Am I a Gaming Hypocrite?

I just finished playing Paper Mario on the Wii. I certainly had fun with it–I mean, I don’t feel compelled to finish many games. Few games offer sufficient rewards to justify the time and energy required. But something about Paper Mario kept me playing.

It certainly wasn’t the depth of the gameplay or the story. It wasn’t the opportunities for self-expression through play. It wasn’t the opportunity to test behaviors and see the consequences of different choices in a believably simulated gameworld. And the challenges in the game fall under the category “Guess What the Designer Had in Mind.”

The pleasures of Paper Mario were completely different from the pleasures I want my own games to offer players. In other words, Paper Mario embodies almost nothing I think is important or interesting about games. It’s a linear, Pavlovian, utterly diverting yet ultimately empty experience–a way to pass (for me) 25 hours. Frankly, though I guess I’d have to recommend the game as a “fun experience,” I’d also have to say I have absolutely no interest in making a game like it.

Frankly, I find myself in that position a lot–obsessively playing and, yes, enjoying, games I’d be, basically, ashamed to have made. What’s up with that?

The Hypocrisy Conversation

You wouldn’t believe how many times my friends–yes, my friends!–and colleagues give me grief about why I’m such a hypocrite when it comes to the games I like to play versus the games I like to make. (Good thing I have a thick skin!)

The conversation usually starts with someone saying something like this: “You’re a total Legend of Zelda freak, Warren. You’re always obsessed with some puzzle game or other. And aren’t you the guy who loves stuff like Diablo? How come you don’t make games anything like the stuff you seem to enjoy playing the most?”

Well, I have to cop to the truth behind the question.

I am a Zelda goober and have been since the SNES days. (Somehow I missed the NES games when they came out–or maybe I was just more of a PC snob back then–but now that we have the Virtual Console I plan on getting caught up). I do find myself obsessing about puzzle games. And Blizzard’s stuff always gets my shorts in a knot, keeping me up way too late, way too many nights (well, up until WoW, which captivated me for a while but then lost me, the way ALL MMO’s lose me–a topic for another time…)

So it’s a fair question, why DON’T I make games like that? Why do I spend so much time playing and ranting about stuff that doesn’t give players much to think about or much control over their experience? Why do I love games with no story at all? Why do I spend hours and hours staring at a screen until my eyes bleed trying to figure out how to beat some boss monster in some dungeon in some fundamentally silly game that’s nothing more than a way to pass some time? And why oh why did I spend all that time fighting some dude named O’Chunks?…

Well, for starters, let’s be clear about one thing: I do play plenty of games that are more like the stuff I like to make–it’s just that there’s precious little of it out there. Look at the options available:

  • The Irrational Games guys seem to be on the same page I am (or, at least, they’re working from the same playbook). That gives me a game to play every couple of years.
  • Valve’s stuff is kind of a second or third cousin to the Origin/Looking Glass/Ion Storm/Junction Point games, but that’s not really very similar–they’re kind of the ultimate rollercoaster rides (though they hide the rails pretty well). And even if Half Life and Deus Ex offered identical play experiences, that’d still mean a game every–what?–five years or so?…
  • Bethesda’s stuff is sorta kinda close, too (though their stories seem less focused and their simulations broader and shallower than I’d like, personally)…
  • Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic had some of the qualities I enjoy in the games I work on. And Lionhead’s Fable felt kind of like my kind of game, too. (Having said that, both of them took a binary, Good/Evil–er, I mean, Light Side/Dark Side–approach that made the games less interesting to me than they might have been with a more nuanced approach.)
  • Ubi’s Splinter Cell games are pretty Thief-like (though there’s something about the animation and the responsiveness of the controls that bugs me, but I’ve never been able to put my finger on exactly what that something is…).
  • And there’s the GTA series, of course (though I think I’ve said quite enough already regarding my feelings about their content, as distinct from their gameplay–I’m not going back there, thank you very much!)

That’s about it, really. There just aren’t a lot of people making the kind of game I like to make. If I want to play games at all, I’m inevitably going to have to play a ton of games that are nothing like the games I make.

And, despite the similarities between those few games I’ve mentioned above and the Ultima/Underworld/System Shock/Thief/Deus Ex games I’ve worked on, they’re not really as close as you might think–the differences I’ve noted, parenthetically, above are just the tip of the iceberg. Frankly, when I do find a game I could have made, or would like to have made, I spend too much time being annoyed by the countless details that were executed differently than I would have executed them. It’s way easier to play something completely different so the competitive juices don’t get flowing!

Beyond that, though, there are a couple of other factors at work. For one thing, I’ve never said every game should be an Ultima or a Deus Ex. There’s plenty of room for games that offer nothing more than a pleasant way to pass some time. I don’t always want to be thinking about everything I do and the consequences of every choice. Sometimes I just want to be diverted for a while. And games like Zelda, Paper Mario, Bounceout, Jewel Quest, Bubblet and Alchemy are certainly diverting!

And beyond that, there’s the simple fact that I don’t think I’d be very good at making games like Paper Mario. I mean, puzzles just aren’t my thing, from a creative standpoint–my mind doesn’t work that way. There’s no way I could execute a puzzle game or a platformer or a linear story game as effectively as the people who’ve been doing it forever, probably because they feel as passionately about those games as I do about my own. I can play games like Paper Mario all day (and night) long–my lovely wife, Caroline, will vouch for that!–but I can’t imagine sitting down and trying to design one.

And that painful realization–that I could never make a “Miyamoto game” or a “Blizzard game” or a “Valve game” or a Popcap game, even if I wanted to–got me thinking about where the creative process starts for me, and why I make the games I make. That’s what I want to talk about in my next blog entry. So check back in a week for more on this topic.


6 Responses to “Am I a Gaming Hypocrite?”

  1. patrickdugan Says:

    I had the same experience with Paper Mario. I think the problem is designers are either ignorant or afraid of the power of periodically un-fun interaction in creating resonance with the player long after the game is concluded. Most games try to minimize the gap between ego and agency, but creating feedback, making the player think about who they are, is powerful. If there were more games like this, there’d be data to show that such personal depth actually improves market vector velocities, as players haunted by their experience are want to tell their friends about something meaningful.

    Most of the games you cite have massive asset requirements in order to fill out the deep skeleton, what do you think of a game like The Cost of Life, where systemic depth exists on a slight frame of content. Or for that matter, if you have the stomach for it, what do you think of Super Columbine Massacre RPG! which despite being dimensionally shallow gives an interesting challenge/feedback to the player herself, rather than in the system per se.

  2. jonaswaever Says:

    I think that’s a very healthy way to look at it; I love the games you guys make and it’s sort of a hobby of mine to spot similarities in other games, but I enjoy the occasional on-rails shooter or story-less simulation, and as much as I love the Deus Ex and Thief franchises, even that type of game would probably get stale if it were the only kind.

    You may want to keep an eye on Obsidian – they did an admirable job breaking free of the good/evil polarity in Neverwinter Nights 2 by integrating the chaotic/lawful scale of D&D in their narrative, and the game seems to be heavily based on what you call shared authorship.

  3. jclarendon Says:

    I found myself conflicted with a similar dilemma, until we started doing the Old School Game Night (which you should attend!). Realizing that what I used to consider vapid and mindless…there really is a lot more going on under the hood in Shinobi and Rolling Thunder, &c. It’s made me look at games as a series of choices and iconic actions. A ‘jump’ isn’t a reflection of a physical jump, it’s a method of passively overcoming an obstacle, as opposed to shooting, which is emblematic of an active obstacle avoidance.

    I think when this hit me was during GDC this year during the Castlevania dude’s talk about 2D gaming. His slides kept talking about performing a ‘dodge’ over a gap, &c. I realized he meant ‘jump’, but that his thought process, even if accidental in mis-translation, revealed a lot about what a jump really was. I’m sure this is not a terribly new idea, but it’s interesting for me to begin to delve into.

    I was struggling recently with why people use games as escapism…I’ve never felt that desire in a game. Even as the Avatar or Denton, it was always ‘me’ being given challenges and at the same time trying to mine out what the designers had managed to create. This one still eludes me, but perhaps it has something to do with why you spent so much time on Paper Mario?

    In the end, of course, you can argue that certain games fulfill certain moods (or push you into desired ones).

  4. nitroxide Says:

    Hi Warren,

    Maybe this isn’t the appropriate place to post this, but I found no other way to contact you (and I’m not about to try to find your personal info). Anyways, first of all, I’d like to congratulate you on making one of the BEST games EVER made (Deus Ex 1). This game changed my opinion of games forever, and immersed me so deeply that I never wanted to stop playing it. Seriously man, infinite props on that masterpiece (it goes into my top 3 picks along with half-life and starcraft). But after about 4 years of wanting to play the sequel, I finally bought it. And, don’t take this the wrong way, but it was one of the lowest moments in my life. In my opinion, you guys took everything that made Deus Ex a classic, stripped it down naked for retarded console gamers, and raped the quality and depth, taking almost everything that was amazing about the first. I couldn’t even continue playing the game because it made me so sad. Honestly, this may just be because my expectations were so high, maybe if I never played the first, I wouldn’t be as offended. I know you’ve heard this many times over the years, I’m sure, and I don’t mean to make you feel bad or take away from your talent (you are very talented). Who knows maybe it was the rest of your team, or those bastards at Eidos that made it the way it was. But cmon man! WHY?!?!?! Why would you do that to one of the best games EVER made. I’m sorry, I’m starting to cry it hurts so bad. I can’t bring myself to list off why the 2nd feels like there was a lack of thought or effort put into it. Maybe you guys were driven by money, that’s why you made a port (a FUCKING PORT?!?!?!). Honestly, I hope to god that you can some day find time to made Deus Ex 3, which should be the REAL sequel. Now that PS3 and Xbox 360 are out, you don’t have to worry about dumbing it down for consoles since they support keyboards and mouse! I’m sorry if I’ve offended you but I had to make my peace. Please keep working hard and keep up your creativity (becuase you have so much of it). The reason I’m so harsh is that the first game was so complex, immersive, original, diverse, suspenseful, captivating, and completely AMAZING; while the 2nd one is just another game. You owe it to yourself and to your fans to one day make a sequel the way it should’ve been made (I just hope that you’d actually WANT to). Thank you for taking time to read my rant, my life can now continue normally. Delete this if you will, but if you actually did read this, I appreciate it. Thanks again!

    -True but disappointed fan

  5. whilgrey Says:

    Hello Warren,

    reading this blog made me remember why I have been telling people about you and games you worked on for years now.
    Reading your gaming history is like reading my top10 gaming list (minus Planescape: Torment 😉 )

    [pseudo expert rambling]
    I always try to keep an open mind and play a lot of different games, always looking for the precious gems which don’t only offer a good story or gameplay but also immersion. After all each game is like a cocktail, consisting of those 3 parts. Technically it might be perfect in all those regards, but to me a masterpiece also has something else which makes a game also a form of art. That’s when true emotion comes into that formula. And I don’t mean the enjoyment from winning or frustration by losing a game.

    You said you think the male hardcore gamers still want to fulfill their phantasies of power. I think that’s just the emotion you can create the easiest way in games. The next one would be fear I guess. Others are more complex and require good storytelling. It wasn’t as easy to make the player sad in FF7 when you-know-who dies for example.

    I guess that’s why your games are different to me than most of the others. May Payne 2 for example was like a great popcorn flick but no oscar material there IMO.
    [/pseudo expert rambling]

    Since this seems to be the new interweb trend,

    I think you are making games the way you do because you know exactly if you wouldn’t no one else would. And someone has to.

    -a 27 year old W. Spector Fanboy

  6. Tip: It’s ok to like games you would never design yourself at Game by design Says:

    […] a blog. I was scanning through the various postings when one in particular caught my eye. “Am I a gaming hypocrite?” In the article Warren discusses both the shortage of games of a similar play style to his […]

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