Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lead, follow, or get out of the way

A fascinating conversation has developed over at The Brainy Gamer in a post about non-gamers' reactions to Braid. There are a couple of disparate strands running through it, one of which is the old debate about whether great art needs to be accessible to a wide audience, whether anything accessible to a wide audience is therefore not art, and just whether the hell we're even supposed to be enjoying art in the first place.

I'd first say that, at bottom, accessibility is irrelevant to questions of quality. I say this as a vigorous defender of Michael Bay, clearly the most skillful filmmaker of his type working today. Great art shouldn't pander to the masses, but there's no reason the snootiest, most discerning critic can't also appreciate great trash. Once you start wondering what other people will think about the game you're playing, you've taken leave of your critical senses.

There seems to be a continuum of reactions to Braid, from people who liked and admired it, to people who admired it but didn't like it, to people who thought it was pretentious piffle. All of these are legitimate stances to take. If anything, the range of reactions and the vigor of the conversations about the game are a positive development. Even if people didn't like the ideas, they're engaging the game on that higher level. They're not dismissing meta-textual considerations as they so often do. That's a big step.

Michael's concern is that when a game like Braid comes along -- a game that seems unique and maybe even important -- it still alienates non-gamers. If you've played it, then you know how hard Braid is. The problems it poses, and the solutions to those problems, all take advantage of the player's numerous built-in assumptions about how games work. Without those assumptions, you're sunk. This is what Nintendo has tapped into with the Wii. They've made games that people can pick up and understand immediately, without having to rely on a foundation of gaming knowledge that's taken decades to construct. But they're not really making games for those of us who do know these things.

There's a good point raised in the thread by Jonathan Blow and others, who point out that we don't press the masterworks of literature into the hands of illiterates and demand that they learn to read right now, dammit! You learn to read by starting small. You recognize the shapes of letters and their associated sounds. You piece together basic words. After a decade or two, maybe you're ready to try James Joyce. (God knows I'm not there yet. Joyce makes me want to tear my hair out.)

In the Brainy Gamer thread, I argued that Braid's time-altering techniques were much simpler than people seemed to be giving them credit for, comparing them to the similarly constrictive rules of movement that govern chess. I still think that's true. There's nothing overly complicated about a ring that slows down the timeline within a certain radius, or a doppelganger that repeats your movements. By the time you've cleared the first stage in any world, you understand the rules. What the level design does with those rules is astonishing, but it's always logical, fair, and consistent. The game doesn't cheat.

I missed something important, however. For a non-gamer, understanding the temporal mechanics of Braid isn't the equivalent of learning how the pieces move in chess. A better analogy is learning to push the A button to make your character jump. Or that jumping on an enemy will kill it. Or that jumping on an enemy will bounce you as though you'd landed on a trampoline. The more you think about it, the more you start to notice all of the ingrained assumptions we have as gamers. It's even more basic than chess: for non-gamers, this is like learning the alphabet all over again.

Michael laments that his non-gaming friends feel shut out by the very process of playing a game. He wants them to appreciate the artistic and dramatic possibilities of the medium, but how can they do that when they can't even use the controller? Ultimately, they're going to have to work for it. Hey, it takes effort to read a great book. It takes careful attention to watch a subtle, nuanced -- maybe even subtitled! -- movie. Most of us couldn't do these things until we'd first read easier books and watched easier movies. We work to improve our appreciation for art because we know the results are worth it.

Let's not overlook what did happen: these people gave it a try. I bet they wouldn't have done that a few years ago. What we're seeing here, I think, is just another sign that games have yet to achieve the level of cultural penetration people like Michael and I would like to see. That's okay. That's what we're doing this for. Give them a few more years.


c.p.ervin said...

I don't have much to add, but after reading this I remembered an article in the Washington Post in which someone tried to get Michael Dirda to evaluate Bioshock.

John said...

I feel the need to point out something I _haven't_ heard in this cross-blog discussion: Braid isn't that hard. I'm not a serious platform geek, but I beat the thing in four serious play sessions over the course of something less than four hours. It's one of the first games I've beaten in a long time that I didn't gamefaq difficult moments.

I say this not to brag but to suggest that, by platform standards, Braid isn't that hard. It may well require some exposure to the nuts-and-bolts of platforming (nobody had to explain to me that you jump on the lionheads) but I am not a last starfighter and still did not find this to be some insurmountable challenge.

Anonymous said...

I agree and disagree with john. I didn't think the game was hard either, but that was with those game based assumptions that Mitch touched upon. I believe that the ideas behind the solutions are generally hard to grasp, but the average gamer has an ability to get past those ideas with little or no effort. I'm not sure if you watched someone struggle while playing, but I watched my wife play and become frustrated trying to time her jump perfectly. Through the entire episode I understood the jump was impossible but required a puzzle aspect to complete. And no matter what the words, "Honey, its a puzzle," just never penetrated her attempts to succeed with her manual dexterity.

Michael Abbott said...

I think you've convinced me that we needn't be *too* worried about non-gamers. The cultural penetration argument makes sense to me, and I'm glad to see people of all ages playing games, regardless of what they're playing. My mother loves her PopCap games big time! :-)

The point you raised about all the many assumptions we gamers make and the little things we take for granted - that's a big deal breaker for most of my colleagues that I wish I could convince to play a game like Super Mario Galaxy or Okami. On a purely practical level, they just don't have the time to get up to speed and learn all the little things. I think they could do it if they set themselves to the task, but in the grand scheme of things, how reasonable is it to expect them to do that with the busy lives they lead? I'd love to learn how to play the piano, and I think I could do it (maybe)...but honestly, it ain't gonna happen.

Thanks for sorting through so many idea threads and emerging with a post that makes sense out of it all. No mean feat.

As for skillful filmmaker Michael Bay...well, that's a subject for another day. :P

Unknown said...

I agree with all these points (except Braid not being that hard; LOTS of people found it hard, me included). The thing I worry about is the insistence of mountain-climbing and (more especially) that easier game mechanics ALWAYS dumb down aesthetic potential. Accepting that without discussion has trouble implications for me.
What about Passage or Gravitation?
Easy to play, but still difficult to understand, still requires some "gaming literacy"....

Mitch Krpata said...

Mike, I wouldn't accept that as axiomatic either. The same thing happens with books, movies, music -- great works can be simple or terribly complex. It's just easy forget that we had to learn, at one time, how to appreciate all of it.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree that we often take the difficulty in games for granted and that we need to accept people's unwillingness to play.

I wonder though, how can games make these people enthused to play? My Mum for example, she never plays games citing time as the reason but ocassionally she becomes wildly addicted to one or two games (Dr Mario and Tetris for example). Obviously these games can grow very addictive and are of course very accessible titles.

The only other examples that I can think of are Wii Fit and Brain Training. Which are relevant to lifestyle and not so much a luxury or free time item (or perhaps as others see "a waste of time"). By making these games relevant to this audience, they are more enthused to play.

Kirk Battle said...

I don't really follow the purpose behind maintaining a high barrier of entry to video games. I get that Braid is a referential game that stands on the shoulders of other games...but not being playable to non-gamers is still ultimately a problem, not a virtue. Most artists wish to be heard, after all.

Blow's language argument in particular baffles me with all this. Few of us can read Latin or Greek. Yet there was a time when everyone was required to learn it because that's the way everything was written. And why did we finally stop making people learn Latin? Because it was more important that everyone could read it than having the audience be educated.

It always will be.

Mitch Krpata said...

L.B., it's not that a high barrier to entry ought to be a requirement for a game to be good. There are whole genres of games I still can't get into, and I feel like I'm missing out on a lot. It's more that we shouldn't hold it against Braid that it's hard to play or understand unless you have a pretty solid base of knowledge. That's the only way this particular game could even exist.