Where Is Wisdom Found (and How Can We Kill It)?
On what to do about gameisms.
I don’t envy Tom Bissell. Being ESPN’s go-to advocate for video games must be a tough gig. At the very least, it seems to mean writing every new Grantland article not only as though it must prove the cultural relevance of whatever game Bissell is reviewing, but must also justify anew the inclusion videogames on a site otherwise dedicated to sports writing.
Take, for example, Bissell’s recent review of The Last of Us. Despite arguing early on that respectability might be the worst possible thing that could happen to video games, the column is threaded with comparisons to cultural institutions: the Old Testament, Cormac McCarthy, E.E. Cummings. Some of the names he drops, like that of Norman Mailer, are brokered in to make explicit arguments for the game’s cultural importance. All are there to suggest that the value of The Last of Us—and, by extension, video games in potentia—can (and probably should be) judged by more than just the amount of time and money gamers are willing to invest.
I’m inclined to agree with that point, even if Bissell and I part ways over the sort of games that best represent that value. Video games are culturally significant, and their influence can be just as salutary as that of cinema or literature. As aspiring champions of that point of view, though, we often rush to explain away the problematic features of a game so that an otherwise fair-minded reader won’t hold them against the entire medium.
So it is that, having already spent the bulk of his review pitching the premise that a game about fungal mutant zombies is actually quite subtle, Bissell reluctantly turns his attention to a few cracks in the game’s veneer. Gameisms, he calls them—little breaks in the logic of a game that players sometimes tolerate because the game might not be so enjoyable without them.
The critical example here is an apparently deliberate gap in NPC behavior. Though the game is built around the premise of a grizzled survivor escorting a vulnerable young girl through a hostile landscape, “[e]nemies don’t spot Ellie when you’re both sneaking around, even if she happens to be squatting at their feet.”
That’s a pretty sharp break from realism, but it also prevents the Ellie character from ruining the player’s plans by failing to hide sufficiently well. That, in turn, resolves one the bigger frustrations that arise in such so-called “escort missions,” which might make traditional gamers more inclined to grin through gameisms of that sort. We want to play a game, and often must be dissuaded from doing so, rather than persuaded to give it a chance.
For everyone else, though, gameisms tend to compromise the credibility of the medium. That’s a point Bissell is eager to smooth over.
People will inevitably complain about this stuff, [he writes,] but they’re unwise to, given that the removal or alteration of the above gameisms would necessarily result in a vastly more frustrating experience.
Well, no: not “necessarily.” In designing The Last of Us, the developers at Naughty Dog must have made thousands of deliberate compromises between the demands of realism and those of playability. Most involve choices you’d never notice, or omissions you’d never miss, unless you happen to have been involved in the design process. The only thing that necessitated this particular gameism was the team’s ambition to make a particular kind of game.
What Bissell calls gameisms might be better understood as design kluges. They are, in effect, the fossils of conflicting ambitions that have been allowed to go unresolved in the design of a game. The problem is how they signal those conflicts: by their ungainliness.
In the case of Ellie’s invisibility, the gameism seems to arise from Naughty Dog’s unwillingness to choose decisively between the escort mission trope and “realism”—that is, the ambition of setting play in a three-dimensional world that approximates real world behaviors. Either one by itself was manageable; together, they created the potential for frustrations so galling that the designers ultimately chose to compromise on the world’s realism rather than hamstring the player’s enjoyment.
There’s nothing particularly shameful in that circumstance—compromise is an unavoidable part of creative endeavor. It can even be the most fruitful part of the process, but a well-done compromise is one the audience accepts as a organic part of the logic that shapes the whole. It presents itself not as the best option of a bad lot, but rather as a way of enriching the rest of the work. For any genuinely playable game mechanic, then, there is a range of possible design choices that will feel like a natural outgrowth of play, even when they break hard and fast from anything resembling naturalism.
For the sake of comparison, consider Ridiculous Fishing, a game with hardly a naturalistic bone in its body. Having hooked an unlikely number of fish, the player launches them into the air and blasts them to a pulp with one of a number of increasingly powerful firearms. Inexplicably, the player’s avatar is paid for all that carnage, and can use the proceeds to buy equipment that is often almost nonsensically helpful, like a toaster that zaps unwanted fish out of the way.
Vlambeer, the design team responsible for Ridiculous Fishing, could have worked out narrative explanations for those absurdities. Wisely, though, they opted to let the absurdities stand. Moreover, the very style encourages players to revel in absurdity. The compromises that had to be made in the service of play were thus transformed into design choices that not only served the designer’s vision, but more importantly, helped shape it into something wonderful. Games like Ridiculous Fishing work not by pasting over lapses in realism, but by fashioning their own compellingly idiosyncratic logic.
Is that a fair comparison? Ridiculous Fishing and The Last of Us are radically different games, one ascending to giddy arcade surrealism, the other anchored in gritty narrative realism. Their differences are precisely the point, though. Tone, style, genre—those take shape as the result of a multitude of decisions that arise in the process of design. The problem with enemies conveniently ignoring Ellie, even when the logic of the game suggests that they ought to see her, is not really a matter of realism, but rather of consistency.
Realism, after all, is just another design choice; a fair critic will insist on it only to the extent that a game or movie presents it as its style. Nothing about Ridiculous Fishing prompts us to expect realism, so we bat nary an eye at its absurdities. The Last of Us, meanwhile, works to represent its world with a measure of realism—even the patently unreal portions of it, like its roving mutant antagonists. The player, in turn, learns to expect that world to behave realistically.
Which brings us back to Bissell’s central contention that the game is “a model of subtlety,” which, in turns, forms the backbone of the argument for its cultural significance. “What makes The Last of Us subtle,” he explains, “is how rigorously its mechanics and rule set express and emphasize the horror and tedium of survival." Because the game’s designers decided to model those mechanics realistically, it betrays that subtlety and undermines the overall effectiveness of that argument when elements of the world behave unrealistically.
The more closely a gameism cuts to the core of play, the sharper the betrayal. Sure, life-giving candy bars are a laughable conceit, but this isn’t a game about childhood obesity, so the contradiction is mostly peripheral. If, however, The Last of Us is a game about escorting Ellie through a hostile and disintegrating society, then the inability of the antagonists to see her matters, and to exactly the extent that sneaking and hiding are significant ways of achieving that goal. It sends the message that her vulnerability is a contrivance, one the game is willing to contradict when it conflicts with other goals, and precisely at those moments when it ought to mean the most.
None the Wiser
This isn’t a review; it doesn’t particularly matter what I think of The Last of Us. Good thing, too, since I haven’t played it. I’m relying entirely on Bissell’s review for the details concerning its gameisms, and his perception that they’re the sort of thing that might (but shouldn’t) give us pause. What matters, then, is that certain elements of the game bothered one reviewer enough that he felt compelled to explain them away—and, what’s more, to conjure up a principle portable enough to defend the flaws of other games.
Which is much the same as saying that my subject here isn’t really The Last of Us after all. It isn’t even Tom Bissell, for that matter. His review provided the occasion for talking about gameisms, but the attitude he expressed is common enough among video game enthusiasts. I’ve brought him to the fore mostly because his review gestures towards a formal argument for tolerating gameisms, and that’s worth addressing.
My real subject here is the question of whether we can really call it wisdom to bite our tongues when it comes to gameisms. Bissell counsels a kind of willful ignorance: ignore the patent inconsistencies, on the premise that a more consistent implementation might have made the game even worse.
That may work with players who are out to scratch the gaming itch, but it’s pretty lousy diplomacy. Bissell is also out to convince those with no such itch: fair-minded people willing to take a chance on a game not because it is a game, but on the still-contentious premise that video games can be every bit as adept as a movie or novel at shaking us from our aesthetic slumber. Telling those readers that they’d be “unwise” to overlook flaws that would keelhaul works in nearly every other narrative medium is tantamount to conceding that games aren’t really seaworthy after all. It implies that the only way to really enjoy or appreciate the best games is to lower our expectations.
Those are, in many cases, the very expectations modern games work so hard to raise. The AAA games of the last decade have so intently courted comparisons to Hollywood productions that some gamers have taken the logical step of editing them into standalone movies.
Similarly, the culmination of Bissell’s review is a paean to the set design in The Last of Us, as well as to the personal and financial sacrifice that went into crafting that world. You could almost read it as a digression, the way some literary critics will praise the similes in an otherwise dull novel. Here, rather, it’s presented as a justification, as though our gratitude at having had the opportunity to play on a elaborate sound stage should sweep away the complications that had exercised Bissell up to that point. The illusion of a consistent, realistic world trumps all.
Sound stage games are, as it happens, just about the only kind of game that Bissell covers for Grantland. He has written tens of thousands of words on L.A. Noire, BioShock, Arkham City, and a dozen of their genre kin. True, he’s also written articles about Catherine and the Madden franchise, but those are exceptions in a catalog overwhelmingly devoted to hard-nosed anti-heroes roaming 3D worlds for something to kill. He is, in that regard, the most visible of a school of video game journalists who plainly see those games as the industry’s best hope for shaking its reputation as an expensive, time-wasting hobby.
In building a body of critical praise for those games, they seem determinedly oblivious to the possibility that the goal of achieving an ersatz physical realism tempts studios like Naughty Dog to rely on gameisms, rather than resolving the conflicting ambitions that necessitate them in the first place. If they’re right about what it takes to win respect for video games, then maybe we’re not all that different from the baddies roaming The Last of Us, all-too-conveniently incapable of seeing what’s plainly in our field of view.