Here we are again with Taylor Clark, this time writing for Kotaku. As much as I enjoyed his profile on Jonathan Blow, his follow up is downright excellent. I wrote a response to some of his harsh words concerning murderfests. I hold to what I wrote; digital death is not equivalent to actual death and—at least for the present moment—shouldn’t be made so for the benefit of the games-as-art debate.
In stark contrast to my earlier views, Clark comes along and blows it all away with a tough-love intervention for the future of the form. Games, he says, are dumb.
And I walk away from the article reluctantly nodding my head, because with lines like these, he essentially pinpoints the unspoken experience of what it’s like to be a thoughtful adult gamer:
My impression is that when gamers call something like Skyrim “smart,” they don’t mean it’s objectively smart, as in filled with interesting characters and thought-provoking ideas; they mean it’s smart for a game, as in not completely insulting to your intelligence at every moment you’re playing it.
Initially, I bristled at this critique, but after putting on the mature, semi-objective hat that Clark requests of his article’s audience, I could do nothing except agree. Though Skyrim can be a game of solitude and survival, a game of exploration and appreciation for nature’s wonders (even if they are romanticized), a game that even makes a play for political intrigue, at its heart, I’m playing a game about a guy who with one magical yell can pull a time-traveling, world-eating, talking lizard with wings out of the sky in order to kill it and absorb its soul.
Wow. It’s even worse now that I’ve written it out.
We’re working with a dearth of intellect, I think. And still I would not say that the nature of gaming prevents it from developing into a smarter form of entertainment. Clark articulates it better than I would have:
My issue, then, is with what we might call the intellectual maturity level of mainstream games. It’s not the design mechanics under the hood that I find almost excruciatingly sophomoric at this point; it’s the elements of these games that bear on human emotion and intellectual sophistication, from narrative and dialogue right on down to their core thematic concepts.
Here’s the thing, I like my escapism and exploration and good versus evil. But do characters have to be so two dimensional? Since Diablo is on my mind these days, let’s take Tyrael (also, spoilers follow). He is, being the aspect of justice, almost the definition of a flat character. You can predict his every move based on his purely allegorical nature. However, I was surprised when he made his big “choice” at the end of the game’s first Act. He rebels, casts himself amongst the mortals and is generally badass (if you’re reading this Mr. Clark, I know, juvenile).
Then nothing else really comes of it. He never seems truly conflicted about his choice, never gets angry or out of control; he simply loses his wings and walks right back into heaven. Even when the villains are beating on the gates and he is accused of having been the cause—at least in part—by his equally flat cohort Imperious, he is virtually unfazed. So much could have been explored for just this one character and what it means to renounce one’s beliefs over a controversial issue. Instead, the situation is reduced to black and white (Tyrael is badass, Imperious is a dick) and the item-piñatafest resumes.
I love the mechanics of Diablo. It’s great fun, but even as a big budget movie-esque game, it barely even moves the needle on the intellectual spectrum. And the game deals directly with the conflict between religious and mythological figures and those who worship them. What a gold mine!
Could such a game be written to support more depth of character? Might we some day get a chance to explore the inner conflicts of our games’ characters? If we did, we might find that there is more to explore than might be expected, even in the admittedly simplistic frames that dominate the current mainstream landscape.