no sense

In film, the text is a combination of the screenplay and the director's vision, expressed through what you see and hear when you watch it. In games, the text is compartmentalized, and the gameplay is a separate entity that rarely is trying to communicate anything at all.

In fact, the idea of gameplay as instituted by game developers seems more concerned with preventing you from participating in the art. If the gameplay is itself part of the art, then that's fine (and there are some games that you could argue are like that), but endless repetitive shooting or dungeon crawls rarely fit that bill. Instead, the gameplay is merely a substanceless activity that just exists. In other media, we would say that having a large and prominent, totally meaningless component constitutes bad art. In games, we say that's just how it's done. Maybe games are art and maybe they aren't, but if they are, nearly all of them are ineffective at being art.