Special to Game Losers by Greg L. Mercer
CHAPTER I: IN WHICH THE INTERNET WAS A WEIRD KID GROWING UP
Much like video games, the Internet was a weird kid growing up.
A lot of people spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to help it gain legitimacy. The Internet was a goofy place, with entire databases of surreal animated videos, basement-dweller rants, and fan sites for obscure bands, movies or shows. Not to mention, the barrier for entry was a high monthly fee, on top of the $500-$1500 for a computer with a modem. Lots of houses had one to help with your homework and the household accounts, but not nearly every home, and not nearly to the point of usefulness we have today.
Then, in 2005 (we can argue on the exact year but that’s what it feels like to me), the Internet went from being Something About Half Your Friends Have into Something It Would Be Really Weird Not To Have. Mind you, this is only two years before the first iPhone release (which, itself, caused a similar shift re: smartphones around 2012-ish).
What happened? I like to think it was YouTube. Specifically, the Lonely Island “Lazy Sunday” Digital Short. I don’t mean to say all of the sudden people bought millions of computers to watch this video, but I think it cemented YouTube as “the place to watch videos, and no matter how many millions of people watch it, the site doesn’t go down.”
That was a massive turning point. The Internet was finally able to sustain mainstream attention, and it hasn’t stopped since. Ubiquity. It’s something people think of as a public utility, like phone lines and electricity and water. The Internet used to be Weird, and now it just Is.
How did the Internet get legitimacy? How did we get to a point where Internet access is something everyone is just assumed to have? What the fuck does any of this have to do with video games? I’m getting to that. Stay with me, I promise we’ll get there.
CHAPTER II: IN WHICH VIDEO GAMES ARE ART ONLY IF MUSIC IS ALSO ART
Before I talk about video games, I’d like to talk about music.
(“Jesus fucking Christ with this guy,” I hear you say. I know, I know. I’m getting there, I promise, half this chapter is about video games)
Media are interesting because they are capable of doing two things, and most people think the primary thing is telling a story. Books, movies, plays, and most visual art are story focused. Music can do this as well: it can tell about how sad you are, or how much you love hot babes, or it can teach you your ABCs. But music becomes especially unique when you remove that part, and you move on to the other thing media are good at: appealing to the senses.
I have never studied music so I can’t claim to understand why, but bone deep in all human psyche and culture is a love for rhythm, admiration for sound arranged in pleasing ways. You don’t need to come up with a story for a song. A song can just be a beautiful series of sounds. That alone can make people cry even upon first listening.
Video games have a special talent hidden inside them as well (see? I promised we’d get there). No other medium is able to convey feel the way video games can.
For all the shit that KC Green seems to want to give it, tim rogers’ post “lets talk about jumping” made me consider a lot of things. The way Mario jumps feels amazing. He springs up, arm forward, leg behind him. He lands, and maybe he slides with weighty friction. You are able to control a character in a two-dimensional space, and certain interactions feel astonishing. They drive pleasure directly into your brain, the same way music can.
Lots of actions in games can do this, and it’s something Nintendo especially is very good at (a lot of the time). Power sliding in Mario Kart is something everyone should get to experience. Lining up a bow shot in The Last of Us and letting fly is remarkable. The moment of discovery when, you learn to place a portal and gain momentum and all of the sudden you Actually, Truly Are Thinking With Portals is like learning every romance language in a flash second. No other medium is capable of these things: if they attempt it, they instantly Become Video Games (this article will not be discussing What A Video Game Is).
There’s a problem with video games as a medium, though. Especially if you want video games to be considered art.
The games closest to being treated as both mainstream and artistic are big, dumb, meaty, beautiful triple-A titles like Halo and Grand Theft Auto. You, as a person who plays video games, probably hate the first X minutes of these games where you’re hand-held and taught how to shoot even though you’ve been playing games in this franchise for a solid decade and a half now. You know what the shoulder buttons do, you know how to switch weapons.
But, a major aspect of art is that it is simultaneously Universal and Subjective. Anyone can look at a painting (given sight), or watch a movie (ditto), or hear a song (given hearing), or read a book (given literacy) and be able to interpret the message in their own way. Video games are Pretty Fucking Inaccessible to the vast majority of the population.
Most people, when handed a 360 controller, have no fucking clue what is going on. Some people will never, ever learn how to manipulate the camera in a three-dimensional space. They are literally incapable of learning the essential grammar of modern video games. This isn’t their fault; it’s a weird, non-instinctual thing to have to learn how to do. You or I can laud Portal as a beautiful artistic experience all we want, but if someone can’t figure out how to control the camera, then they have no way of knowing that it’s a clever feminist inversion of traditional gaming tropes disguised as a standard puzzle game.
“Okay,” I hear you say. “What the hot fuck are you getting at?” Let me tell you what the hot fuck I’m getting at.
CHAPTER III: WHAT THE HOT FUCK I’M GETTING AT
The most important video games of the last, lets say, five years are Flappy Bird and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.
“Seriously?” I hear you say.
CHAPTER IV: YES, SERIOUSLY
Let’s start with Flappy Bird. Flappy Bird is the best pop song of all time.
Flappy Bird is a game I mocked before I played it. I thought, this is a dumb game for dumb people and I played it years ago on Newgrounds back when it was called Helichopter Attackz or something. (It doesn’t help that the game is pretty uncharmingly ugly.) I was wrong and dumb and learned to not mock things before I have attempted them. Flappy Bird is a one-player fighting game: it is meant to hone and test your reflexes.
The tap in Flappy Bird feels so fucking good. It is masturbatory. It feels the way candy tastes.
Flappy Bird came out in 2013, but in early 2014, it became so wildly popular overnight the developer removed it from the app store, for fear of people becoming too addicted. Flappy Bird managed to penetrate the national consciousness–among a decidedly non-gamer set–in ways no other game has since Pac-Man (which, obviously, was too early in the Novelty period of video games’ development as a medium to really matter one way or the other).
The barrier to entry for Flappy Bird is so low I can spell the whole thing out in this paragraph: you hit the Play symbol (same as on a VCR). It loads a screen of your bird already flying. Arrows point at the bird, along with a hand, and the words “TAP!” You tap. Your bird bounces, then begins to plummet. You tap again, and keep tapping. Your bird stays in the air. You see obstacles coming at you: there is a gap in the obstacles. You make your way through the gap, or don’t. You learn what level you need to be at to get between the gap. From here, there is only You, and The Game, and you are both friends and enemies. I wouldn’t say it’s The Simplest Game Ever Made (this article will not be discussing The Simplest Game Ever Made) but it is beautifully efficient and razor-blade sharp. Each tap is impeccable and each obstacle is a formidable, yet fair, challenge.
Flappy Bird is important because it shows us the mainstream public is interested in how video games feel, even if they don’t realize it.
There are lots of games on the iOS app store and a lot of them are great. Some of them cost millions of dollars to make, but a lot of them don’t have anything like a Mario Kart Power Slide or a Halo Pistol Shot. Dong Nguyen, creator of Flappy Bird, must have recognized this. He has said, in interviews, that he kept refining the game until it felt the way he wanted it. He thought of the way people would be playing it: on a train, one hand holding a strap. He knew it had to feel good to play with only one hand, maybe only one finger, since the others will be holding the phone: he decided on the tap. He refined that tap until it felt pleasant.
No other medium can have a tap like that. In no other medium can you perform such a small, satisfying action. Even turning a book page can’t compare.
CHAPTER V: A 40 PERSON GAME DEVELOPMENT TEAM MADE MILLIONS WITH THIS ONE WEIRD TRICK (UBISOFT HATES THEM!)
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is not video gaming’s Lazy Sunday, but it’s probably the closest anyone has gotten.
It’s a simple, cute, free-to-play game. General Manager of Glu Mobile Christopher Locke does not hesitate to admit that it’s just a re-skin of a game they already made called Stardom: Hollywood, which, I don’t know about you, but I certainly hadn’t ever heard of. The Kim Kardashian brand is absolutely why this video game is so popular. It’s absolutely why this game is important.
There is a Kim Kardashian video game. Think about what that means. Mrs. Kardashian West isn’t dumb, no matter what anyone wants to think. In fact, if you think she’s dumb, she’s probably benefiting from that. The perception of Kim Kardashian as a person “famous for being famous” is brilliant, and there’s a hundred million articles in the world about that (this article will not discuss Why Being Famous For Being Famous Is Something That Is Only Possible If You Are Brilliant, Cunning, Ruthless And Perfect In Most Ways). Everything Kim puts her name on is about helping you live Kim Kardashian’s life. Hollywood is a sensible extension of that.
Kim is a divisive public figure, maybe second only to her husband (who I fucking love and is so far beyond anyone else in any medium). Putting her name on things attracts people to them, and also makes people hate them, just because her name is on it. That gets people talking about things, which spirals out more awareness, etc. Kim Kardashian doesn’t care if you like her: no matter how you feel about Kim, you have a Kim Opinion. That means you will talk about Kim Kardashian, and the more people know about something, the more purchases there are. (See: Locke’s statement about “rubberneckers” and his glee in converting them.)
This is the other half of games as art: the story. Storytelling is available in almost every medium, but games are unique in that they allow the audience to participate. Most of the time in video games, this means Do You Want To Kill A Person, Knowing That It Will Increase Your “Bad” Meter? And, you know, whatever, sure, that’s fine. I think it’s boring, but obviously lots of people are into it or we wouldn’t keep getting Mass Effect and Infamous games.
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is about something a lot more people think about: becoming famous. Photoshoots, getting a manager, picking out the right clothes for the right situation, going on dates, Being Famous For Being Famous. It’s handled in ways that don’t necessarily Feel Good the way Flappy Bird does; mostly, you’re tapping, but not to elicit a fleeting hop, but just to make a star drop on the ground which you also have to tap to refill a meter. It’s hollow, but at least the outer shell is something other than a sci-fi post apocalypse.
“But,” I hear you say (you are awfully chatty for someone in the middle of reading by the way), “haven’t there been a million games like this? Barbie Horse Adventures type shit, not to mention Facebook games in the last X years.”
Sure, but Barbie Horse Adventures requires that you own a specific gaming console or PC capable of running video games. Hollywood only asks for some space on your Selfie Machine, and the ten seconds it takes to download an app over the LTE network you pay so much for. (It then proceeds to ask for money after a few hours, but oh well.)
CHAPTER VI: SOMEDAY EVERYONE WILL BE F2P
It’s not unusual or unreasonable for someone to say “I don’t like video games.” Could you imagine someone saying “I don’t like music” or “I don’t like movies”?
Maybe we’re past the Weird point for video games, but we definitely aren’t at Ubiquitous yet. And that isn’t the technology’s fault anymore: it’s the fault of people who make video games. We need more video game artists, who care about the feel of video games, and who attempt to make a point that people can relate and associate with, a story that matters instead of one that feels painted onto an engine or mechanic. We need video games about everything, the way there’s movies about everything, or we’re going to end up in this horrible pit of irrelevancy we always feared.
Another medium caught hard in this same ghetto is Comics. People can say “I don’t like comics” because almost all comics are about superheroes, or at the very least supernaturally powered individuals. Any that aren’t are relegated as “indie” and thus outside the purview of the mainstream by default. Yet another example would be theater, limited to appeal by its high walls of pretension, superstition, and tradition (though this medium also is hamstrung severely by its complete lack of distribution as well).
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood pulls us a few more inches away from falling into that same pit. Flappy Bird reminds the rest of the world why games are enjoyable. While Grand Theft Auto may help save the industry, these two games are helping to save the medium. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and Flappy Bird are saving the soul of video games.