A Taste for Pabulum

As I have indicated before, I am a simple man, and that is a philosophy I’m happy enough to embrace. In any real and fair analysis, I must admit that I prefer music that gets played on adult-contemporary stations. I tend to read books that tell a simple, well paced story. I usually avoid movies with complex agendas. And when it comes to video games, I like big-budget, blockbuster sequels from major publishers.

If statistics are to believed — and given how simple I am, I would suggest they are — then I’m actually part of a vast majority measured in multiple millions. If the video game elite and effete however are to be believed — and given how simple I am, I had to get the word “effete” from a thesaurus — then I am the cancer that is slowly eating video game creativity to death.

It has become something of a sin in many gamer enthusiast circles to hold a game in high regard that was mass-produced by a profit-focused publisher, or at least to esteem it as anything but moderately distracting pabulum that lacks the authenticity of most independently developed titles. And, since I’ve already waded neck-deep into heresy, let me walk a little bit further in.

While there are some indie titles that are genuinely entertaining and engaging, I think overall they have generally the same proportions of quality to shortcomings as the big names, and they are as likely to suffer from the same lack of polish, resources, depth and creativity as any other game. In short there is nothing special about independent games just because they happen to be indie.

There are plenty of games that seem to fall within the rubric of “indie” that I like, though most in a transitory, curious kind of way. I honestly don’t get the big deal with Minecraft — is that even an indie title any more? — much less Dwarf Fortress, but those games are like shellfish to me: I see that many connoisseurs I trust enjoy them, but please don’t serve them to me for my main course.

In most cases, I must admit that when I play an independent title I don’t feel like I’m getting anything more complex or deeply affecting out of the experience by virtue of being independent as I do out of any other game. I don’t find a higher proportion of exceptional experiences, nor any inner peace just because my money avoided the grubby hands of public traded companies. In many cases I find the games that claim to address a deep and complex moral issue or try to break the conceits of artistry in gaming to be too often fundamentally poor games masked ‘neath a mountain of pretentiousness.

Sure, there are games like Bastion or Mount & Blade that genuinely do something unique and interesting, and do it in a way that serves the gameplay, but that doesn’t have to do with that game being independent or otherwise. The truth is I’ve seen just as many, if not more, good ideas that I want to see fostered from major publishers as I have from indie games.

That’s not to say that I think there’s anything wrong with the independent gaming movement. It just means I don’t think independent gaming gets bonus points just for being what it is. If you want to sell me half a game that makes for a nice hour long distraction for $5 that’s great, but don’t try to sell me on the idea that it is inherently better than the stock on a Best Buy store just because of its pedigree.

To me, the real thing that independent gaming deserves to be praised for is the diversity they bring to the gaming spectrum. While I grant it no special credibility just for being outside the big studio system, I do recognize that the independent approach allows people to try things that might not be possible with the responsibility of tens of millions of dollars on the table.

This is not the day and age to step to the pulpit and say that big corporations ain’t always so bad, or that putting up with value propositions and asset protection is worth the price of admission to get to play big name games. There is and always has been the desire to see the little guy succeed where the big business fails, and I understand the psychology between proclaiming every inkling of success in indie gaming as a tide turning, David-vs-Goliath kind of moment.

I don’t really understand people who say that they are done with $60 games because such games are creatively bankrupt and there are enough indie games to play forever. I assume they are genuinely satisfied by the near-endless offerings of countless one-man bands and small development houses, but when I play the games propped up as exemplars of the best that indie gaming has to offer, I often find myself missing the polish, the spectacle and the bells and/or whistles that can only come with some serious funding.

I suppose the nice thing is that we happen to live in a universe of gaming where they can go their own way and I can go mine. They can fulfill that wish of never having to buy another full-priced game and satisfy whatever agendas prompt such desires, and I can sit in my easy-minded stupor and blow up highly detailed barrels with abandon. This, to me, is the best thing about a healthy indie movement. Both worlds can co-exist.

For me, though, the world of over-hyped, corporate produced, sequel driven, big-budget gaming is a comfortable and familiar place. C'est la vie.

Comments

wordsmythe wrote:

Look, folks, I think we can compromise. I'm totally cool with a world where Eco sometimes writes nonfiction.

Yes, where's the Michael Bay adaptation of The Search for the Perfect Language?

(Or your personal favorite Eco nonfiction work, if you have another.)

I've moved on. Now I want Uwe Boll to make a film based on a Latour essay.

Well said!

I tend to take every single game on its own and judge its worth solely based on how much I enjoyed playing it. I don't care who made it, how much money was spent on it, or what the developers deep and hidden meanings behind it were. I feel much the same way about music and movies. I don't think I'll ever be talked into liking something more just because it was obscure and fewer people appreciated it.

That being said, I get this really pretentious vibe from people who are constantly expounding the virtues of indie products. It's usually presented in the context of "If you didn't like this indie game, you just didn't get it man." Jonathan Blow just pisses me off, as does anyone else who talks like that. Newsflash, Braid or (insert other highly talked about indie game here) is not the super popular industry and life changing product that you think it was. I doubt many people outside of the more hardcore gaming enthusiasts have ever even heard of a game like Braid, or even Minecraft for that matter...but even my Grandma knows what Call of Duty and Rock Band are.

I really enjoy the occasional Bastion or other high quality, small budget, small studio, and low price title that I purchase...but at the end of the year I doubt those are the games that I'm going to be talking about and putting up as my game of the year contenders.

Every once in awhile something will come along and prove me wrong, but I think there's a reason why very wealthy people who are interested in making a lot more money are putting millions of dollars into certain titles. If anything, the indie gaming scene is the greatest thing to happen to big budget publishers in recent memory. They get to have other people test the waters for them and then put money into and reap the financial success of whatever new schtick or feature proves popular.

Unfortunately this means that there may be a lack of innovation in the big budget industry until those new concepts prove themselves in the AA leagues, though that may not be a terrible thing for us as consumers either, as we get to try new things out cheaply before deciding to pay $60 for a new type of game that we're not sure is our thing.

doubtingthomas396 wrote:

Not everything has to be an Umberto Eco novel.

Please clarify. Name of the Rose/Foucalt's Pendulum Eco or Baudolino Eco. There is a big difference. If you think there isn't, you're deeply, deeply wrong.

juv3nal wrote:
doubtingthomas396 wrote:

Not everything has to be an Umberto Eco novel.

Please clarify. Name of the Rose/Foucalt's Pendulum Eco or Baudolino Eco. There is a big difference. If you think there isn't, you're deeply, deeply wrong.

Which one was about the hacker chick?

"I don't think I'll ever be talked into liking something more just because it was obscure and fewer people appreciated it."

Seeking out the under-appreciated is a perfectly reasonable way to look at art. It's not that super-popular works aren't good. They may even be the best. But do they really need any more eyeballs looking at them? The sum of all human consciousness should be larger than than just everyone staring at the most popular thing. If you see everything that everyone else sees, then you'll think everything everyone else thinks. Those thoughts don't become *wrong* by everyone else thinking them, but they do become *redundant*.

Does this all just boil down to hipster douchebaggery?
Attributing more to something than it's due on merit alone simply because it paints you as a conneseur for being able to find or appreciate despite, or because of it's obscurity? Hipsterism.

The affront to minecraft hit me particularly hard. Minecraft drills right into my Lego/Sandbox cortex. It is excellent as a long time sink, or a quick casual pick up. Where I can't sit down to AAA title for less than about two hours, I can do one thing or another in MC and still go away with that "ahh" satisfaction.

Ghostship wrote:

Does this all just boil down to hipster douchebaggery?
Attributing more to something than it's due on merit alone simply because it paints you as a conneseur for being able to find or appreciate despite, or because of it's obscurity? Hipsterism.

What about not liking something because it's overhyped to the point that you're tired of it before it's even released?

The solution to that is actually rather easy - ignore the hype. Of course, that wouldn't be as easy if it's your job to handle hype in some fashion.

LarryC wrote:

The solution to that is actually rather easy - ignore the hype. Of course, that wouldn't be as easy if it's your job to handle hype in some fashion.

Even for folks who write about games as a hobby, there exists a notion that games deserve certain amounts of attention, or at least that readers are only willing to read a certain amount of coverage on a game unless you can make a unique point about it. So when a game gets a lot of attention, there are forces pushing the writer to look elsewhere--to cover what's getting lost in the noise about the more hyped game. Occasionally there are real gems in there that would be lost if not for those indie-trending forces.

I'm generally distrustful of gaming publications in general, and coverages in particular because they often slather the games in question in praise or contemptuous spins, without really supply that much info all around, hence the word "hype." I like reviews and coverage that stick to the facts. It's possible to describe a game's positive attributes in words that would make sense to a reader while sticking strictly to factual elements ("not hype").

Example of statement that doesn't say much of anything:

"The shooting feels good."

Other than that the reviewers approves of the shooting elements, it doesn't really say anything. There's not much you can go on based on those kinds of statements, even if the reviewer happens to be someone whose tastes are close to your own.

Something more informative:

"Hitboxes are unerringly precise and hit locations include head, body, and leg shots. Enemies recoil satisfyingly with certain weapon types, adding a bit more tactical and strategic variety to weapon choice. Sound design is of varied sound bytes, with depth and good bass."

It must be frustrating to find a way to describe a game a unique way to sell your writing, but in that most writing is hype, I think it serves gamers better to just ignore most of it that does little more than to promote the product.

It's a good thing we don't do reviews much here, or else I would have to force our writers to be much more specific and informative.

There's one every so often. They tend to be detailed enough to be worth reading, though. Less hype and more op-ed.

LarryC wrote:

Example of statement that doesn't say much of anything:

"The shooting feels good."

Other than that the reviewers approves of the shooting elements, it doesn't really say anything. There's not much you can go on based on those kinds of statements, even if the reviewer happens to be someone whose tastes are close to your own.

Something more informative:

"Hitboxes are unerringly precise and hit locations include head, body, and leg shots. Enemies recoil satisfyingly with certain weapon types, adding a bit more tactical and strategic variety to weapon choice. Sound design is of varied sound bytes, with depth and good bass."

To play a little bit of devil's advocate:

If we're talking about a reviewer whose track record I know, I might find the former more informative than the latter. What I'm generally trying to figure out from a review is: am I going to like it? If I've read previous reviews by that reviewer I can maybe remember whether they liked previous shooters w, x, & y but I'm probably not going to be able to remember how many hit locations those other games had. If our reviewer liked w & x but not y and I, from personal experience with the games, agreed with that, then I know if he says that the shooting in z "feels good," I can have some confidence that I'll feel the same way. If he says z has n hit locations, not only do I not necessarily know how many hit locations w, x, & y had, I may not even know if having more or fewer is something I'll like or dislike.