31 August 2011

The Pablum Era

These days videogames tend to be fun, breezy little experiences. They are grin-inducing diversions that leave you feeling like a winner. Do the slightest thing, however banal, and suddenly the game is beeping and booping all over the place and raining virtual confetti down upon your laurel leaf-crowned head.

"Well, now! Look at you!" games seem to say. "What a spectacularly gifted human being you are! I know that you and I barely know each other, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and make a guess that you, Handsome Face--is it OK if I call you Handsome Face?--are something of a gaming savant. Aren't you? Come, now--no need to be humble. Now, go ahead and accept this oversized check made out in your name. And enjoy another four or five happy little ditties along with all these glorious rainbows shooting all over the f---ing place! IT'S ALL FOR YOU, CHOSEN ONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

But there was a time, not all that long ago, when games weren't afraid to be cruel exercises in dark agony (Cruel Exercises in Dark Agony = the title of my grad school poetry thesis); when they'd ask you to perform impossible task after impossible task and, upon completing said tasks, after dozens upon dozens of game-over screens, you'd be given the most meager of rewards for your effort. Games once said to us: "Hey, guess what? After all that bullshit you just went through, it turns out that the princess is actually in another castle. Oh man, if only you could see the dumb expression on your face right now. This is what you look like: 'Dur, dur, dur, dur, dur.' " Games said: "Every doubt you've ever had about yourself? About you sucking at everything and being a huge loser? All of that shit is absolutely f---ing true."

The reward-to-effort ratio these days is, by my far-from-scientific estimates, around ten to one. In other words, gamers typically get around 10 cutscenes, 10 door-opening keys, 10 Achievements Unlocked or 10 variations on a confetti shower for every sole bit of effort that they invest into a game. During the '80's and '90's, the opposite was true. Gamers had to invest 10 times the effort and time into a game in order to squeeze out the smallest, stalest bread crumb of encouragement. (Stale Bread Crumbs of Encouragement = Another solid title for a graduate school poetry thesis.)

To be clear, I'm not waxing poetic for a golden age of thumb-busting gaming here. I'm not saying that one is better or worse. All I'm saying is that most of us are walking the earth thinking that we are better gamers--and, perhaps by extension better people--than we actually are.

Over the last five years or so, games have gone from being a niche hobby to having mass appeal. Part of the reason that the medium has achieved this kind of commercial success is that game makers have become incredibly savvy when it comes to making everyone--including your mom, a.k.a. the very person who once chastised you for playing games--feel like winners. In other words, if you build it, and you create a cleverly designed feedback loop that makes them feel awesome, they will come.

Exhibit A: Game Over screens are an endangered species these days. Think about it--when was the last time you saw a Game Over or You're Dead, or in the case of Bayonetta, the "Witch Hunts Are Over" screen?

Imagine if you could pleasure a lover--a complicated task, as most of us can attest--simply by touching her on the very tip of her nose. One little tiny tap--boop!--and suddenly she is in the throes of passion. Seeing the results of your tap-boop, you would no doubt think, Surely I must be counted among the world's most skilled and gifted lovers. Or, imagine if you merely wrote your name at the top of your SAT only to have an entire marching band suddenly enter the testing hall along with a bald man in jacket and tie offering you a full scholarship to any university--any school in the world--that you'd like go to. Or, imagine if you invested a mere $10 in the stock market only to have--well, you get the idea.

If these things actually happened, the direct result would be an over-developed and undeserved sense of confidence in one's self. Egos would be inflated to Macy's Thanksgiving Parade-balloon size. People would walk the streets thinking, I'm hot shit, even when they are in fact not even remotely close to being hot shit.

That's what's happening in videogames these days.

One of the first games with mass appeal was 1984's Tetris. Blocks would descend from the top of the screen, Russian MIDI music would play, and everyone--even casual gamers--had a high old time. It's interesting to note that there was never any sort of "winning" in Tetris; all you could do effectively in Tetris was stave off inevitable failure. Because no matter how skilled you were, every Tetris player on the planet is eventually overwhelmed by the bricks. If anyone technically wins in Tetris, it's not the player; it's the bricks.

Compare Tetris with 2007's Peggle, which requires minimal, if any, skill, and is nothing but winning. Fire a tiny ball into a row of dots, watch it bounce from dot to dot, then bask in the glow of the message "EXTREME FEVER!" appearing onscreen while Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" blares in the background. If you're feeling a little low today, take in a couple of quick games of Peggle. Peggle can turn your day around right quick.

Peggle marks the beginning of the Pablum Era in gaming. The bulk of what's offered to gamers these days, with rare exceptions, is sugar-coated and dumbed down and already chewed. Few games, if any, dare pose a bona fide challenge for fear that someone might find the game too challenging and stop playing. Games are inherently insecure entities. They show up in our lives all smiley and smelling good, hoping with all their hearts that we really, really like them.

Whenever a game does come along that's not afraid to make a gamer question his or her self-worth--examples include From Software's Demon's Souls, Retro's Donkey Kong Country Returns, and Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden games--said game garners a reputation as a "hard" game, or as a game that would appeal exclusively to "old school" or "retro" gamers.

I'm not against games that make people feel good about themselves. As I've said many times through the years, I play videogames to feel like a winner and a hero; I play games because I want to see things and do things and experience things that I can't see/do/experience in my regular litter box-scooping, bill-paying, laundry-doing life.

But when I play something like the acclaimed Jetpack Joyride, which everyone on the planet seems to be playing today, a game which requires me only to tap repeatedly on the iPad's touchscreen--no, it does not even matter where I tap; just tap anywhere--only to receive glorious explosions, spinning slot machines, and more coin-jangling sound effects than an Atlantic City casino for my "efforts," it's difficult sometimes not to feel like Pavlov's dopiest dog.


  1. I may be on my own here, but I miss the simplicity of gaming. I'm not a big gamer but I used to be. Not sure what happened. Can't play games on my phone because it's old. I do however play some games on the computer. I don't know, sometimes I think we have gotten ahead of ourselves so fast, if you're not on top of it you get lost in it all.

  2. My mom used to bust my balls when Super Ghouls and Ghosts would get the best of me and I would start punching things. Doubt that happens much anymore.

  3. I miss watching the male figures in my life get frustrated over games. Throwing tantrums (or controllers), swearing at or around me, or just dismiss the game completely and go to bed. People now just do the task repeatedly or get a walkthrough and there's no fuss. Now that irks me.

  4. angry birds is pretty difficult..

  5. Can I name my band the pablum era?

  6. Pablum, indeed. That's not to say I don't like the occasional de-constituted treat. But like pablum, after the first few tastes unless you're really hungry you start to grow bored. Sometimes these games feel like cheap, one-night stands-- a fun romp which you may or may not regret (or confess to) in the morning.

    It's a fine line between what is a poorly designed game in which you wander around for hours (I've literally spent hours poring over every detail in a game wondering what to do next only to discover that I'd overlooked some poorly rendered button lost in a sea of pixels) and have it spoon fed to you. There is some play in the perfect balance, sometimes you want more, sometimes you want less, and each person is ultimately different. I do worry about the deterioration of gaming as it becomes increasingly "accessible". I have a nightmare in which all games have gradually been pureed into cheap-to-produce variants of Angry Birds or Bejewelled. It's not that I think all games should be on the scale of Demon's Souls in their challenge level, but rather that I want to a range of types and challenges persist. Sometimes I do feel like a few flicks of Angry Birds, and other times I want nothing more than to be the whipping-chick at the mercy of Demon's Souls.

    When it comes to feeling good in a game, I think the best high is from honed skill and a sense of accomplishment… when I think back to some of the highs I've experienced, most of them have come from serious challenges that I've had to invest to overcome (or, as you say, to extend staving off failure). There's a limited pleasure in super simplicity, but it can't compare to say nabbing every star in Mario Galaxy, finishing an iteration of Megaman, defeating Meta Ridley or Metroid Prime, et cetera. There's hollow ego-stroking, but it can't compare to the serious ego-stroking that comes from a really great Tetris skill-fest (I play Tetris fantasizing I'm in some competition, sometimes just against my last game; that fantasy doesn't just fail miserably in games like Peggle, it makes me feel dirty).

    It would be interesting to trace the path of games through to today's often overly-palatable offerings. I wonder what that might look like if we explicitly spelled it out in games? Some of those changes were driven by the state of technology: I remember when games starting coming around that allowed you to save your progress (and not just with a 30-digit code-- codes that taught me to appreciate careful calligraphy on a whole new level after a few near, soul-crushing disasters in which I copied down my zeros and ones sloppily and had to spend the next 30 minutes trying every permutation so that I could get back to where I was in Kid Icarus). Others were driven by trying to sell more games. And perhaps even other, more interesting motivators.

    Anyhow, I digress.

    Now I should stop procrastinating and get back to prepping the orientation address for my students tomorrow. Thanks for the enjoyable read, once more!


  7. K.V., I think you need to start your own website! Always enjoy seeing your comments here.

  8. I find it funny you posted this and also find it quite a coincidence as I was having this exact thought this past weekend: I recently downloaded Zelda II onto my 3DS, which is a game I never played back in the day, despite playing and completing most NES classics. Having completed all Zeldas on all other systems, I felt an obligation to pick it up and play this one, despite passing it over many years ago (most likely because of its odd game design compared to the original) I dominate most games and for the past 10 years thrive on online competition and dominating noobs all over the globe, I am pro. But I gotta say, this game is kicking my ass. Start game, 3 lives, onslaughts of enemies/pitfalls, dead dead dead, "GAME OVER", start back at the castle, gotta walk 10 mins back to the location on the map I was attempting to get through and try try again. Despite Zelda II pushing the limits of my frustration, and many times coming close to launching my 3DS across the room in a fit of rage, I do find the challenge bringing me back to play everyday, clawing slowly to get that immense amount of satisfaction once you do finally complete some minute goal. Like you described, without the challenge in today's games you don't have that same sense of satisfaction you used to get. I'm just sad for this generation of gamers, I'm not sure if they will ever know what us old folks/real gamers experienced. (I guess this will be my version of "I used to walk 40 miles to school" type story...)

  9. I have mixed feelings about this very topic. I think that, to accommodate the "casual" market, the games have had their difficulty diluted.

    Also, I don't have as much time to spend on games as I used to. Maybe that's another factor? After going to work, picking up the kiddo, cooking dinner, chilling with the fam...

    There is not a lot of time for thumb-busters. I like to feel like I am making progress in the game that I play rather than have to chew my tongue off in frustration at having to repeat something that took a half hour to complete in the first place.

    I have mixed feelings about this - certainly a game like Gran Turismo 5 is an example of an awesomely frustrating game. But games like Assassin's Creed or Driver wouldn't be as good of an experience were they to have me start at the beginning every time that I died.