Hard game criticism
Ian Bogost takes comfort in the familiarity of videogame sequels
Maybe it’s time to drop the pretence: we like our games basically identical to their predecessors
Videogames have a strange relationship with time, repetition and value. For one part, players gripe endlessly when a game is too short. Imagine, for example, paying £14.99 for a game such as Gone Home that you can finish in an hour – and that resists replay. What a waste!
But then players also eat up endless sequels. Gears Of War is apparently old enough that its new sequel can be classified as a reboot, while Metal Gear Solid V: The
Phantom Pain is the saga’s fifth entry in name only. Nobody tires of these, nor all the
Batman: Arkham Whatevers. Of course, a sequel is always a different and ostensibly new game, except also it isn’t. It’s a return, a repetition with variation.
Then there are re-releases. Console cycles offer excuses for these clever workarounds, a popular late-gen game on the console just rendered ‘old’ finding justification for a remastered edition on the new one. The Last
Of Us enjoyed this treatment, for example. Capcom’s survival-horror classic Resident
Evil has been re-released too many times to count since it originally appeared in 1996.
Re-releases have their place, of course, and it’s a place fashioned pretty much directly out of the planned obsolescence created by console generations and operating system upgrades – conditions that ensure new audiences have to pay to play older games. Backward compatibility is said to be too difficult to support (that is, costly), or unique hardware makes it prohibitive. And in truth, the same forcing functions push us to re-purchase other media, such as movies, for DVD, then Blu-ray, then iTunes, and so on.
But there’s something different about games, where re-release is often portrayed as novelty. A while back, I was anxiously awaiting delivery of the latest Animal
Crossing title, Happy Home Designer. Even the hardware created a superfluous re-release itch in need of scratching, and I am both proud and ashamed to admit that I was lured into acquiring the special-edition Nintendo 3DS XL reskinned with villager Isabelle, even though I already own a working 3DS XL.
Questions wafted through the house as we awaited delivery. “I wonder if anything in the game is going to be different?” my daughter mused. The hope was yes, I guess, but with an unspoken ellipsis: …isn’t it the sameness that makes one Animal Crossing game as appealing as the last? After all, this is a game about literally doing the same thing play session after play session. Any time something’s changed in Animal Crossing, it’s only seemed to change for the worse. Remember the terrible city in Animal
Crossing: City Folk? Or the stupid, pointless island in New Leaf? Who needs these excesses, seemingly added only to tick the box of novelty?
To some extent, when we play games we want comfort and familiarity rather than novelty, even though our mouths and typing fingers say that we want novelty. Games are apparatuses as much as they are media experiences, and much of what we want from apparatuses is increasingly refined operation. For example, the 2007 smartphone whose cellular tower triangulation method for geolocation is replaced in 2009 with one that uses GPS. In Happy Home Designer, the nuisance of pushing and pulling furniture around your village hut is replaced by a saner and more efficient drag-and-drop decorating mechanism. But this too quickly reveals itself to be as unwelcome as the city or the island: the point of Animal Crossing is slowness and labour, and coupling that labour to the little avatar you control in the game.
Many teeth have been gnashed over the relative virtues of computer games as a kind of game versus folk games and table games and other more ancient renditions of the form. Go and chess and backgammon are thousands of years old, unchanged and unchanging, and yet they remain appealing nevertheless – even because of – this sameness. But these arguments also often rely on appeals to mechanical emergence. Go is mathematically enormous, and no human could plumb its depths in a lifetime.
Infinity is appealing, but computer games rarely tousle its hair. Instead, they tend to prefer the more ordinary sort of repetition: the kind that entails doing the same thing over and over again. Maybe it’s time to drop the pretence: we like our games basically identical to their predecessors. There’s no shame in this. What other media embraces sameness with such resilience? So go ahead, play your sequel or reboot with abandon.