So pretty! So meaningless.
More than a few times, I’ve complained about the vacuous nature of a number of very pretty games. Whereas AAA titles tend to eschew artistic merit in favor of big explosions, story, and everything else they can throw tons of staff at, indie titles are uniquely afflicted by both embracing art and failing at it. A number of indie titles clearly have strong visual direction, but they often fail to provide much meaning behind it. The end result is an empty box wrapped in very pretty paper.
The poster child for this kind of problem is Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery. To spend 10 minutes in the lovingly crafted world is to fall in love with the evocative visual aesthetic that turns pixel art into something more real than the product of the finest graphics engine. The wind rustles through the digital trees and the light spills across lush forests creating a feeling of a living world. The music too is a massive achievement. Composer Jim Guthrie matches the tone of the graphics perfectly. The combined efforts of both the sound and visual design result in an unsettling, yet serene world that I loved to explore. At least, until Superbrothers opened its mouth. Then we are introduced to characters all named “fella” (dogfella, logfella) with dialogue that seems afraid to embrace any semblance of seriousness. Dialogue consists of corny jokes and detached phrases that distanced me from a world I wanted to embrace. The artistic merits of the non-written components withered every time they had to interact with the words. It’s a shame to see such beauty undermined by a lack of commitment to meaning.
There are plenty of games that follow this pattern. Off the top of my head, I can think of Limbo, Anodyne, Antichamber, and Transistor. All sport some level of visual or aural creativity and are undermined by a deficiency of intellectual heft to back them up. This degrades the overall experience in a couple of ways. The first is, as mentioned above, the aspects of a game that show well are undermined by a story or meaning that can’t hold its weight. The contrast between a beautifully realized world and a pointless narrative only seem to highlight how terrible the latter is. Instead of hiding the games weaker elements, the differences expose the flaws and make the player wonder what went wrong. The second is the destruction of motivation. The story often drives a player forward. If it’s a poorly conceived mess, then it’s hard for a player to remain engaged. The player shouldn’t go hours without any development in plot line or thought. It’s hard to remain motivated without some sense of progress.
Games that do embrace meaning often build their design around the meaning they are trying to create. Gone Home could never have succeeded as a FPS or RPG. It needed a game space that played up its feelings of intrusion and voyeurism in a way that few game styles allowed it to. The same can be said of Dys4ria or Papers, Please. By starting with the meaning and branching out, these games are better able to design an experience that showcases the underlying thoughts behind the games. Meaning isn’t an afterthought that feels shoehorned in. By contrast, the Bioshock series has the opposite feeling. The run-and-gun gameplay feels jarring when compared to the living breathing societies that the game is supposed to reflect. The necessary game compromises, such as magic powers and instant health packs, jive poorly with the nature of the societies as they are presented. The game still draws value from its intellectual underpinnings, but eating garbage from a trashcan to cure bullet wounds still breaks immersion.
The solution to this problem is simple: know what you want to say, before you start saying it. Craft characters, dialogue, and meaning well before inventing the gameplay mechanics that should support that effort. Don’t leave your game with an empty ending because you didn’t bother to figure out where it was all going. I know I’d appreciate it.