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Video Games Suck: The Case for Optimism

A look at why games suck and what that means for the future.

"I love this game, even though it's terrible."

Amanda Lange's feelings towards Skyrim mirror my own attitude towards almost every video game I've played.

I love video games. I've made them the focus of my education, my career, and my leisure time. I plan to spend the rest of my life making and playing them. Still, I cannot deny the ultimate, objective fact that they universally suck.

Examples abound. Skyrim is an easy target, with its awkward glitches and limited roleplaying options. The Call of Duty series impressed me until its drama dissolved into rote, transparent gimmicks. The much-beloved genre of graphical adventure games were so awful that they collectively committed suicide (in the memorable words of Erik Wolpaw), and my experiences with their text-based predecessors can be reduced to the time it took the game's parser to make me ragequit. My favorite game of all time was Morrowind, but my most frequent activity in that game (combat) primarily consisted of repetitively waving a sword at my opponent, hoping for a tiny puff of red to appear. It sucked, and nostalgia is the only thing that allows me to continue enjoying my old favorites.

(If you're still not convinced, tune in to the GAMBIT Game Lab's Crappy Game Complaining Marathon. I'm sure they have plenty of material.)

Still, inside all of these games was a nugget of something awesome. It was buried under mounds of shit, but it was there, and it kept me playing. Morrowind presented an incredible world to explore, even if the combat was terrible. Deus Ex did amazing things with interactive storytelling, even if I found its action gameplay to be clunky. I was willing to look past the bad parts, but only when there was something novel and interesting to experience.

It's that novelty that has been the engine of video games for their entire short history. I don't have the patience for Pitfall or Zork today, but I'm sure I'd be engrossed if they were the only video games I knew. And, similarly, I'm sure I would have enjoyed Homefront more if Call of Duty had never existed. Alas, that's not the case. These games are not at the frontier of the medium today, and so playing them seems like a waste of time.

Chris Hecker has compared the state of games to that of movies in 1905, when The Little Train Robbery was released. If The Little Train Robbery were released today as a serious commercial product, it would be a laughingstock. We would only notice the technical flaws, the lack of sound, the simplistic editing, and the facile story. Yet, at the time, it was a hit. Like the hit games of today, it was novel. It pushed the medium forward and showed people new things. Eventually, inevitably, it was supplanted by the films that came after it. And that's why I have hope for video games.

Games today suck, but that's just part of the natural progression of our medium, and it's ultimately a case for optimism. They suck, but they're constantly getting better. Every new angle, every leap in technology, every clever design solution is propelling the medium towards objective, lasting worth. It's incredibly exciting to be a part of that movement.

With that said, I don't think we can't just sit back and enjoy the ride. The progress of video games has been easy so far thanks to massive improvements in technology; it would have been difficult not to evolve. But now, technology is less of a barrier, and that means there's much greater potential to stagnate.

So, yes, it's an exciting time of growth for video games, but that comes with an imperative: do your part to move the medium forward. Don't clone games. Don't just give your audience what it expects. Don't stick with tried-and-true designs. That will only freeze the medium in its current state. Instead, be critical, realize what sucks about games, and fix it! The result will still suck, but it will be a step forward, and step by step, video games will achieve greatness.

 

EDIT: I'd like to stage a retreat regarding some of the language I used here. I was, of course, trying to illustrate an intriguing contradiction between the flaws of modern games and my attitude towards their future, but the attention-seeking ended up getting in the way of the actual point. Claiming that games' flaws were objective and undeniable was both specious as fact and unacceptable as rhetorical device. Consider my lesson learned. As penance, I'll leave the text above in its original state for all to see.

That said, I'll stand by the core argument of this post: modern video games have vast room for improvement, and that should be a source of excitement rather than despair. However, designers need to actively pursue that improvement, lest the medium become calcified in its current state. Designing for today's audience won't cut it; we should design for the future.

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