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Addressing the Balance: Intellect vs Simplicity in Video Games

In your most cynical moments, it’s easy to boil culture down into its most basic, lowest parts. When you’re flicking through your TV channels, catching a glimpse of a sugary advert or a terrible trailer for a terrible film or game, you’d probably be right to presume our culture is a smorgasbord of muck. We’ve all been there, we’ve all had those thoughts. You know, the ones where you believe your favourite things are way, way better than everyone else’s? It’s only natural to assume your loves are the intellectual high watermark for everything. And hey, to you, they are. And that’s fine.

But I’m stupid. Yeah. I’m a stupid guy. Okay, no, let me rephrase that. I’m actually a really average guy. I’m the kind of person who underachieved at school – could probably do a lot better but just couldn’t be bothered. Could probably have a blistering academic record, but just couldn’t be bothered. Could probably contribute a million wildly insightful comments to this discussion, but just couldn’t be bothered. If I was a band, I’d be The Replacements. While I might not be the most stupid guy, I could have been that intelligent guy if I wanted, but I got lazy. That, to me, is really stupid.

And that’s okay. It’s okay to strive for that. It’s easy to find things to love with depth, with complexity, but along with the grand, high art, along with the stuffy suits and art classes, it’s really easy to become pretentious and superior. You’ve all met that guy. He’s the guy that snorts when you ask what “TL;DR” means. He’s the guy who guffaws when you can’t recall a single Monty Python quote. It’s that feeling you get when everyone in the room knows about all the writers you don’t and yet, there you are with your copy of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. We’ve all been there wishing we were more intelligent, complex, interesting, unique and savvy than your peers. But it’s a trap. It’s a horrible, elitist trap that we love to walk into. It’s one thing to appreciate high-art, but it’s completely another to take on its lessons without also accepting its excess ego and baggage. It’s difficult to maintain humility while also being intelligent.

This War of Mine 5-min

Which is why I always preferred a game (or even a film or a book) that seemed, on the surface, to be nothing but fluff, but as you chip away at its surface, you unravel layers within, or perhaps it has a simple premise that makes you think bigger ideas. Think of a game like Papers Please, a game that is really just clicking on a pixellated interface, but the sum of its parts that surround all those clicks involves a bitter morality play about judgement; a kitchen-sink drama about cold-war conflict. Your inputs involve you dragging a stamp over passports and documents, or inspecting forms for discrepancies, but the systems informing those clicks and careful examinations can mean the difference between feeding your family, giving your children medicine, or even getting an innocent civilian killed. You leave Papers Please feeling confused, conflicted and a little more empathetic about the world, and it was all down to a few collaborative clicks. No skills required. If you’ve used a phone in the last few years, you can play Papers Please quite successfully. I like that.

This War of Mine is another example, one that I actually tested on my girlfriend, a person who has no previous experience with video games. Navigated entirely by mouse, my girlfriend sat in front of her laptop to play and two hours later, her main character had died attempting to prevent a rape, causing her to turn to me and admit that she didn’t think she could play anymore. And not because she was frustrated at how unfair it is, or angered at the loss of resources, but because the death had actually felt too much for her. She leaned back and away from her laptop with her mouth open in shock. The death of her avatar in this simple mouse-driven game actually managed to move her.

It varies across the board, of course. Games like Dark Souls punish sloppy mistakes, but reward careful planning, defensive play and general common sense, but games like Wasteland 2 can be so finely constructed that it makes them too clever for its own good. While largely it is a nostalgic eye back to the Black Isles days of RPG history, it also tends to be utterly hamstrung by some of the more diverse systems that underpin its experience. The RPG style ruleset that dominates the entire game can, in both measures, hurt you and help you in equal measures. Almost every stretch of the game is determined via invisible dice rolls, just like the old Fallout games, and while it leads to great character interaction with both the environment and the many varied forms of life you find throughout the game – giving you a wide array of narrative experiences and rewarding you for careful forward planning of your character – in combat, it simply means you accidentally shoot your team members in the head and constantly miss shots on enemies that logically you would never actually miss. Enemies running right out in front of you or out in the open are left up to a percent chance as to whether you’ll hit them or not. It’s mighty frustrating. I suppose the counter argument for something like this is that it adds challenge like it does in Dark Souls, but are unfairness and immense failures in logic really that fair? Dark Souls challenges and punishes harshly, but it’s never unfair. So is a game like Wasteland 2 too clever for its own good? There are so many positives that this almost doesn’t matter, but the fatigue of constantly missing shots can lead to some severe head scratching. How could he possibly miss that…?! You can’t help but think all these clever dice rolls in the background kind of drag the experience down a little.

Dark Souls 2 4-min

Sometimes, you can have very simple games, with very simple systems, that lead you towards something intelligent, or even meaningful, as is the case in Gone Home; a game of walking around and looking at things that slowly weave a tapestry of family drama and teenage romantic angst. Set on a backdrop of 90’s nostalgia, this game gives you a simple premise, simple inputs and simple systems which all come together to pay off in droves. And while the minute-by-minute interaction between yourself and the world is limited to picking up objects and looking at them, this is all structured to a narrative that builds and snowballs over its two and a half hour duration and culminates in a finale of overflowing teen emotion. I love Gone Home, and so did a lot of people, because it had a universal message told simply, and left you with a lot to think about. That, to me, is simplicity done right. Not simplicity to patronise the player, but simplicity to take the player right to the heart of the experience, to inform them directly, and to assume they are clever people – because we are, really.

And yet on the flipside of that coin, there’s a mountain of Call of Duty iterations, there’s a busload of YouTube-baiting jump scare games, and then we’ve gone too far the other way. A place where simplicity isn’t a good, stable building block to make you realise a wider truth about the world, but rather a simple base to realise absolutely nothing. Where your inputs are limited to clicking at the right moment, hitting the X button when prompted, or pressing forward to proceed down a shallow, well decorated corridor. All of this builds up to nothing, of course, and really you’re playing through a series of gated set pieces towards a meaningless goal. No wider lessons are learned. No extra elements are layered in neatly and nothing here is intelligent. In fact, it never even makes sense, either. I think there’s a moment in Black Ops where you are forced to dimly hold down the “forward” button to save your team mate. As you do this, easing off the forward button halts your progress. There’s no failure state for doing this, and your character doesn’t die if you don’t do as the game says, you just sit there and awkwardly look at each other. The game waits for you to do as you’re told, at which point the guy you were dragging thanks you, stands up, and runs off in a totally different direction. It is such a stupendously hollow set piece, literally there to tick a “Hollywood action” box. And what about the absolutely shameful appropriation of the Russian Roulette scenes from the 1978 Michael Cimino classic Deer Hunter? Yes, this game even stoops so low as to use a horrific, psychological scar as a token set piece, its placement meaningless; its inclusion adding nothing but visuals and cheapening the incredible work of the actors in the film.

Deer Hunter-min

So it’s about balance. It’s about knowing how to put on a good show. it’s about pacing and narrative structure. I love the anarchic fiction of 60’s authors and I love the boundary smashing musical breakdowns of the likes of Crass and Miles Davis, and I absolutely adore how experimental games like The Stanley Parable have forced players to challenge their beliefs. But I also love structure, and I love that great ideas and neat design can be placed within simple frameworks. It takes true skill to make something approachable and instantly playable, while still retaining what makes it a work of art. That, to me, is a real skill that not many people possess. I love bright ideas taken from all the great places and made to work in an accessible format. I like the idea that the average, common man could listen to, watch or even pick up and play anything and then learn something at the end of it. There’s nothing wrong with fluff, there’s nothing wrong with low down dirty popcorn-and-no-thrills entertainment, but the ones that always stick in your mind are the ones that meld accessibility without taking your intelligence for granted. And that’s why balance is a beautiful thing. You can make intelligent AAA games without alienating the average joe. You just need to know when to pull, or indeed roll, with your punches.

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