The Following film poster

The Indiening

For the past few years I've felt a bit guilty for having so little time to play even a fraction of the indie games that are released. I spend more time reading about titles like Gone Home, Limbo, Braid, or The Stanley Parable than I do playing them. I got into a debate with my roommate about whether the games on his OUYA were truly worthwhile, with games like Saturday Morning RPG and Ittle Dew providing interesting ideas but very little polish or substance. I've even been described by a friend as a "pretentious triple-A-snob", a confusing term, seeing as the triple-A industry is largely targeted towards the lowest common denominator in the mass market.

This struggle was perhaps at its strongest when I chose to write about Penny Arcade: On The Rain Slick Precipice Of Darkness Episode 3. I understood that Zeboyd was a small team and I wanted to give them some slack, but the truth was that the game's good ideas and combat system were outweighed by what became a monotonous, tedious slog across bland dungeons. Even after I wrote my final assessment of the game, I felt conflicted — as if I were some sort of jerk for treating this independent project to the same standards as other games.

It was a conflict I never stopped struggling with. For all of my pretensions, for every snobbish remark about good games writing and proper game design, was I actually quite shallow in my interests? Was I truly only drawn to the big budget games of the larger studios and publishers that I so frequently condemn? Was I a hypocrite?

It turns out that the answer to my question was not in video games, but in film.

Back in 1998, before he was known for the commercially and critically successful Dark Knight Trilogy, Christopher Nolan made a film called Following. It was filmed in black and white on a tight, mostly self-funded budget, and everyone involved was already employed full-time. They filmed exclusively on weekends, living up to the title of "passion project", and with little promise for reward.

What made Following a notable film was the method in which the story was told. Every scene was played out of sequence, jumping across the narrative's timeline like the Trix rabbit on a sugar high. The intent was to make sure the viewer was always thinking, always trying to interpret what was happening on screen and to continually reinterpret the events as a whole. Each scene provides new information, and the viewer's mind begins to sort, categorize, and connect the dots.

If anything, this film would make for an excellent psychological experiment in how the mind crafts a narrative out of seemingly nothing. Most films make it clear what's happening at points A and B, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks on their own. Sometimes this could be a simple fade into another scene, and other times it can be done flying a plane across a map to suggest our protagonist's method of travel. Yet in Following, everything is out of sequential order. From start to finish, the story makes no clear sense. That is, it makes no sense without the mind attaching meaning to certain objects in a scene, select traits of the protagonists such as clothing or facial hair, and then piecing together meaning and thus, a narrative.

Following is a fascinating movie, and you can tell that Christopher Nolan employed similar strategies when he moved on to film Memento and Batman Begins.

But if you were to ask me if it was a film worth watching, I would probably tell you, "No."

Following is about as indie as you get in the movie-making space. A small team working on weekends, with Christopher Nolan paying for the film reels out of pocket and employing an experimental storytelling method that most big-name studios wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. With the top-of-the-line materials way out of Nolan's price range, the team's equipment was well outdated.

Despite how fascinating the film is to someone interested in the film-making process, or perhaps in the history of Christopher Nolan's work, it otherwise has a very limited appeal. It is not at all a polished experience, and its out-of-sequence nature will likely frustrate more audiences than entertain.

Yet, for Christopher Nolan, it was still a success. It did well at film festivals where other filmmakers gathered, allowing his passion to shine through. Following was Christopher Nolan's film-making portfolio, and that allowed him to move on to larger budgets and better-polished projects such as Memento, The Prestige and Inception.

If I were to compare Following to a game, it would be Dishwasher: The Dead Samurai. A rather simple game, I find Dishwasher to be a perfectly polished and skill-based hack-and-slash whose mechanics keep drawing me back, despite rather bland and poorly designed levels. It's flawed, but the game's combat and enemy design feels just as satisfying as any triple-A experience.

Would I recommend it to everyone, though? No. I'd only recommend it to people that I know are interested in a combo-heavy, fast-paced combat game with plenty of arcade modes. It has a limited audience, but, as with Following, it serves its audience well.

Am I only drawn to the large, big-budget games developed by studios and publishers that I otherwise so frequently condemn? Not at all. I was absolutely in love with Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, Mark of the Ninja, and The Walking Dead: Season One when they all released. Am I a hypocrite for having little interest in narrative experiences such as Gone Home or The Stanley Parable? Honestly, no. While I enjoy a good story and writing in a game, I cannot deny that I am more greatly drawn to a game's mechanics.

Instead, what we have is a cross-over of interests. Christopher Cesarano, the game player who wants a game to provide an engaging method in which to interact with its world, and Christopher Cesarano, the games critic that wants to analyze and dissect games to help players and designers think more deeply about their games.

Two problems crop up here, both from simple misconceptions. By being a games critic I feel as if I should enjoy all forms of games, that I should be able to find satisfaction in anything as long as it is done well. Yet this is simply not true. It manifests as a negative pressure that I put upon myself. Everyone wants something different, and I happen to specialize in critiquing certain experiences.

The other problem is that the popular opinion seems to be that the indie scene is where all the interesting ideas are. The problem here is that "interesting" is always going to be subjective, and even an interesting idea on paper can still be horribly executed. On The Rain Slick Precipice Of Darkness: Episode Three had plenty of interesting ideas, but it completely failed to deliver an engaging experience. I found myself bored, frustrated, and displeased with the repetitive experience that simply dragged out for too long.

This does not mean I dislike indie games, nor that I snub them in favor of higher-budget titles. Zeboyd may only be two people, yet Dishwasher: Dead Samurai was developed almost entirely by James Silva, a single person. Budget and manpower are different from polish and focus, and Rain Slick failed to leverage that difference.

I am not a hypocrite. I may be a snob, but anyone whose interests are limited by a certain criteria may certainly be labeled as such. I know what I like and I know what I specialize in analyzing. It's about time I stop feeling guilty for having no interest in games that do not appeal to me simply because they are a smaller, independent effort. As with Following, I can recognize the value and even help explain what sort of crowd will appreciate that value, but I don't always have to be in that crowd.

If the game is mechanically sound and well-polished, then I will be interested, and I will likely find reason to enjoy it. If not, then I hope it can find its own following.

Comments

Great article, Chris.

I think the thing you touch on here is that art does not always succeed or fail based on its entertainment value. It's a lesson you typically learn early in any art education: whether you "like it" is irrelevant to most discussions of the piece's merits. It may be that we still have ground to cover as to whether games should be entertaining -- is "fun" an inherent quality of games?

Something like Following can be judged in a number of ways, as you point out. Criticism does not have to be reserved for critics in a formal sense; anyone interested in film (or art, or games) can readily read a book, take a course, or expose themselves to lots of examples and learn what the expectations are for the art form and begin to see how/when they are being subverted, played with, or executed well. You might not see as much of that in a mass-market flick, but understanding both how and why art works or does not work is part of what it means to have an informed discussion about it.

It's also the kind of thing you can really dive deeply into, because it relies on shared language and cultural/domain references. Any topic that offers enough depth to generate those is typically enjoyable to debate, reconsider, and share.

However, where a film can be boring and still interesting (see Wavelength, for example), a game that just fails to implement its systems is probably an example of incompetence, not subversion. There aren't a ton of examples of games that badly implement technical components of their systems and still succeed as games; I think the analogy would be an interesting indie film that was out of focus due to incompetence rather than artistic intent. Even to a "snob", it's just a mistake, and one that detracts from the experience.

TheHipGamer wrote:

There aren't a ton of examples of games that badly implement technical components of their systems and still succeed as games; I think the analogy would be an interesting indie film that was out of focus due to incompetence rather than artistic intent. Even to a "snob", it's just a mistake, and one that detracts from the experience.

If you dig into the '90s and '80s, I think there are actually quite a few games that fit this description. Most people don't play them anymore, because their interfaces have moved from difficult to obtuse and everyone's gotten better at designing UI, but there still enough original quality to make them cult classics. On the other hand, there aren't very many games where the core mechanic is broken and unable to provide effective feedback that later became cult classics, so if that's the kind of bad implementation that you mean, it's probably true. (Caveat: glitch-art is a thing.)

But your original point--a boring game that is still interesting--I submit Desert Bus:

Desert Bus is a trick minigame in the package, and was a featured part of Electronic Gaming Monthly's preview. The objective of the game is to drive a bus from Tucson, Arizona to Las Vegas, Nevada in real time at a maximum speed of 45 mph. The feat requires 8 hours of continuous play to complete, since the game cannot be paused.

It's been called "the worst video game ever created." But despite that--or because of it--it's gained a cult following and become the center of an annual charity marathon. Does the interest come from the game or from the culture that has grown up around the game? Where does the game stop and performance art begin?

TheHipGamer wrote:

It may be that we still have ground to cover as to whether games should be entertaining -- is "fun" an inherent quality of games?

The past half a year, or perhaps full year, I've gradually been stopping myself from describing games purely as "fun" or "not fun" and instead considering the different ways that they engage me, and therefore seek to engage the player. This will usually isolate a game's strengths and determine who it is good for.

As an example, replaying The Walking Dead season one, I found most of the puzzle-based gameplay to be a lot less engaging, and in fact remembered just how frustrating it was the first time. The game was at its best when everything was hectic and insane or you were exploring dialogue and character details. When the game stopped to be an adventure game, that was when it was weak and became a chore.

Yet the game isn't necessarily "fun" by any metric. It can be hectic, it can be exhilirating, it can be exciting, and it can even be harrowing. You can be invested in characters, concerned about them, or outright hate them. But none of these things describe that emotional excitement of "fun".

However, games that also engage that "fun" factor are easy to get addicted to. Play is pleasure, and thus it is easy to equate a game that is "fun" to having more value. The problem is, if I find Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, Mark of the Ninja, and Mario Kart 8 "fun" together, is it a measure of how fun they are? Does the fact that all three of those games are "fun" mean that anyone that enjoyed game A will also enjoy games B or C?

It doesn't, and this is where a lot of vocabulary needs to improve in modern games analysis. There are a lot of writers out there, even for notable websites, still defining the quality of a game based on how "fun" it is, when "fun" is just one of many ways a game can engage and interact with us.

Gremlin wrote:

Lots of stuff

Gremlin is accurate in that sometimes the most fascinating games, and films for that matter, can be terrible or deeply flawed. One of the reasons I loved The Amazing Spider-man so much wasn't just its merits, but because the flaws were interesting to consider and discuss. The very fact that it felt like two films crammed into one is enough to yield plenty of discussion and talk for me.

Simultaneously, I was intrigued by Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z specifically because it looked to be a train wreck. Sadly, it turned out to simply be bad rather than bad in an interesting manner. Yet there are plenty of games that I played where I saw potential, but just failed to measure up.

Duke Nukem Forever is another excellent example, added to the fact that it is a veritable time capsule of popular mechanics and ideas created during its development, only poorly implemented and thrown together.

However, going back to my earlier half of the post, the reason these films or games, despite their flaws, are interesting is because I am, in some way, being engaged, thinking on each merit and flaw of the title. And because that thinking process brings me joy, I therefore gain a sense of value.

...I feel like I strayed off topic.

An interesting topic.

For me, there are many games that I find "interesting" or "fascinating" in some sense or other. I don't necessarily spends a large number of hours playing them, but I still enjoy poking around / experimenting with them, or even just discussing. Simulations for me often fall in this category, or deep strategy games.

Good article, Chris.

Is there much discussion happening about moving on from the term "video game" to something a bit more broad like "multi-sensory aesthetic experience"? It seems that we've more than outgrown the idea that these things we play are in fact just play and games.

The closest I can come up with is "Interactives" as a short term like "movies" being for motion pictures. I don't know if you can accurately call them "code" like we refer to "film" as the material it is made out of, so to speak. Maybe once we enter VR we can simply call all games "sims" for simulations, which technically still wouldn't be too inaccurate, but the truth is "games" is an easy and quick word to say.

I do feel like we need to step away from that idea, but who knows if we ever will. Just look at how many stores and websites rely on the word "game".

To me if a game developer doesn't set out with the goal of making something fun, then it's not really a game.

"Game" is, after all, a subset of the group "toy," which is something used for amusement or entertainment. Something can have a lot of the trappings of a game (interactivity for example) without actually being one, just like some things that look like toys are actually decorations (Anyone remember Movie Maniax?)

Note that I don't say it has to actually be fun, just that the developers have to want it to be fun.

If you're trying to make Art (capital A) or send a message, you're not making a game. If you're good enough or do something interesting enough, the Art part will happen on its own. If you want to send a message, try Gmail. But Fun has to be in the top five things you want to make the game, otherwise you're making something else.

There's a place for interactive stuff that isn't supposed to be fun to at least part of its audience. But that place isn't among things called "games." People call them games because we haven't really got a better shorthand to describe them, and they are superficially similar to games in the same way that collectible figurines are superficially similar to toys. But the collectible are not meant for play, but for display.

The reason I go on about this is that I think the definitions matter. It just feels wrong to me for things like the Columbine RPG and Gone Home to inhabit the same space as, say, Saints Row 4 and Duke Nukem. You wouldn't put biographies and novels in the same section, or even sci fi and historical fiction in the same section (unless Harry Turtledobe wrote it, in which case I have no clue how to categorize it). There's a reason why best Documentary has its own category in awards shows. Ken Burns and Michael Bay commit very different things to film, and we categorize appropriately. Games are interactive media, interactive fiction is too but is distinct from games as a category.

Regarding snobbery, snobbery and elitism are usually used interchangeably, and that's a pity. Elitism is recognizing that some things have more value than others. Snobbery is when you think that your preference of some things over others makes you better than people who prefer different things.

Elitism is preferring Target to Walmart. Snobbery is thinking that people who shop at Walmart are beneath you, not just economically, but personally.

So no, I don't think it's snobbery to prefer games that you perceive to be good based on the things you value in games. Snobbery would be believing that the people who value different things makes them lesser human beings, which you clearly do not.

garion333 wrote:

Is there much discussion happening about moving on from the term "video game" to something a bit more broad like "multi-sensory aesthetic experience"? It seems that we've more than outgrown the idea that these things we play are in fact just play and games.

There's been some discussion. Robin Arnott has proposed "Videodream" for the subset of goal-less things like Proteus and Soundself.

Part of the issue is that some of the developers working on less-traditionally-game-like things see the denial of the "videogame" label as exclusion. Anna Anthropy and Raph Koster had a huge debate about Dys4ia. Twine authors don't want to be looked down on by gamers, etc. You can also look up some of the debate around, say, Gone Home. The definition of "game" has become an in-joke in some circles.

The other issue is that video games have always been outside the strictly-game-space: SimCity is a "software toy". Alien Garden was an "art game" released in 1982; followed the next year by Moondust. And they're hardly the only borderline things.

doubtingthomas396 wrote:

Elitism is preferring Target to Walmart. Snobbery is thinking that people who shop at Walmart are beneath you, not just economically, but personally.

So no, I don't think it's snobbery to prefer games that you perceive to be good based on the things you value in games. Snobbery would be believing that the people who value different things makes them lesser human beings, which you clearly do not.

I love everything about this.

But I still stand by what I said in regards to your discussions of "fun", and what you say about the name "game" speaks directly to the heart of what I meant about preferring games to be "interactives", if we can get that catching on somehow. It's all very limiting in the experience that you can make.

Yes, there are different types of books, at the very least divided between fiction and non-fiction, but they are still books. Just as a documentary and a super hero slug-fest are still films, we should be able to categorize Gone Home and Super Mario 3D World as the same general thing rather than one being a game and one being something more artistic sounding. They are both interactive experiences intended to engage a player in a world crafted specifically for their exploration.

If you're trying to make Art (capital A) or send a message, you're not making a game. If you're good enough or do something interesting enough, the Art part will happen on its own. If you want to send a message, try Gmail. But Fun has to be in the top five things you want to make the game, otherwise you're making something else.

I very much disagree here, but only to a point. I do believe a lot of games have been unable to juggle the two effectively, or risk critics uttering the oft overused term "ludonarrative dissonance". To me, both Spec Ops: The Line and Bioshock: Infinite use its combat and violence to say something about their protagonists, and in each case about video games. The former comes off more heavy-handed, but it is certainly artistic whilst still adhering to sound mechanical design.

I feel like games do need to see more skillful auteurs, or at least try and achieve a more cooperative experience between writers and designers/directors. Going back to film, the story in Following is pretty simplistic, but it is the technical achievements of the director that make it interesting. But the dialogue still needs to be good enough, and poor characters and an inability to chain the events in a sensical manner would have destroyed the project utterly.

Yet in games, we're expected to buy a game, enjoy it for the mechanics, and then replace it when the next title comes along. The story should be what keeps the game from being as easily replaceable, and even helps make the game's mechanics stand out.

I again reference Spec Ops and Bioshock: Infinite, but more so I would also point to games like Brutal Legend and The Wonderful 101, whose settings, story, and themes intermingled with gameplay and thus allowed both to be unique experiences that don't just get sequelized or endlessly replaced by similar titles in the same genre. Without their stories or themes, those mechanics would essentially be a bit meaningless.

garion333 wrote:

Is there much discussion happening about moving on from the term "video game" to something a bit more broad like "multi-sensory aesthetic experience"? It seems that we've more than outgrown the idea that these things we play are in fact just play and games.

Ian Bogost, among others, has suggested that the reason to go with "videogames" over "video games" is that the space makes these things seem more like games that have a video component, while the single-word option is a unified term.

There have been many attempts to come up with a new term. They have all failed, usually both semantically and in garnering adoption.

"Game" is, after all, a subset of the group "toy,"

Well that rules out soccer and tag as games, doesn't it?

The definition of "game" has become an in-joke in some circles.

Yes, yes it has. Honestly, I'm part of those circles.

The conversation about what is and isn't a "video game", and whether or not that term should be used or another invented, reminds me a lot of the discussion about whether or not "comics" is appropriate as a term to encompass everything from The Boondocks to Batman to Bone to Blankets. Will Eisner pushed for "sequential art", and others have pushed for "comix" or "comicbook"; there was some adoption of "graphic novels" for things like American Splendor but that quickly got co-opted by retailers as a catch-all term for anything like comic books that wasn't being sold as an individual issue.

What seems to have happened, though, is that the term "comics" has, instead of creating expectations that everything in that medium be comedic or for children, has expanded to include a greater diversity of styles, approaches, and subject matter. When I worked as a librarian, I had people ask me all the time for "comics like The Walking Dead" or "comics like The Far Side" without a sense that one or the other wasn't really a "comic". The only place I saw anyone really argue about that was on blogs and in academia.

"Video game" is going to go the same way. We'll eventually stop seeing the origins of the term when we talk about experiences that range from Gone Home to Mario Kart 8 to Final Fantasy XIII and Call of Duty, all of which have very different goals and approaches and experiences. The only places you'll see people really debate that will be places built around people arguing. So, blogs and academia.

+1 ClockworkHouse

Defining videogames narrowly does only one thing- limit what games can be. It says games can only do certain things, and as such says games must do things from some arbitrary list. This is really no different than saying drone or experimental noise isn't music, because music can only be such and such. Definitions of art tend to get less and less useful the more specific you get, so placing a wall at the boundary of the yard here says much more about the wallbuilder than the grass.

*edit*
My own broad and not-final definition is something like "something that involves video and interactivity" but even that is hazy- does a dvd menu count? Does hunting for an easter egg in a dvd menu count? By the way we define many games, clicking different things in a sequence to reveal something does indeed count. By that token, we can start to break other parts of a videogame experience down- if a dvd easter egg might count as some sort of videogame, does the act of inputing a password itself count as a game? You could go on and on and on.

When in doubt I think it's far better to take a creator at their word that what they've made is a videogame, and from there start unpacking what that means in that specific context. This makes for a far more interesting discussion and a much more diverse, sophisticated and meaningful gamespace.

ccesarano wrote:

I very much disagree here, but only to a point. I do believe a lot of games have been unable to juggle the two effectively, or risk critics uttering the oft overused term "ludonarrative dissonance". To me, both Spec Ops: The Line and Bioshock: Infinite use its combat and violence to say something about their protagonists, and in each case about video games. The former comes off more heavy-handed, but it is certainly artistic whilst still adhering to sound mechanical design.

I don't think we actually disagree here. I didn't mean to say that games couldn't be art, only that art can only be a game if the creator intended for the work to be fun.

It's like quadrilaterals. I can set out intending to make a square quadrilateral, or I can set out to make a rectangular quadrilateral. Only one of those will be a square, but they're both quadrilaterals. Substitute the words "interactive art" for "quadrilateral" and "fun" for "square" and you see my point. Both things are interactive art, but only the one intended to be the fun one is a game.

In other words, art isn't made by someone who said "I intend to make ART today." It's made by someone who is really passionate about an idea for this thing they thought of. That can be anything.

ccesarano wrote:

I feel like games do need to see more skillful auteurs, or at least try and achieve a more cooperative experience between writers and designers/directors. Going back to film, the story in Following is pretty simplistic, but it is the technical achievements of the director that make it interesting. But the dialogue still needs to be good enough, and poor characters and an inability to chain the events in a sensical manner would have destroyed the project utterly.

Yet in games, we're expected to buy a game, enjoy it for the mechanics, and then replace it when the next title comes along. The story should be what keeps the game from being as easily replaceable, and even helps make the game's mechanics stand out.

I again reference Spec Ops and Bioshock: Infinite, but more so I would also point to games like Brutal Legend and The Wonderful 101, whose settings, story, and themes intermingled with gameplay and thus allowed both to be unique experiences that don't just get sequelized or endlessly replaced by similar titles in the same genre. Without their stories or themes, those mechanics would essentially be a bit meaningless.

With this I make no argument, except to point out that different games require different amounts of story to drive them.

I don't think anyone would argue that PacMan is any great shakes when it comes to interactive storytelling. But it's still a great, classic game. Ditto for Tetris and Lumines and Smash TV. There are varying levels of backstory for each of those, but they all basically boiled down to deleting things for points.

Games that are also interactive stories are another matter. I agree that the mechanics of Brutal Legend wouldn't mean much without the world they live in.

The neat thing about video games is that they can tell a story or not. Books almost always have some level of narrative-- even textbooks. Movies can have narrative or not, but the ones that don't tend to be portraits of the person behind he camera. Due to player agency video games have the capability to be self portraits [em]of the player![/em]

This is, I think, why role playing games have always been so popular. The player takes a world given to them by the creator and makes their own mark on it. Dungeons and Dragons let the players decide who they wanted to be, what their self portraits would look like. Video games allow that in a way that no other media can.

Even in strict linear games that funnel the player through a fixed unalterable narrative, games are getting better at letting players develop their own style of doing it. In Bioshock, even though your choices don't really affect the world very much, the character build you finish with is going to be fairly unique. Did you prefer fire or ice plasmids? Which weapon worked for you? Did you like to create traps for your enemies or charge them? Or perhaps sneak up on them?

The better developers get at using the strengths of the medium instead of trying to force the medium into the mold of other media, the more capital A Art we will see in game form.

My wife, who has a BFA, tells me that what makes art Art is transcendence. I think that's what that means.

wordsmythe wrote:
"Game" is, after all, a subset of the group "toy,"

Well that rules out soccer and tag as games, doesn't it?

Yep. Because those are sports.

:-p

Another +1 to ClockworkHouse. (and a +1 Chris, for writing an awesome, thought provoking article.)

I actually think comics and games are a stronger parallel than films and games. Both in their struggle with their perceived audiences vs their actual audiences (ie, perceived to be for kids, but actually for everyone) and in terms of their paths towards maturity as mediums.

Independent film is a really different beast these days than independent games. We're in a strange era where the demand for super specific and niche entertainment in general is at an all time high, simply because there is so much content out there. We're not in an era of three TV networks all trying to put out the most generally appealing things they can to take a bigger market share, we're in an era where thousands upon thousands of content creators are competing to corner a small slice of a given market.

Gaming has embraced this more readily than film, I think. The level of discourse I see of the average gamers about the Gone Homes and Stanley Parables of the world are fairly nuanced and heightened. But if I talk to the average person who watches films (which is pretty much everybody), truly independent films, or even mainstream films that are challenging, are often quickly dismissed as being "pretentious." I don't know that the average film go-er has embraced films that break the traditional mold of what a film is nearly as much as the average gamer has embraced games which break the stereotypical AAA structure/gameplay/design.

If something is "pretentious" it means it has pretense of having greater importance than it actually does. You can make a case that a film like Thor is actually more pretentious than a film like Tree Of Life. But I saw no reviews of Thor calling it out for being pretentious, even though it was cotton candy super hero action film that added the pretense of importance by casting high caliber, elite Shakespearean trained actors. Tree Of Life, which is essentially one man's personal journey wrestling with the question of whether or not God exists, doesn't have an ounce of pretense. It asks a lot from an audience, true, but it isn't trying to be anything other than what it is. Yet that film is frequently criticized as "pretentious."

I might have drifted slightly off topic there, I apologize, but the salient TL;DR is this - Experimentation in video games is more universally accepted among gamers and game critics than deviation from typical narrative devices is accepted amongst film go-ers and film critics.

doubtingthomas396 wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
"Game" is, after all, a subset of the group "toy,"

Well that rules out soccer and tag as games, doesn't it?

Yep. Because those are sports.

:-p

One doesn't play a game of soccer?

TheHarpoMarxist wrote:

Another +1 to ClockworkHouse. (and a +1 Chris, for writing an awesome, thought provoking article.)

I actually think comics and games are a stronger parallel than films and games. Both in their struggle with their perceived audiences vs their actual audiences (ie, perceived to be for kids, but actually for everyone) and in terms of their paths towards maturity as mediums.

Independent film is a really different beast these days than independent games. We're in a strange era where the demand for super specific and niche entertainment in general is at an all time high, simply because there is so much content out there. We're not in an era of three TV networks all trying to put out the most generally appealing things they can to take a bigger market share, we're in an era where thousands upon thousands of content creators are competing to corner a small slice of a given market.

Gaming has embraced this more readily than film, I think. The level of discourse I see of the average gamers about the Gone Homes and Stanley Parables of the world are fairly nuanced and heightened. But if I talk to the average person who watches films (which is pretty much everybody), truly independent films, or even mainstream films that are challenging, are often quickly dismissed as being "pretentious." I don't know that the average film go-er has embraced films that break the traditional mold of what a film is nearly as much as the average gamer has embraced games which break the stereotypical AAA structure/gameplay/design.

If something is "pretentious" it means it has pretense of having greater importance than it actually does. You can make a case that a film like Thor is actually more pretentious than a film like Tree Of Life. But I saw no reviews of Thor calling it out for being pretentious, even though it was cotton candy super hero action film that added the pretense of importance by casting high caliber, elite Shakespearean trained actors. Tree Of Life, which is essentially one man's personal journey wrestling with the question of whether or not God exists, doesn't have an ounce of pretense. It asks a lot from an audience, true, but it isn't trying to be anything other than what it is. Yet that film is frequently criticized as "pretentious."

I might have drifted slightly off topic there, I apologize, but the salient TL;DR is this - Experimentation in video games is more universally accepted among gamers and game critics than deviation from typical narrative devices is accepted amongst film go-ers and film critics.

I think there's plenty of fertile ground to till in comparing games to film, but it helps to remember that film had about 40 years to develop as a young medium before they added sound.

wordsmythe wrote:

I think there's plenty of fertile ground to till in comparing games to film, but it helps to remember that film had about 40 years to develop as a young medium before they added sound.

Great point! Let me make a quick correction and say I do think the comparison is TOTALLY worthwhile and interesting, just that games and comics seem to have more direct parallels and seem to be cutting a more similar path through the jungles of maturing as a medium (actually, the 40 years without sound is another things that might make film potentially more of the outlier.)

I love the discussion this article resulted in, and as such I love you all.

I might have drifted slightly off topic there, I apologize, but the salient TL;DR is this - Experimentation in video games is more universally accepted among gamers and game critics than deviation from typical narrative devices is accepted amongst film go-ers and film critics.

Here I would say it varies. Ulairi and I seem to be in a constant Polygon rage club, and I know I tend to snarl whenever I see a link to IGN or Kotaku, because to me (and I suspect Ulairi), there are expectations for games to fit X mold, and when they don't, they are somehow worse for it. That is how it can feel, at least.

I think publishers, gamers, and media are only willing to experiment to a certain extent, but basically, and this is like a very controversial statement that I'll probably regret making, they just want the video game equivalent of Obamacare. The rules aren't rewritten, nothing is truly changed or innovated, just a bunch of newish bells and whistles that seem great and can be stuck with a sticker claiming "Innovative" (or, in my comparison's case, "Helpful").

Which is also one of the reasons I can no longer stand hearing the word "innovative" so damn much, especially since I used to use it all the damn time myself. It's not about reinventing the wheel and you can't always expect someone to tack on new, game-changing features. I think, of all games, it was Darksiders and Shadow Complex that taught me stuff like that.

But I do get what you're saying, because video games, right now, are doing all kinds of really cool stuff with settings, and they have been for years. The problem is that the writing or story tends to get in the way somehow. For example, Assassin's Creed 1? I still love every bit of it. As you progress through the series? The biggest mess upon a once clean table top.

I'd like to think that, if "geeks" have conquered cinema, part of that is due to all those screaming, racist 13 year olds playing Call of Duty online. So, they did something goodish for society maybe? Only not really? I dunno?

Which is also one of the reasons I can no longer stand hearing the word "innovative" so damn much, especially since I used to use it all the damn time myself. It's not about reinventing the wheel and you can't always expect someone to tack on new, game-changing features.

Are you proposing that we disrupt the innovation paradigm?

I think if geeks truly conquer cinema, then you'll get a front-line mainstream film movement that looks a lot more like frontline mainstream TV (where I think the geeks won.) As I think about it more, I'm inclined to add "TV" into the mix. Comic books, TV, and video games I think are all doing an admirable job pushing new boundaries and exploring new niches and ideas. TV shows are embracing complexity and becoming more willing to put some really risky, difficult stuff out there. The Wire is not an easy show to watch. By traditional standards, Mad Men is full of flaws. Game of Thrones gleefully breaks all of the rules. Louie is constantly playing with tone in a way that just doesn't happen in mainstream cinema.

Film feels like the one front where the geeks (and indie spirit) haven't won. Which is fascinating given how much easier it is to create a movie than it is to create a TV show. (Not that it is "easy" but the equipment is cheaper now than ever, and it is certainly a lot more attainable a goal to release a movie than it is to get a TV show out into the world.) And yet film - traditionally a medium that was the place to go if you wanted to be experimental and outside of the box - is feeling like it is banking harder and harder towards safer, easier, more "generally appealing" content over the niche.

Depends on which geeks. Could just be that we never see another continuity error or unexplained technology.

wordsmythe wrote:
doubtingthomas396 wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
"Game" is, after all, a subset of the group "toy,"

Well that rules out soccer and tag as games, doesn't it?

Yep. Because those are sports.

:-p

One doesn't play a game of soccer?

I'd engage further, but i can't tell if I'm being made fun of at this point.

If I am, the congratulations! By my own definition you just created a game!

Hi, this is Robert from Zeboyd here.

Dungeon design & a lack of things to do outside of combat are the #1 complaints we've received on our games and improving on both aspects is a huge focus of our development efforts on our current game, Cosmic Star Heroine. So no worries on complaining about those in our earlier game, especially since the dungeon design in Penny Arcade 3 is the worst in all our games IMO.

Your comparison to other games is a bit off though. If anything, The Dishwasher had a higher budget than PA3 (1 guy x 2-3 years > 2 guys x 10 months). And Mark of the Ninja & The Walking Dead: Season 1 both aren't even in the same league. Not sure on development time & outside expenses, but Mark of the Ninja's credits mention: 4 designers, 5 programmers, 4 animators, 3 environmental artists, 3 additional Artists, 2 Audio people, a production manager, a QA guy, 2 musicians, a writer, a creative director, an executive producer, and more. And Telltale Games isn't an indie company in any traditional sense; they're a large company that deals primarily in creating game adaptations of popular IPs (Walking Dead, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Borderlands, just to name a few).

I will respond to your post when I am less drunk, but it is awesome to get your feedback on the post. High-five!

@ Ccesarano - great article! Even though my tastes are in some ways the opposite of yours (ie, I love narrative driven games and try to avoid arcade games unless I'm playing with the kiddo), you made some excellent points about avoiding indie game snobbery. Unfortunately, this kind of snobbery is fully embraced in literary circles, with critics telling readers they should be ashamed of reading The Hunger Games or The Fault in Our Stars:

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/b...

Alright, now I have a better state of mind.

Werezompire wrote:

Dungeon design & a lack of things to do outside of combat are the #1 complaints we've received on our games and improving on both aspects is a huge focus of our development efforts on our current game, Cosmic Star Heroine. So no worries on complaining about those in our earlier game, especially since the dungeon design in Penny Arcade 3 is the worst in all our games IMO.

Awesome! Taking this feedback and working on improving it in the future is the best thing any developer could do, and you have all of my thumbs up for doing so. And if PA3 is truly the worst in that regard, I am more likely to jump into PA4 and your earlier games to check them out, since otherwise PA3 had a lot of great stuff going for it.

Your comparison to other games is a bit off though. If anything, The Dishwasher had a higher budget than PA3 (1 guy x 2-3 years > 2 guys x 10 months). And Mark of the Ninja & The Walking Dead: Season 1 both aren't even in the same league. Not sure on development time & outside expenses, but Mark of the Ninja's credits mention: 4 designers, 5 programmers, 4 animators, 3 environmental artists, 3 additional Artists, 2 Audio people, a production manager, a QA guy, 2 musicians, a writer, a creative director, an executive producer, and more. And Telltale Games isn't an indie company in any traditional sense; they're a large company that deals primarily in creating game adaptations of popular IPs (Walking Dead, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Borderlands, just to name a few).

Now, to be accurate, the only game I directly compared PA3 to was Dishwasher: Dead Samurai. The other games were simply placed under the umbrella of "Independent" (though with Mark of the Ninja you might be able to question the validity of the "indie" status, seeing as I believe their game opens with the MS Games logo, meaning Microsoft gave them at least some bit of a hand, likely financially). The only time the team size and overall polish was compared was those two games, and you are correct, the two are not perfectly balanced due to the amount of time. I don't know what James' finances or living situation was, how he got his budget, etc., or yours, so no matter what, the comparison is, admittedly, doomed to fail.

However, what it does mean is that it might have been better to simply compare PA3 to Following, due to the film being the product of weekend-only recording and limited budget. A short amount of time and money would certainly make for a more accurate comparison, and just as I would recommend Following to a niche audience with specific interests in film, PA3 is still a valid recommendation to an audience with an interest in creative turn-based combat mechanics.

I apologize if it seemed I was treating your game unfairly compared to other games. The intent was not to crap all over PA3 at all, but instead to simply assert that there is no guilt in not liking a game, and that there is no reason to feel obligated to like or give a game certain slack if you're not enjoying it simply because it is an independent title. A game should be enjoyable in some fashion, and if it is not, then no one should feel pressured to play it.

That it was your game that happened to be my big hurdle to come to that conclusion, well, that's just a shame. But I hope to give your other games a chance, as you've shown yourself to be a very understanding developer willing to hear feedback, and that means a lot to me.

jdzappa wrote:

@ Ccesarano - great article! Even though my tastes are in some ways the opposite of yours (ie, I love narrative driven games and try to avoid arcade games unless I'm playing with the kiddo), you made some excellent points about avoiding indie game snobbery. Unfortunately, this kind of snobbery is fully embraced in literary circles, with critics telling readers they should be ashamed of reading The Hunger Games or The Fault in Our Stars:

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/b...

Heh, I think there's a whole rant going on in the Random Thing You Loathe thread on that very article.

jdzappa wrote:

@ Ccesarano - great article! Even though my tastes are in some ways the opposite of yours (ie, I love narrative driven games and try to avoid arcade games unless I'm playing with the kiddo), you made some excellent points about avoiding indie game snobbery. Unfortunately, this kind of snobbery is fully embraced in literary circles, with critics telling readers they should be ashamed of reading The Hunger Games or The Fault in Our Stars:

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/b...

Well that link made choosing my next blog post topic incredibly easy. Thanks.

MyLadyGrey wrote:
jdzappa wrote:

@ Ccesarano - great article! Even though my tastes are in some ways the opposite of yours (ie, I love narrative driven games and try to avoid arcade games unless I'm playing with the kiddo), you made some excellent points about avoiding indie game snobbery. Unfortunately, this kind of snobbery is fully embraced in literary circles, with critics telling readers they should be ashamed of reading The Hunger Games or The Fault in Our Stars:

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/b...

Well that link made choosing my next blog post topic incredibly easy. Thanks.

#notAllLiteraryCircles

Seriously, reading is good, reading decent stuff is better, and using quality stuff at your reading level as a step toward deeper reading is even better than that. The worry is that some folks stall out halfway up the stairs—which isn't so much a worry that I share, so long as nobody tries to convince me the Sorcerer/Philosopher's Stone is really good writing.

It's OK, so long as you don't pay too much attention.