Thinking Out Aloud: Borderlands, Designing for Addiction and the Onus of Game Quality Pt.2

May 19th, 2010

(This is the second part of my editorial. Please refer to the first for reference.)

Onto the Contrast

The point I’m ultimately trying to get to (alas the argument is mangled at this point) is that many games are trying to shift to onus of quality away from design fundamentals and onto other more peripheral things. Examples are numerous, prime suspects being presentation, narrative, authenticity, freedom of expression and the like. Here are some random examples off the top of my head:

Eternal Darkness

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

Guitar Hero/Rock Band/Other

Generic EA Sports game A

My point: core mechanics aren’t always the heart of the experience or, rather, we often place greater value in things which aren’t the core mechanics. From a purist’s point of view that’s rather unfortunate.

It’s also problematic too, I’d wager. It’s problematic because the gatekeepers of game specific information (ie. reviewers) rarely identify this difference in their reviews. With the same curiosity I had for Borderlands, I read reviews on Dragon Age: Origins, hoping the writers would distinguish what makes this story-driven title a fun game and not so much a fun choose-your-own fantasy novel. So far I still know very little about what actually happens in Dragon Age besides the fact that it’s based off the rules of Dungeons and Dragons and Baldur’s Gate, both of which I know nothing about—oh and you can engage in virtual sex too; this point was unnecessarily and frequently flaunted. With reviewers failing to elaborate on the strength of the primary game design, how is it possible for readers to easily distinguish between a game which is naturally, by way of good game design, a great game to a game whose assets lie elsewhere?

It’s this element of game discussion which has largely gone out of flavour. Ask any game reviewer/blogger to properly explain why New Super Mario Bros. is enjoyable for both core and casual players alike and besides positively noting good game and level design (which is surely an obvious fact considering?), I doubt most would come up with a reasonable explanation. It’s too difficult to talk design and mechanics because that requires too much brainwork and analysis: things that these folks don’t have the time for. It’s much easier to separate things that usually aren’t game-related (non-interactive narrative, graphical fidelity, track list, realism, raw PR stats) and talk about those instead, or even speak entirely on a surface level with unfounded generalisations (yah, the Mario games have great level design, it’s just Miyamoto and Nintendo and all that; it’s what they do…). Because we can’t explain it, the audience cannot quite appreciate it and we neglect it. This, I would continue to argue, is part of the reason behind the lack of good discussion and fair representation of games like Super Mario Galaxy and New Super Mario Bros as opposed to Mass Effect or Uncharted. People just don’t know how to talk about well designed games with any insight, whereas replicating renaissance Italy is easy to discuss because it has little to do with the medium itself.

For this reason, well designed games are losing ground to games that excel in other areas less related to the medium itself. I don’t make this assertion because renaissance Italy, Eternal Darkness‘ atmosphere or the fact that my favourite song of all time is only on Band Hero are detriments—because they’re not—they’re fantastic qualities, but shouldn’t our eyes first be judging the game followed by the window dressing, not the other way around?