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Opinion: Why More Games Need Subtext

In this in-depth Gamasutra editorial, Editor-At-Large Chris Remo looks at what games - from Ico to No More Heroes - mean to us, suggesting that good gameplay is a great start, but that many game titles may be missing a chance to "amplify or

Chris Remo, Blogger

April 28, 2008

9 Min Read

[In this in-depth Gamasutra editorial, Editor-At-Large Chris Remo looks at what games - from Ico to No More Heroes - mean to us, suggesting that good gameplay is a great start, but that many game titles may be missing a chance to "amplify or even largely deliver meaningful subtext" along the way.] I recently attended a publisher-held press event at which a number of upcoming titles were shown, one of which was a third-person action game based on existing license. During a hands-off demonstration, my colleagues murmured positively about the smoothness of the game's animations and movements, the relentless pacing of its action, and its general apparently successful mechanical and presentational principles. After the presentation, I started thinking about what a "good" game is. It's not something that can be pinned down very precisely, of course, but it usually has a lot to do with playability, polish, and appropriate depth of gameplay. To be well-received, a character-driven game is expected to provide a thrilling experience, one that takes a player to another world or puts a player in an exciting role. Why shouldn't they have more than that, though? Perhaps great games could be expected not only to deliver a compelling experience, but to deliver a compelling subtext--a meaning underneath the surface. I'm certainly not claiming myself as an exception here. Except in the most obvious cases, we don't generally delve into whether our games say anything. But maybe we should - and there are numerous examples of games that do. "Games Are Fun" The most frequently-stated requirement in making games is that they must be fun. This has been decreed by gamers, critics, and vaunted demigods of development alike. Is that a sufficient requirement, and does it even mean anything at all? Saying "your game must be fun" is like saying "your entertainment product must be entertaining," - it is more often than not used as an indiscriminate shield of vagueness against suggestions that games can also be something more specific. For years, some developers have been trying to formalize and define in useful terms ambiguous concepts like "fun." Marc LeBlanc's well-known design framework delineates eight kinds of fun, such as narrative, discovery, and expression. During this year's GDC, Clint Hocking attempted to do a similar thing for the slightly more concrete but still largely intangible concept of immersion, aiming more to nail down a useful way of discussing it than to provide a tutorial of how to create it. (Materials from Hocking's presentation are available at his blog.) It is a given that games should generally be fun; everybody knows this implicitly, and people like LeBlanc and Hocking are working to codify what fun and immersion really mean. What is particularly exciting - and probably beneficial to the overall success of the medium - to use fun and immersion to convey other statements. Under the Surface I don't mean to suggest games must have a social conscience - that's a separate topic, one Leigh Alexander recently considered. But maybe more games should try to give the player something to consider, beyond "This is how it feels to be a space marine/ general/ wizard/ criminal/ popular Hollywood character." That's not to say those two goals are mutually exclusive. Sometimes, playing on the familiar can be fertile ground for presenting less commonly-presented concepts. And good, solid gameplay, rather than simply justifying itself, can be used in tandem to amplify (or, in some cases, almost solely provide) further meaning. Here are a few examples of what I'm talking about, using different approaches. Grand Theft Auto 3+ (Rockstar North) The game world, characters, and situations of the recent Grand Theft Auto titles are, if obviously unlikely, highly grounded in common urban experiences and popular realistic fiction. The gameplay is fairly arcadey in its straightforwardness and capacity for wanton destruction, which makes the games accessible and doesn't put up barrier for the game's secondary content. Since its commentary is ingrained in the world itself, it allows the subtext to come through largely independent of the narrative - appropriate for an open-world game. Grand Theft Auto's subtext is light modern-day social commentary, poking at American consumer culture and attraction to violence - while reveling in it. BioShock (2K Boston/2K Australia, nee Irrational Games) An obvious choice, but why not? The dismal, failed world of Rapture is fantastical but grounded in familiarity - it exaggerates realistic human traits and schools of thought in its larger-than-life antagonists in order to speculate and comment. Themes of choice and free will are explored in the fiction and real-time narrative and can be seen to be echoed through the gameplay (in the months since the game's release, there has been a lot of discussion as to how fully that goal was reached, but it's certainly there to discuss). BioShock's subtext is philosophical in nature, exploring traditionally literary themes and probing the player's role in them. Full Throttle (LucasArts) Like similar graphical point-and-click adventures, the gameplay itself in Tim Schafer's 1995 effort is minimal. Here, the tiers are the surface-level narrative and the meta-narrative, rather than the gameplay layer and the presentation layer. On the surface, Full Throttle game is a badass neo-noir biker murder thriller with hard rock music (on that level alone it is already more novel than most game premises), but underneath it is a melancholy reflection on the American frontier and the inevitability of invasive industrialization. If you have any interest in a dialogue- and puzzle-driven game, Full Throttle isn't overbearing or preachy in the least, but there's a lot to chew on. Its subtext is essentially literary, hinging on classic themes of American fiction. Ico (Team Ico/Sony) I don't want my point to be misunderstood as "games must have deep stories," because I do not hold that to be the case. Ico demonstrates that a game can be genuinely affecting, holding emotional substance at the core of its style with only the most threadbare of plots. Ico's gameplay is a direct expression of game's theme - there is no deep literary premise, but rather a profound character connection. When you suddenly push the analog stick too hard and protagonist Ico harshly jerks companion Yorda around, there is a tangible relationship between the physical input, the game mechanics, and the on-screen relationship that itself says a lot about the power of games. Gameplay and emotion go hand in hand. Though this dialogue-light game is on the other end of the scale from the much more verbose Full Throttle, both games have the power to leave the player with a sense of reflection. Ico's subtext is emotional, delving into the relationship between player and character, and quietly exploring the potential therein. Half-Life (Valve) While the landmark 1998 shooter makes neither a literary point nor a particularly strong emotional connection (although it is often rightfully credited with making strides in character interaction in a segment that had been relegated to pure run-and-gun action), it does make a strong statement internal to the gaming medium. Half-Life's uncompromising dedication to the first-person perspective even during cutscene-like cinematic events, coupled with a pseudo-levelless structure, introduced a new and exciting brand of immersion. Its subtext is mechanical, almost delivering a contextual thesis on what traditional elements of a strongly-defined genre (and, more largely, a medium) are required to communicate a narrative, and which should be discarded. Why Bother? Certainly, the audience at large doesn't seem to be crying out for more attention paid to this area. But simply adhering to the maxim "give them what they want" (or, as it follows, "don't bother giving them what they aren't already asking for") is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In many cases throughout the history of the creative arts, people don't know what they want until somebody thinks to give it to them. We know there is an audience out there demanding entertainment that is a bit more thoughtful, otherwise Hollywood wouldn't bankroll it - whatever your thoughts on the bulk of Hollywood output, big studios don't survive purely on explosionfests and broad comedies. Surely that audience (and many of them are already gamers!) could be attended to a bit more fully. Don't Let That Scare You Of course, all of the above cited games are critical titans - and most of them are commercial ones as well. It would be unfair to hold them up as the bar. Rather, their visibility just makes them useful and particularly demonstrative pointers. Games need not be seemingly-untouchable classics to have something worthwhile under the surface. Take No More Heroes, recently developed by Grasshopper Manufacture (Killer7) for Wii and designed by studio founder Goichi Suda (a.k.a. Suda51). No More Heroes does not make a grand statement, nor does it push gameplay forward in any significant way. But its aggressively irreverent - and violent - attitude, punk aesthetic (which goes so far as to declare Grasshopper a "Video Game Band" in the splash screen), deft but not overbearing self-references to classic gaming, and tongue-in-cheek poking at gamer culture all combine to create a light-on-its-feet statement (both critical and celebratory) on nerdy, violent game culture. When a game has this much style put into service as part of a coherent theme, that style itself can become ersatz substance. Even its strongest supporters would agree that No More Heroes has some technical issues, and aspects of its gameplay could have been better thought through, but the goals and ideals behind the game along with its requisite playability have proven enough to give it resonance (and commercial success) in North America and Europe. No More Heroes' subtext, like Half-Life's, is almost entirely meaningful to people who are longtime gamers, with years of gaming experience and memories, both of mechanics and moments. In this regard, No More Heroes' resonance falls more on the cultural side and Half-Life's more on the gameplay side. (As a bit of a detour, peruse this excellent blog for the travails of a Half-Life player without such experience and memories.) This strikes me as an underexplored but fertile area: rewarding players who know the medium well, without resorting to simple puns on past game names or catch-phrases. Certainly film is full of homages to that medium's rich history without having characters wink at the camera and mention "Rosebud." Conclusion A game giving players something of substance to take away need not be heavy-handed or overbearing, and it doesn't need to be a medium-altering statement. Good, solid gameplay can always be its own justification, and I don't mean to suggest otherwise - many of my favorite games of all time wouldn't slot into the principles I've outlined in this article, and I expect that to be true for many more titles to come. But gameplay is a powerful tool, able to immerse and engage the player in a way that is unique among entertainment forms. Compelling gameplay does stand alone, but it can also be used to amplify or even largely deliver meaningful subtext that can enrich or enlighten a player - or just provide a different kind of fun.

About the Author(s)

Chris Remo


Chris Remo is Gamasutra's Editor at Large. He was a founding editor of gaming culture site Idle Thumbs, and prior to joining the Gamasutra team he served as Editor in Chief of hardcore-oriented consumer gaming site Shacknews.

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