May 3 2012 1:30pm

Gaming Roundup: Popular Video Games are “Dumb.” Here’s Why.

Popular Video Games are Dumb

Independent game developer Jon Blow recently ignited a mini-firestorm across the Internet due to his comments in a feature piece in The Atlantic, in which he proclaimed the mainstream game industry to be “a fucked-up den of mediocrity. There are some smart people wallowing in there, but the environment discourages creativity and strength and rigor, so what you get is mostly atrophy.” (Coincidentally, this exact quote serves as an accurate assessment of several aspects of modern post-secondary education... but there’s a different argument for a different day.)

The creator of Braid, the game most frequently cited by those in support of the perception of gaming as an art form (a closely-related debate), went on to describe his first venture into game creation as “a slot machine where you had to press a button at the right time to match a number on the screen, but I made the screen flash different colors and added sound effects. Really polishing the turd, so to speak — which, really, was a good education for the modern game-development industry.”

Blow is certainly not one to mince words.

In the same piece, journalist Taylor Clark concurs, writing:

[V]ideo games, with very few exceptions, are dumb. And they’re not just dumb in the gleeful, winking way that a big Hollywood movie is dumb; they’re dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way that a grown man in latex elf ears reciting an epic poem about Gandalf is dumb. Aside from a handful of truly smart games, tentpole titles like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Call of Duty: Black Ops tend to be so silly and so poorly written that they make Michael Bay movies look like the Godfather series. In games, brick-shaped men yell catchphrases like “Suck pavement!” and wield giant rifles that double as chain saws, while back-breakingly buxom women rush into combat wearing outfits that would make a Victoria’s Secret photographer blush. In games, nuance and character development simply do not exist. In games, any predicament or line of dialogue that would make the average ADHD-afflicted high-school sophomore scratch his head gets expunged and then, ideally, replaced with a cinematic clip of something large exploding.

As you might expect, Clark’s work drew considerable ire, as he indicated in a follow-up piece defending and elaborating upon his position.

Clark and Blow naturally concede that there are exceptions to the rule, but point out that for every Flower, Braid, or Shadow of the Colussus, there are a hundred Call of Dutys, Dead or Alives, and Duke Nukems. The ratio of what they define as “intellectual” games as compared to mainstream games is miniscule, at best.

Clark also cedes that while the intellect of a game can be viewed as immaterial if the game in question is, bottom-line, fun, it is difficult to for a “creative medium” to demand respect and recognition if, in any debate over intellectual or creative merit, the same handful of examples keeps getting recycled over and over again from a pool of thousands, if not millions, of candidates.

While the recent resurgence of the independent gaming market may help stem the tide and slowly start changing the perception of gaming as a whole, the questions of whether or not it is too late, or whether this apparent perception even matters, are certainly reasonable ones to ask.

And so we pass it to you, dear readers. Are these concerns pretentious or valid? Have we, as gamers, lowered our standards irredeemably, as evidenced by the glut of so-called mediocrity flooding the gaming market? Is external perception of the medium — our medium, let’s be honest here — irrelevant, so long as we enjoy what we do? Or do we owe it to ourselves to chastise the laziness and cookie-cutter nature of the mainstream, and call for new ways of thinking and playing in order to garner respect for our shared passion?

In other gaming news this week, God of War goes multiplayer, the Uncharted franchise takes a hit, Lord Diablo claims your television set in the name of all that is unholy, Bethesda announces Skyrim’s first DLC, and  Valve’s Gabe Newell professes his love of My Little Ponies... wait, what? Read on.

  • Kratos returns to PlayStations everywhere in God of War: Ascension, this time with multiplayer goodness. But don’t get your Blades of Chaos in a tangle if you’re a series purist - there will be an extensive single player campaign as well, set sometime before the events of the first game.
  • Too poor to buy a PlayStation Vita? Buy a car and get it for free! ...wait a minute.
  • Bethesda has announced that Skyrim: Dawnguard, the game’s first DLC, will launch later this summer. Rumors that significant new content will be included persist, the most notable addition of which might be dragon mounts.

  • Uncharted 3’s lead designer, Richard Lemarchand, is leaving Naughty Dog to pursue a teaching opportunity at the University of Southern California. Before taking up his new position, Lamarchand plans to channel Nathan Drake and backpack around the globe for a few months.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Bethesda claims that development on Prey 2, a first-person sci-fi shooter with a Bladerunner vibe, is simply delayed, not cancelled. This doesn’t jive with the rumors swirling around Human Head, the game’s developers, which suggest there is a deep rift between Human Head and their parent company. Human Head has reportedly moved on to working on Rune 2 until all issues involving Prey 2 are resolved.
  • With Diablo III’s May 15 release date nearing, Blizzard’s hype train has begun to pick up speed. The game’s latest TV spot showcases Blizzard’s trademark beautifully rendered cutscenes and gives viewers a brief glimpse at some of their demonic foes.

  • Activision Blizzard is being sued for patent infringment for using a “system and method for enabling users to interact in a virtual space” in games such as World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. Perhaps it’s just us, but that’s an awfully broad patent, and could potentially apply to virtually any MMO, RPG, or sandbox game already released or under development.
  • Finally, Valve head Gabe Newell has been exposed as a My Little Ponies fan — a Brony, if you will. This might explain the insidious infiltration of the disgustingly endearing equines througout the gaming world.

If there are games you’d like us to cover or blogs you think we should be following for more news, please let us know @tdelucci or @pritpaulbains.

Caleb Billman
1. Vlamier
I think the reason there's so much crap in the gaming industry is because gaming is so popular. The more popular something is, the more it attracts people who want to make some quick cash. They throw together a quick product without taking the time to put much depth into it. The people who do want to take the effort required for making a good game will be much less, and it will take longer for them to make that finished product. This can be seen in pratically any form of pop culture: music, movies, television, books, the media, even politics.
2. Gnomicus
I love the thoughtful indie, art game as much as the next guy, but this does seem a little pretentious. This happens in every medium. For every great novel, there's another Harlequin paperback. And for every amazing film, there's another Transformers that makes way too much money. That doesn't invalidate the medium as a whole. It just means that there are multiple markets composed of different consumers.

Sometimes I wish people who made great indie games and were in positions like this spent more time making more games, and less time whining about how their industry is being ruined by (basically) giving the average consumer what they want. (And I know that might come across harsh, but I can't think of a better way to say it at the moment.)

Making great art is laudable and valuable goal. But at the end of the day, the consumer will buy what they want, not what you wish they wanted.
A.J. Bobo
3. Daedylus
I had a few thoughts about this, but Gnomicus summed them all up perfectly.

There's good stuff. There's bad stuff. Play what you like, ignore the rest.
4. Kalez
The concerns are definitely valid. And I havent lowered my standards.

I know so many gamers (real hard core gamers who have spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours on quality oldschool games) who are actually getting fed up with the recent score of games, and some of them have actually quit gaming altogether. Just the other day me and my sister-in-law were looking for something to rent or buy, and after going through 4 stores, the only thing we could find that was worth playing was a used Wild Arms 2, and that was for $0.99. So many games bore us now because they are all crap and all alike.

Let me start on Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, ALL recent MMO's... how many times can you reuse a cookies cutter before it blows up in your face? Even most new RPG's are so similar they are boring, or how so little actual content that the game isnt even worth playing. (FF13, for example). And to make matters worse, developers dumb down the games even more by only releasing part of the game, and instead of having extra content earnable ingame through hard work and determination, you can buy it as DLC. Totally ruins the experience.
5. trench
I have said it before and I still stand by it.

Just because a game is an obvious cash grab with no extra thought or love put into it, does not make it some how not art, it just makes it Bad Art, unfortunately video games are 90% bad art.

*cough cough* ME3, the biggest disapointment in the last few years.
Thomas Jeffries
6. thomstel
To point in a different direction: Madden.

My opinion on EA's business model of releasing a new build of the game with new rosters and a couple new features each year is positive. It allows for iterative improvements, with the occasional innovation and/or engine upgrade, as well as a forecastable revenue stream.

My opinion on the gamers that skip work/stand in line for a midnight release/etc. over the annual Madden release? Not so favorable, but that's mostly because I can't play the game at any level and succeed. All I have to do is pretend it's an MMO release and I realize the dedication of its fans is shared between them and myself, just pointed in different directions.

So who loses between EA and the Madden fans? No one.

On some arbitrary scale of "good", Madden likely wouldn't score well. It's not artsy, it's not telling a compelling narrative, it's not got any sort of style (other than realism) going on, it's not always mechanically sound (hearsay from it's detractors, not personal experience), it has bugs on release. Should EA or its fans care about that? Heck, no.

Should I? Sure, because I (generally) don't want to spend time with a game that isn't making a good attempt at least some of the list above. But that's JUST ME. I doubt that the pool of gaming that I want to partake of will ever completely dry up, and I'm pretty sure the "mass market" stuff won't either. We all get to win.

And the point about how even bad games are sometimes a lot of fun? That's really important and worth a lot more depth than anyone ever gives it. After all, beer pong doesn't have aesthetics, complexity, innovation, etc. and I hear it's a pretty good time provided you're not alone in the basement while playing it.
Pritpaul Bains
7. Kickpuncher
@1, 4, 5 - The popularity of the medium is certainly a significant factor in the dilution of quality. The market gets flooded with mediocrity, but in many cases it's desired mediocrity that is snapped up from shelves, often sight unseen.

Coincidentally, I'm currently reading a book entitled 'Before the Crash: Early Video Game History', which is a compilation of essays discussing the state of the industry before its crash from 1983-85. Significant factors of that first crash included new systems, games, and technologies flooding the market, and oversaturating it, to an extent. Companies dove in with a "me-too" mentality and standards jumped the shark, and all these factors combined into the video game industry dropping nearly 40% in profitability between '83-'85 (possibly higher, I don't remember the exact number off the top of my head).

Interest in the medium is on a different level, today, but it'll be interesting to see if the same situation might play out again, on a smaller scale.
Sam Brougher
8. Azuaron
Isn't Braid the second-best selling XBLA title of all time? Sounds pretty popular to me, Mr. Blow. ;-)

This is an argument that comes up everytime there's a new popular medium or genre or anything, and it always comes down to Sturgeon's Law: "90% of everything is crap."

Solution: stop buying crap. It's that easy. Buy the ten percent and ignore the rest. If enough people agree with you, your position of "good" will be supported.

And stop caring that companies are putting out crap, okay? Why do you care? If EA Sports throws out another Madden game next year (which it will), why do you care? Does the mediocrity of repetitive sports releases diminish your own gaming experience? Does the wave of brown-and-gray FPS's ruin your experience of arty games or RPGs?

Seriously, hundreds of bad movies and thousands of terrible books are released every year and nobody cares. Why should we care that bad videogames are released? Support what you like, ignore what you don't, and stop being a pretentious twit about what other people like.

Also, dumping on Skyrim? Not a smart move.
Pritpaul Bains
9. Kickpuncher
@6 - True. The point of enjoyability is brought up, but dismissed a little too quickly in the article. Fun is , and always will continue to be, fun. That's the bottom line, and if you enjoy something, well, everything else kind of becomes unimportant, if you look at it from a detached perspective.

@8 Generally good points, though I can see an argument being made for Skyrim being a game with not a lot of depth. I loved Skyrim, and invested an unhealthy number of hours into it, but beyond the gorgeous, immersive environment, there were a lot of issues that were easy to ignore because of the sheer magnitude and freedom of the open world, such as shallow gameplay, repetitive tasks, weak characterisation and dialogue, and poor play balance that made much of the latter part of the game a walk in the park. Extremely fun game, but not without its faults.
Jack Jarman
10. HourGlass
None of you are real gamers. Real gamers don't care what any of you think, so why bother whinning about good games at all? Black Ops was amazing. The Calls of Duty were amazing. Non-gamers don't get it, and neither do old school morons.
Mordicai Knode
11. mordicai
10. HourGlass

Is this a Poe's Law sort of thing, here?
Pritpaul Bains
12. Kickpuncher
@10 - I'd like to respond to your post, but I'm unable to discern the point you're attempting to make. Clarify, please?
treebee72 _
13. treebee72
@10 - Oh wow - the One True Real Gamer argument. How original...

Still flip-flopping on D3 while getting more excited about Torchlight 2. (To be honest, there's probably no way I'm not getting both D3 & Torchlight 2, but my wallet can't ignore the price tags.)
Thomas Jeffries
14. thomstel
Your sarcasm remains undetectable. Good troll, or not, as the case may be.
Shelly wb
15. shellywb
So they're saying 90% of something is crap? Stop the presses! I've never heard of such a thing. There oughta be a law...
Pritpaul Bains
16. Kickpuncher
@13 - Much like you, I've completely resigned myself to the fact that I'll eventually be getting both D3 and Torchlight 2, but D3 definitely gets first priority, for me. I've had it pre-ordered since last June and having extended beta access has just whetted my appetite.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
17. tnh
Kickpuncher, are you sure mediocrity is what they want, or are they just buying mediocre games because they're the closest approximation to what they actually want?

Mordicai: Yeah, I'd say that's an example of Poe's Law.
Caroline E Willis
18. CEWillis
I am going to post a video of myself on youtube wearing elf ears and reciting a poem about Gandalf. That kind of sounds fun.
Pritpaul Bains
19. Kickpuncher
@17 - Valid point - a distinction that should be observed. In an ideal world, consumers wouldn't settle, but that's not really practical or feasible in practice.
Joris Meijer
20. jtmeijer
It is the same as in all cultural areas, why read/watch/eat/listen to/play X while Y is clearly superior in so many ways.

Of course there is usually a grain of truth in there, but the more
important factor is that not everyone wants something for the same

Especially in games. The original article seems to be really focussed on story-telling by the game-maker, which is actually only one of the many things that attract people to a game. There is adrenaline, cooperation, mechanics, pretty pictures, puzzles, points, social play, emergent storytelling, understanding the mechanism behind the game, freedom, restriction, strategy... and many more. And a gamecan be brilliant enough in any of combination of these factors to get a large audience. Even if -from certain viewpoints- -or even the majority of viewpoints- it is a bad game.
rick gregory
21. rickg
Those of you making the "well 90% of everything is crap, so what?" argument miss Blow's point. It's not merely that a minority of things are good, it's that there's very little middle ground - the transition from Really Good to Complete Crap is very fast with not much "Eh, It's OK" in the middle. What we need is more "It's not an all time classic, but it's pretty damn good" stuff. I mean, I wouldn't turn down a lot of all time classic great games... but I'd settle for Pretty Damn Good.
Joris Meijer
22. jtmeijer
@21 rickg, There is an immense middle ground, or at least there are dozens of middle grounds, especially in pc games. There has to be, since we are working in a world where Dwarf Fortress can simultaneously be the best and the worst game ever.
René Walling
23. cybernetic_nomad
@19. For games it is practically feasible. Games are not a necessity of life and there are plenty of other entertainment options out there. I haven't given any money to the modern videogame industry simply because it has yet to come up with something that, IMHO is worth the money they're asking for. On the other hand, I've dropped plenty of quarters in arcades back in the 80s – probably got what I thought was better value for my money back then.
Corkryn Williams
24. MadCow21
What artistic medium isn't composed of a mediocre majority? It's not a problem. It's just how it is.
Pritpaul Bains
25. Kickpuncher
@ 23 I sincerely wish more gamers had your capacity for self-restraint!
Alan Courchene
26. Majicou
Ah, so now the self-important indie auteurs of games sound just like the self-important indie auteurs of every medium. Truly, we have arrived! Huzzah!
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
27. tnh
That's a bit uncharitable, isn't it?
28. wolfkin
I think Blow is a pretentious d bag. That said I can completely agree with some of the things he says. It sounds like this might be a case where I do agree with him. It's an awfully long article to read between classes though. I'll have to go into it later.
Chin Bawambi
29. bawambi
I'll expand for you wolfkin. Blow is what my city (New York) is currently infested with - poseurs and hipsters. I've got the most superlative artistic idea of all time and everyone else is just a trogolodyte :). Back to reality, I game occasionally (used to play WoW) but played video games in college back in the mid-eighties as well. I own two games for my PS3 - GT5 and Battlefield. GT5 because I love the potential realism with a racing wheel and Battlefield because I am terrible at first person shooters and I don't mind a dumbed down game. The concept that I care about the nuances in a shooting game is risible I want something that challenges MY level of ability and provides escapism. There are some flash games that are amazing and some artistic/world building MMOs that are as exciting as dry white toast (anything by SOE in my opinion). I could see buying old games like deathground (Mobster Risk set in NYC) or an old green and white Trek game but a blanket statement that certain games aren't artistic just turns me off and will make sure I never buy anything by that "artist" and the sad part is he probably would want it that way.
Pritpaul Bains
30. Kickpuncher
@29 While he certainly comes across as pretentious, I do think the point about quality control is a good one, but for any major industry such as gaming (as many have previously pointed out) that's not really something that can be controlled, unfortunately - bad games are inevitable, and the fact that the bad will outweigh the good is also inevitable.

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