How You Got Videogames Wrong #3: You’re Pretentious as Shit
Pissing you off in installments, the monthly series “How You Got Videogames Wrong” delves beyond appearances into the slimy interior of The God’s Truth (about videogames). This month we’ll be looking at difficulty in games, and what exactly it makes more difficult.
Here’s the situation: You see me outside a coffee shop, a copy of Finnegan’s Wake weighing itself asunder upon my baby-soft palm. You ask if I’ve ever read, say, Animal Farm, and I say to you, “Oh I only read difficult texts…” Then, as if steaming my own eminence, I lift my coffee to my lips but don’t sip, waiting to be un-graced with your presence.
What’s going through your mind at that moment? I’ll tell you what: That guy is pretentious as shit.
And you’d be right.
So why is it if I complain about the level of difficulty in casual games that none of you will call me the same thing? I find that bizarre. It’s as if “hardcore” videogame culture is formed around a double standard: Books and films that aren’t accessible enough are pretentious; but make a game accessible and aw hell naw, them’s fighting words.
Though we believe ourselves to be making a stand against bastardization, we are in fact erecting a wall, a wall that represents something larger than “hardcore vs. casual”—the wall attempts to keep the uninitiated from the over-initiated. And the end result hardly leaves any middle ground at all.
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I say this, but a couple weeks back, a smart dude named Robert Yang beat me to the punch. Sort of. In his wonderful design blog “Level With Me,” Yang wrote
I don’t think I’m demanding much of players because we all already have the ability to read just by virtue of playing. Frank Lloyd Wright could read houses; as Portal players, you know how to read Portal levels, and you know when Portal levels don’t make sense. What if we used the “words” of a Portal level in different ways, to say different things? What if we used the “words” that form video games, and used them in different ways?
Well, he’s definitely on the right track…
There is a commonality between all mediums of expression, what Yang (and others) would call “the ability to be read,” though in all fairness the terms are all pretty interchangeable…I can “play” through The Great Gatsby; I can “walk” through After the Gold Rush; I can “listen” through photos of the Great Depression. The term doesn’t really matter. Though they serve a specific medium, they are nonetheless only medium-specific containers for a medium-common idea: access. It is in admitting that commonality that we can have a true discussion—about videogames, about film, about prose—as opposed to the veiled discussion we have been having.
Here’s where things get complicated, and where Yang will probably disagree with me, though I do think our paths will end up in the same place: All mediums of expression are the same and not the same. That’s right, I just said that. Each medium has a common goal, and that goal is access; and while this access can occur along multiple avenues (playing, reading, seeing, hearing), they are avenues nonetheless, and some allow for a greater range of movement through a specific medium than others. Every avenue exists in every medium, regardless of if we actually use it or not. So in order for us to discuss the matter of “reading” videogames, and thus the matter of doing so “pretentiously,” we’re going to need to figure which avenue, exactly, we’re supposed to be using in the first place. As I’ve said before, I don’t necessarily consider “interactivity” to be the videogame’s avenue (ah there she is), and that’s my business, I guess. But in saying that I do need to offer an alternate avenue, lest games fail at the common goal, which is to have access. And in order to find that alternate avenue, we’re gonna need to have a look-see at other mediums…
Let’s call in the usual suspects: visual art; film; and prose. In each, our avenue of access is centered around a particular trait, a trait that allows for the widest range of motion, though no one trait is exclusive to that medium. Prose can appear in film…Pictures can appear in prose. No, what we’re talking about is a medium’s overwhelming trait (or traits)…that trait which defines the medium, that allows us to draw a line in the sand and say, “This here? This is interpretive dance.” With visual art this trait is, well, visual. Cuz paintings are, ya know, painted and shit. Film’s overwhelming trait is its being visual and auditory, though we might include spatial, too…but that’s another discussion. And prose? Well, that’s language, obviously. So on and so forth.
Now, along each of those overwhelming traits, we can imagine scenarios in which we might mutter under our breath that the interpreter (or the creator, or even the work itself) is pretentious as shit—the artist who soup-cans feces and states to us, “Why don’t you just go back to your cartoons”; the film critic who scoffs at anything that isn’t capable of the opaque reticence of Tree of Life; the book that seems to ridicule us for not having six PhDs and an extensive memory of every instance in which Joyce intertextualized a fart. And in all cases we intuitively grasp this pretentiousness, because we feel that our access to a medium is being unreasonably restricted…that some douche has set up a toll booth right in the middle of a medium’s primary avenue.
And that’s exactly how I feel when I hear that real gamers play Dark Souls–or more to the point, that if I can’t handle Dark Souls’ difficulty, then I’m not really a gamer at all. And why do I feel this way? Because a videogame’s avenue is in its physicality–this is what (overwhelmingly) ties players to the medium’s expression. That’s why I say that Robert Yang was on the right track: We don’t just read a videogame’s levels, we read their physicality, from the satisfying recoil of my finger during a well-timed sniper shot, to the aching of my wrist during a QTE “fill this meter to win” segment; from the Ray Charles-sway of my avatar’s head when a character yammers on too long, to the torque I apply to a controller during a high-speed turn…AND the level layout itself. Game are the art of replicating physicality–to take a “feeling” of the world (literal in this case) and amplify it…abstract it…omit it…towards meaning. Which is the reason why when we complain about a game’s controls we say they feel weird…not that they interact weird. How games reconfigure interaction within their medium is all tied up in our access to that interaction–feeling. And this physicality of feeling–which shows up in both a game’s literal feedback loop and produces itself out of our conceptual feedback loop–is the what of the reading of games.
Games that aspire toward access-based exclusion are games that fear being found out. They erect a wall between you and their inner substance, if there’s any at all.
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On the flip side, I kind of dig it. I think a good text must sometimes fear itself, that art must occasionally wall itself into a corner, hoping no one will discover the truth–that the purest ideas are snack-sized, and without a wall between it and the tireless searcher, something to slow him down, he’ll have come and gone without even noticing any idea at all. The difficulty of Dark Souls is, in that way, essential to the text. If its avenue of access seems overly-convoluted and unforgiving it is because the idea at the end of the path (the audacity of discipline) is so simple you might have overlooked it otherwise. And I’m sure it is this very point about Dark Souls that people were probably itching to make. But in making you itch, by erecting the previous two-page wall between you and me (the true me, the idea-me), I have gotten you to slow down enough to catch your attention.
Because I don’t have a problem with difficult texts. I think they have their place. I have a problem with developers who “pad” an empty text with “astonishing difficulty”…but that’s going to happen, I guess. The more convoluted you make something, so the logic goes, the longer it might take to realize that there’s nothing there but the convolution. And by that time, the sell has been made. No, what we must consider is the efficacy of a text’s inaccessibility–which is to say, the capacity for a text to express itself due to, or in spite of, its exclusionary tactics.
You’ll notice that I’ve been using the word “text” in place of “videogames.” That’s because I’m not just talking about videogames anymore…I’m talking about all mediums that limit access based on their difficulty. So yes, Finnegan’s Wake. Yes, Dark Souls. Both, actually, which I suppose would be a pretty good point to leave off at: There are those among us who laud a game’s insurmountable difficulty, yet groan at books that aspire towards “art.” This bothers me…I have trouble explaining why exactly, but it does. I guess it’s because, somewhere in our gaming-history, we misplaced the truth of videogames, as a medium for expression. We forgot that we were just reading with our thumbs.