Tropico Depressions

“If you’re not taking part in any backbreaking labor activities, grab a swimsuit and come to the beach!”

-- DJ Juanito

A year and a half ago, amidst the media fiesta surrounding the release of Resident Evil 5, N’gai Croal issued what I (at the time) considered to be an inflammatory, somewhat excessive denunciation of the game’s imagery. I wrote off the controversy as a hypersensitive tempest in a teacup.

I didn’t have any particular objection to what N’gai said. While I could see a certain misstep in the general plot -- alpha-male Chris Redfield traversing the Dark Continent, slaughtering savages and establishing a bulwark of civilization -- at the end of the day I felt this was a bit reductionist and probably well beyond the scope of the game’s design. The Las Plagas Spaniards were, after all, just as feral. It appeared to me that Croal had read too much into this one title, because, after all, “it’s just a game.” A game that happened to feature African zombies, but a game first and foremost.

It was very easy to dismiss talk of controversy for this very reason.

There is, of course, a problem with that line of thinking. I like to talk about the possibilities of games, to conjecture about the growth seen in narratives, story-telling mechanics, characterization. But at the same time, my conception of “controversy” seems to begin and end with the machinations of the industry. I rally to the side of writers suddenly displaced by changing tides. I decry the bottom-line mentality of studios farming intellectual properties until they’re depleted husks. But when it comes to games, I jump to defensive stances. Mostly because they’re games, not social treatises. How can we possibly object to entertainment?

Lately, N’gai Croal’s words – their insistence that there are greater cultural issues behind the games we play – have been spinning through my head. Not because of any current events. Not because I’ve been playing through RE5. Not even because I thought to review the words thrown about on either side of that particular argument.

It’s because I’ve played through the Tropico 3 demo, and I find that I’m not entirely comfortable with the world it depicts.

On History and Worldbuilding
Perhaps it is because I feel that I haven’t been “Latin enough.” Or maybe it’s the Latin American literature classes I took four years ago whispering sweet liberal-progressive epithets into ego. Whatever the root cause, there is a growing sense of unease as I navigate the hills and shanty towns of Tropico island.

Behind every choice, the implications of my actions affect the state of life on Tropico. Citizens, foreign nations, and disgruntled nationalists take note of every failed policy, every fiscal misstep, and every blunder. Occasionally, Tropico’s only employed radio personality, DJ Juanito, will issue a tongue-in-cheek report on the health of the nation. While the mechanic should make for endless chuckles and laughs, I found myself growing increasingly unhinged by the DJ’s observations. (It's something like hearing a morning zoo crew make humorous comments about the state of relief efforts in Haiti). Hearing wise-cracks about the dismal state of the economy, living conditions, or food supply does nothing but bring to mind the hardships and historical problems commonly associated with Latin American nations. Hardships, one should note, that are not necessarily confined to the dusty tomes of history books. Problems, one should realize, that continue to shape policy and life to this day.

Tropico 3 attempts to draw comedy from issues such as corruption, effusive propaganda machines and impoverished-but-hardworking citizens because these are well-documented abuses of power common to Latin America. It no secret that Cold War tensions ran high in the Caribbean and Central/South America as U.S. and Soviet interests attempted to influence national politics. Often, government coups caused economic and social instability as these power plays restructured national policies. Caught in the crosshairs were the working class, the intellectuals, the impoverished, who had to adjust to a destabilized national image. With limited recourse, they took up arms, fled, and attempted to fight against changes they thought harmed themselves and their home. Tropico 3 includes these people only as annoyances, barriers to achieving your own grand plan.

And since I’m the knucklehead in charge, I know that the people’s suffering rests squarely on my shoulders, that it is a direct result of my actions. In Tropico, I’m lucky enough to have a smartass radio personality lampoon El Presidente’s handling of the state. In the real world, such a figure would quickly find himself on the wrong side of a firing squad. Or worse. The incongruity between the two realities often serves to keep me from indulging in the game’s humor.

In an online walkthrough, Timo Thomas (Kalypso Media employee and product manager for Tropico 3) describes the essence of the game as “basically a Dictator simulator.” It would be one thing to say that a fictional island in a fictional Caribbean archipelago had to contend with fictional despots in a way that conveniently mirrored reality. Somehow, including historic figures as actual game characters (such as Castro, Guevarra and Pinochet) dilutes my ability to accept this all as lighthearted parody or smart-tongued satire. It would be the equivalent of having one of the September 11th hijackers as a radio traffic controller in the next edition of Pilotwings.

Part of this discomfort comes from the game’s success at compartmentalizing history into equal parts popular culture and apocryphal experience. In the intro screen, I am treated to a time-lapsed survey of life in Tropico. From the impending nuclear holocaust of 60s-era cold war tensions, through revolutionary warfare and socialist growing pains, to a hedonistic 80s tourism haven, the life of Latin America is quickly and conveniently retold. I see camouflage-clad rebels fight with military forces as heads-of-state are greeted by an entourage of military commandos. This is all very romantic, but ultimately sterile. Like some abstracted idea of Latin America’s greatest history hits, a military-garbed “Presidente” issues charismatic edicts as tin-eared music rife with maracas and exuberant, brassy horns syncopates in the background. I understand that there is a certain quaintness to the idea that this all happened at some distant point in time – the same kind of lightness with which people regard The Communists or The Clinton Administration. The universal joke is that this was the result of a less-developed time, the inevitable outcome of a people who were too simple to understand the global effects of their actions. The sticking point is that it is very easy to present these situations as humorous or hyperbolically Machiavellian, but when it comes to addressing the underlying truth behind the setpieces … well, that can get complicated.

Solitude Speaks Out
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez weaves together memory and fantasy to create the fictional Latin American village of Macondo. Partially modeled after his own childhood home, Marquez infuses Macondo with the stuff of legends: roving gypsy tribes, a citizenry populated with similarly-named ancestors, pig-tailed infants, ephemeral townships and apocalyptic prophecies. In doing so, Marquez subtly comments against the tendency to ascribe supernatural, mystic qualities to the region, comments against the tendency to accept the marvelous in place of the historic. Amidst the fantastic, Marquez writes of a fruit company massacre that is instrumental in driving the small pueblo to ruin. In the midst of a strike, hundreds of workers are gunned down by soldiers, their bodies secretly thrown into the ocean. As a result, the town experiences over four years of rain, loses most of its crops, and slides into decay as the multinational banana company leaves the region.

Sandwiched between resurrections, executions and cataclysmic winds, the massacre hardly seems like an event of great importance. Paradoxically, it is the one of the few events drawn straight from life. This juxtaposition between Latin America as a source of continual wonder and Latin America as a historic entity, fuels Marquez’ novel. Marquez’ novel juxtaposes Latin America as a historic entity and Latin America as a source of continual wonder, and the novel is fueled by the tension between the two. The Banana Massacre transcends historic tragedy and fictionalized account. Its importance is more than a footnote in the town charter, more than just a series of red marks in a company ledger. It becomes a portal through which the reader can understand how the fractionated views of Latin America and its history become mythicized.

Even more dangerously, Marquez warns that these illusory views can come to supplant the truth. When Macondo experiences a plague of insomnia, the citizenry simply adapts to their new lifestyle. Along the way, they begin losing memories, names of things and people, even a sense of their history. They continue in this fugue “until they sank into a kind of idiocy that had no past.” This is the critique that rings throughout 100 Years directly into the hearts of Latin American nations: Losing the ability to remember history results in a history that is skewed, falsified, or utterly lost.

Unlike Marquez' story, the core realities that inform Tropico 3's scenarios aren't really used to promote a greater message. The famines caused by Castro and Guevarra, the banishment or execution of political dissenters, the jack-booted thugs that consume cities and rural villages, they're all present on Tropico island. But there's a thin layer of disassociation that prevents, to some extent, the horrors of reality from crashing against the world-building aspects of the game.

I wish that Tropico 3 could approach such a deft handling of history and narrative. (Perhaps it does. Admittedly, I’ve only played the demo). But while it models people and events roughly after history, that’s it. No greater comment on the reasons why it sucks to live in Tropico. No real acceptance or rejection of Soviet or American propaganda or the nations’ long-term effects on Latin America. It seems merely to be a sandbox with broad goals, but no real message as to its influences. Even worse, it perpetuates the legend-building that Marquez works against. Players walk away with a false sense that they've experienced history, that they have learned something about the state of Banana Republics in the 20th century. In reality, they've experienced a cliff-notes version, one that, once again, rewrites political and historical reality.

Facing off with the Game
From a gameplay perspective, Tropico 3 does a good job of reflecting what a fledgling communo-socialist dictator would have to deal with in the 1960s. I can be the second coming of Emiliano Zapata, or just another Soviet/Yankee puppet looking to line his Swiss bank account (players are rewarded for funneling state money into an offshore fund). I can try to improve the lot of the people on my island, build schools, healthcare facilities, universities, or I can turn the place into a nation-wide sweatshop. I can give my citizens substandard housing, but issue proclamations guaranteeing social security and ample food supplies. No matter what is done, I, as a player, can’t help but feel a personal failing when I see plank-board houses pop up, or see citizens expire because of poor healthcare. That I actually care about digital peons is surprising. That I never stopped to think about them before is a little worrying.

This is a concern that far eclipses Tropico or Resident Evil, one that might even go back to the halcyon days of Custer’s Revenge. As an aficionado of this particular entertainment form, I routinely enjoy, perhaps even benefit from, the situational blinders that can be employed to guarantee my enjoyment of a particular game or scenario.

“Those aren’t Iraqi/Afghani rebels, they’re generic Middle-Eastern soldiers.”
“Yeah, they’re Nazis … but they’re fictional Nazis. Amoral, non-real Nazis.”
“They’re just zombies. Doesn’t matter what color they are, they’re a commentary on our own inhumanity. Plus they’re full of squishy bits.”
“They’re oppressed workers in a tropical climate. Could be anyone, any country. Doesn’t mean they’re historic.”

I’m not saying these defense mechanisms are inherently flawed, not advocating for greater cultural sensitivity amongst gamers, not pointing fingers and urging people to educate themselves. What I am saying is that Croal’s comments (especially “If it's just a game, then why do we care about how culturally relevant they are?”) point towards a truth that I, as a consumer of games entertainment, have been wary of addressing:

I might be uncomfortable with something in a game.

This is uncharted territory for someone used to running over pedestrians, used to consuming the genomes of faceless soldiers to be used as health, used to plowing cars straight through high-rise buildings with nary an ethical qualm. I realize that just because something is designed as entertainment, it doesn’t get carte blanche to tread through moral gray zones. I am no less disgusted by Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom because it is a film. Though its imagery is unsettling, I would be equally repulsed were it a graphic novel, script, or audiobook. I am no more moved by The Diary of Anne Frank if I encounter it in written, staged play, or documentary form. But to be moved on a base level, not by fear, joy or squeamishness, because of the images and concepts portrayed in a game? That was unthinkable to me until Tropico 3 opened the door.

I realize that if I am to accept games as cultural art forms, I also have to be comfortable enough with the medium to apply the same aesthetic and cultural judgments I apply to other media – films, books, television, theatre. In most cases, that will find me praising a work. In certain cases, it’ll challenge me to find exactly why I am uncomfortable with something.

And here is where I come to my one grand proclamation:

If we want our games to grow, to mature, we must also grow as consumers. We can continue to laud productions for their fantastic visuals, to heap praise over immaculate voice acting. We can bandy about progression in game design and writing as evidence that the medium is coming into its own. We can commend scripting and cutscenes for capturing a certain cinematic flair. We can keep praising the cogs and circuits for their glittering intricacy, but without a greater message, we are relegating ourselves to critiquing well-executed action movies. We must allow for the possibility that our games will work against something deep within us – spirituality, literary theory, racial depictions, political reality – which we ourselves may be uncomfortable addressing. We must work against the idea that our idle playthings can both move us, but are inconsequential enough to brush aside when they present upsetting imagery.

That means we must afford our games the chance to be more than playthings.

Comments

This is an extraordinarily well-written article.

I am generally of the belief that a game that sets out to promote a particular message is doomed to fail as a game. A film can be crafted in such a way so the message is focused throughout the narrative. Not all films succeed, but I think they have a far greater chance of delivering on the artist's vision than games. A video game has to provide the player with a means of affecting the progress of the narrative - otherwise I would not classify it as a game. This means that a player might be content shooting exploding barrels for an hour, glitching out on terrain, turning on "god-mode" through the console, or otherwise overriding the delivery of the "message" with various unexpected gameplay decisions. Even those players setting out to experience the game "as it should be played" can easily be stymied by an unclear goal or overly challenging gameplay mechanic.

For that reason I think a game should focus on setting and mechanic, and should never expect a player to receive a particular moral or social message while experiencing that setting and mechanic. This is not to say that a game is incapable of generating genuine emotion or revealing one's inner demons. It is just that since the experience of a game is so subjective it is foolish to expect a certain game to evoke the same response for everyone.

I have to admit, out of all the various games, it's perplexing to me that Tropico 3 is apparently the first to make you uncomfortable. It also strikes me as short-sighted to think that "[p]layers walk away with a false sense that they've experienced history", any more than you could say that about WWII shooters like Call of Duty or even Return to Castle Wolfenstein (with its zombies and cybernetic solderies) or Silent Storm (with steampunk power armor). Rather obviously, Tropico 3 doesn't exhibit actual events any more than an episode of Law & Order that was "ripped from the headlines." This is especially obvious on the scenarios involving voodoo curses.

DJ Juanito is a satire of despotic propaganda machines. Unless things are drastically bad on your island (bad enough that you'll likely be ousted soon), even his biting criticisms are worded as back-handed compliments.

I have to admit, at the end I'm still trying to figure out exactly what you're trying to say about the state of games or even Tropico 3 specifically. Is it bad that the game made you consider real world history you hadn't given much thought to before?

Is this article intertwined with the thread "Games are not art"?

Fantastic article, but the I find the conclusion paradoxical, at least if we are talking about mainstream games.

We must allow for the possibility that our games will work against something deep within us – spirituality, literary theory, racial depictions, political reality – which we ourselves may be uncomfortable addressing.

This type of message, while it is a thing that I want and appreciate (conflict and necessity as a source of knowledge and ingenuity and all that), does not sell. And if doesn't sell, it doesn't get funding.

Maybe a deeper schism between popular and underground is exactly what this industry needs. The stuff that sells (in all mediums) doesn't translate into the stuff that makes us grow as human beings.

I think it's a technology issue. When making the basic infrastructure of a game becomes trivial and cheap, the great forward thinking designers might thrive. The less money you risk, the more you can push towards something provocative.

This in some ways, mirrors my experience and frustrations talking about some recent titles, in that saying "It's just a game" is not a valid defense of the ways in which games can take on serious subjects (however seriously they decide to take them on), and that if we want games to mature and become the art that so many of us see them as, we should be willing to accept that if games are going to tackle serious subjects, if they do an incredibly ham-handed/narrow-minded/ass-tastic job of it, they are not, nor should they be granted immunity from criticism because "it's just a game".

Great work on this, Alex. Really makes me re-think my own experiences playing Tropico 3 back when it launched.

We must allow for the possibility that our games will work against something deep within us – spirituality, literary theory, racial depictions, political reality – which we ourselves may be uncomfortable addressing. We must work against the idea that our idle playthings can both move us, but are inconsequential enough to brush aside when they present upsetting imagery.

This especially grabs me, it brings to mind some of the reactions to Bayonetta and why some people get such a strong negative vibe from it. It's clear that underneath all the j-pop and leather there's something in that portrayal that touches a nerve. Maybe as someone who enjoys the game I'm glossing over it so I can have fun.

Making me think about stuff ... jerk.

Well written. Thanks.

I do believe the problem lies with both the consumers and developers as far this is concerned. The majority of consumers just want a plaything and nothing more, and the devs are happy to oblige. It saddens me that most of the time when there's something controversial in a game, it's just there to generate interest in the game, and usually don't have any deeper message or meaning. The worst part, perhaps, is that it works just as planned by those devs, and they're rewarded for their faux-controversial material.

I wish that Tropico 3 could approach such a deft handling of history and narrative.

I haven't played this game, but one thing immediately comes to mind.

You use One Hundred Years of Solitude as a basis of comparison. This is arguably the single greatest work of Latin American literature, and one of the greatest works of any sort of literature. Ever.

Maybe Tropico 3 doesn't treat its source material with an appropriate reverence. Fair enough. But... is it ever going to be possible for a game to rival the greatest works of literature? Should we even ask them to try? A part of me thinks that any game with such ambitions would be impossible to implement, and would ultimately be a total mess. Games need to be able to take narrative shortcuts in order to provide a fun experience.

Frankly, at this point, I'd be impressed with a game whose storytelling rivals popular fiction like The da Vinci Code, much less the great works of literature.

Brilliant, cheers, much appreciated. I really hope you will be writing about Heavy Rain at some point.

gore wrote:

Games need to be able to take narrative shortcuts in order to provide a fun experience.

Frankly, at this point, I'd be impressed with a game whose storytelling rivals popular fiction like The da Vinci Code, much less the great works of literature.

I'm with gore here. I'm not sure we should look for most games to mature to the point of 100 Days of Solitude? The main sentiment I got when reading that book was overwhelming melancholy.

That's not to say that some games shouldn't be looking down this road - but the audience just isn't there yet. The most "mature" games I've played in the past 2 years, that try to take gaming beyond the idea of "fun" and try to evoke different emotions have been The Void and Pathologic, both of which have received virtually zero attention even in our adult community.

That being said, I think it's fair to assert that games don't exist in a vacuum, and that the messaging or imagery they convey can have social and cultural implications that they shouldn't be immune from because they're "just a game". I agree with Prederick in that if you're going to tackle a serious subject, do it right. No one's forcing you to - if you want to make a nice, easy fun game, there are tons of zombies to shoot.

OzymandiasAV wrote:

In my limited experience, it seemed impossible to play that game without really diving into some of the more sinister stuff -- throwing elections, killing off unruly citizens -- and the apparent encouragement of those aspects, as well as the sheer level of detail that was applied to them, made the commentary seem a little less innocent to me.

I disagree that the game encourages these things. Your citizens become angry when you rig an election. They become angry when you kill off unruly citizens (unless you pay a lot of money to make it look like an accident, and even then I've found it to give very little benefit). These choices are part of the strategy where you must weigh the advantages against the drawbacks, even outside of the morality of the acts. Angering the citizenry, in general, makes your job harder.

Certis wrote:

This especially grabs me, it brings to mind some of the reactions to Bayonetta and why some people get such a strong negative vibe from it. It's clear that underneath all the j-pop and leather there's something in that portrayal that touches a nerve. Maybe as someone who enjoys the game I'm glossing over it so I can have fun.

Well, with Bayonetta, I think it's very easy to gloss over the potentially objectionable content because it seems like it's only skin deep. To me, it seemed like there was a very clear separation between the mechanics and the aesthetics. And, in terms of possible interpretations, it seemed like there was just as much capacity for a positive/interesting interpretation (female sexuality as a weapon) as there was a negative/shallow one (tits flying everywhere in one-handed mode).

After my very brief run at the Tropico 3 demo, though, I found that my reaction was very similar to Alex's, even though I didn't have a fraction of the historical context outlined in his article. There's not as much "wiggle room" in Tropico 3 as there is in Bayonetta and it made the game a much more unpleasant experience for me.

Being able to go on a hyper-terrorist rampage in GTA3, nerve-staple an entire city in Alpha Centauri, or wipe out your entire SimCity with a tornado never really bothered me as much...because those actions were an escape from the normal context of those games. By virtue of being completely ridiculous diversions -- and by having appropriate levels of consequences for those actions -- it was easy to set those opportunities aside as something beyond the core game.

In Tropico 3, though, that sinister approach seemed to be the only acceptable way to play the game and, as a result, the satire was much more pervasive; you get it through the game mechanics and the presentation. In my limited experience, it seemed impossible to play that game without really diving into some of the more sinister stuff -- throwing elections, killing off unruly citizens -- and the apparent encouragement of those aspects, as well as the sheer level of detail that was applied to them, made the commentary seem a little less innocent to me.

Quintin_Stone wrote:
OzymandiasAV wrote:

In my limited experience, it seemed impossible to play that game without really diving into some of the more sinister stuff -- throwing elections, killing off unruly citizens -- and the apparent encouragement of those aspects, as well as the sheer level of detail that was applied to them, made the commentary seem a little less innocent to me.

I disagree that the game encourages these things. Your citizens become angry when you rig an election. They become angry when you kill off unruly citizens (unless you pay a lot of money to make it look like an accident, and even then I've found it to give very little benefit). These choices are part of the strategy where you must weigh the advantages against the drawbacks, even outside of the morality of the acts. Angering the citizenry, in general, makes your job harder.

I didn't see the same level of consequences for those actions when I played the game, but I really didn't get that deep into it either (just the demo), so point taken.

Beyond the possible consequences, I just felt like the wide variety of opportunities for those actions or manipulations (vs. the perfunctory level of "normal" city building stuff) kind of implicitly reinforced this imagery, this idea of being a somewhat malevolent dictator, on multiple fronts.

Then again, I'm not sure that a lack of subtlety is the problem as much as the imagery itself. Maybe if that imagery were a bit more cartoony or farcical -- maybe a bit closer to Evil Genius or Dungeon Keeper -- it would have been a bit easier to swallow. The Tropico 3 box art takes a decent stab at it, but I didn't really get that feeling as I continued through the game.

Maybe, ultimately, I just missed the joke altogether.

Bravo, Alex. It's no surprise that I'm in the camp that sees meaning everywhere in games, or that I hold games to a higher standard, so nobody should be shocked that I agree with you.

I think that, in the rush to protect our medium against condemnation,

imbiginjapan wrote:

I am generally of the belief that a game that sets out to promote a particular message is doomed to fail as a game. A film can be crafted in such a way so the message is focused throughout the narrative. Not all films succeed, but I think they have a far greater chance of delivering on the artist's vision than games. A video game has to provide the player with a means of affecting the progress of the narrative - otherwise I would not classify it as a game. This means that a player might be content shooting exploding barrels for an hour, glitching out on terrain, turning on "god-mode" through the console, or otherwise overriding the delivery of the "message" with various unexpected gameplay decisions. Even those players setting out to experience the game "as it should be played" can easily be stymied by an unclear goal or overly challenging gameplay mechanic.

I'm not sure games--especially games built around some form of simulation--can help it. On one hand, any simulation or model is, by its nature, an interpretation of the reality it simulates. Even abstractions play into generalities about how things ultimately do or ought to work. Once you add game mechanics like victory conditions, you're also putting value judgments on top of all that, since "winning" is so close to "good" (with a few notable exceptions that loudly call into questino whether "winning" might be losing).

I'm going through this offline, as some friends and family are trying to work out a rule set for a Napoleonic war game. On one hand, we want to accurately depict the situation, which comes down to opinions on the myriad contemporary philosphies on artillary stragey, production, and tactics (whether 8lb. and 9lb. shot are functionally the same, for example). On the other hand, we all have our own value judgments when it comes to the likes of Rousseau and Burke. Our understandings of the dynamics of government are going to necessarily reflect our conservative and liberal biases.

You see this in the way strategy games treat religion, too. Civ 4 includes religions, but makes them functionally the same in most regards--which is making an unspoken argument that, at least in this life, all religions are interchangeable. That may or not be Soren or Sid's belief, but that's the argument made by the game.

I suppose it's similar to a portrait painter's treatment of a model or client: The artists can accentuate features, modify lighting or expressions and tweak any number of other elements in ways that impact the way the painting's audience will view the subject of the model or client. To use an easy example, Lisa Gherardini will forever be remembered for the expression she has in Leonardo's "Mona Lisa," regardless of whether she ever really made that exact expression.

gore wrote:

Frankly, at this point, I'd be impressed with a game whose storytelling rivals popular fiction like The da Vinci Code, much less the great works of literature.

Have you played any of the Assassin's Creed games?

Quintin_Stone wrote:
OzymandiasAV wrote:

In my limited experience, it seemed impossible to play that game without really diving into some of the more sinister stuff -- throwing elections, killing off unruly citizens -- and the apparent encouragement of those aspects, as well as the sheer level of detail that was applied to them, made the commentary seem a little less innocent to me.

I disagree that the game encourages these things. Your citizens become angry when you rig an election. They become angry when you kill off unruly citizens (unless you pay a lot of money to make it look like an accident, and even then I've found it to give very little benefit). These choices are part of the strategy where you must weigh the advantages against the drawbacks, even outside of the morality of the acts. Angering the citizenry, in general, makes your job harder.

This is what I'm talking about in terms of how the victory dynamics encourage behavior. While dominant stretegies are open to debate, it's interesting (and I feel it's important) to note that dominant strategies are encouraged and endorsed by the game dynamics.

It's for this reason that balancing classes in WoW is ultimately a statement on the equality of humanoids, which explains why players get so upset when they feel the game is imbalanced to their character's detriment: It says that their character is inferior by dint of its core qualities, which is something that none of us want to feel about ourselves.

Dysplastic wrote:
gore wrote:

Games need to be able to take narrative shortcuts in order to provide a fun experience.

Frankly, at this point, I'd be impressed with a game whose storytelling rivals popular fiction like The da Vinci Code, much less the great works of literature.

I'm with gore here. I'm not sure we should look for most games to mature to the point of 100 Days of Solitude? The main sentiment I got when reading that book was overwhelming melancholy.

Well there's your problem. If games (some games, not all games) are going to attempt to express something meaningful, "fun" as the primary criterion has to be discarded. Does anyone have "fun" reading 100 Years of Solitude, or watching say The Pianist, and if not do they demand it?

Thanks for a fantastic article, Spaz.

We must allow for the possibility that our games will work against something deep within us – spirituality, literary theory, racial depictions, political reality – which we ourselves may be uncomfortable addressing. We must work against the idea that our idle playthings can both move us, but are inconsequential enough to brush aside when they present upsetting imagery.

You nailed it.

wordsmythe wrote:

This is what I'm talking about in terms of how the victory dynamics encourage behavior. While dominant stretegies are open to debate, it's interesting (and I feel it's important) to note that dominant strategies are encouraged and endorsed by the game dynamics.

One thing to remember about Tropico 3 is that on the campaign side of the game, every scenario has different victory conditions. Strategies that are effective in one scenario may be counter-productive in another.

Spaz, I have a lot I want to write and respond to and not much time to do it, so I'll just say thanks for the great piece and I want to see more like this!

Gravey wrote:

If games (some games, not all games) are going to attempt to express something meaningful, "fun" as the primary criterion has to be discarded.

I agree completely. I don't think Tropico 3 could have been the game Spaz wanted it to be and be fun at the same time.

The thing is, games that are not fun have no audience. Perhaps there are good reasons for this - I think the nature of games make it really hard to create gameplay that can reconcile effectively with whatever "meaning" the game is trying to impart. Taken to one extreme, you can remove almost all agency from the player (Think "The Graveyard", where all you do is walk around a graveyard as a grandma), making it near-pointless as a game. Taken to the other, you give too much agency, and the player ruins the message on his own. (Think GTAIV - running over pedestrians while bemoaning Balkan War atrocities.)

I have a lot of ideas on this, most of which are still too unformed to write down intelligently. I really appreciate articles like this that make me reflect on the nature of the medium (in a way that boils down to more than semantics) - but my conclusion generally always winds up being that the medium is too young.

wordsmythe wrote:
gore wrote:

Frankly, at this point, I'd be impressed with a game whose storytelling rivals popular fiction like The da Vinci Code, much less the great works of literature.

Have you played any of the Assassin's Creed games?

I have not, so I cannot speak to them.

As background, I should reveal that when I think of "narrative" in game form, my current best example is Bioshock, which manages to leverage the technology to create a horrifyingly immersive and beautiful environment. And yet, when I look beyond that, I can't help but feel that it's lacking in traditional "storytelling" components. It has setting and atmosphere down to a T (which is, I think, a general strength of "video games" as a medium), but it suffers from hackneyed dialogue, an uneven plot, and a dénouement that (to me) nearly ruined everything of interest encountered earlier in the game.

If Assassin's Creed is better in these respects, then that's wonderful. And, I might say, that's what I think video games should be striving for.

Gravey wrote:
Dysplastic wrote:

I'm with gore here. I'm not sure we should look for most games to mature to the point of 100 Days of Solitude? The main sentiment I got when reading that book was overwhelming melancholy.

Well there's your problem. If games (some games, not all games) are going to attempt to express something meaningful, "fun" as the primary criterion has to be discarded. Does anyone have "fun" reading 100 Years of Solitude, or watching say The Pianist, and if not do they demand it?

Maybe "fun" isn't the exact word I would use to describe reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, but despite its oppressive and almost palpable melancholy, there is an equally magnificent beauty to it (even in the English translation). I don't know that I would think of it as "fun" exactly but... enjoyable, certainly.

Can a video game be enjoyable without being fun? Well, millions of WoW players do seem to think so.

wordsmythe wrote:

I'm going through this offline, as some friends and family are trying to work out a rule set for a Napoleonic war game. On one hand, we want to accurately depict the situation, which comes down to opinions on the myriad contemporary philosphies on artillary stragey, production, and tactics (whether 8lb. and 9lb. shot are functionally the same, for example). On the other hand, we all have our own value judgments when it comes to the likes of Rousseau and Burke. Our understandings of the dynamics of government are going to necessarily reflect our conservative and liberal biases.

You see this in the way strategy games treat religion, too. Civ 4 includes religions, but makes them functionally the same in most regards--which is making an unspoken argument that, at least in this life, all religions are interchangeable. That may or not be Soren or Sid's belief, but that's the argument made by the game.

I've banged on about how games are systems, and this cuts to the heart of it. A model is never omniscient and so is only as accurate or biased as the person that designed it. Therefore its processes are going to privilege some strategies or outcomes more than others. That is how games can make statements without hitting the player over the head with ham-handed rhetoric: by causing the player to discover those statements through play. SimCity makes the claim that public transit is good (because it's good for your city) and taxes are bad (because it makes citizens unhappy). Will Wright doesn't have to tell the player that, because it's encoded in the rules and the player discover that through playing out the processes.

Ian Bogost aside, this isn't anything new about games. War games were created by H.G. Wells about a hundred years ago when he wrote Little Wars, the first ruleset for miniature war gaming. To be sure, it was created as a fun game to amuse himself and his friends (all grown men it should be added—"War gaming. War gaming never changes."), but that doesn't mean it can't say something valuable about its subject. In fact, Wells even made that explicit towards the end of the rules, in a section titled "Ending With a Sort of Challenge":

My game is just as good as their game, and saner by reason of its size. Here is War, done down to rational proportions, and yet out of the way of mankind. . . .

Great War is at present, I am convinced, not only the most expensive game in the universe, but it is a game out of all proportion. Not only are the masses of men and material and suffering and inconvenience too monstrously big for reason, but—the available heads we have for it, are too small. That, I think, is the most pacific realisation conceivable, and Little War brings you to it as nothing else but Great War can do.

gore wrote:

Can a video game be enjoyable without being fun? Well, millions of WoW players do seem to think so.

This points back to something I've been considering writing on the subject of fun. The concept of "fun" in the realm of videogames is so subjective and abstract that it has become almost useless to any discussion on the topic. What is fun? Everyone has their own definition, based on their personal tastes, and using the word in reviews doesn't impart information. Can fun be measured? Can fun be quantified? Forget the word "compelling": "fun" is the word that ought to be banned.

gore wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
gore wrote:

Frankly, at this point, I'd be impressed with a game whose storytelling rivals popular fiction like The da Vinci Code, much less the great works of literature.

Have you played any of the Assassin's Creed games?

I have not, so I cannot speak to them.

This may spoil the reveal of one or both (I haven't played the second), but the plot is similar to the sort of religious conspiracy stuff of Dan Brown's books.

Gravey wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

I'm going through this offline, as some friends and family are trying to work out a rule set for a Napoleonic war game. On one hand, we want to accurately depict the situation, which comes down to opinions on the myriad contemporary philosphies on artillary stragey, production, and tactics (whether 8lb. and 9lb. shot are functionally the same, for example). On the other hand, we all have our own value judgments when it comes to the likes of Rousseau and Burke. Our understandings of the dynamics of government are going to necessarily reflect our conservative and liberal biases.

You see this in the way strategy games treat religion, too. Civ 4 includes religions, but makes them functionally the same in most regards--which is making an unspoken argument that, at least in this life, all religions are interchangeable. That may or not be Soren or Sid's belief, but that's the argument made by the game.

I've banged on about how games are systems, and this cuts to the heart of it. A model is never omniscient and so is only as accurate or biased as the person that designed it. Therefore its processes are going to privilege some strategies or outcomes more than others. That is how games can make statements without hitting the player over the head with ham-handed rhetoric: by causing the player to discover those statements through play. SimCity makes the claim that public transit is good (because it's good for your city) and taxes are bad (because it makes citizens unhappy). Will Wright doesn't have to tell the player that, because it's encoded in the rules and the player discover that through playing out the processes.

Ian Bogost aside, this isn't anything new about games. War games were created by H.G. Wells about a hundred years ago when he wrote Little Wars, the first ruleset for miniature war gaming. To be sure, it was created as a fun game to amuse himself and his friends, but that doesn't mean it can't say something valuable about its subject. In fact, Wells even made that explicit towards the end of the rules, in a section titled "Ending With a Sort of Challenge":

Thanks for the Gutenberg link, I've been meaning to read Little Wars, and now it's going on my Kindle!

But this doesn't have to be as esoteric as that, either. I mean, Tic-Tac-Toe and "Global Thermonuclear War" in WarGames also are rule sets that we generally all recognize as providing messages through strategy dynamics, even before we take Tic-Tac-Toe to the sort of philosophical extremes that games like chess and Go have been taken.

Quintin_Stone wrote:

Forget the word "compelling": "fun" is the word that ought to be banned. :)

Quintin is right. What's fun for one person isn't necessarily fun for someone else. Everything I've read about Pathologic suggests that it's a grueling, difficult experience that can, at times, be extremely unpleasant; that sounds like something I'd love to play. It'd be fun for me.

However, Dysplastic is also right when he says that games that aren't fun in a traditional sense don't have much of an audience. Pathologic might be brilliant, but not one in ten people is going to sign up to play something like that. It's difficult to make games without an audience to support you.

What will inevitably happen, I think, is that games will mature as a medium and divide into the mainstream and outre scenes already present with movies and music. A lot of people will pay money to see Avatar, listen to Coldplay, and play Modern Warfare 2. Fewer people will pay to see Antichrist, listen to Sunn 0))), and play The Void, however, hopefully there will be enough of them to support the artists who make art that isn't for the masses.

Thinking critically about the games that you play will, as with movies and music, be one of the key differences between appreciating the outre offerings instead of—or, hopefully, in addition to—the mainstream offerings. This kind of critical thought can lead to players embracing games that might not be fun for everyone, and it can lead, as in the case of this article, to players rejecting games for aspects that might otherwise be overlooked or glossed over by a mainstream audience.

This article pretty much sums what I'm usually too lazy too articulate whenever some blog/forum comment brushes aside a vidgames related controversy with "it's just a game."

Yeah, "it's just a game" unless you actually care about games, stoopid.

Thank you for a really well-written article, Alex. It's up there with some of the best articles on the site. While I am way too tired to contribute to the discussion right now, I will be re-reading and hopefully adding to the feedback. Once again, well done.

Quintin_Stone wrote:

The concept of "fun" in the realm of videogames is so subjective and abstract that it has become almost useless to any discussion on the topic. What is fun? Everyone has their own definition, based on their personal tastes, and using the word in reviews doesn't impart information. Can fun be measured? Can fun be quantified? Forget the word "compelling": "fun" is the word that ought to be banned. :)

Have you read A Theory of Fun For Game Design?

I cannot recommend it enough.

rabbit wrote:

Have you read A Theory of Fun For Game Design?

I cannot recommend it enough.

I have not, but I'll try and scare up a copy.

adam.greenbrier wrote:
Quintin_Stone wrote:

Forget the word "compelling": "fun" is the word that ought to be banned. :)

Quintin is right. What's fun for one person isn't necessarily fun for someone else. Everything I've read about Pathologic suggests that it's a grueling, difficult experience that can, at times, be extremely unpleasant; that sounds like something I'd love to play. It'd be fun for me.

However, Dysplastic is also right when he says that games that aren't fun in a traditional sense don't have much of an audience. Pathologic might be brilliant, but not one in ten people is going to sign up to play something like that. It's difficult to make games without an audience to support you.

What will inevitably happen, I think, is that games will mature as a medium and divide into the mainstream and outre scenes already present with movies and music. A lot of people will pay money to see Avatar, listen to Coldplay, and play Modern Warfare 2. Fewer people will pay to see Antichrist, listen to Sunn 0))), and play The Void, however, hopefully there will be enough of them to support the artists who make art that isn't for the masses.

Thinking critically about the games that you play will, as with movies and music, be one of the key differences between appreciating the outre offerings instead of—or, hopefully, in addition to—the mainstream offerings. This kind of critical thought can lead to players embracing games that might not be fun for everyone, and it can lead, as in the case of this article, to players rejecting games for aspects that might otherwise be overlooked or glossed over by a mainstream audience.

I think when most people say "compelling," they really mean "impelling". Looking to literature again-- Cormack McCarthy's The Road is definitely impelling, but was it fun? Hell no. Enjoyable? Extremely. But it certainly doesn't leave a warm fuzzy feeling in one's belly after putting it down. Personally, I was uneasy and nervous with every turn of a page, but I was still compelled to finish the book and see where the man and his son ended up, or who they might run into, that I might sate my desire to see them through to the end, that my hopes are confirmed and fears extinguished. They were characters one can easily relate to due to circumstance, and so (hopefully) your empathy presses you forward through the story, no matter what the results may end up being.

So what if someone made a game of that same content/context? Granted, at this point in the evolution of games, I seriously doubt a game designer would be successful with such a game. But at some point, I'm confident that someone will figure it out, and I see developers such as Terry Cavanagh, and even Sophie Houlden with Linear RPG, pushing those boundaries of what can truly propel a person through a game, beyond fun gameplay mechanics and the satisfaction of winning over those mechanics.

I'm with adam on this idea-- we are going to see a definite schism in the games industry (if we aren't already): on one side the money-making, almost-mindless blockbusters like Avatar, whose moral messages are blatant rehashes existing solely for the sake of narrative; and on the other side, there will be games like The Hurt Locker, full of nerve-wracking suspense or feelings of dread, fear, or even confusion, but are crafted so well that even with such opposing ideas to traditional gameplay, they are still impelling enough all the same that the audience will want to finish their stories.

Shadow of the Colossus did this to some extent. Throughout, one can empathize with the main character because the player can immediately understand what that character has set out to do and why. Once you continue through the story, though, you begin to empathize with the Colossi, as you begin to understand their own circumstances. Was the gameplay still fun throughout? Very much so, but as you progressed you began to see that the choices you made in the game had consequences that are aren't exactly conducive to the traditional sense of winning-- the results of the game were still very satisfying, even though one more than likely walked away not feeling very triumphant or happy about what truly drove them through the game or the immediate consequences of those actions.

So for me, at least, satisfaction is not necessarily only derived from fun. The mechanic to coerce the player through simply has to be impelling.

As a person with a well documented tendency to overthink absolutely everything, I can really appreciate this editorial.

I've long been dismayed by the sorts of things that game developers expect us, as gamers, to be okay with pretending to do. As a result, I've missed out on a lot of the new hotness-- for example I have never played a God of War game and I expect I never will.

It is my opinion that the games a person enjoys provide a window of sorts into that person. Basically, games provide the ability to observe another person's fantasy life, which I believe is where people are truly themselves. Shorn of real world repercussions, how does a person behave? Do they like being bald space marine defending humanity from alien or demon hordes? Do they like being the rogue, driving over pedestrians and killing whores for money? Do they like being an amnesiac teenager with a penchant for comically oversized cutlery riding a giant ostrich?

I suppose it's a bit Kantian of me, which is odd because I tend to be more Hobbesian in my outlook (eg: the only thing keeping person A from bashing in the head of person B and stealing his stuff is policeman C and the threat of institutional consequences).

For me to even consider playing a game, I have to be willing to put myself into the role of the main character. He (or she) is not just my avatar, but my agent in the game-- someone doing things that I know I'll never be able to do, but would be okay with doing given the same set of circumstances. That's a fancy way of saying that if a game expects me to shoot someone, it better be darn clear to me that he's a bad guy.

I thought I was pretty unique in this view, and maybe I am. But this article, and the response to it, have shown me that maybe it's not so radical to reject certain games because I have a moral objection to the content.

Excellent read.