The skill of play

With Cuphead raising such questions as What is gameplay? and Is easymode bad? we really do see something lurking inside the media. As little as any of us care about John Walker’s ignorance, the question is valid in its own way. As humans we tend to describe the same thing in different ways, sometimes expanding and taking away details depending on whatever, but his insistence that gameplay is a wrong word for interaction with a game. Then I guess putting a game into a console is gameplay, as that is interacting with the game. Smartass remarks aside, gameplay is a term that was originally used to describe the system of functions that the player would play with within a game, and because electronic games are a continuation of children’s play culture, this term has then trickled down the evolutionary ladder of games towards tabletop and other sort of games with play as an element. Interaction is far too large term, and nobody in their healthy mind would use anything like it to describe something so precise.

This leads us to Ben Kuchera’s post on Polygon, where he has missed the whole point of games. Using books and art galleries as his point of comparison is missing the point. Kuchera is comparing apples and oranges at best. Because a game like Cuphead has more in-common with sports parkour and card games than with books and art galleries, his comparisons lack any sort of oomph. Yes, a game expects basic competence from the player to be able to clear a level before you see the next. It is, after all, a game. You don’t win at a game, unless you know how it is played and are skilled enough to play. You don’t get freebies in Solitaire either.

Easy Mode is something nobody should have anything against, as options are just that: options. That is not the case of Skip Boss Button. Electronic games are self-tiered tournaments of sorts. You can not advance in a martial arts tournament further if you lack the skill and discipline to follow the rules and execute your desired moves. Similarly, in Street Fighter you have to have enough control over your character to defeat each opponent to advance further. In a 2D action game like Cuphead, bosses can be seen as a similar opponent to any normal Street Fighter fight, with the exception that a stage is a warm-up. Of course, it just may turn out that the stage was harder than the boss, but there are always healthy exceptions. Skipping a Boss effectively negates the need of any sort of skill, and while the idea does not have anything wrong in it inherently, it really does tell you how little some people are willing to put effort.

My notion of effort in this isn’t about getting good, though it certainly is a part of it. Much like any other product, not all games are for everyone and not all games are meant for everyone. I would use a food comparison here, but it wouldn’t be apt enough. The one I used previously, about how no game with multiple players allows one to advance without excelling, is what applies here. While in a single-player games cheating does not cause any harm to anyone, it would go against the structure of the game’s play and how it’s planned out. After all, games are virtual spaces made with restrictive rules that the player plays according to and with. A game that allows its structure and rules to be broken without any consequence often turns into a dull and wasted game rather fast, mostly because skipping play is essentially just not playing it at all. If you’re not intending to play the game, you might as well find your pass time with other titles that challenge you a different manner, or other forms of entertainment and play. After all, just like with pasta sauces, some games are more chunky and demand more active jaw work than runny ones you could just use intravenously.

The problem, quite frankly, is not that a game is too hard and that the players can’t see its “art,” as Kuchera puts it. The problem is that they’re not appreciating the art. If anything is art in video and computer games, it’s the mathematics, coding, the set of rules and design, the thing that ends up being called gameplay. Not the graphics, the sound, visual design or any other part, those belong to other schools of arts. The art of games is the art of designed play, and much like other forms of art, this one challenges us both mentally and physically. Why? Because electronic games are a form of play and without that play, they’d be virtual spaces of content to see and watch but never to be played with. The pathetic thing about all this is the fact how Kuchera and other supposed journalists like him want to remove a section of this art and force it to become something mundane and have no legs to stand on its own. Variety is demanded and required.

Do I contradict myself there? Regarding this blog yes, but I can always entertain the argument of games as art whenever necessary.

Kuchera then goes in a tirade of personal achievement how nobody’s stopping you from fast-forwarding a television show, but again misses the point; games aren’t television shows. Not that anyone who would like to review a series or a movie would use fast-forwarding, that’d be skipping on the content.

Games are about learning and using information learned. If you make a mistake, you should be learn from that and not make that mistake any more. Any sort of pastime we have with any sort of game, be it cards or miniature tabletop figurines, there are always rules that we abide to and learn new things we screw up. Of course, there is a group of people who are just unable to do this, but you can’t please anyone. You can never create a product of any kind that would be universal to everybody. Someone will always bitch about it, so might as well make it as good as you can the way you know it’ll work the best. While it is up to the provider to provide the piece for the consumers, the provider can always choose its targeted customers. There are other similar products out there that will suit the consumers outside your targeted demographic better, and if there isn’t… well, that’s a niche someone else can step in fulfill.

Or you could carry some personal responsibility and step up the game.

Skill is glorified, universally

Dean Takahashi’s Cuphead play and the feedback it got seemed to have shaken some of the gaming media, as there has been a slew of posts popping here and there defending the lacklustre game play. Gotta defend your own tribe, I guess. Maybe the most snicker worthy text goes to Dante Douglas’ Videogame Culture needs to Stop Fetishizing Skill. Douglas, like so many others, has a sort of romantic view on the Third and Fourth Generation of games, where they were hard as hell. Much like nowadays, there were number of games that were difficult, which were eclipsed by the number of games that weren’t. Mega Man and Super Mario games, for example, were easy enough for five years old kids to play through.

Douglas’ main argument in his text is that you don’t need to be good at a game in order to criticise it. We can give him this just fine, to an extent. Games as a medium require execution and certain level of skill in order to be able consume them. People can play Street Fighter II at the easiest level just fine and experience what the game has to offer just fine, nobody expects them to go and win an EVO tournament. However, if you’re unable to play the game to even beat one opponent, then you’re far from being able to see what the game has to offer. Perhaps this is a bad example, but the would be the same across the board; consumption of video games require some skill and ability to learn the rules. Douglas vilifies the consumer groups who put weight on experience than observation by claiming skill has been fetishized. If Let’s Plays and other forms of watching someone else playing a game, then gaming media has no reason to exist anymore. All game journalists end up being obsolete under this mindset, and they’d turn into tech journos at best doing interviews and reports on game development and advertisements.

Wait, no scratch that. All those could be delivered by these streamers directly from the developers in joint attempt to close the gap between developers and consumers. All the reports on game development can be done that way too, or game companies could those directly via their PR staff. A video game journalist is a specialised job in that they’re required to practice journalism as well as be able to objectively view the level of excellence a product has through its consumption. At least with new media’s streamers and Let’s Plays we know where the producer stands. With game journalists we have to guess whether or not they’ve been paid up, whether or not there’s an agenda behind this or if there is an agreed stand across different companies how to handle a story.

However, you still require that mechanical interaction in order to, and I hate to use this term, experience the game yourself. We can’t experience what others do just yet, the technology doesn’t exist to create psychic links between human minds. You can not assert other’s actions as your own as an outsider. We tend to do that anyway, humans are emphatic beings in that sense. Yet, you can’t tell what sort of book your neighbour is reading just by watching him read.

His take on games evolving from just being puzzle boxes to stories is inaccurate. Games have always been about stories the player is a part of. It is unfortunately common to see people forgetting that video and computer games are part of game and play culture, all of which have stories as part of their structure. Playing GTA is essentially a play of Police and Robber, where the player plays the part of the Robber in an a more elaborate virtual environment, but the core is still the same. The Police this time around just happens to be an AI and the play is more controlled and directed than what kids would have. There is no real other way to experience the play than take part in it yourself. Certainly you can watch someone else play the part for you and have an onlooker experience. That, however, never replaces the experience of play itself.

Douglas’ argument that skill needs to be dropped from games in order for something better to happen for the industry and sub-culture is very much in the woods. While we can always discuss what a game is (a thing that we don’t really need to discuss any further, the question has evolved into what isn’t a game [Visual novels aren’t]), that is beside this whole discussion and an unnecessary addition to the mix. Game journalists need to step up and deliver what is expected of them by their consumers, the people who ultimately are responsible of them being employed. Attacking your customers is one of the worst tactics you could make.

In addition to Douglas’ ending his text in a very dishonest way of claiming They’re just games, there is praise to be given to a journalist or a reviewer who goes his way out to completely consume a product in order to wager all of its merits first hand. A Let’s Play shows you the visual side of things, yet you wouldn’t be able to describe the action of it. This is where game play can’t be directly compared to books or movies, as advancement requires, demands even, a genuine action on the players’ part. Not everybody is able to do so, and there’s nothing wrong in that. However, if you’re a journalist who would rather consume puzzle games rather than fast-paced actions games, it’d be better to stick to your repertoire in order to produce quality pieces.

Skill may not be fetishized, but it certainly is glorified within game cultures. This is nothing out of ordinary, as any hobby or sub-culture that contains a definitive action positively glorifies a finely executed action. Dean Takahashi’s struggle to beat the Training level and the first proper level of Cuphead would be like watching a reviewer struggling to build a plastic model of a tank and never managing to glue anything together. You can’t review a model properly unless you’re able to build it, and if your skills aren’t up to the task to execute the action to the end, you’re left on second guessing through someone else’s actions.

Why is skill glorified then? Perhaps one of the prominent reasons would be that skill in a given game isn’t exactly just that. A well executed game play doesn’t just look good, but also shows knowledge of a given game and genre as a whole. Being able to beat Super Mario Bros. doesn’t meant you’re a skilled player. Beating Super Mario Bros. without dying once, using no Level Warps or using any items however does show one’s skill. A reviewer isn’t expected to a tournament level player like Daigo to be able to consume Street Fighter III Third Strike, that is to say they’re not expected to pull of Moment #37 , but they are expected to throw Hadoukens successfully. Speaking of SFIII, if you’re interested in hearing what are the consequences of reducing skill gap within competitive games, Core-A Gaming has a good video on it.

That comparison isn’t exactly fair. Competitive gaming has always required more effort to gain probable skill in it than non-competitive, through self-imposed challenges and restrictions to “compete” against something is as old gaming itself. However, competitive gaming Journey, the player’s evolution from low-tier challenger to a skilled player, does give enough leeway to compare it to single-player games’ challenges, where beating the game and its challenges is part of the fun. This has been the backbone of majority of electronic games in its short history, where the player is expected to learn to rules and functions and develop enough ability to play the game head-to-head. This certainly is skill build-up, but it’s not skill as Douglas refers in his text.

Rather than forcing a square peg down a round hole by arguing game culture should drop difficulty and the required skill that it brings with it, it would be better if the game developers could produce games to expand the market and create new games to cater low-end game players, who for whatever reasons can’t muster the execution to challenge the higher-end products. This isn’t said in a negative tone, but in a fashion where we must face reality of different games suit different people. It’s like with food; a foodie with tomato allergy can’t consume foods with tomato, and simply observing someone else consume the food won’t cut it. You need someone who can in order for him to consume the food and be able to tell you about it.

Not everyone is cut to be a game journalist

With Gamescom going on, VentureBeat had their Dean Takahashi go in and play some games. What we got out of this was a pathetic showcase of Cuphead. For some 25 minutes, Takahashi tries to beat the first level of the game, after taking some twenty jumps to clear the tutorial. It becomes clear after these first few minutes, that Takahashi is woefully unequipped to play the game, which affects the content on whatever piece he would be writing about it.

Games are action and action takes practice. While video games are for everybody, not everybody can play video games. Low-end games may be a sweet spot for many, just like a low-end stereo equipment is sufficient to loads of users. However, unlike with stereo equipment, moving from low-end to high-end isn’t about how much money and time you put into it with games. With games you have to excel and have execution. You can’t just wing it and call it a day. Unlike a stereo reviewer, a game reviewer has a necessity to be able to handle the whatever demands any tier of game requires.

To use a comparison, the minimum requirement for a book reviewer is that he is able to read the text. This produces poor reviews, as simply being able to read is not enough. You have to understand the text. This can produce some mediocre reviews. Understanding is not enough, as the reviewer should be able to analyse the structure, the intent, pacing and have proper understanding on the style of fiction and academics of writing. Merely being able to read does not produce results, there needs to be more behind it.

Dean Takahashi’s poor play with Cuphead may not represent anyone else but himself. He might become the most popular example nevertheless, followed by Polygon’s Doom gameplay video, where they spent most of the time shooting floors and walls rather than the enemies while showcasing extremely poor control of movement.

This isn’t a Git Gud jab either. No, this just might be. You should be able to do the required execution of an action, if you’re intending to comment on the environment where the action is done. For electronic games, it’s the gameplay. That’s not enough though. You also need to know the basics of writing a review, how to approach a game to understand its underlying structure and understand it.

You don’t need to be good at playing electronic games. You simply need to be able to do play them properly and as intended. These two examples of Takahashi and Polygon showcases that they are not cut for the job. The rest on the other is somewhat questionable. Certainly there are those who are able to play games properly, there’s no arguing that.

There is a large distrust towards the game journalists nowadays, thanks for the media attempting to kill the industry and attacking their own consumers. The articles that signed the death of the gamers were numerous and appeared at the same time; Gamasutra, Kotaku, Polygon, Buzzfeed, Ars Technica and numerous others wrote articles with the same content. If “the gamer” was dead, then so was the industry. While guilt by association should always be avoided, I can’t help but to notice how people have become more careful when assessing what the game media is saying about games, or the people consuming electronic games. Erik Kain of Forbes, however, had a different, a more positive take on the issue. However, as usual, it’s better for you to check these sources yourself rather than put your trust on someone on the Internet. Kain certainly did and pointed out that deceiving linking is not of good taste, despite the intentions behind it.

The fact that VentureBeat went and changed the video’s title after the comments began to pour in gives the whole thing a shameful atmosphere. Furthermore, when inquired about Takahashi performance, he tends to ask other people to do better than him all the while telling Cuphead‘s somewhere between Super Mario Bros. and Dark Souls. That is a huge as hell region, which tells absolutely nothing. It would be more accurate the describe as a mix of Gunstar Heroes and Mega Man, as those have served as some of the sources inspirations for Cuphead. Takahashi may be getting vitriol from the Internet and belittled for his lack of skills, but the core point still exists; how can a person report or create a proper assessment on a product he is unable to consume properly? Whatever the end piece would be, it would be a twisted and inaccurate representation of the product.