Shoot first, ask questions later
What is stopping Steven Poole from enjoying new games?
So my friend and I are walking down the street, punching and kicking everyone we meet, and occasionally throwing car tyres at them or stabbing them with broken bottles. This is such fun that we decide to do the same thing in a videogame. Happily,
Double Dragon 4 has just been released on PS4. As it turns out, though, we spend all of 15 minutes on it before deciding that it is terrible and switching to the highly satisfying Neon Chrome, a moodily lit sci-fi Roguelike twin-stick shooter that uses around a billion times as many pixels and more than four frames of animation.
On another recent weekend, I book tickets to see La La Land in the cinema, not because I expect to enjoy it but because I know my companion loves musicals, and I am a notoriously selfless filmgoer. As it turns out, we both love it to bits, and I decide there and then that anyone who doesn’t think it is one of the greatest movies ever made is to be pitied and slightly ridiculed.
The contrast between these two experiences illustrates a peculiarity about videogames as a medium that I’ll call the Genre Silo Effect. If you’re not a fan of musical films – or fantasy novels, or late-19th-century Scandinavian plays – you can still go and see one, and you might enjoy it. In this way I was gratifyingly surprised by La La Land, as I have been previously by my first sceptical forays into genres such as military science-fiction novels, or puppet theatre, or country music.
On the other hand, it can be not just difficult but impossible to enjoy a videogame in a genre with which you are not already intimately familiar. My friend and I tired of
Double Dragon 4 very quickly because, or so it seemed to us, the fighting system was both boringly simplistic and unreasonably difficult. But perhaps if I’d misspent more of my youth playing Double Dragon games, rather than Defender in arcades or Manic
Miner on a ZX Spectrum, I would understand the satisfying depths and nuances of the gameplay better, and so have a higher opinion of the latest game.
The same goes for a lot of videogame genres, which rely on a whole host of deep conventions and traditions. Having not seriously played any kind of proper martialarts-style fighting game since Tekken and
Soul Calibur on the original PlayStation, I have literally zero chance of enjoying a contemporary one unless I spend months doing my homework — and yet I can easily enjoy kung-fu actor Donnie Yuen’s brilliant turn as a staff-wielding blind Jedi wannabe in the most recent Star Wars film. You can also thrill to the space battles in Rogue One even if you’ve never seen a sci-fi film before, but if you’ve never played a Defender- alike, you’ll be hard pushed to understand what the hell is going on in Resogun (and even if you have, Housemarque’s game is confusing at first). Meanwhile, if I wanted to, I could watch any of the Fast And Furious films and maybe even like them – but since I haven’t played a racing game in years, I have absolutely no chance of enjoying whatever the best new racing game is unless I put in dozens of hours of training (or, as I like to call it, crashing into roadside barriers).
Films and novels rely on genre conventions and expectations too, but of course the difference with videogames is that they are, as the academics like to say, ergodic – you have to do stuff; they are a species of work. And the particular kind of skilled work you have to do in each kind of longestablished videogame genre can create a very high barrier to entry, and so to wider aesthetic enjoyment. Hence the Genre Silo Effect, which exists in no other artform: genres can become, to all intents and purposes, utterly impenetrable to outsiders.
For this reason thinking about videogames as a whole, across all the different genre silos, may now be less useful as an analytical cultural category than viewing each genre as a specific artform in itself. In this, as in other ways, games are more like sports: to think about ‘sport’ in the abstract is near-meaningless, but to think about football or tennis certainly isn’t. So I feel no need to apologise to Double Dragon aficionados any more than I feel sorry about telling someone I don’t enjoy watching baseball, or admitting that the game I’m most looking forward to this year is Ace
Combat 7. Why Bandai Namco’s game in particular? Because I’ve played all the others in the series, so I’m absolutely sure I’ll understand this one.
Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy 2.o is now available from Amazon. Visit him online at www.stevenpoole.net
It can be not just difficult but impossible to enjoy a game in a genre with which you are not already intimately familiar