Friday, October 5, 2012

"I hate mainstream games" (and other such)

There's a lot of clamor on internet message boards about the sort of "hipster" "elitists" of music or cinema or any other media outlet, that cling to works for the simple fact that they are "unknown" or that they alienate specific audiences that they can project their superiority against. The backlash against this is usually a damnation of what is typically mainstream, because of the simple notion of the "least common denominator". Disregard that many of the people that lash out at these "hipsters" do have their own hatred of pop culture trends that supercede them, and just consider what truth there is behind all this. In fact, they may be absolutely right that pandering to the masses will deny a piece a certain quality, but it's worth a discussion what exactly that means.

All forms of media have a specific sort of objective quantity to it. Whether it's music theory and composition, film composition, prose, or in gaming, design theory, there's a way we can look at, listen to, or play a piece and recognize it as "good or bad" on the grounds of a good schema. If a piece of music irreverently, and absentmindedly jumps around the music scale, then we can say it's bad (for someone arguing the post-modern movements, that wasn't absentminded rejection of classical theory. They used it as much as those working within those grounds). There's a certain aspect of a game in which we can judge it to be "good". The obvious in unexpected glitches and bugs, all sorts of technical errors, but even design errors, faulty stage design, illogical enemy placement, so on and so forth, there's a theory to even creating the spacial reality of a game.

But then there's the preference. We all have a preference of some sort, whether it be genre, tone, mode of input, etc., there's a game that we can "feel" in a unique way. A game that we can play and enjoy more than most other people that play it. There's a personal reaction towards a specific story/scenario that hits you in a good light. That is where the argument of "pandering to the least common denominator" originates. The best example would be in the expression of music. Take, for example, something like the once-popular song "I hate everything about you" (idk if this is even the real name of the song and I don't care enough to check). Emotionally, it's plain and one-note. Everyone that listens to it will extract the same thing, this guy is infatuated with a girl that pisses him off/irks him or whatever. You may relate it to a personal experience, but if you do, it's probably very superficial. You most likely won't hear it and jump to the thought of "this guy GETS me", and I'd have to suggest that if you do, you're not very emotionally mature.

There is a reality an artist/craftsman must present when he creates his art. When you hear a song that gets you personally, you understand it in a way that other people literally cannot. The metaphors used in the lyrics may send you to a certain memory or feeling you know well, or the story involved may evoke an emotion that you can relate to in a way that is uniquely your reaction. But even beyond that, the timbre and tone of the music can create a sensation that you can internalize as a feeling you know. You may enjoy it or it may depress and discourage you, but it has an impact that is something you can relate to on a significant level.

Games have this. Game designers are no less inclined to present a reality in their art. When you control a character, when you hear his story, you have to be able to place that character in the story in a unique way that lets you understand his motives as a reaction of your own accord. This is why a lot of good art gets mixed opinions (aside from objective discussions, as rare as they are). Not everyone reads a person the same way, and if you create a character that CAN be read in more than one way, it's likely someone will be attracted, and someone will be alienated.

However, if you write the character to be read one way, with overly expressed, or mostly non-existent emotions, no one will be really attracted to the character as he is a character, and no one will really be alienated as not being able to understand it. Gaming is a business, you want to sell to as many people as possible. This is why characters like Kratos or Ezio or Master Chief aren't emotionally complex. You don't want to have to have players really question their motives and question their connections to your main player. Because of the industry of gaming, you have to create a character, almost from the outside in. you have to create a character that superficially appeals to a player: Kratos' lust for revenge and "EPIC SCENARIOS AND BUTT WHOOPINS" appeal readily to a player, without having to understand what Kratos (should) be going through. Ezio, first and foremost, looks really cool, and his narrative plays most simply off bland family values that everyone "knows" even if their family was less accepting of each other. In something like Tarkovsky's Stalker, we understand the characters on a superficial level, we know what the writer expects from the human condition, we know the stalkers devotion to tradition and values, etc., but throughout the movie, we have to question their motives and their ideals in a personal language. If you talk to two people about why the writer does so and so, they may not come to a conclusion. The thought-process of Kratos is pretty obvious: "you make me mad i smash". No one, outside of cynical blokes who read into what's not there, will dissect Kratos in any other way (am I pandering? I really challenge someone to argue against that without devolving to a bunch of lenient translations and horrible suppositions that are created for the sole purpose of reading too far into it).

So, there's something to be expected when it comes to things like GOTY or the Oscars or something: Personality is not universal. Your favorite game or movie is not everyone else's, and there are reasons for that beyond just "they don't think it's a good movie". The old anti-argument is always "you just don't get it", but in a way, it's true. If someone doesn't like God Hand (not a great example, because objectively it's a truly great game), I have to understand that they don't accept the reality of Gene and the rest of the game as I do. They may see the controls as, idk, too possessive, or too technically bound, or they may see the characters as lavish without intent. It's not that they are really wrong, it's that they don't read the game in the same language I do. When Movie A wins the Oscars, it may just be that Movie A is more readily personable than Movie B.

I don't expect anyone to read this (period) and change their view on industry or gaming hegemony or anything like that, but at some point we have to realize that the "elitists" have a point. You DON'T understand the game... not like they do.

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