Hard game criticism
Ian Bogost establishes a new order of genres for games today
With games today, the form of a work is found less in the game – in its mechanics and conventions – than outside and all around it. Why not embrace it? I present to you the true genres of videogames, circa 2015.
First, Sequels. They used to be marred by the unseemliness of enumeration. Super
Mario Bros 3. Half-Life 2. It’s cheap, slapping a number at the end of a title, even if the title itself offers substantial improvement or novelty compared to the original. Numbers make for a continuous stream of constant sameness with a slight twist of variation. A new Batman, a new Kirby or a new Mario for a new system or, more likely, a new Nintendo earnings period. A new Assassin’s Creed for a new week of the calendar year. The sequel offers familiarity and constancy. Thank God, videogames are still videogames.
The Re-release. This is a special kind of sequel that reproduces a previous game in a different moment. Grim Fandango remastered.
Ocarina Of Time in HD. Like the cinematic remake, the re-release takes advantage of a known property for a new audience, one that may not have experienced the original thanks to youth. Or one that is willing to revisit it for the benefits of new technology. The re-release replaces the sequel’s investment in constancy with the patina of timelessness and history. Games are old but videogames are new, and re-releases make them appear to have a longevity that can produce classics.
The Notgame challenges the very idea of games. Every medium likes to push its limits, to find its edges through experimentation. But the notgame does so by explicitly rejecting the “usual” features of games.
Journey, with its lush, basically challengeless scenery. The environmental narratives of
Dear Esther and Gone Home. Web-based games made in Twine, revitalising hypertext fiction but in the context of games. The notgame is a signal of games’ desire to question the arbitrariness of previously holy conventions, but it is also a signal of games’ obsession with the validity of ‘gameness’. Interestingly, whether they use this (terrible) term or not, notgames often sell themselves as a path to new audiences, unburdened by the very conventions they flout. The only way into games for the uninitiated, it would seem here, is through the assumption of a distaste for games.
Then there’s the Mobile Throwaway. When we play smartphone games, we do so on a clock. The clock of our own schedules, of course. A few moments in a coffee queue, as a way to bide the time while on a conference call, as an attention-amplifying distraction while watching TV. But there’s another clock, too: the weekly-or-so retirement of a free mobile app downloaded for its appeal or popularity, which quickly ground into abuse. Even the delightful ones do this now. Crossy Road’s cute voxel characters inspire until they disgust you with their demands for attention. No problem. Delete and move on through the endless supply of freemium shovelware. Another genre is the Steam Thing You
Didn’t Play. You got it in a sale. Or a bundle. Or you traded for it. Or you bought it outright but you have so many to play that you might never get around to it. According to a 2014 study conducted by Ars Technica, 37 per cent of Steam games never get played at all. A game, it turns out, is not just something you play but also something you collect and display and possess, like baseball cards or Hummel figurines. A game is a gewgaw, a knick-knack. A thing to display, even when the only place to display it is a digital library in a proprietary app run by a mysterious corporation.
Finally, there’s Kickstarter Vapourware. The best part of crowdfunding a game isn’t receiving a code to download, install and play the title some months (or years) later. It’s the excitement and pleasure of being a part of an idea before it materialises. And with crowdfunded (and “early access”) games, the idea is the primary experience. Watching the campaign play out, watching contributions rise, participating in recommendations and seeing those ideas come to (hypothetical) fruition – these are the appealing dramas of crowdfunding. But when they end, so does the work itself. Only disappointment can arrive later – if indeed it ever arrives – since reality can never match expectations. This is why the most successful crowdfunding projects, such as Star Citizen’s (which raised tens of millions of dollars), would do best never to release an actual videogame.
Only disappointment can arrive later – if indeed it ever arrives – since reality can never match expectations