Sunday, October 24, 2010

Narrative, ambiguity and player engagement: Exploring the desert of Fallout: New Vegas

One thing I think is fairly clear, going over a lot of my previous articles, is that I'm very into games that are able to provide a genuine glimpse into our experience as human beings.  A lot of games are only able to handle this on a surface level, with simplistic themes that go no farther beyond life and death, or a one-sided, traditionally romantic view of love.  Sometimes, though, a game comes along and really makes me take notice of deeper themes.  That game for me, at least right now, is Fallout: New Vegas.  In this article, I'm going to examine one specific subplot in the game, and it's a relatively important one, not so much for its value to the main story, but in fleshing out the world and the depth of the people that inhabit it.  Since the game has just come out, I'll say right up front: spoiler warning.  It isn't integral to your enjoyment of the game, but I think it's more rewarding as something you discover on your own.

To understand the conflict, I'll need to give a history lesson, so I apologise in advance.  The Khans were a group of Raiders introduced in Fallout, back in 1997, and were one of three large Raider tribes on the West Coast - the Jackals and the Vipers were the other two, but they were never seen in any of the original games.  Raiders, in Fallout canon, are effectively semi-civilised groups with a strong warrior code of honour, who live off of the pillaging and fighting of other, usually weaker groups.  Despite being numerous, they were always too scattered to ever have a significant impact on the development of the rest of civilisation, only posing a major threat to travelers and small communities like Shady Sands.  It was only in Fallout 2, when the Khans were mobilised into a more coherent fighting force by the sole survivor of the original Vault Dweller's attack on the Khans, Darion, that they began to become a significant fighting force, but once again they were mostly wiped out by the Chosen One.

In Fallout: New Vegas, the remaining Khans, this time taking on the mantle of the Great Khans in an effort to relive their former glory, are a broken people living on the fringes of the civilised world.  The Khans are no longer a Raider group so much as they are a tribal society, ironic since their type used to be responsible for much of the tribal enslavement in the past.  While they were fairly large in number, they never posed too significant a threat to anyone - they were content with leading their fairly isolated life, with small raids taking pot-shots on the weak as usual.  The Khans were very much convinced of their place as the Wasteland's rulers, but new parties would soon enter into the picture that put that into question.

It was only natural that tensions would start to bubble and boil as the civilised world started to press down on the Khans.  The New California Republic, the largest bastion of civilisation on the West Coast, began to expand East into Nevada in order to secure the city of Las Vegas, and eventually ended up pressing against the Great Khans' borders.  The Great Khans were largely opposed to what they saw as a domineering and controlling group of people - to their eyes, the NCR was just another weak, wasteland bully that they could hunt.  Unfortunately for them, the Khans also vastly underestimated the size, strength and ambition of the NCR.

 The Great Khans' tribal way of life looks increasingly
outdated as the NCR continues to rebuild Western civilisation.

The NCR wouldn't have it, and decided to get serious about the conflict with the Khans.  In a battle at Bitter Springs, one of the largest Khan villages, the NCR crushed resistance and killed a great deal of the Khans' women and children as they fled.  The accounts of this vary depending on who you ask - the NCR claims the attack was due to a communication error, but the Khans to the present day perceive the slaughter of their families and loved ones as part of the effort to wipe them out.  As a player, it's very difficult to know who to trust in this situation.  On the one hand, the Khans are obviously bitter and despise the NCR for what they did, but their opinions are often totally unreasonable, assuming the NCR wants nothing more than to conquer the world; on the other hand, the NCR insists they aided the Khans as best they could after the tragedy, offering medical supplies and giving the Khans a portion of land to settle as their own at Red Rock Canyon, but at the same time it's hard to trust the NCR's official stance when they're so content in using propaganda to spread their influence.  In response, the Khans decided to ally themselves with Caesar's Legion, a strict barbarian order from East of Hoover Dam, who are intent on destroying or enslaving all in their way.  The Khans' hatred for the NCR is so great that they are willing to work with a group who show no mercy towards others, ignoring the fact that they stand to be destroyed just as the NCR will be.

This situation might well be one of the most interesting to uncover in the game.  Unlike the main storyline, the details of this conflict are picked up from idle comments of various characters, speaking to those involved, and traveling the Mojave Wasteland for signs of what might have happened.  Many games would be content to provide the details of the conflict up front on a silver platter, but New Vegas requires the player to pick up the pieces on his or her own, without ever providing a clear answer as to precisely what happened at Bitter Springs.  As a player, it's one of the most compelling parts of the game from a narrative standpoint, because it hooks directly into the main strength of the gaming medium, interactivity.  As outside observers, we're forced to take a look at all the evidence on display, as much or as little as we are able to find, and then asked to make a judgement call about who to support.  And depending on what one's particular opinions and ideologies are, it can be a hard choice to make.

Having Caesar's Legion indirectly involved only makes things more difficult, since the Legion is the major enemy faction in the game and helping the Khans could also bolster the Legion's strength.  The Legion rose to power specifically because their leader was able to unite dozens of tribes like the Khans, all of whom were in denial of their own increasing irrelevance to the world, and were therefore willing to delude themselves into thinking an alliance with Caesar would be to their benefit.  It's hard not to look at the situation and feel sorry for the Khans - they're clearly a people who have had it rough for decades, and as much as one wants to tell them to grow up and get over their rivalries, at the same time it's clear that their independent and free lifestyle has a lot of merits as well... at least if one overlooks the violence they commit against others.

 Caesar's Legion are a warlike, Roman-inspired empire made out
of conquered tribes.  Are they really the best option for long-term stability?

There's a number of strong parallels to real-world history in this subplot.  One reading of it can compare the Khans to many of the Native American and Native Canadian peoples that populated North America before their colonisation and gradual destruction by the more technologically advanced and numerous Europeans, or in the case of New Vegas, the NCR.  In both the fictional and real-world scenarios, the larger groups saw fit to take over the territory of "lesser" peoples and assimilate them into their own culture, officially in the name of progress and well-being for all, but unofficially in the name of economic expansion.  Much like the real-world situation, oftentimes the NCR had to resort to some pretty shady, sometimes outright bloody dealings to get what they wanted, all while conveniently glossing over or forgetting about those deeds and doing little more than paying the occasional lip service.  And, of course, it's hard to ignore the NCR relocating the Khans to a new location - ostensibly for their own benefit, but really just because Red Rock Canyon was useless to the NCR's goals and it was an effective way of getting rid of it, all the while claiming the much more advantageous Bitter Springs as their own.

Of course, this isn't the only reading that one could make of this conflict.  Depending on your perspective, it could also seem a heck of a lot like the United States' invasion of Vietnam, or the persecution and slavery of Africans in the name of American expansion and nation-building, or any other number of things.  On a more general level, it simply relates to the theme of old-world sensibility and tradition versus the progress of technology, science, mass culture and urbanisation.  The brilliant part about the videogame medium is that it is able to draw us in like no other, and through the use of allegory, allow us to relate to in-game situations through our own real-world experiences, and vice-versa.  Fallout: New Vegas is doubly successful because the fictional situation it presents to us isn't just something we can optionally read into, but it's also morally ambiguous enough for us to identify with whichever party we want to - and if it's our decision in the end to walk away from it, then that's also available.

It's these sorts of plots in games that really make me appreciate them.  On a more immediate and obvious level, it's a good way to flesh out the world and the characters, and add some moral grey areas to what may otherwise be a fairly clear-cut political situation.  It also helps tie into the main story of the game - it's not necessary at all that the player understands it, but being able to experience it enhances our enjoyment of the game and allows us to get just that much more out of it.  Beyond that, though, it is able to make us think about how we interact with games as a medium, and how their strengths can be utilised to provide for a better and more engaging narrative experience.  And, perhaps most importantly, it is able to improve our understanding of the world we live in, so that we might better deal with the challenges that face us.  Hats off to Obsidian to once again bringing the depth back that was so utterly lacking in Bethesda's Fallout 3.  I know who I want making Fallout games from now on!

[Image credit]

Saturday, October 16, 2010

World building in games: top-down or bottom-up?

Have you ever played a game and felt that something was "out of place", that it "didn't fit" or that a character did something which seemed illogical in a certain situation?  Chances are you've just run into one of my primary concerns with most games beyond those of mere mechanics, which is world design.  Designing a game and a story isn't just about gameplay elements.  I've spoken at length in the past about how an artistic game will be a cohesive experience, and for me, building the right world for the game to take place in and feed off of is at the basis of creating that cohesion.  Proper world design isn't just setting, but rather, it is the basis for the events, circumstances, characters, plot threads, emotional tone and gameplay mechanics that can be found in any game.  In this article I'd like to discuss two somewhat different approaches to world design in games, including both what I see as their upsides and downsides.  I believe this topic is especially important to bring up now, due to the fact that so many games are being built as franchises.  Having a consistent world between games in a franchise is a major benefit and brings a sense of familiarity, and inspires artists, designers and writers to create something interesting within limitations.

The first approach, and the one which is most common to games, is to start "from the gameplay first" or top-down.  By this, I mean that when approaching a game, a developer will try to decide what their gameplay mechanics, themes, and general player experiences are before they go into constructing the universe it takes place in, the characters that are involved, the storyline specific to that game, etc.  This approach is the one that the "classic" console game developers, such as Nintendo, Konami, Capcom, Sega etc. tend to take, with the aesthetic side of games built after the mechanics are made solid.  It's also how Valve Software, one of the premier Western developers, handles their own games.  I'd like to think that this might be, at least for those who want to make "just games", the more flexible approach, and I'm sure that a lot of the developers who follow it will agree with that statement.

Zelda's world is expansive and engrossing, but it's also
just a fancy coat of paint for its real focus - gameplay.

As an example, take The Legend of Zelda series of games.  While it's true that the series has a fairly robust cast of characters and fiction, the truth is that Zelda has very little to do with these bare aesthetic elements.  "Link", "Ganon" and "Zelda" are only integral to the Zelda series insofar as they are icons we associate with the games; essentially, they're good for marketing and brand recognition purposes, since they are familiar to players.  Strip these away, though, and you'll find that those elements of the games are little more than surface details.  The real meat of the series is in the combat, puzzles and exploration, all perfectly balanced with each other and honed to a point.  A lot of the effort that goes into the Zelda games has very little to do with "Zelda" at all.  While this is a testament to the quality of Nintendo's internal development teams, it also demonstrates just how superficial Zelda can be.  That's not to discount the quality of the Zelda fiction, but rather, to draw attention to the way that Zelda's world is built around its gameplay, and not vice-versa.

There's little doubt that taking this approach to game design has its major strengths.  Not having what may be seen as arbitrary limits on what you can do from a development perspective is extremely freeing - you can have any gameplay element you want, and you don't have to worry too much about it contradicting your fiction or your world.  If there is a contradiction players are likely to notice, you can usually come up with an explanation of some sort, and most will be satisfied (such explanations can be as simple as adding a small bit of plain text, maybe in the form of a book, or an off-hand line of dialogue, but can be much deeper if the developer wishes).  It also means that, at least early on, your gameplay can determine what direction your story, characters and universe go.  Sci-fi setting not working for you?  You don't have to worry about scrapping hundreds or thousands of hours of work put into building a world if you haven't built it yet.

Of course, there are some downsides to this as well.  Namely, you risk sacrificing a cohesive world, as I mentioned earlier, something which I think is highly integral to the success of a game.  This can be circumvented, of course, if a developer is mindful, but too much disregard for consistency in story, premise, world, characters and all those elements will leave a game feeling disconnected and out of sync.  Sometimes, players will overlook it, especially if it's a case of them being "just there for the multiplayer".  Modern Warfare 2 may well be one of the best recent examples of world building done wrong, with vague conflicts and character motivations all around.  Infinity Ward's attempt to create cool and sometimes shocking scenes and scenarios largely backfired by focusing too much on the spectacle and too little on the reasons for events happening.  Players might like pretty explosions, but it's important that they care about, much less understand, what is happening in the game and why.

The second approach I'd like to mention is the opposite: starting world design first and building your game on top of it, which I'll refer to as bottom-up.  Rather than taking what you think might be a good idea and then trying to shoehorn it into a larger framework, instead, it's the framework that you start with.  This is often a huge amount of work, but the attention to detail and care that goes into this is also something that really shows through in your game.  Not only is the player exploring a ruin, for instance, but it's a ruin with strong history and situated within a larger world, which isn't just implied through vague imagery, but that can be explained clearly by the writers of the game.  When it comes time for a developer to really hunker down and build a game, chances are they'll have a very strong idea of what it can and should be if they opt to build their world this way.

This is Dragon Age's world, Thedas.  It's big.  You can bet on
the fact that the majority of those locations all have strong stories to tell, too.

A more recent example of a game taking this approach is Dragon Age: Origins.  The game took about five years to make, and it shows.  The depth and detail in the world is stellar, from the world map looking like a real piece of topography and not something built for gameplay convenience, to the locations and even architecture of cities and towns, to the various competing in-game religions, to the racial tensions between different characters.  Despite the small number of Qunari characters in the game, there is a long and storied history chronicled within in-game texts providing a logical explanation for their rarity.  Even the premise for the story itself is something grounded in thousands of years of fiction, and story events of Dragon Age itself are just small pieces of that fiction.  Although there are a few rough spots here and there, like the isolated village of Haven, overall Dragon Age can be seen as a modern testament to what having a cohesive world can bring.

The benefits of this approach are pretty obvious.  Not only does having a strong universe add a lot of colour and flavour to a game, it also means that characters, story, locations and situations are all situated as part of a larger whole, and thus are likely to make more sense.  As players, we get a real sense of immersion from being able to see that, say, a certain community was built because of a particular reason, which we can then investigate, and so on.  Sometimes it can provide shorthands for storytelling - if the player is informed in advance of certain circumstances, designers can rely on them to recall that knowledge later on in order to cut down on what might be flow-damaging exposition.  On the gameplay side of things, it means that developers can find a style that's right for them, that fits in well with their fiction.  If a world is a place with large amounts of history, a huge world, and dozens of important characters, for instance, maybe a slower-paced game would work, while a fast-paced, glitzy, high technology science fiction world may be more suited to a shooter.

Unfortunately, this approach to building a game world also has a number of major downsides to it.  Creating such an expansive place can be a big problem for artists and designers because it means having a large, authoritative document that needs to be updated on a regular basis as details change.  Things need to be hammered out in stone as early as possible so that time isn't wasted on creating gameplay, plots and environments that have no place in the world.  Using the world to fuel your story and characters might well be limiting, and could even lead to use or abuse of stereotypes or obvious situations, for fear of more exotic choices being "out of place".  And, most importantly, a huge and consistent game world means that a whole, whole lot of work is spent building things that may not even appear in the game at all.  While this is true of pretty much everyone involved in creating a game (artists make thousands of sketches, level designers scrap things they have put hundreds of hours into, programmers work on features that never get used or seen by the player, etc.), for a writer, this isn't necessarily "part of the job" in the same integral way it is for those other roles.

Grand Theft Auto is a fairly rare example of a game whose world
and gameplay are intertwined so strongly that they are nearly inseparable.

I don't want to argue that one is inherently better than the other.  I think that both have their place depending on the goals of a particular game and the type of market it's intended to reach.  If you're building a role-playing game aimed at hardcore fans, for instance, it's probably best to start with a world and work your way up, because it's those reasons that will keep players interested, invested and coming back for more.  For a shooter, it might not be as important to justify what's happening; if your gameplay is strong enough, people are willing to overlook a lot of flaws, although visual appeal is also highly important to that genre.  My own preference leans towards building a world first, gameplay and story second, but that's largely due to the sorts of games that I enjoy.  I acknowledge there's room for both.

Another thing that I don't want to suggest is that these two approaches can't coexist, or that developers have to make a binary choice between one or the other.  Shifting back and forth at different points in development might prove useful depending on a game's needs, and having different parts of a team focus on one or the other is something that's going to happen simply due to the nature of their roles in development.  Level designers might still be more focused on creating fun things to do and see, while writers are inherently geared towards building an encompassing fiction.  That still doesn't mean it's not a good idea to give level designers a strong sense of the fiction and world, though, and writers should be involved in creating gameplay so that they have a better sense of what is interesting and fun for players to experience.  Of course, if you're making a sequel, there's going to be some limits on what you can and can't do regardless of your approach.

Most importantly, though, is that this isn't a formula for making good games.  It helps, most definitely, to have a solid idea of what you're doing either from a gameplay or world-building perspective before jumping into things, but that doesn't mean that a developer can ignore one or the other and hope to get things right.  A game world can be extremely compelling and interesting, but if the game is no fun to play and doesn't feature any good ideas or mechanics, it's still a failure.  This even extends to the story: a good universe with nobody interesting in it, no meaningful plots or conflicts, no emotions there for the player to experience, etc. is just going to fall flat.  A bad game is a bad game regardless of how strong one or two individual elements might be.  Players can, and usually will, forgive a few mistakes, but in the end, a game has to be able to stand up on its own as a complete experience for any of this to matter.

[Image credit 1]
[Image credit 2]
[Image credit 3]

Monday, October 4, 2010

Aesthetics vs. art in videogames

 So far, in this series on art and games, I've been examining what makes games art, the distinctions between high art and low art with respect to games, and whether or not fun is necessary for a game to be an enjoyable and rewarding experience.  This post, I'd like to wrap things up by discussing what I'd like to think is a bit of a fundamental conflict in our perception of games, which is that the "fun" side and the "art" side are somehow detached from each other, and that the success of a game as a piece of art might somehow be hampered by the pursuit of fun. I'll also be drawing a few connections between some of the ideas I've articulated in the past, and tying up a few loose ends.

It's a commonly held view in other forms of media that fun and art have to somehow be divorced from one another.  When looking at film, it's very common to treat independent or foreign films as "artistic", especially if they tend to employ a unique style of editing, colour filters, and so forth.  We understand that they're labeled as "art", and so we often use this to justify the fact that often such films aren't very successful at the box office; it's not easy to understand and to grasp, so it's reasonable to expect it'd reach a much more limited audience.  Similarly, we don't feel as if the latest installment in the James Bond or Die Hard series has to stimulate us intellectually for us to enjoy it - we're just there for the car chases, explosions, and so forth.  When it comes to music, we might think the same.  Everyone knows "that guy", the guy who's always asking you to check out the bands nobody's ever heard of, because they're "too deep and complex to be on the radio"; such a person would even take mass market success as somehow a cheapening of his favourite acts regardless of the quality of their music.

We tend to assume the same of games.  I don't think that anyone would argue that Army of Two is a work of art, in the same way that they probably wouldn't think that the latest 50 Cent album or Michael Bay film is artistic.  Just as with other forms of media, we tend to believe that commercial success (the "fun factor"), and artistic success are things that are separate from one another, so much so that we can't have it both ways unless concessions are made.  For instance, one might say that Morrowind was the pinnacle of a sandbox game, but that its gameplay systems were too complex, its world too big, and its visuals too primitive to enjoy massive sales numbers, but that its follow-up Oblivion was able to sell more units by being better-looking, easier to play, and more digestible and accessible via the removal and simplification of game features.  It could be argued that Fallout 3 was able to achieve even greater success still by including a more familiar setting, even smaller game world, more blood and gore, and firearms.  Obviously, games are able to find market success while maintaining some measure of their artistic integrity, just as with any other form of media, but one does get the sense that Modern Warfare 2 would not have sold the numbers it did if some of its action had been replaced with philosophical musings on the nature of war.

The world of Oblivion is beautiful and inviting, but many fans claim the
focus on visuals detracted from its real art, the gameplay itself.

However, there's a problem with this divide.  Our most common perception of art in games is made up of things like the visual style, the colour schemes, the the music, and sometimes the story and characters.  These are aesthetic qualities, things that are immediate to our senses, but by and large, they are also fleeting and their appeal wears off rather quickly.  Indeed, this is so much the case that often we tend to overlook aspects of gameplay and consider it separate from the rest of the game; this really does seem quite absurd to me, to spend time praising a game as art and yet only concerning ourselves with the aesthetic qualities.  One even gets the sense that the gameplay itself is rather superficial when the discussion turns to games as art.  Does the story of Final Fantasy VII in any way relate to its turn-based combat, especially as characters seem happy to break those very same rules in the cutscenes immediately following those gameplay sections?  Of course not, and yet it is supposedly one of gaming's finest works of storytelling.  How can a piece which defies the properties its very medium in any way be a pinnacle of that medium?  It seems contradictory.  The same might be said of other "art" games, including Rez, or Braid, or Limbo; they have very unique approaches to sound and music design, they have distinctive visual styles, and they are able to appeal to us on a sensory level in ways that touch us far more deeply than many other games, but at the same time we also tend to excuse the fact that, at their core, they are no more interesting than many other games on the basis of pure gameplay.  If anything, sometimes "artistic" games such as BioShock even fail to innovate or improve on ten-year-old gameplay standards.

I think much of this perspective comes from more traditional opinions about art.  The Mona Lisa is perhaps the quintessential piece of art in the world, a piece which is so highly revered and ingrained in our culture, that it is at once recognisable, powerful to behold, and leaves its audience somewhat in awe.  At the Louvre, there are walls of bulletproof glass that encase it, and people line up on a conveyor belt to parade past it, and to catch just a brief glimpse of it.  The Mona Lisa is in many ways what might be the single most defining work for the art world in the Western world, and it is the standard that we judge other pieces by, if not so much in terms of the craft of painting, than in the way we are expected to behave when in its presence.  What we take away from this is that art is something to be watched from afar, appreciated, and left undisturbed ; it is a thing to be worshipped, a thing with an aura all its own.  While we may not revere games the same way (most of them, anyway), we do tend to think about art in games with respect to the visual and the aural above all else.  It's how we've been trained to understand artwork.

Even more than 500 years after her creation, she still fills us with awe
and embodies art for the majority of people in the West.

I'd like to challenge this perspective.  I've already laid the groundwork for this in my first article on the subject, where I talked about how a unity of vision in a game is necessary for it to be art, that it's not about the music, or the graphics, but how all elements of a game, including its gameplay, story, and so forth, all come together to create a cohesive package where every piece is directed towards the same purpose.  Although the aesthetics of a game are absolutely and fundamentally important to creating a piece of art, and a game itself is often the product of thousands upon thousands of individual pieces of art, the final product itself is not any more or less art than a shopping mall would be art for hosting print of the Mona Lisa in its entry hall.  We can ignore aesthetics to some degree, if we don't like them.  Not all games appeal to us on that level, and for most people, that's where it ends, because they are more interested in being appealed to aesthetically than artistically.  If I don't care about the cast of characters and the universe in Final Fantasy, can I still enjoy the game?  Absolutely.  The art is in creating an experience which is wholly enveloping, a totality of meaning that can be understood and appreciated, even if we don't necessarily like it.

As an example, take DiRT 2.  Every single element of the game is focused towards creating a certain extreme sports mood, from the game structure and progression system, to the way the player creates rivalries and friendships with other racers, to the "in your face" visual style, to the strong soundtrack, to the unconventional approach to menus.  It might not be "arty" in the traditional sense, but it's hard to deny that the game has its focus honed to a razor point.  Were we to remove some particular aspect of it, however, say, the soundtrack, and replace it with something unsuited to the game's style, we'd instantly notice the inconsistency.  At best we'd maybe turn the music off and try to forget about it.  At worst, we'd stop playing the game.  But outright we would notice that something was wrong.  The same could be said of the game's progression system - DiRT 2 is focused on allowing the player to tour a number of exotic locations, and replacing this with a simple tournament grid simply wouldn't suffice, where the same system might be perfectly acceptable in something more refined, like Formula 1.

 DiRT 2 may not be highbrow, but everything about it is directed towards
creating an "extreme sports" attitude, gameplay included.

Now, I'm not here trying to convince anyone that DiRT 2 is the epitome of a game as a piece of art.  I'm sure fans of racing games will be willing to nitpick it to death, either for a more forgiving physics engine, or for it adopting what they feel is the wrong attitude for the series.  But as an interactive experience, I think that DiRT 2 provides an example of what a game can be when every little bit of it is concentrated upon a singular goal.  I'm not at all a fan of the "extreme sports" style the game has, but I understand it and appreciate just how well it does manage to pull it off.  The same could be said of any number of games, whether they have pretensions of artistry or not backing them up.  When viewed within the framework that I've previously expressed, I'd like to think that DiRT 2 is a very artistic game that succeeds with flying colours at those artistic goals in ways that go beyond the mere aesthetic.  As mentioned above, it is a totality that draws the player wholly into itself.

There is a pitfall of this point of view, one which I didn't go into detail about previously, and that is that when we start to think of artistry in the context of games as that unity of creative vision, we open ourselves to complacency.  It's too easy under such a paradigm to lose our critical eye, to say "so long as all the pieces fit together, it's art!"  Where previously I argued that we need to get rid of our distinctions between high art and low art, with one being inherently superior to the other, I think we need to think of high art and low art not so much in terms of Aristotle vs. Freddy Krueger, but in terms of the complexity that a game brings to the table with regards to its discourse.  BioShock is an accomplished game not because it presents an Objectivist perspective, but because it features all manner of philosophical viewpoints and allows the player to figure out and evaluate each one for him or herself.  DiRT 2 might be art, and it might even be good art, but it's never going to rival something like Braid simply because it doesn't have as much to say, even if the way both games communicate is equally effective.

I'd like to finish up this series with a few parting statements.  The first is that, yes, in the end, we're still talking about games.  They're entertainment, and entertainment value is in the end what we should be judging games on.  It's the nature of that entertainment, though, that we need to interrogate.  As I've argued, "pure fun" isn't an ideal that all games can or should aspire to, just as "pure comedy" isn't something every film should try to encapsulate.  Secondly, yes, I understand that all sorts of people play games, and for different reasons.  I don't want to leave people with the impression that I'm some ivory tower elitist who looks down upon the poor plebs as if they were ants; my goals here aren't to tell people how they should play, what they should play, and why, but rather to give people an awareness of the sorts of questions we need to ask when examining games, along with the usual suspects we use to measure quality on a more technical or mechanical level.  Last, I realise we can't judge all games by the same standards.  Sometimes a game is just a game, and it can seem pretentious to try to sort them into some sort of hierarchy.  I recognise this, and I only do it because I think we need to have some sense of scale in the gaming world.  It's too easy to lump all titles together and say that we need to take them all too seriously, or not seriously enough.  I'm not going to spend hours and hours analysing Droplitz, because I know it's a relatively straightforward puzzle game and doesn't have much to say.  The existence of a hierarchy in evaluating games doesn't consign "lower" games to the depths of mediocrity.  It's just an acknowledgement of the differences that that are a very real thing in our current games industry.

In any case, it's been fun.  Critical Miss will keep going, as always, but I'm done with this series for now.  Already I realise I'm starting to sound a little redundant, but the fact is that I'm not going to be able to discuss this topic in any more detail without attempting to boil down game design to some arcane mathematical formulas - and that's something that I feel is disingenuous both at a personal level, and towards readers.  As always, thanks for reading.

[Image credit 1]
[Image credit 2]
[Image credit 3]