I have spent a fair amount of time of late thinking about the complexities of the relationship between a serious game player and a serious game developer, and have identified three trends which I wish to discuss. The catalyst for this discussion was my relatively recent playthrough of Dragon Age II, a game which left me feeling rather jerked around.
So, for the next three weeks, I wish to discuss three specific trends in the gaming community: Expectation, Entitlement and Exploitation, and though I will discuss these trends in various contexts, each discussion will use Dragon Age II as a central example. I have chosen to us DAII as the lynchpin for this conversation partly because it has been something of a personal obsession, but also because its various controversies have shown that it is thus particularly related to several issues in the games industry.
A Quick Review
Before I get started, I figured it would be worth providing a brief review of Dragon Age II, so that there isn’t any doubt about my opinion of the game.
Generally, the first two thirds of the game aren’t quite perfect, but are very, very excellent, and the last third exaggerates the problems of the first two thirds, containing moments of brilliance, but primarily being characterized by a sort of unfinished, buggy rushedness. Finally, though its last few hours begin with a moment of absolute brilliance, the rest of the climax is absolutely dreadful and is characterized by a dramatic and incongruous shift in tone and style, major characters (particularly antagonists) behaving in wholly unbelievable ways, and, in a tremendously egregious example, the reuse of a character model from the first game’s DLC as the penultimate boss. They didn’t even bother to make it a palette-swap.
To deal with a few issues specifically: the changes in the combat system are interesting and enjoyable, and many of the mechanical ideas are fresh and worth exploring, the teamwork-inspiring “cross-class combo” mechanic in particular. That said, the designers skimped on the number and complexity of antagonists: you spend most of the game fighting the same four or five kinds of enemy, and even the most complex of villains rarely have more than two or three separate kinds of attack. Furthermore, sometimes the game’s more action-oriented spin gives it trouble– it is both easy and necessary to kite a few of the enemies, for example. (Though this is probably part of a whole ‘nother article, mechanics which encourage or even really allow kiting or other silly mechanical exploits are bad.)
The decision to half-heartedly limit the inventory system, such that you can change allies’ weapons, but not their armor, is more than a little confusing. It is important to note that there is nothing essential to the idea of a roleplaying game which necessitates inventory micromanagement, and I can definitely understand the thematic symbolism of not allowing you to change your allies’ equipment– the UI’s repeated admonition that “your friends make their own decisions about what to wear” makes sense. The game repeatedly reminds you that these are people with their own lives above and beyond your own adventures, so it makes sense they might want to be a bit less communal about their private possessions than characters in other RPGs. But if that’s true, why can I fiddle with their weapons and accessories? An individual who is proprietary about his or her clothing is likely to be more so about his or her tools and jewelry. In short, it just ends up feeling lazy, and pleasing neither camp: people who enjoy equipment micromanagement feel cheated, and those of us who might have preferred a Mass Effect 2-style streamlined system still have to deal with too many menus.
I have already come out in favor of the naming and voicing of the game’s main character, and found the conversation mechanics joyful and excellent. Further, all of the recruitable characters, including the DLC character, are excellent, some of the absolute best and most nuanced characters in roleplaying games. Several moments in the first two acts contain some of the most amazing bits of conversation I have ever experienced in a roleplaying game. The game also practically doubles the number of strong and interesting female characters in all of video game history. Aveline is awesome. The plot is wonderful, up until the third act, when it is quite rushed– character-specific quests, which up until that point have been absolutely excellent, begin to feel very rushed and confused.
In short, Dragon Age II contains brilliant ideas and sometimes excellent execution, but the game is clearly not finished. It’s a really, really, really excellent second draft.
With that said, let’s move on to the actual meat of the article.
Quality and Enjoyment
The first point I wish to make is an important distinction which will be quite relevant to this article and any other article I ever write again.
The distinction can be summarized as the difference between “liking” a work of art and stating that a work of art is “good,” or the difference between “favorite” and “best.” The words “like” and “favorite” refer to the amount which a person enjoyed a work of art, whereas the words “good” and “best” refer to what the person perceives as a work’s quality. These are two very different concepts.
Enjoyment is a purely subjective experience, and offers no real room for discussion. The statement “I liked it,” refers only to the feelings generated in me by the work. Quality, on the other hand, is an objective characteristic of a work. The statement “It is good,” is inherently a normative statement– it states that not only did I find the work valuable, but that most other people ought to, too.
In this way, you could not really argue with me if I said “I really liked The Phantom Menace.” You could be sad for me, and might be morally obligated to pray for the state of my obviously degraded soul, but would have no real avenue for disagreement. The facts involved relate wholly to whether or not I liked the movie. I am only making a claim about myself, and I am, after all, the only real expert on the topic of my own likes and dislikes.
If, however, I was to say that “The Phantom Menace is a good movie,” there would be room for discussion. In that case, I would be making a claim about the movie itself. Should you feel compelled to argue this point with me, you could point to the lackluster script, the obnoxious special effects, the frequently wooden acting, the execrable plot, etc, etc, etc, as reasons why The Phantom Menace is not a good movie, regardless of how much I might like it.
It is wholly possible to like something that isn’t very good, or to not like something which is. I happen to have something of a soft spot in my heart for Lady in the Water, though it’s not what you would call a particularly good film. Similarly, though I gain little to no enjoyment from the average Gran Turismo game, I understand that they are usually very good. Furthermore, there’s nothing wrong with this. Taste differs, and not every work of art will appeal to every person.
You’re Not A Very Good Dog, Cat
One of my Fundamental Axioms of Games Criticism is that a game’s artistic quality is at least partly determined by its scope, and I wrote an article a few weeks back discussing that idea in some detail. The fundamental point behind the axiom is that a game’s artistic quality should be judged, in large part, based on what sort of game it is trying to be. This is, furthermore, just as true of any other work of art as it is of video games.
At a very macro level, no one’s going to disagree with me about this. It would not make sense to be mad at Portal for not including an inventory system, or to criticize Final Fantasy VII because it’s not a very good survival horror game, but it does make sense to criticize Gears of War 2 for having a nonsensical plot. But on a more specific level, I find that this ties in very closely with the Problem of Expectation.
By “expectations,” I simply mean the preconceived notions of what you believe a game ought to be that you bring to the table (or couch, more likely) when you start playing a video game. These expectations can originate from a game’s associated marketing campaigns, previous games in a franchise, other games made by a developer, the opinions of friends, recurring tropes in the game’s genre, or any number of other sources. These expectations are part of what allow us to sort through a collection of games on Steam and decide which ones are likely to appeal to us.
The Problem of Expectation can arise when one’s expectations become too specific, and thus engage in conflict with the designers’ artistic vision. Allow me to illustrate what I mean with an example.
When I first began to play Assassin’s Creed, I had a very specific conception in mind for how I thought an assassin should behave, and attempted to play the game accordingly. Assassins, I reasoned, should attempt to flit in and out of a given area completely unnoticed, dealing as little extra damage to persons and property as possible, and drawing as little attention to themselves as possible. While playing the game, I thus attempted to be perfectly undetected in my every move, never to engage in combat except when absolutely necessary, and only to do high-profile actions like running on rooftops or attacking miscellaneous guards when I absolutely had to.
And I wasn’t haven’t a particularly good time. Getting across any of the cities took forever if I strolled casually through the city streets, and was just as monotonous as it was time-consuming. I overplanned my major assassination contracts only to have my intricate plans thwarted by scripted events which called for me to rapidly run on rooftops in mortal combat with several enemies at once.
Frustrated, I complained to Matt (I was playing it on his Xbox) that “I thought this was supposed to be a stealth game.” He looked at me and said something to the effect of “No, not really. It’s a sandbox game with stealth elements,” and the lights of heaven opened up above me. I finally understood! Assassin’s Creed is not a game where you play an undetectable shadow, it’s a game where you play a badass. Suddenly, all of the jumping off of impossibly-high buildings and brutal counterattacks made a lot of sense to me, and I found the game much more enjoyable. Assassin’s Creed is far from perfect, but it works a lot better when held to its own standards, rather than whatever arbitrary things I had cooked up and brought to the table.
I had let my expectations for the game get in between me and the artistic vision of the developers, and in so doing, damaged both my enjoyment of the game, and my perception of the game’s quality. Rather than engaging with the game itself, I was trying to engage with the game I thought it was, thereby gaining a skewed and incorrect perspective about the game’s quality and enjoyability.
“Look, I Found A Slightly Better Hat,” and Other Epic Tales
I think very few games have suffered more from the vagaries and foibles of Expectation than Dragon Age II, which, as mentioned above, opted to dramatically change several key mechanical elements and design philosophies from Dragon Age: Origins, and instantly received a great deal of flak for said decisions. At the end of the day, it deserved some of this flak, as I’ve mentioned in my quick review above.
But what is most curious is that it received a great deal of this criticism long before the game ever hit stores. Longtime BioWare fans complained at the consolidation of the numerous character options from Origins into a single named and voiced character. They complained about the less tactical and more action-oriented nature of the combat. They complained about the simplified inventory system, and they did all of this even before the demo came out, when at most, if they were very lucky, they might have played 20 minutes of the game at PAX or some similar con.
Most of these folks did not seem to consider that it was conceivably possible that the designers behind Dragon Age II had very good reasons for the changes they made. Further, at the time everyone first became so upset, since the game had yet been released, it was still possible that each of the changes worked beautifully and contributed to a dynamic and beautiful whole. The only possible reason to be upset at this point was if the game did not conform to your expectations.
And that, my friends, is a silly reason to be mad at a video game. Players whined that they were going to be forced to play the role of Hawke, rather than one of a number of possible characters from different backgrounds, when that is the entire point of Dragon Age II. The entire development team behind Dragon Age II frequently described it as a smaller story, focusing on one individual person’s rise to power. Whether you “like” this kind of story better than the sweeping epic of Dragon Age: Origins is up to you, but it is preposterous to criticize DAII for having a small focus when that is exactly what it was trying to do. It’s like picking up a jar of grape jelly, clearly labeled “GRAPE JELLY” in large, attractive letters on the label and then somehow being surprised when it contains a sticky, jam-like substance flavored largely like the fruit of Vitis vinifera.
|WTF is this?|
You don’t have to like grape jelly. You are definitely allowed to prefer strawberry jelly, or even peanut butter. But the quality of a jar of grape jelly needs to be evaluated compared to other jars of grape jelly. The reduced scope of the game should be used as one of the premises against which to evaluate it, not an evaluatable (not a word) fact in and of itself. The problem with DAII’s tightened scope is the fact that it abandons it at the very end of the game. Dragon Age II deserves to be criticized for a variety of reasons, but among them is not the fact that it is not peanut butter.
Conclusion: On Expectation and Art
Some will argue that the designers behind DAII shouldn’t have made the changes they did because the audience clearly didn’t like those changes. If everyone prefers peanut butter, and you make grape jelly, it might be good grape jelly, but you still haven’t pleased your audience. This is a problem I will mostly tackle next week, in my discussion of Entitlement, but I will leave you with the following thought about the difference between art and entertainment.
Art is about what the artist(s) want(s) to communicate. It is not about giving the audience exactly what they want to hear/see/play. Successful art certainly needs to engage with the audience in order to communicate with them, but art is not simply about giving the audience exactly what they expect. Giving the audience what they want is the purpose of entertainment. Art may sometimes function as entertainment, and usually needs to be somewhat entertaining in order to appeal to a large crowd, but it is a fundamentally different thing.
No fan of 19th-century symphonic music would have said that he or she particularly wanted to hear loud, bombastic brass and percussion in the concert hall, and certainly would not have expected it. But that’s what Beethoven gave them, and we are very, very glad that he did. If Beethoven had focused only on giving the audience what they wanted, not only would we be without the great masterpieces he wrote, the whole history of western music would be much, much less interesting.
Game developers do need to keep gamers’ expectations in mind, as any game which completely subverts them in every way is likely to be very disorienting and difficult to follow. But if we, as gamers, want to experience games as art, and not merely as entertainment, we have to be willing to put our preconceived expectations of genre or convention aside, and try to engage with games on their own terms. We will almost certainly end up preferring certain types of stories and modes of storytelling over others, but this does not mean that we must dismiss out of hand as “boring” or “bad” works that fall outside our favored genres or styles.