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Games Are Like Sushi

A rant about making good sushi. And maybe good games too.

I was going to sprinkle in sushi pictures all over the place, but that's about as tacky as drizzling sauce all over a plate that no one ever eats. So on with the wall of text.

Ever since moving to Toronto, I’ve been struggling to find a good sushi restaurant. See, I came to my love of sushi in Montreal, where you tend to find very specific “Montreal-style” sushi rolls. One of my favourites is the Kamikaze roll, with tuna, crabstick, tempura, cucumber, avocado, and spicy mayo. With the nori on the outside, where it’s supposed to be. So you can imagine my horror when I came to Toronto and, not only where Kamikaze rolls nowhere to be found, all the rolls that were served had the rice outside the nori, in barbaric American fashion. What horror!

Overall, rolls in Toronto seem much simpler. One or two ingredients, wrapped in nori, and covered in sticky rice and black sesame seeds. All those exotic flavour combinations I had grown to love were nowhere to be seen. Moreover, they tasted different. The rice had a much stronger vinegar flavour. And the fish had a much skankier, stale taste. No wonder my family in Toronto say “Eww! Raw fish!” whenever I suggest sushi. Even the way it was served was just a little bit off.

So when I went to the Canadian Games Conference this summer to tell everyone about how to overcome the difficulties of designing and marketing an MMORPG (Link to my powerpoint and that of my co-presenter, Craig Morrison), I, of course, had to sample the local sushi. All my friends said it was way better in Vancouver than in either Montreal or Toronto. I went gung-ho, sushi joint after sushi joint, sampling as much as I could bear in my one week stay.

They were wrong.

Well, they weren’t entirely wrong. The sushi in Vancouver was way better than in Toronto; it was very fresh and succulently tasty. Their nigiri was spectauclar. But their maki was just as bland in style and preparation: still no sign of the legendary Kamikaze roll. That exciting pizzazz that Montreal sushi had, which made me squirm with excitement every time I looked over a menu, was completely lacking in Vancouver. Menu after menu, I would think to myself: “this stuff looks so boring.”

It may well be the case that sushi in Vancouver is more “authentic” and Japanese in style and that Montreal sushi is a bizarre fusion of Asian and European cuisine. But whatever the historical culinary development, it’s the Montreal stuff that I most enjoy eating. The sushi that I like isn’t the sushi that’s “classical” or “original” or “authentic”, it’s the sushi that’s “tasty” and “good.”

Games are like sushi.

You take some game mechanics (the fish), some “features” (the crabstick), some characters (the cucumber), some levels (the avocado), sprinkle in some story (the tempura flakes), smear in some multiplayer (the spicy mayo), and wrap it all up in a bunch of rice (the graphics) and UI (the nori). Then slice it into edible pieces and serve!

OK, that’s not really what I mean.

What I really mean is that there are a lot of different ways to make a game, but these ways tend to be grouped together into styles, just like sushi can be identified from its city of origin. Just like certain styles of sushi preparation can become popularized (such as putting the rice on the outside so you don’t see the “ugly black seaweed”) they can also be seen as undesirable changes to what works well. To me, this is most notable in game development in “consolification” of games: changes to the controls and UI in order to make a game more appealing on a TV and with a controller.

To me, consolifying a game is akin to taking away my sports car and handing me a tricycle. Having whole swaths of gameplay gutted in the name of appealing to the console market makes me sick. The recent Dungeon Siege III demo really sucker-punched me in the gut: the point-and-click Diablo-style game that I thoroughly enjoyed through two iterations had been reduced to a tethered-camera mess that was about as fun as getting food poisoning from badly prepared blowfish.

On the one hand, I can understand the desire to reach ever-widening audiences of gamers, just like I can understand putting the rice on the outside. That change alone isn’t really all that bad. But when the rice changes, when the nori changes, and when all the ingredients on the inside change too - when the whole sushi artistry becomes a factory for squalor and stale preparation - that isn’t acceptable. Console games are like Toronto sushi: it’s gross, but I there’s still a lot of people who enjoy it because they don’t know any better.

Now that’s not entirely true. There are plenty of really great console games that don’t suffer from consolification. I’m a big fan of the Fire Emblem games, and they’re just fine on consoles. I had a blast with action games like Devil May Cry 4, Infamous, and Ninja Gaiden Sigma before my PS3 died. I even played The Last Remnant and Phantasy Star Universe with a controller on my PC, because it felt more natural for that kind of game. These all felt like well-designed console games: not “consolized” PC games.

I guess it’s like comparing nigiri with maki. Two completely different ideas behind sushi, but both are very good, in their own way, if prepared right. A good console game is like a good nigiri: simple and bold. A good PC game is like a good maki: rich and complex. “Consolized” games, whether on console or PC, just taste like bad maki.

There’s a lot more to consolification than bad controller schemes. Bad UI, which displays far too little information and lacks any clickable menu items, is another major source of consolificaiton. Especially when that UI is kept out of the 15% border around the edge of the screen to meet technical requirement specifications for console games meant to be played on televisions. Hello: we’re PC users, our monitors display every pixel we send them. Have you ever noticed the Start Menu is in the very bottom corner? You can put your menu there too, thankyouverymuch.

But the biggest kicker is when gameplay itself gets torn apart and “simplified” for that lowest common denominator that must flood into play test rooms every time a marketing team gets the bright idea to do an “outside consultation.” Take Dungeon Siege III as an example again: gone is the inventory grid where you drag and drop around items to equip; replaced with a huge full-screen menu that isolates every equipment slot and lets you compare giant lists of items for that one slot at a time. Want to see all your stats while you’re changing gear? TOO BAD! This also means that inventory management is no longer a meaningful part of gameplay, something I previously argued is a strong motivator for many players.

So is this just a rant about bad games? No, it’s a rant about bad sushi.

But remember: Games are like sushi.


If you'd like, you can follow Simon on Twitter @SimonLudgate.

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