Tricks are for Kids

Posted on November 11, 2005 by psu

Sometimes you have to feel sorry for the gaming industry. Here we have a medium that is in the beginning of its life, struggling to be taken seriously. It has slowly scratched its way to the big time as a source of commerce, and you can almost see the collective strain on the faces of game developers as they strive to turn games into art, whatever that means. I bring this up now because the main subject of our gaming discussions this week was Shadow of the Colossus, which has the distinction, along with its predecessor, Ico , of being among the few games that actually succeeds in achieving something like art. Both games are rare in that they elicit an emotional response in the player that is more complex than the standard childish rush of victory.

This is important, because nothing enrages the average fan boy more than accusing his favorite game of being “too kiddie”. This is a charge that is often incorrectly directed at Nintendo, and it always brings howls of defensive anger from the Nintendo faithful. I think this anger originates in some deep insecurities that gamers have about games. They desperately want games to be thought of as something serious, something profound, and most importantly, something mature. The fact that the ESRB has an “M” rating for games has no real bearing on this question. While there are games that deal with subject matter that is not appropriate for children, games that you can actually call serious or mature are extremely rare, if they exist at all.

Games generally have a streak of adolescence about them. This is not surprising given the origins of the medium, especially in the home console arena. But while some would claim that games are evolving towards a more mature treatment of subject matter and presentation, the evidence indicates exactly the opposite. Aside from the odd cerebral simulation or strategy title (which, incidentally, is probably not as good a game as Advance Wars), the “mature” games of this generation are anything but mature. Where you might hope for games with a varied emotional palette and sophisticated narrative, we instead get and endless stream of gang members shooting cops, aliens attacking the earth, mindless zombies, mythological warriors skewering hundreds of faceless enemies, and the occasional martial arts hero tale that makes an old Hong Kong Jackie Chan movie look like a high British costume drama.

What exactly is mature about these mature games? The fact that when you shoot a Resident Evil 4 villager in the head it explodes into tiny little pieces and a giant insect-like flailing beast comes flying out and pokes you in the eye? The three-way mini-game, or better, the “drop the poor caged prisoner into the raging fires of Hades” puzzle in God of War? Collecting gay porn in Shadow Hearts? The fact that there are two narrative lines in Knights of the Old Republic that are cleverly intertwined to contain the same plot points? Or maybe it’s how in Halo, you know you are playing as that Arbiter guy because everything on the your HUD is purple, not blue. It is not an insignificant fact that the games listed above are among the cream of the crop for the last few years. Even the good games do not reach for a very high level of discourse. Think back on all the games you’ve played and examine them with the same critical eye that you would a serious book or film. Do any really speak in a way that goes beyond “huh huh huh, cool, that boss is dead”?

Now, this is not an entirely bad thing. Games are supposed to be fun, and adolescent power fantasies, science fiction opera stories, and of course, stories involving jumping plumbers are a lot of fun. So it is not surprising that this is what designers go after and what we players slurp up like the obedient little lap dogs that we are. All I am saying is this: if the “industry” wants to get the serious attention that many appear to believe that it deserves, then I think that they have to start to rethink what it means to create a “serious” or “mature” game. Games have to look beyond the aesthetic sensibilities of the 16-24 year old, even though those sensibilities are apparently an almost endless source of easy revenue. Furthermore, game players and journalists have to stop giving juvenile games that happen to get that “M” rating a free ride with respect to alleged maturity.

The problem with the idea that Nintendo only makes “kiddie” games is not just that the statement is misleading and narrow, even though it is. Nintendo makes excellently designed games. It just so happens that many of them use characters that are appealing to children. This appeal is an incidental corollary to the fact that the games are excellent to begin with, and actually appeal to everyone with a pulse. The problem is also not that the statement is derisive and filled with contempt, even though it often is. No one should mock, or hold Nintendo in contempt for what they do. The real problem with such statements is the implicit assumption that the other players in this industry are not making childish games. This is false. Everyone is making almost nothing but childish video games.

If we want people to take video games seriously, we have to make, and buy, games that deserve such treatment. In other words, everyone, not just Nintendo, has to start thinking about how to make games that are not “too kiddie”.