Electron Dance

Discussion: How Videogames Lost The Plot


Dear subscribers, if you feel like chatting about anything at all from the May edition of the newsletter, please speak your mind in the comments here.

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  1. I’m just happy to see Cradle and Dark Souls in the bottom columns. There.

    I was telling a friend about The Witness back when it came out, about the statues and audio diaries and the island and everything, and when I was done, he asked me “yeah, but what’s the story about”. I just grunted for a good minute before telling him to fuck off.

    It’s hopeless.

  2. The architecture in The Witness is excellent, though, isn’t it? I don’t normally have much of an eye for level design, but man is space well utilized in that game. It somehow feels like a series of complete, distinct spaces while also being dense and navigable at the same time.

    I also wanted to touch on the whole “consumerism makes us not appreciate art” thing. Perhaps this is not the place, in which case I apologize, but I don’t really buy it. Though I have argued before (and still believe) that game pricing is arbitrary and unimportant, I do think that speaking with money is meaningful. Money is limited. By spending money on art you are denying that money to other art or indeed to other needs and desires entirely.

    While the expectations that come with spending money on art may impose limitations and expectations on the artists, I’m not sure that is all that unique to art. Plenty of expressions, such as holiday decorations, scrapbooking, fashion, stage performances, and more carry expectations with them independent of the money involved. For videogame examples, people will complain about the same stuff even for free games. They may be quicker to forgive a free game, but the same complaints tend to show up.

    Plus the limitations of money force those spending it to make comparative judgements. What is worth spending money on? This judgement probably tends to skew towards “fun” games or games with perceived value, but my point is by its very nature money forces buyers to think a little more critically about what is desirable.

    And while things like 60 fps are not terribly relevant for the kind of analysis you prefer, I’m not as quick to say they are unnecessary. Wouldn’t the world have an easier time if Da Vinci used more durable paints? Quality of life and accommodations seem counter to the current grain of artistic thought which seems ironic considering the same sources also laud art for fighting for the common people. Isn’t accessible art better art?

    Not that I am unaware of the other implications, including corporate desires and the way monetary incentives motivate creators to remain uncontroversial. I just am not convinced that money is the inherent evil that anti-consumerist rhetoric seems to paint it as.

  3. @Sandy: I appreciate what you mean about the value of money. I can only buy games I genuinely like or think might be interesting; I guess that’s my way of tweaking the dev community toward the kind of games I like.

    I can also remember being more invested in games that I *should* have paid for. Daniel Linssen’s “Roguelight” is on itch.io for free but it comes with a recommended price; knowing that it was “worth” real money made me appreciate it more even though I couldn’t part with any for it.

    I actually think money affects story in games in a different way, though. Yes people will pay for games they like, so they might buy a story-heavy game or not, and that’s just par for the course. But an indie developer, when deciding to make a commercial game which they will actually sell for actual money, will feel this tremendous pressure to add a story – not because it makes the game better but because commercial games always have stories and always have since the dawn of time (or so it seems). Which only continues to prop story up as one of these things which is often badly done but still considered absolutely necessary.

  4. Ketchua!

    I pulled Cradle from the list because I just KNEW it wouldn’t be out soon. But I never cancelled it. Cradle is totally fascinating and also broken in ways that are telling. Cradle deserves some more love and not just for its incredible art style.

    On The Witness, lets see if I can get the trailer out today…


    No problem, you can bring up anything you want from the newsletter, from the links to the chosen font of the letters. And if you’re Matt W, then frankly you’ll comment about anything you damn like :) Nice to have you back in the comments!

    I was dillying and dallying over including that paragraph or two about consumerism/art because it wasn’t really the thrust of the main piece. Similarly, I deleted a *whole paragraph* about The Witness.

    Maybe it’s my phrasing, but I’m not really trying to push consumerism destroys our appreciation of art, more that it has been increasingly successful in appropriating it over the years. Artists are having to turn themselves into brands that are expected to respond to fans, because money is exchanged. I guess the artist as whore, where you’ve bought people not a creation or access to a creation.

    The digital revolution sounded like a great idea to make artist and audience one big interactive puddle of integrated creativity but, so far, it just seems to have forced people to hand themselves over to their audience.

    It seems much closer to celebrity culture today where it’s fanatical devotion vs stalker hate, you identify an individual [or game] with certain traits they may not have and invest yourself in this facsimile; when the facsimile proves to be in error, you feel personally wronged by the person/game who was supposed to maintain that illusion. Seeing the Johnny Depp thing play out right now and you can sense fear; Johnny Depp is a character that people have invested in and so this revelation that he’s assaulted Heard could be interpreted as: “Depp is reasonable, therefore the assault is reasonable, thus a woman is genuinely sometimes asking for it”. Role models are dangerous things particularly as they’ve been co-created by the audience with a lack of genuine information. (For bankable stars, the rest is made of PR and marketing; not so for indie devs or their games.)

    And so you’re absolutely right that people have the same reaction with free games, particularly anything that has involved long-term investment, like an open source game project. This is set to get worse with the collapse of digital pricing. When you can apparently pay nothing for the polished Candy Crush Saga, then the line between corporate product and free gift to humanity gets really blurred. Free is no longer the same as free, which is something I remember Rob Fearon writing about.

    Money seems to promote this relationship. Instead of thinking “I should not be so invested, it’s just a business transaction”, it seems to amplify the negatives in many people: I LOVE THIS THING I PAID MONIES SO DON’T FUCK UP. I’m just looking at the millions of people who get called entitled whiny babies. I don’t like labelling people as “entitled” so much because that’s just a way of throwing them in the bin as if they’re not as enlightened as the rest of us, which drives me to seek systemic causes.

    I don’t want to fall down the rabbit hole of technicals too much (i.e. 60fps) except to add that sometimes you just have to take a piece of work as it is, flaws and all. I can put up with a lot of crap if there’s a gem of something powerful or sacred in work. Monitors are indisputably better but I miss the grainy, frayed appearence of old videogames on a TV; we’re back to preservation of earlier versions again! The truth is your penultimate paragraph is really frightening because it opens up a far bigger can of worms than anything else you wrote :) “Isn’t accessible art better art?” OMG this question deserves a whole comment thread.

    “…but I don’t really buy it” Was that pun deliberate?

    Here’s the *real* truth behind those paragraphs: The more research I’ve done for the book, the further left I’ve moved. I was always on the left, but I’ve never considered myself a radical socialist or something of that vein… until now. So I’ve gone from a belief that “capitalism can be fixed” into “capitalism must be dismantled”.

    Er, lots of words. WHOOPS.


    You’ve just reminded me that I was going to write a defense of “entitled babies” in an article co-written with David Wolinsky. I don’t think that’s going to happen now (“let’s do it!” was January). I’ll wheel the idea out separately somehow.

    But you’re right that financial imperatives make developers feel they need to inject story. Just because it’s a thing. No story, then you’ve cut corners and it’s not a real game. NO SALE. Is this a problem with money (changing the nature of art) or a problem with culture/audience expectations (even if free, people would avoid it)?

  5. @James WWII General and @Joel KindVictory I see the point now.

    The idea of developers being compelled to include narratives is interesting, though I wonder for some games how much that compulsion comes from the crowd expectation (which is real) versus their own desire to tell stories. Comparing Sokobond and English Country Tune, both narrative-light puzzle games, with just about any of Zachtronics game, which all seem to include a sci-fi narrative even though narratives are often not considered necessary in the puzzle genre. Of course, that becomes even more interesting when you compare them with The Witness and The Talos Principle – I imagine something about moving to an avatar in a 3D world makes the games feel more AAA and therefore makes people expect the “full package.” Or maybe it is just an audience size effect.

    Your points on fan/celebrity culture versus “free association” is an interesting one, Joel. I would be willing to argue that the internet has improved things for small studios relative to the pre-internet, but I think your comparison of the system that exists versus the system that was promised is spot on. I do wonder if the proliferation of design schools might help build a community of artists. There does seem to be a larger impact of people who have studied game design prior to entering the field, though my anecdotal experience seems to suggest they are still in the minority.

    I am also reminded of the youtube stars who came from or are connected with Newgrounds. There does seem to be communities of artists who work together in that sense. Though more and more those communities seem to be related to people meeting at conferences rather than artist enclaves isolated from market incentives. So I suppose there may be (or already is) an “elite” of sorts in the Youtube/Twitch/Indiegames fields that serves as promoters and gate keepers in a similar manner to older, more established systems. The dream of the internet is that these communities are more inclusive and easier to penetrate, but I am wondering now if that is actually true.

  6. I’m going to cross you up by being vaguely on-topic. So I just finished Osmos, which I’ve had since the second Humble Bundle, and part of the reason I just finished it is that there’s no story whatsoever and so when a few of the levels went from “mmm-hmmm” to “fuckfuckfuckhard” I didn’t feel any compunction about shelving it for a while. The developers have a series of posts* about the rage their players feel at these last levels, and a lot of that is that they’re mad that they can’t finish. (Also, y’know, that it gives the impression of being a chill game and it’s actually a game that often is about waiting for the one moment when you can do something and if you mess up what you’re doing you’ve irrevocably screwed up the level. Positive feedback loops ahoy.) And I’m like, but so what if you can’t finish? Just play what you can play. Like I was saying about in the comments to The Dishonest Player post, it’s not so much of a game that cares whether you finish it.

    (Note the complexity of that humblebrag: I finished this difficult game and I was super chill about it, not like the unenlightened folks! Back in the day I was like “This is a stealth game, not a chill game but there was no Steam so I didn’t wind up on the record about it.)

    One thing this does make me think about is the importance of the level select screen. Like, in Osmos you can play lots of different variants of the levels, but in order to get to them you have to start a level, hit escape, and then select the “randomize” option. The devs say, well, before you hit the hardest levels you can practice on some of the randomized versions, but no one’s going to do that. So the level select drives you headling into the difficulty cliff. Similar thing on Crayon Physics Deluxe–a lot of my frustration there came from a perceived need to hit extra completion goals on a lot of the levels in order to unlock this island in the center, which turned out to be a cute bonus level and a credit scene. If they’d just moved that level to the end of the last island and moved five of the hardest levels to the center island, then those levels would’ve been presented as bonus levels after the main completion of the game, and getting to them would’ve felt much less grindy.

    Sandy, interesting you mention Zachtronics–SpaceChem is a game where I found the storybits so perfunctory and disconnected from the gameplay that I didn’t feel any incentive to move on at all. Seems like, as I think Joel said about Full Boar, a puzzle game like this interrupts your progress so much that if there were a story you couldn’t follow it. I put down SpaceChem in the middle (though I think I’ve seen what was keeping me from finishing the level I was stuck on–I thought I had three reactors available but I have five) and when I pick it up will I remember what’s going on? English Country Tune is also one that took forever to finish.

    Oddly Osmos had more emotional impact for me than most games with a story stuck on–the feeling of loneliness that you get sailing along in parallel orbit to a blob, waiting for it to come close enough that you can snatch it up.

    *In fact I wound up playing it again because I was trying to find out the origin of the phrase “The Perversity of Inanimate Objects” and that came up in the search.

  7. @mattw: very interesting comment! I second the level select screen thing. My girlfriend and I played Escape Goat, an intricate puzzle game. We were always there to finish the story because the supercute goat and his supercute mouse friend were the reason we were playing. We wanted those little guys to get out ok! :O After finishing, though, you get access to the nightmare levels. We completed a few due to sheer force of will but some seemed damn near impossible. But we (the story people) got what we wanted and a peek at nightmare, and the “I must have all the puzzles” people got the systemic depth they wanted.

  8. Sandy

    I think any game that is about slow progress has a problem with story (and here we’re touching on an article which I’ve had sketched for some time but not got around to promoting to actual words). Which means either it has to be simple and incur the risk that it’s pointless (Portal is the counterexample) or go impressive and risk losing player comprehension (some of The Swapper’s implementation means it’s all too easy to lose track of who is what).

    I think you’re right that 3D brings something extra to the party and makes a story seem more genuine. As everyone knows, even though I lost the plot at times, I absolutely loved Talos. There are probably counterexamples; there are plenty of 3D puzzlers out there now. Games I haven’t played: Was the story of Q.U.B.E. any good? Did Antichamber have a story?

    On your last points, one of the discussions later in the book is about the paradox of desiring a better place where everyone is equal and there’s no curational power. But once any particular individual or platform becomes prominent, it then exhibits all the same problems, it owns audience eyeballs, it has power. It may or may not abuse that power and there will be participants who get upset that the power is not used to highlight X, Y or Z. No one cares about your coverage if you don’t have power – list of people complaining about Electron Dance coverage is zero. Once you’re a top tier YouTuber, streamer, digital portal, games review website or Twitter mouthpiece, people will view you differently because you will be different. And it can do what it wants. Valve were seen as the good guys. Google were seen as the good guys. What changed is they both acquired curational power and now need to be kept in check. itch.io is seen as a real indie-loving site but, you know, it now has some power. Trusting in benevolence in an unregulated marketplace seems like the most naive thing to do.

    There seems no solution to this kind of ascent from plucky upstart to place of power… aside from hoping its a constant cycle of destruction and rebirth, where sites are destroyed or fall behind and are replaced with new ones, with different sensibilities, so in the long term, we’re always moving forward and diverse.


    Oh Matt, you’ve done it now.

    What you’re saying Osmos clicks in with some of the stuff I’m going to put in The Witness video and the dangers of defining your playerdom too closely with 100% completion. (I didn’t make 100%! But I think that’s okay.) We’ve been playing Sonic All-Star Racing and it absolutely galls we’ve got to grind through stupid career mode to unlock everything. Just… unlock… everything at the start. We want to play fun multiplayer together not grind!

    I do think, in many cases, the absolute brilliance of a good puzzle game is being undermined by commitment to a story mode. I find the story makes many of these games feel very “B grade” even though the underlying puzzle is great stuff. I felt vaguely unclean when I played Evy: Magic Spheres because it gave all those signals of being a brightly coloured empty “casual” experience. Regency Solitaire sails very close to that territory – it has lots of casual signifiers; the story is better than most although it has jack squat to do with the card game!


    I think, actually, the story of The Swapper is what propelled me forward in that game. I don’t know if the mechanics gave birth to enough richness and I can see myself giving up if there had been no story. I think there are just about the right amount of puzzles, although others have disagreed that it’s too long with no extra mechanical surprises.

    Talos is a rare combination of puzzle awesomeness and story awesomeness. I can tug at some flaws in that game but, damn it, I was impressed.

    I really should have a go at English Country Tune and Stephen’s Sausage Roll soon…

  9. James: That makes me think, I was going to name NightSky as a game that did the level selection right–the bonus levels are clearly marked as such, you have to collect bonus things to unlock them, they have a silly art style and weird music, and they come after the level with the ending (there is an ending, and I claim it is just right); but one thing I think is maybe it should’ve made the alternative difficulty only unlock after you’d played a certain amount on normal. Because I hear there are a certain number of people who just went “I’ll play the harder mode” and started out on alternative difficulty, and that’s just the wrong way to do it. Though I did have this petty moment of feeling like I should’ve got a slightly different ending on alternative, or at least when I finished the bonus levels on alternative there should’ve been something more than just a kick back to the level select. Oh well.

    HM: I would also say that plot comprehension in the Swapper suffers from a lot of the plot points being delivered by a super-echoey voice with an English accent. YMMV on the accent, obviously. The Swapper is one where I got brickwalled by a puzzle, which is just me being silly and stubborn about 100%ing, because I don’t need to do all the puzzles. Not quite 100%ing but not admitting defeat.

  10. Matt I couldn’t tell the difference between the antagonists’ voices.

  11. They’re all the same voice, aren’t they? There’s only one actress credited for the role of the “antagonist,” and that’s because SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH what happened was that Dennett and Chalmers first swapped themselves into the brains of the terminally ill people that they were talking about in one of those memory logs and then both managed to insert themselves into the consciousness of the last poor sucker to walk into their lab, whatever it was called. I think. It’s definitely three minds in one body. (And did they swap themselves into the Chief Watcher at the end? That’s what I thought I was supposed to do to get one ending, but the swapper beam doesn’t actually get through to it.)

    But my complaint wasn’t so much that I couldn’t follow who was saying what, though that didn’t help, as I could not understand the exact words they were saying, mostly not because of the accent but because of the echo and also because the volume at which I play to avoid annoying other people in the room is lower than the volume at which I can make out dialogue.

    Anyway, as you can tell, after that post I went back to the game, and that puzzle was not that hard when I took a fresh look at it. It turned out that I was not just being stubborn–unless I’m very much mistaken you need to 100% the puzzles to finish the game at all. This was a surprise because in most of the previous parts of the game you can unlock the next areas before you’ve finished all the puzzles in the areas you’ve found. This puzzle unlock structure isn’t so bad in general (Where Is My Heart? does it, I think), but it’s a bad idea when you have a big overworld, because you find yourself having to scour the map to find those last puzzles you didn’t hit. At least I did. And they were in a hidden place whose access wasn’t obvious.

    Also of course the long pause meant that I didn’t remember much of the plot points, and in fact some of the mechanics. Like, I started the game again and was surprised to find that some of the crucial echoey dialogue at the end is repeated at the beginning (maybe the film you see toward the end is actually happening at the beginning?) I didn’t have to return to them, but when I restarted the game for a bit I was like “There were pushable boxes in this game?” Fun fact: Log 2 mentions the orbs! Someone says “Gosh I wish I had an orb so I could get off this planet” and someone else says “It sucks for all of us.” I didn’t say it mentions them in a non-perfunctory way. No explanation for the colored lights that I remember.

    My overall view of this game is very positive but the mechanical handling of the ending horked me right off. SPOILERS AGAIN. It’s like, OK, it’s set up that you’ve got this swapper gun. And for the first time you see another human being within range (I think the antagonist is never within range). And he turns around and walks off in slow motion. It would be great to make it seem as though the only ending is to jump into the abyss, until you think, “Wait, there must be a slow-motion scene for some reason, what if I swap with him?” You could show you understood the mechanics. But no, it’s press A for ending one, press B for ending two. And then just to show that your choice Real and Has Consequences if you try to restore it kicks you straight to the credits, when the only thing that’s ever made anyone do is hunt up a YouTube of the other ending.

    Good game though! Dept. of name-dropping: here’s some pictures of me on the real Chalmers’s website. I don’t think I was nearly as drunk as I look in the last one.

  12. What kind of jerk designed that space station, though? “Hey Fred, this wall looks like an awfully high climb.” “No problem Fred, I was thinking that you could just create a clone of yourself on top of it and destroy the original.” Is that OSHA compliant?

    A long time ago I wrote something about how playing in ruined environments gives the designer an excuse to break things in exactly the way to let you into places that (as an invader or something) you’re not supposed to go. As well as making it challenging to get to where you are supposed to go, I guess. Another reason for The Beautiful Dead besides the difficulty of interacting with NPCs.

  13. The architects were both named Fred, you see. Later one of them pushed the other off a cliff because he had run out of his limit of clone Freds and he needed to get something off the top shelf of the bookcase.

  14. “I just grunted for a good minute before telling him to fuck off.”

    This made me laugh out loud, thanks!

    Okay, so I’m only so far down these comments but I just wanted to start typing now before I forgot what I was thinking.

    In one of my last comments I closed with “There’s a fine line between pandering and artistic intent!” then followed it up with “…but a dangerous chasm between success and failure!” and I wasn’t exactly happy with that wording. Joel, you pretty much summed up my sentiment with “The digital revolution sounded like a great idea to make artist and audience one big interactive puddle of integrated creativity but, so far, it just seems to have forced people to hand themselves over to their audience.” When I said “artistic intent”, I ought to have said “artistic integrity”. It’s hard to hold on to that when you’re trying to tread a line between your original vision and the wants of your audience.

    James and Ketchua also get at this with their comments about story being a key feature to some (many? Most?) so naturally that will influence where a developer sinks their resources.

    Over the years AAA titles have toyed with the balance between the single-player campaign/story mode and the multiplayer component, often bolting one on to the other. The Last of Us has a multiplayer mode and Splatoon has a campaign/story mode. I’m not sure about you but the last thing I wanted from Splatoon was a history of the Inklings and a story about their ongoing feud with the Octolings.

    At the moment I’m playing Age of Wonders 3 and the tutorial is the Elven campaign so… it’s long. I’m enjoying it so far but man, I could honestly do without the blah blah blah zzzzzz story trying to tug me along. Show me how to play, unleash the AI and let me run wild in the skirmish mode. Just give me the game. Civ doesn’t do this and Total War doesn’t do this so… Fantasy Tropes 101 probably shouldn’t either.

    SpaceChem has a story. Chaos Reborn has a story, apparently, but I’ll be damned if I care. I never did play the Frozen Synapse or Frozen Cortex story modes either. These are some of my favourite games, story be damned.

    “And surely for games to go Full Metal Citizen Kane, they have to have story? I guess everyone agrees on this.”


    And I love the story and sugar thing too, beautifully put.

    Please tell me how you get on with Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed too, it’s my favourite kart racing game. I hope the kids get to have a play too! I’m also keen to play Duskers, especially after the promise of Deadnauts.

  15. Just read your comment on Sonic Racing! Yeah, the unlock system is probably a bit of a dampener if you were hoping to play a particular character right off the bat. I wanted Robotnik for a long time and he’s the hardest character to unlock. By the time I got him, I’d kind of finished with the game so… okay, I see your point. Still, I had a lot of fun cracking the different challenges in career mode. You can play that mode co-op too, but I think it’s a bit hit and miss depending on the race/challenge type.

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