Games aren't clocks
DESIGN: 8.7 - STORY: 8.5 - GAMEPLAY: 8.5 - PRESENTATION: 9.3
--GameTrailers.com review of El Shaddai
The primary function of a clock is to tell time. We may admire its appearance or the intricacy of its inner-workings, but the moment it ceases to function, its value diminishes for most of us. What good is a clock that can't tell time?
What is the primary function of a video game? We routinely assign values to particular elements of game design (story, visuals, replay value, etc.), but most people seem to agree that 'gameplay' - a problematic term at best - should be seen as the core function of a game. Whatever else we may say about the experience a game delivers, if it fails on the gameplay front, we may fairly consider it 'broken.'
Time to let go
I say it's time to let go of our preoccupation with gameplay as the primary criterion upon which to evaluate a game's merits. It's time to stop fetishizing mechanics as the defining aspect of game design. Designers must be free to arrange their priorities as they wish - and, increasingly, they are. Critics, too, must be nimble and open-minded enough to consider gameplay as one among many other useful criteria on which to judge a game's quality and aspirations.
It's tempting to adopt a finger-wagging attitude and point out the many times we've failed to account for the full measure of a game because of our preoccupation with gameplay, but the recent reception to El Shaddai - a game I admire for reasons I'll explain in another post - suggests we may be turning the corner.
To be sure, plenty of reviewers struggled to get their heads around the game's surrealist approach to design, so they relied on familiar assessment tools to apprehend the game: "a shallow button-masher," "horrendous platforming sequences," "not enough replay value," "combat...doesn't do enough new," "Gameplay is constantly interrupted for random story sections."
These criticisms add up to one damning charge: if El Shaddai communicates its experience primarily through its platforming and combat elements, then it is surely a failure. The thing is, it doesn't.
Encouragingly, plenty of critics tried hard to meet the game at the place where it was designed to be. Keza MacDonald at Eurogamer called it "the maddest and most beautiful thing...it isn't perfect, but it doesn't have to be." She goes on to describe El Shaddai's impossibly broad visual palette as detached from traditional art, "futuristic, science-fictional, psychedelic," all of which are true.
JC Fletcher's review at Joystiq is especially illuminating because he acknowledges his inclination to privilege gameplay above all other considerations.
When I started playing El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron for review, I told myself I wasn't going to be fooled by the visuals. I would evaluate this game based on its mechanics more than anything, and I wouldn't let form distract me from function. I abandoned that idea quickly.
Fletcher goes on to suggest that the game's aesthetics "justify" El Shaddai as a form of "digital tourism" worthy of our attention, regardless of the success or failure of its mechanical properties.
Stuck with the term
I often think it's a shame we settled on "video game" to describe this medium, this art form - but it's perfectly understandable. The most notable and defining property of a pioneering game like Spacewar! was the fact that its play space was a screen.
In the early days of any medium, we tend to focus on its mechanical properties - news on paper is a "newspaper;" photographs that move are "moving pictures" (soon shortened to "movies"); early short films are "two-reelers;" movies with sound are "talkies."
Long after we learned that film communicates meaning via editing, cinematography, art direction, and other powerfully expressive tools, we continued to label it with the primitive term coined by its earliest audiences: moving pictures. Who knew this newfangled curiosity - born from a bet about a horse's hooves - would soon be used to tell stories? Who knew it's jaw-dropping mechanical properties would soon be subsumed in the public's imagination by swashbucklers, Keystone Cops, and a little tramp?
On strictly mechanical terms, I might suggest that a film like Terrence Malick's Tree of Life fails in demonstrably obvious ways. It's full of 'mistakes' that apparently defeat the continuity he seems to establish at various points in the movie. Certain shots are overexposed, bracketed by others that aren't. Ponderous sequences feel detached from the narrative, stylistically and in terms of pacing. As a mechanical exercise in filmmaking - in projecting pictures that move - Tree of Life could be described as a mess. It is also undeniably, dazzlingly brilliant.
Too often, video games find themselves artificially confined in our critical imagination by their mechanical properties. Certainly, many games succeed or fail on the merits of their tightly-focused gameplay elements. But not all games.
Applying a mechanics-based evaluative lens to every game is a foolhardy and self-limiting approach to games criticism. We may wish to hold a game accountable for its shortcomings among any list of criteria we may apply; but to suggest that any game with "broken gameplay" is essentially irredeemable is to ignore the possibility that other elements may supersede gameplay. Enter El Shaddai...Deadly Premonition...