Why some game developers shouldn’t like games
Why can’t we gamers accept that someone who doesn’t love games with the fervent passion we do can make them?
I’m proud to say one of my favorite games of all time—Katamari Damacy—comes from the mind of someone who doesn’t like games very much at all, Keita Takahashi. He seems happier designing playgrounds than he did video games. And yet, this is the man who made a game I could play forever.
Or look at Rockstar, a company founded by two gentlemen, Sam and Dan Houser, who wanted to go into the music business, whose inspirations have been more the classic films of Americana, the Spaghetti Westerns and crime films that formed the basis of their groundbreaking work on Grand Theft Auto. In the beginning, though, they didn’t want to make games. They began to make games out of pure necessity, a desire to find more creative freedom.
So, I ask again: should these people not make games?
The Jennifer Hepler drama—where a writer for Bioware came out and said that she didn’t particularly like playing games, and, perhaps more damningly, that she wanted them to be like Harry Potter or Twilight—carries an interesting question buried in the mucky, redundant debate of whether or not it’s alright to not treat someone with differing opinions like a human being. Do we have to like video games to make them? Does someone have to play video games to make a good one? Shouldn’t game developers be people who want to make games not out of an obsessive love for them but rather because they want to make better games?
The decade old jab thrown into the comments section of negative reviews is “This critic doesn’t like this type of games. Who the fuck cares about their opinion?” This is a hilarious fallacy: if you like a certain kind of game, odds are good you will like other examples of that genre. You don’t need reviews except for back-patting. The people who need reviews are the non-fans, the people who don’t define their existence by the ups and downs of specific franchises. Uncharted fans don’t need to know a single word about Uncharted 3 to buy it, but gaming dilettantes need context, analysis, and critical observation to understand whether the game would be enjoyable to them.
What they need is outside perspective. The gaming community is incredibly myopic; communities in general care only about their own interests, rarely thinking about outsiders. Our identities have been formed through our interaction with video games, and we don’t want anything to compromise that. This is why we rage with incredible virility at outsiders like Roger Ebert offering their perspective into our little world, because to us there’s nothing small about video games. Video games are everything! We’re up on its tropes, we follow the 24 hour news and blog cycle, and nothing happens without our notice. We follow twitter controversies about whether or not some non-lead writer at Bioware likes video games, and we spit vitriol about it, because this is our world.
But you don’t repair a house from inside. And maybe games are broken. We don’t have the perspective to know that. We play video games. They are our shelter from the storm. We’re not going to tear anything down, because the second we do the rain’s gonna fall in on us. Yet we see games as unmistakably brilliant as Katamari Damacy that break from the tropes of decades of gaming, and we have to ask ourselves: maybe we’re looking at everything the wrong way. Maybe we’re looking at everything from a profoundly skewed angle. Maybe just because we’ve always done things one way doesn’t mean we’re doing things the right way.
I mean, in the mid-nineties first person shooters didn’t have mouse look. In the late 90′s games didn’t feature twin stick controls. Go back and play Goldeneye and marvel at how you can’t aim wherever you want. Go play Doom and realize there wasn’t the sticky friction of head shots. You pivoted, you shot, and that was how it was. Until The Terminator: Future Shock came out from Bethesda, no one used mouse look. It was a crazy idea! Why would you add it and make video games more complicated, when you could just run around and shoot people in the face? Of course, now if you played a game that controlled like Doom you’d think its developer was bonkers.
It’s the same with conversations. We can skip those. When we can’t skip conversations it’s worth a point’s demerit on a standard ten point scale, almost invariably, more if the reviewer has to replay sections. It’s hard to imagine taking a game where you can’t skip conversations seriously.
So why can’t we skip combat? Why, because that’s the fun part of the game, Hepler haters say! Except just like how Doom‘s control scheme made some players queasy with rage, for some people the combat isn’t the fun part. Just like I’m sure there’s someone out there who can play Doom without getting motion sickness, someone out there wants to enjoy the story of Mass Effect without having to scream at their allies about how to flank a giant mech. Game developers have tried appeasing this demographic by adding in easy difficulty settings, but even those can be a strain on people. Guards kill me in Deus Ex: Human Revolution on easy all the time (warning: worst stealth player ever here). Game developers write complicated treatises on how to make people not quit playing a game instead of looking that answer in the eye: if people want to keep playing, and are being stuck behind barriers, then you give them the option to remove the barriers.
Nintendo’s already done this with its Super Guide feature, and it hasn’t ruined Mario. You can go play New Super Mario Bros Wii right now and completely ignore the fact that the game can play itself. Rayman Origins has exactly the same feature, and no one’s going to damn it because it lets a less skilled player beat a level. What these features, like Mass Effect 3’s “Story” mode, do is they remove barriers. They let people play video games the way they want to while letting you play your game in a way you want to.
And maybe it took a non-gamer to realize this. It takes perspective to realize what you’re doing wrong. Enthusiasm for games is obviously important for their development, but it takes a good collection of people who will say, “I don’t know, I don’t like that,” to make games brilliant. You and I may revel in games. We may love everything about them, and want to suck the marrow out of their bones, but not everyone can be like that. And besides, if different perspectives have given us mouse look and skippable dialog, who’s to say that skippable generic encounters would be a bad thing?