Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Videogame Snob? Moi?

My amigo Jeff, keeper of the eponymous and often hilarious jeffreydinsmore.com, sent me an interesting question yesterday. Are there such things as video game snobs? he asked. My first response was, Of course, and I am one! But then I thought about it some more, pondered an example he gave, and realized it is a more complex question than it first seemed.

Jeff wondered if liking Katamari Damacy, a quirky and original game, as well as liking Ratchet and Clank (Part Whatever), a fun but perhaps hackneyed platformer, indicated that snobbery, here understood as considering one’s tastes as superior to someone else’s, didn’t work for games. Maybe other elements of games, like how much fun they are, contributed a new variable to an old equation, and rendered a common style of criticism and connoisseurship obsolete.

Do you want to know more?

A snob, or course, is not just someone who would say some games are better than others. A snob would say despite the fact that many people think X is a good game, it is really bad and their tastes are poor.

The clearest case in which to examine this sort of snobbery is when a game that is critically lambasted ends up a big seller. 50 Cent Bulletproof is generally considered to be crap. Yet it sold more than a million copies. Here, critics and many gamers are at odds, and to suggest that the masses who bought the game have skewed and poor criteria for judging games seems justified to me. People bought the game because they think 50 Cent is cool.

Call it snobbery if you like, but it is an inevitable result given that a portion of the game audience (reviewers, hard core gamers, etc.) plays lots of games and devotes lots of thought to games while a much larger portion of the audience doesn’t play as many games and just wants a kick. Put simply, a big part of the audience is unschooled and naïve, and they will have different criteria than critics to judge a game. I am a game snob when it is defined this way; I think naïve opinions are inferior.

But it gets trickier when you begin to explore the different genres and traditions in which games exist, and here Jeff’s example of Ratchet and Clank seems apt. Certainly, there are game formulas that work well. I consider these the videogame equivalent of Michael Bay’s movie The Rock. I wouldn’t argue that The Rock is a great cinematic achievement, but I loved it when I saw it in the theater. It performed its genre duties in an exciting and entertaining manner, and I enjoyed what I first thought would be formulaic garbage.

Lots of games fit in this category. They might be polished, like New Super Mario Bros. for the DS, but critics could make a fair argument that the Mario formula is too overdone to truly produce anything great. I’m talking about more than the fact that we gamers have put Mario through his paces many times before. I think the genre has deep problems, like the mindless collection of coins, that were fine solutions to the problem of making an interesting game in a previous console generation, but ripe for critical analysis now.

Still, I enjoyed New Super Mario Bros. because I am a fan of 2-D platformers. Here, I think the concept of fun and play enters into the critical equation and changes the way I, at least, evaluate games. Another good example comes from sequels (I’m talking about you, Guitar Hero II). I don’t mind sequels that do the same as the original in games as much as I do in movies. Good gameplay can go a long way towards erasing some of the critical scorn that might come from the lack of originality.

Critics do argue that originality is a legitimate demand, of course. I just think most gamers don’t listen and don’t agree because of their limited experience. So a break between the critics and the majority of the buying population develops and leads to accusations of snobbery.

As a seasoned gamer, I put a high value on originality. I’m usually willing to overlook problematic gameplay in favor new concepts. So here I will admit to being a partial snob. But for me, damning a solid game because it is formulaic or derivative is going too far. The interactivity of games increases my tolerance for things I’ve seen, thought, and felt before, and I don’t indulge in the snobbery I might if I was evaluating something that wasn’t a videogame. After GTA III and Vice City, San Andreas didn’t blow me away, but it is still a great way to spend a weekend afternoon.


Jeff said...

Thanks to that well thought out and articulated answer. One thing that I would throw into the discussion is that, unlike music or movies, function is often more important to video games than form. You like a game because it's fun to play, and the extras (weak story, so-so graphics, etc.) are usually forgivable, unless they interfere with the gaming experience. You never think about a film or a song's functionality. Is it possible, then, to even compare games to other media?

In the future, maybe, we will reach a plateau, where everyone is so familiar with the gaming experience that there will be no more innovation, and games will start to be judged strictly on their artistic merits. Or perhaps the learning curve that's built into all games right now will disappear, and game snobs will be the people who can execute the most esoteric button combinations.

Your example of the 50 Cent game is interesting. I haven't played it, so I can't offer an opinion about its quality. But I wonder, would the average gamer consider that game more fun to play than a more well-developed fighting game, if given the option between the two? In movies, for example, I think most critics and people "in the know" would consider Citizen Kane a better film than your example of The Rock. But someone who did not know anything about the history of movies & was just looking for pure escapism would probably prefer The Rock. Likewise with music ... I think Pavement is a better band than 3rd Eye Blind, but there are plenty of 3rd Eye Blind fans who would tell me Pavement is unlistenable. (Okay, actually, saying there are "plenty of 3rd Eye Blind fans" might be a little bit of a stretch ...) The question, anyway, is: does the same phenomenon exist in video games, or do they operate on a more basic, functional level?

Mark said...

I don't think there is such a thing as video game snobbery. Can I come up with some good examples to support my statement? Probably not. I'll try anyway.

First off, I tend to stick to certain genres of games. I play rpgs, maybe some action rpgs, mmorpgs, and maybe a fps now and again. I'll branch out occasionally, and I love Katamari, but generally I stick to what I like.

Now, sometimes there are good rpgs, and sometimes there are bad ones. But I never really find someone to be foolish for liking a bad one, and I certainly don't feel superior for liking 'good' ones.

I played Psychonauts and Oddworld:Stranger's Wrath in the past year. Both critical favorites, but neither did well in the market. I enjoyed them both. Oddworld was great fun, Psychonauts was humorous but probably not really 'enjoyable' to play. I don't think they deserve to be in a separate class. They aren't art, they're just different. They're better quality than the 50 Cent game, I'd argue, but I just can't be snobbish about it.

I'm not sure why it's different than books and movies and music, or even if it really is, though I'm pretty sure it is.

Jeff said...

I have Psychonauts, and I gotta be honest, I'm not crazy about it. I like the story & the characters, but a lot of the gameplay just sucks. I read the post that Com$tock linked to, and this dude seems to think that Psychonauts is the end-all, be-all. Proper use of perspective in a 3-D game cannot be stressed enough. I had a difficult time telling what I was supposed to do in Psychonauts. You shouldn't be at a place in any game where you have to jump blindly to get to the next piece of land or what have you. It really killed the whole experience for me, even though the graphics were amazing and there were a lot of cool aspects to it.

By the way, M. $tock, I just picked up Shadow of the Colossus. I took it for a trial spin this afternoon, and after watching a video of a guy riding across the land on a horse for 1/2 an hour, I was allowed to control the guy and the horse. I rode across the land for 1/2 an hour and couldn't figure out what in the Hell I was supposed to do. However, the game has gotten such great reviews, that I'm willing to give it another shot.

Com$tock said...

Songs have functions. Ask Smoove B.

Seriously, you bring up a good point about the functionality of games. My impression is that serious gaming people are trying to develop a vocabulary and way to talk about games that takes this new wrinkle into account. I see the situation as akin to the theoretical flux movies found themselves in during the early 20th century. How long did it take for a functional, persuasive critical vocabulary to develop?

Like you, I found Psychonauts to be fine but not great. I linked to that guy's essay more to illustrate the emphatic critical call for better games, not necessarily to endorse his views.

As to SotC: maybe it's not for everyone. Make sure you fight some colossuses before you give up on it. For me, all the riding around added to the lonely vibe, which I found special. (If you are really at a loss as to where to go, take out your sword in a place where the sun is shining, circle around until you find the direction in which the light that reflects off the sword is focused, and follow the beam to the colossus.)