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What the hell is a videogame anyway?

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 16-01-2016

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Whenever a game hits the internet which pushes the limit of what many would consider an actual videogame, it’s not uncommon for that to be met with a certain amount of hostility. Sometimes it’s because the themes are not felt to be appropriate, it’s political, has an overt agenda, is dogmatic, is linear to the point of having barely any interaction, or any number of other reasons. This is not ideal, to put it mildly.

I’m all for videogames exploring these sorts of ideas – that’s not to say that those types of games would necessarily appeal to me – but that doesn’t mean I object to them existing.

The trouble is, that depending on how you define these things, it can rather stretch the definition of a “game”. Are these things really games? Do we really have a concrete definition of what it actually is to be a videogame? Wikipedia (bear with me) defines a videogame as, “an electronic game that involves human interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device such as a TV screen or computer monitor”. I can agree with that, although the word “game” would need defining in order to really nail that down. A game, they say, is a, “structured form of play, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool”. So, combining those to remove terms which also need defining yields a videogame as, “an electronic structured form of play, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool, that involves human interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device such as a TV screen or computer monitor”. That sounds perfectly reasonable to me, if a little verbose.

So it seems to me, that the structural and recreational aspects of “play” are really rather fundamental to what a videogame is. So really, is something which is not recreational – in other words, something which you do not engage in for fun and pleasure, something that’s entire raison d’etre is to make you feel uncomfortable, for example – is this really a videogame? If not, what is it? Do we even have terminology for these kinds of things?

Back in the early CD-ROM days, we had games which branded themselves as “interactive movies” and that was an excellent description of what they were. The trouble with that term was most of them were flupping awful so I’m not entirely convinced that were I to make one, I’d particularly want it associated with that name. But surely we can come up with good terminology for this stuff? It’s not like your endeavour is suddenly less interesting or exciting if it wasn’t called a videogame any more. Are visual novels “games”? To me… no, not really. They’re visual novels, and that’s a perfect description for them. Some are fantastic, some are shite – same as everything else. They’re not good or bad because they’re a visual novel any more than a narrative is good or bad because it’s explored as a documentary film.

Steam has “Games”, “Software”, “Hardware”, “Videos”. What if there was another section called “Interactive Movies” (I’m using that term for lack of anything better). Would there be so many raging arguments on forums if that’s where those things were filed? There were a few arguments when films started appearing on Steam, but they were all filed under “Videos” so, once people got used to the idea, arguments decreased. While there’s a million reasons in play as to why there’s often so much hostility towards certain games, does this not in part revolve around people’s differing ideas of what games should or should not be? Surely this, at least, is a solvable problem?

Perhaps this is all just the result of the number of videogames which aren’t necessarily technically videogames representing only a tiny fraction of the whole. That to take those games and file them somewhere else would seem like relegating them to the back corner of the shop where no-one will see them. But on the flip side, maybe there’s a whole bunch of people out there who’d say they’re not interested in videogames but would actually be really interested in this stuff, and that putting all these things together – away from the shoot-people-in-the-face games that they’re not in the least bit interested in – could actually draw attention to them , particularly from mainstream press outlets who would not normally cover videogames as part of their Arts coverage.

I don’t know, ultimately. I just feel like these ludicrously broad terms – the likes of “videogame”, “indie”, “gamer” – need concrete and specific definitions if we’re going to have useful conversations about them. Otherwise we’ll just have arguments which, fundamentally, are fueled by us all having different interpretations of what these terms actually mean. As it stands, all we can really say about videogames is that they’re electronic things, indie is just a vibe, genre or the lack of publisher ownership (how does that make a game better or worse? Oooh I LOVE videogames which aren’t owned by a Publisher because… uhh… yeah, sometimes they’re shite too actually), and a gamer is anything from pretty much everybody who’s ever used a phone, to a tremendously specific subset depending on which article you read. None of this is tremendously helpful.

On Slagging Off Other Videogames

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 14-01-2016

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Should we do this? In all honesty, I’m horribly conflicted. At the end of the day, other games aren’t really “competitors” in any meaningful sense – so there’s definitely no reason to criticise another game just to inflate your own. On the other hand, just because another studio is within the same games industry bubble as yourself doesn’t mean you should have to gush about it for no other reason than to appear nice. Game developers are also gamers, it’s totally okay to have opinions – to like some games, hate others, love to bits a few more, and find another utterly shit. Isn’t it?

I mean, I do think about this a lot (well, perhaps not a lot – but definitely a bit). I see people talking passionately about one game or another which, when I look at it, “meh” is about the most enthusiasm I can drum up. I do wonder whether the gushing praise is genuine or whether it’s more, “if I say nice things about other games, maybe those people will say nice things about mine – win, win!” It’s obviously not inconceivable that other developers will like things which I don’t, though 😉

I’m also not particularly affected by whether or not there’s some deep and meaningful message or point to a game. I like my games to be fun – crazy, eh? I don’t particularly want to play a game which is going to make me feel worse about myself or life in general than I did before I started playing, and I don’t particularly see why games like this should neccessarily be more interesting than a game with ducks shooting laser beams out of their eyes because… well, just because. What’s so wrong with videogames just being fun? If a game is fun and it makes my cold stoney heart beat once, well that’s nice. But it’s not a requirement and it doesn’t make that game automatically more important or interesting than the duck / laser-beam game.

So the thing is, there’s not really that many games which I like – not in the context of the gazillion games which are made every year. There are particular genres which appeal to me (which tend to be open-world sandboxes, RPGs, and/or simulations) and the rest… don’t, really. I’m not going to pretend that they do just because I’m a game developer and therefore, “WOO! VIDEOGAMES! YEAH!” But that also doesn’t mean I should slag off the stuff I hate – I could just as easily quietly ignore it.

But small indie developers struggle, right? Should I at least not trumpet from the rooftops that I think small indie game A is a bit crap, really? I mean, that wouldn’t be a very nice thing to do really. Except the AAA games are made by humans too, and saying you think Skyrim is shit still affects people. But Bethesda’s bottom-line is unlikely to be affected by that – the small indie developer could be affected hugely. Particularly if you have a decent Twitter following. But that’s to say that small developers get a pass which larger developers don’t when often the price being charged isn’t dissimilar. So who are you being unfair to, then?

Maybe just say nothing. But if I never said anything bad about games I didn’t like, that wouldn’t stop me from shouting from the rooftops about games I love. So wouldn’t the problem then be that any game which I don’t actively promote is one which I am implicitly criticising?

I dunno. It’s a mess. Luckily, I only have 3,500 Twitter followers so I suppose, “who gives a shit?” is a fairly appropriate answer to all this.

Mad Max could yield the Greatest Ever post-apoc Survival Game

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games | Posted on 02-01-2016

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Mad Max, from the Just Cause gamedevs Avalanche Studios, is to me 2015’s most bafflingly reviewed game. While I’ve only played it on PC and, therefore, some of the extraordinarily low scores it garnered for the console versions (5.5/10 from Polygon, 4/10 from Jim Sterling) could be partially explained if the visuals and performance are much much much lower on those platforms I suspect not considering the excellent PC performance even on fairly low spec rigs.

It’s true that the game does not have a particularly stellar storyline, quests are basic, and the optional tasks repetitive – so you’d think a low score would be fair. But I don’t. You see, to me an open world game is as much about the feeling of existing in a world as it is about a story and emotional quests – if not more. The world is a character – in many ways, the most important character. And Mad Max’s world is staggering. Considering it’s set entirely in a post apocalyptic desert, the variety of landscape – all of it feeling real and natural – is breath-taking. A ruined suspension bridge spanning a dried river bed feels enormous – you know, like real bridges are.

MadMax03

“It’s not ugly” – Jim Sterling

It reminds me why, despite some great environmental design, in Fallout 4 the shrunken down microcosm of Boston never really gave me a sense of awe. Yet one ruined bridge in Mad Max did. Some people may find Mad Max’s world empty, but to me it was beautifully vast – the lower density of settlements and structures adding to the post-apocalypse vibe.

MadMax02

“Nothing to remember it for” – Polygon

Mad Max’s trump cards are its world, its lighting, its weather effects (when a storm blows in it’s an event. I thought the radioactive lightning storms in Fallout 4 were nice but, to paraphrase Crocodile Dundee, “lol that’s not a storm, that’s a storm”) and it’s for these reasons you play the game. The story and tasks are just things to occupy your time and give you a feeling of progression and if you’ve reviewed the game primarily in these terms you’ve rather missed the point (and, I suspect, you have no soul). The combat – both on-foot and in-car – are solid enough. But again, the game isn’t about this stuff in isolation. It’s about this stuff at the moment the game warns you there’s a storm approaching. It’s sensational.

Oh, and the FUCKING sandstorms. How this made it to the final game will never be satisfactorily explained. At entirely random points the game declares, “Get inside, a storm’s coming!” and you have to stop whatever you’re doing and find somewhere to shelter for literally ten goddamned minutes while it blows over… It offers nothing to the game, other than to interrupt whatever you were presently doing with a pointless period of no fun. It’s bewilderingly stupid.

John Walker, RPS review

I think we live on different planets.

So, Avalanche Studios, what I would like next please, is a “World of Mad Max” sequel. Except not that name because it’s rubbish. I don’t want to play as Mad Max – I want him to be a character in the world, a legend, spoken of but never seen (except possibly in the climax). Let me create my own character, male or female, give me the world’s worst car to begin with, drop me into the world and say “go”. Take the water mechanic in the existing game, but make it deplete over time so that water becomes required for survival (while you’re out of water, your health slowly drops). Keep the car upgrading, it’s cool, but ditch the auto-repairing and make that the equivalent of resting (find a safe location, repair, time progresses). Make the whole game about slowly building up a reputation so that, ultimately, you come to the attention of Mad Max (for good or ill, depending).

The world of Mad Max is so perfectly suited to an open-world survival game that it would be a travesty if it never happens. Sod the story, sod playing as Max himself – just give me the world, a bunch of psychopathic weirdos, and a true survival mechanic.

Mad Max, Avalanche Studios: Awarded Binky’s Brillopops Award for sensational world design 2015.

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