This post is just some elaboration on some short Twitter threads I posted over the past weeks.
Someone posted a quote by Flannery O’Connor on Twitter.
It’s a sentiment I agree with: while reviews and criticism are useful for helping me ground and deepen my understanding of a game or book, there’s a lot inherent to the experience of consuming a complex work that can’t be replicated merely through summary or a few sentences or tweets.
When I saw this back in June, I tweeted a bit about not liking elevator pitch/GIF-driven design. While I think it’s good to have something about your game that translates well to showing it to people who only look at something for a few seconds – I also think that there’s a path in which you prioritize or overfocus on social media appeal that could weaken the core of the game. This mostly comes to mind because I see developers who scream about “Elevator Pitches”, but the thing is that ANY game can have a good elevator pitch and I feel like yelling about this gets young developers to interpret it as “well the whole GAME has to be elevator pitch-able!” which… it shouldn’t! Some games when I see them – they feel optimized to ‘look good’ on Twitter or attract the eyes of publishers. When games are primary driven by an urge to appeal to trends of the time, they feel… flatter to me – designed for some generalized viewer’s immediate pleasure or amusement instead of anything deeper.
I like to think about Anodyne 2. Had we been overly concerned with the game being easy to pitch, we probably wouldn’t have combined 3D and 2D, right? It’s impossible to ‘pitch’ Anodyne 2 in 10 seconds, so I ended up focusing on the ‘nostalgia adjacency’ of the graphics (even though that wasn’t a deciding factor of why we chose low poly art/pixel art)
Worrying about elevator pitches or how well the game translates to GIFs… especially in pre-production/planning – can really bog you down and prevent you from brainstorming more exciting design ideas.
The Future of Games
Leading on from that, it makes me think about games that we’ve seen praised as ‘the future of games’ for looking very realistic or basically being movies. I mean… if you’re reading this I probably don’t need to convince you that what Corporate Games offer us is an extremely narrow view of what’s possible. The future of games feels like more games that are hard to define or describe without playing, one where one player’s comparisons might vastly differ from another player’s. Games whose creation and design are inspired by more than lofty ideals of someone’s GDC talk or famous games in a particular genre – games inspired by history, the current era’s events, etc…
Marina wrote a good essay about “Divesting” from the Games Industry – imagining other futures for games. https://medium.com/@even_kei/divest-from-the-video-games-industry-814a1381092d
Right now a lot of indies seem to be designing for the ‘present’ of games. Trying to find the next slight modification to a niche that’ll grab the attention of streamers. Focusing on art too early at the expense of design, trying to game social media to maximize retweets and favorites. Creating games like a business (sure, that’s necessary to an extent if you’re doing it for a living, but pursuing this to its logical end of scaling/hiring… only results in having to rely on funding and conservative market-tested game ideas)
The Present of Indie Games: A Field Of Funhouse Mirrors Reflecting Gods
Games often feel like some kind of weird pyramid scheme where indies collectively pay tribute to Gods (the “classics” of games… Mario, Zelda, etc), treating the games as the ideals which can never be surpassed. Designers take their design for granted, imitating it without thinking about where those choices came from. The games that result are these strange mixes and distortions of those games: like a house full of mirrors, distorting and misshaping things.
Occasionally in this system, one developer manages to strike gold, via pent up nostalgia for games – Pokemon, Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, Zelda, Metroid… in essence it feels like occasionally, these eternal game brands are rewarding a few lucky developers for sacrificing enough of their life in order to resurrect the brand in the minds of many players. Occasional clever twists may come and go, but indie games often feel eternally stuck in the past, even if their art may be updated for present-day tastes.
Obviously as designers we’re indebted to the past… we hone our craft and art by analyzing the past and looking for trends and seeing how other designers handled problems. But we don’t need to put ourselves in the shadow of a popular game – thinking of ourselves as inferior replicas. Doing that only guarantees that we forever get trapped running circles in the past. Our ideas have worth: they have more worth than the ideas of large corporations trying to drown out the entire audience of game players.
Okay, this isn’t related to any of the above. What the hell is with gacha mobile games being so damn laggy? I can see the future now… in 2040s, GDC talks will be about how “Lag” teaches patience. It’ll be taboo to have a UI transition take over 0.1 seconds. Changing a volume slider takes 10 seconds BECAUSE it encourages mindfulness. And then some indie designer who got famous for a meme game about being a shoe named “hat” in the 2020s will win a BAFTA in 2050 for “removing lag from games”, showing their vision…
But… anyways… laggy mobile gacha games. Clicking on buttons, opening menus – everything takes 3 seconds because the game has to contact a server to make sure you’re not cheating so that the IAPs people purchase are legit and so on. God, what a miserable fucking future for games, where every single one of our button presses are verified by some anti-security thing. Once you realize Gacha games are so anti-cheat because – otherwise – it would discourage gambling-addicted players from spending thousands in order to grind and rank at the top of time limited events if their achievements were dampened by cheaters – Gacha games feel a lot more grim.
Moreover, every time I open a Gacha game, within 5 minutes I get depressed and think about how literally anything I could be doing would be more worthwhile than playing this fucking Gacha game. Fuck gacha games. So many (all?) gacha games are a mediocre gameplay system padded out , and maybe peppered with scraps of story (or decent one, hello FGO). The characters are then themed on gross anime stereotypes and possessing idealized women or men. Everything about the game is designed for user retention.
After a few hours, you hit a wall. You need better gear! Whoops! Better play the game on Saturdays at 3:10 PM to 3:35 PM to grind for Pink Slime Gel so I can level up my Unfulfilled Highschool Waifu Fantasy to “Decadence Rank 14” so I can get +10% damage against Chocolate-type monsters to beat the new event quest under 14.5 seconds!!!
Gacha games are exploitative as fuck, designed to take advantage of people prone to gambling addictions, and giving the rest of us mild dopamine hits. A $70 single time game purchase is a hell of a lot more honest than well, Gacha Games. Also Gacha Games are ahistorical and will be canned the instant they’re not profitable.
I look forward to seeing designers in 10 years reflect upon their childhoods playing this crap.
I will say that they’re not worthless to play. Actually, the idea of a game taking up a tiny bit of time over a long period of our lives is interesting. Some games already do this. It’s just gacha games are the absolute worst form of this and only encourage habits that make us sad or give FOMO when we forget to get a daily login bonus.
In fact I’m willing to admit there’s probably a good gacha game out there! Haven’t found it yet though!
Okay, that was therapeutic… uh..
What I’ve Been Consuming
Ihatovo Monogatari (SNES)
I was lucky enough to get to play this for a HardcoreGaming101 Podcast. It’s a very simple game where each short arc is based on a Kenji Miyazawa short story (he’s a famous Japanese poet and writer from the early 20th century). It’s pretty experimental for the SNES – to be honest, it pales pretty badly in comparison to the original works, but I have to give the game credit for trying. It’s mostly walking around trying to find the next character to talk to in order to progress the story – which isn’t something I dislike, but it’s often hard to figure out what to do in Ihatovo…
Miyazawa’s short stories are full of the natural world coming alive in mystical or strange ways, and are often clever or funny subversions on fairy tale, fable or other short story formats of the time. I read through a book of his short stories and enjoyed some of the humor and surrealness, as well as how his deep experience with agriculture (I think) influences his writing. A lesson that we should all get hobbies! Ha ha ha…
All Flowers Bloom (A Novel)
This is the 2nd novel by Kawika Guillermo, who is also a professor who studies games, race and more! This novel is about a spirit in the afterlife who is on some ‘afterlife cruise’ and occasionally jumps into the ocean to revisit their past lives, always looking for some lost love. I’m only about halfway, but it’s a fun and exciting novel that jumps across 4,000 years of time from a wide array of perspectives. I’m… not describing it that well, but trust me, it’s good!
Well, that sure seems like enough for today’s writing!
Um… join me next week (if I manage to write…)