Sunday, May 30, 2010

Not Getting It

There are two reactions when you feel like you're "not getting" games everyone else "gets": smug pride or vague embarrassment. Personally, I tend toward the latter; there's no lack of the former in gamer culture. The tough part is figuring out whether the disconnects I experience are valid, or if I just suck at games.

I should add that I'm not snobby about games, either: I harbor no innate disdain for Popular Game Everyone is Playing just because It's Popular and Everyone is Playing It. If I'm not playing that game, it's probably because I just don't have the budget or time for it, or it's in a genre I'm not particularly interested in. Totally cool if it's your cup of tea, though.

While I understand music snobbery to a degree - I grew up a musician, and it's still insulting to see what passes for "music" in pop culture - I can't quite process game snobbery. Unlike some others, I'm not the type to judge you if I see Bombastic Military Shooter or Annual Sports Franchise: Current Year on your games played list. (This is kinda strange for me, because I sure as hell will judge you if I see Lady Gaga on your iPod.) So when I say I don't get the games listed below, please understand that's not for lack of trying.

I realize I'm not the first person to say I didn't get Grand Theft Auto IV, for example. Or to say I thought the driving controls were incredibly wonky for a game with the word "Auto" in the title, or that the missions were more frustrating and meandering than challenging and exploratory, or that the characters were naturally sociopaths, but not of the endearingly likable variety. Trust me, I wanted to get GTA IV. I loved all the little details - the poorly-constructed fake in-game websites, the blowhard nationalist talk show hosts, the use of an outdated cellphone as the menu interface. The whole "moral depravity" thing was never an issue, either; once the title screen came up, my brain said, "oh, it's GTA," and that was that.

Here's the problem: I almost never abandon games. I abandoned GTA IV maybe 7 hours in. I've dug other open-world games, games with worlds much less fleshed-out and satirical and expansive than Liberty City. So what gives? Am I just bad at driving over hookers and murdering drug dealers? Or is there a deeper disconnect that goes beyond my skill level?

Similarly, I want to say it's because I suck at shooters that Halo 3 bored me to tears. I'm not great at FPSes, but I enjoy the genre and can usually manage to not finish dead last in multiplayer matches. Admittedly, I'm not a big multiplayer fan, especially with the Halo series, where anyone without 30-50 free hours a week to practice is automatically at a disadvantage. Still, Halo 3 - which, I confess, I bought used maybe a year and a half after it released - just didn't click for me. Nothing was mechanically wrong with the game; the usual Bungie tightness of control was there, the familiar weapons and enemies and vehicles all felt perfectly tuned, and the visuals looked terrific on my new HDTV. But the game left me disappointed, and not because it necessarily did anything wrong. I'm sure it was partly my fault for expecting a Halo title to be super-invested in its campaign mode. It's like using a circular saw to chop vegetables: sure, it can do that, but that's not really its primary function.

Probably my worst offense, as far as not liking widely adored games goes, is Super Mario 64. I know I'm not the only one who prefers my Mario in 2D, but I just couldn't force myself through this one. I even bought it for the DS a few months ago just to give it another try, and couldn't get into it on that system either. On both the N64 and DS, the camera controls are awkward at best, the objectives are not immediately clear or compelling, and while the familiar Mario feel is there, I'm just not understanding what made this game so beloved. While I'm sure the pseudo-open world setting was revolutionary at the time, maybe Super Mario 64 suffers from the overinflating effects of nostalgia. Or maybe I'm just not good at 3D platformers (spoiler: I'm not).

This all comes up because I'm playing through Alan Wake right now, and despite the fact that I'm really enjoying the structure, atmosphere, and story, I can't help feeling I'm doing something wrong. Almost every review I've read praises the control responsiveness, but I can't get Alan to do the damn dodge move properly to, um, save my life. And while I agree that the environments and lighting are beyond gorgeous - I haven't seen many prettier vistas - I can't get over the character animations. Probably because the rest of the game is so pretty, the characters look especially stiff and awkward in comparison. In the opening episode, Alan's wife looks like C3P0 with her permanently open mouth that remains largely motionless when she speaks. Since Alan Wake has been in development so long, part of me wonders if the character animations were done using a while ago using old tech. The facial animations in Half-Life 2 blow Alan Wake's out of the water, which is weird since Valve's game is six years older. I rezalize I'm nitpicking - I do still like the game, after all - but I can't help wondering: are my reactions valid, or is my "not getting it" my own damn fault?

See, that's the issue. It's irritating when people say a game or movie or book just "didn't work" for them, but then can't or won't discuss why not. So when something doesn't click for me, I always try to articulate why not. Most of the time, this is a painless enough process; my opinions are my own, and I stick by them. But when my not getting it conflicts with everyone else getting it, there's always that little doubt: what if I don't get it because I just suck?


  1. No Lady Gaga for me...all Booty Twins, all the time.

  2. It's interesting you can't get into Mario64. Not only is Mario64 the best Mario game in my opinion, it is one of the best examples of 3D game design ever made, easily the best 3D platformer ever designed, and one of the most ingenious uses of 3D in a videogame period.

    The first time I played it, I basically had your reaction. I actually sold it. But a few years later I picked it up again, and--somehow--it clicked for me and I now consider it a towering achievement in the history of the medium... mostly, I have to say, for its level design, which is non-linear in ways nearly all games that claim to be aren't.

    I have 120 stars on Mario64, and 150 in Mario64 DS. The DS version is superior in my opinion, but I played it with the thumb strap, not the stylus (which is impossible).

    Good lord, is Mario64 good. Each level is really 10 levels, nearly all of which are "active" in unison. This is why it is more impressive than Mario Galaxy, which also has levels with multiple goals, but for the most part doesn't allow you to find them on your own. A typical level in Mario64 becomes an entirely different level depending on how you look at it, like those optical illusions where you are looking at a vase one moment of two faces the next. It is similar to Ikaruga and MGS3 in this sense, games where the affordances of a single, rich space reconfigure themselves depending on how you play them.

    Anyway, I just wanted to pipe in. I don't think you need to feel stupid for not "getting" any game. All those complaints are legitimate. Basically you are complaining because most of these games aren't grabbing you in spite of having "great graphics", "tight control" etc. Really what you are bumping up against the the absurd idea that we should like games because they are pretty or well-crafted, and not for anything more complicated. If my personal aesthetic criteria were based on some semi-empirical notion of craftsmanship I'd have no choice I'd be forced to defend a lot of shit that isn't worth defending. "Craftsmanship" isn't worth defending if its empty.

  3. Matt -thanks for reading and commenting! Admittedly, I bought Mario64 used, so I didn't have an instruction manual to explain the level/objective structure right off the bat. (Yes, I'm one of those nerds who reads the manual.) I also hadn't heard of the thumb strap until you mentioned it, and now it looks a must-buy. I put away Metroid Prime Hunters - another game everyone said was awesome - for similar "control" reasons shortly after buying it. It's amazing how a slight change in interface can make you reconsider the relative quality of an entire game.

    I think I sort of intuited what you're talking about when you say each level in Mario64 is actually several simultaneous levels; I suppose in a rudimentary way, the same could be said for the LEGO games, in that different objectives require different mechanics. But thank you for articulating that - I love the idea of a space "reconfiguring itself" depending on the player's goals and viewpoint.

    As far as "craftsmanship" goes, I think you and I are on the same page; my post on Modern Warfare 2 addresses that point more fully.

  4. Hunters would have been *impossible* without the thumb strap. I have no idea why Nintendo discontinued the strap, because certain early DS games were clearly designed for it. If you can find one on ebay or something I highly recommend it. There are also "thumb styluses" and other things that function similarly, but I prefer the strap because it attaches to the DS and is quite unobtrusive.

    One of the problems with Mario64 is the first level is not the least interesting, so people often get turned off before they understand what's special about the level design. The game definitely wasn't an instant love affair with me, but more of a slow realization. I am hopelessly smitten now, though.

    Not sure if I agree about the LEGO games being similar, although I suppose they are in some small way, in how you can decide to do something other than the obvious narrative goal and still be rewarded. Mario64 is this except honed to a laser precision, with the various "parallel" levels affecting each other in complex ways. In some ways the levels in Mario64 are more like puzzles, where there are multiple solutions you can find, but the puzzle architecture itself is always the same.