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September 10, 2006

Filed under: gaming»perspective

Short Stories

Following up on my Trotskyist tendencies:

You might remember, if you play the occassional video game, when the genre started seriously moving toward 3D. Developers began to realize that it was a lot harder to pump out good-looking levels and gameplay in three dimensions, not in the least because better graphics carry with them higher expectations for realism and scale. As a consequence, a lot of games got shorter. Reviewers complained. I remember that Max Payne, a game with both photo-realistic aspirations and a genuinely witty storyline, often got marked down for its length--"criminally short" at ten hours long, said Gamespy. I'm sure non-gamers are a little bemused by that assessment.

Contrary to those critics, this was the best thing that ever happened to gaming.

Go back and play a game from, say, the NES or Super NES era. It's probably not as good as you remember. One reason is that there's a lot of make-work, basically chores that the game will make you go through. These chores contribute the majority of those mythical thirty-hour games we once played, back in the yesterdays of nostalgia. Players had to sit around and level up. They had to find different-colored keys. They had to solve puzzles by trial-and-error. A few exceptions aside, this was not a golden age. It was padding.

I believe, at some level, that video games can have an emotional and cultural meaning--they can be texts, the same way that movies and books can. A game can say something, can deliver a message, or can capture some kind of art. But it can't do that while it's wasting the player's time with a grind. This isn't an argument for cutscenes, or to say (as if I had any power anyway) that developers should stop including collection and leveling mechanics in their games. But we need to recognize that those mechanics are not value added, and that they are often an intrinsically worthless use of player time. Is it really worth struggling through those parts? Do you feel rewarded?

There are lots of boring, compulsive ways to spend time. Speaking solely for myself, I'd like to question whether a video game is my most productive option when it comes to doing my chores.

Future - Present - Past