The moaning critic. A DMCA takedown. The gamer identity.

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24 thoughts on “Discussion: Unfinished Tales

  1. Oh dear. I’ve had your request for feedback on Side by Side sitting open in a tab for a week or more meaning to get back to it. And now you’ve made the question even more interesting, I suppose I better get on that.

    On that ‘The Wall’ abandoned piece – now that you’ve changed your mind on never letting this particular writing about writing about games see the light of day (no comment on whether that was a good call but your first instincts were sound I think), I just want to say that for me this (is it good or bad to understand systems) is the kind of fight that dogmatic people (ie mostly the people who get attention) will want to have for ever and I feel like you’re standing in the middle waving some kind of flag saying “but it’s complicated!” and no one is listening.

    By coincidence I read an opinion piece in the Guardian today about a kind of similar topic – how literary writers in the UK were dwindling in popularity as compared to their counterparts in the US and elsewhere because (in the wroter’s opinion) they were not paying attention to plot. It included a quote from Martin Amis being an insufferable smug git so I immediately liked it and thought the argument plausible (though it’s been many years since I attempted to keep up with ‘literary’ fiction).

    And then I read the comments. And then I reminded myself that a) don’t read the comments and b) it’s always complicated and no one will ever agree on the generically right balance between eg plot and prose or narrative and systems because it’s different for every book/game and every reader/player and about the only firm conclusion I can draw is that people with firm conclusions are almost certainly wrong.

  2. Obviously “a)” above does not apply on fine boutique outlets like this one….

  3. Hello kfix!

    I read exactly the same article today and was wondering if this applied to games 🙂 Although I’m definitely a plot kind of guy, the article gave me pause because it was verging on “write what sells” and that’s where I start getting icky. Making money is important but we need artistic experimentation… and experiments fail in the main. I sometimes read the Guardian comments but, as with most places with a significant following (aha, see my cunning Electron Dance comment getout clause there) they’re a mixed bag biased to the negative. I didn’t read them in this case.

    I’m a bit of a “it’s complicated” person across the board and so I can’t be arsed with most “diametric opposites” discussions. “Games need interactivity” / “players are not god”. “Games are art” / “Games aren’t art” etc. etc. With these kind of questions, I feel like it’s important to find your own answers, but not attempt to seek universal answers. Don’t answer “are games are art” but answer “are my games art”. True universal answers usually need to abstract out so far that they are rarely useful/applicable to anyone. What’s important is what makes sense to you which then shapes what you make.

  4. Martin Amis is such a whatever-the-opposite-of-insightful-is wanker that one is tempted to tell him to stop blathering on about other stuff and stick to writing, but when he does you remember he’s also an awful writer. Which makes him a good person to stick in a quote from, by the same principle that I occasionally take heart from some people by thinking “Look, whatever I do today I’m at least not going to have fucked up that much.”

    –ok, the rest of the comment isn’t living up to that invective, but here goes anyway–

    But I am a bit thinking-face emoji about the dude who is talking about how non-US literary novels doesn’t have any plot and also who says that the last literary novel he read was four years old… seems like a frank admission that he doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about. The best British novel I’ve read the last few years is Rachel Cusk’s Outline which is pretty much plotless though Cusk is hostile to same-old literary fiction too–she said something like she just doesn’t see the point of making up stuff that didn’t happen. (Really need to get ahold of Transit.)

    Anyway, he talks about long-form TV… to say “Screenwriters have three main tools in their box: story, story and story” seems not accurate–don’t they have dialogue and characterization? It’s not like every single long-form TV show is a plotfest. Mad Men (not created by me) was about characters and milieu, and my wife tells me that Six Feet Under which Lott actually mentions is also about characters and milieu more than plot. When I think PLOT on TV I tend to go more for shorter-form things like State of Play (the British one, I’m not a monster) and The Lost Room and Five Days and on the subject of not knowing what one’s talking about I should admit I’ve barely watched any TV for about nine years.

    This can be relevant to games! ‘coz milieu and somewhat dialogue and especially milieu are something that games can do well, I think better than plot, at least if the game is at all long. It’s hard for the game to control its pacing, but it can milieu the hell out of you and deliver dialogue when it can. Now OTOH I think a good length for a game is closer to six hours than twenty for sure, and maybe linear actiony games can plot it up pretty well, thinking of something like Cave Story which isn’t quite linear but you know what I mean. (Ay, what am I talking about, there are plenty of superplotty games even if I tend not to play them.)

    I looked up “How Videogames Lost The Plot” and it is to my eternal shame that I still laugh at my own jokes about the designers of the space station in The Swapper.

  5. matt w, I love your use of “milieu” there, it’s better than I guess “atmosphere” is the word usually used for the same concept?

    On a second reading, I thought the most (only?) useful part of that dude’s article ended up being the Delacroix quote. Writers can safely dismiss plot only when they know enough about how to create a plot that they know when it’s not important. Likewise I think, game makers should not dismiss systems until they know enough about how people engage with them to know what’s not important. (The same applies of course to dismissing art design or narrative or milieu.)

    I finally got around to playing Gone Home a few nights ago. That game was clearly made by people who know an awful lot about systems and only included the perfect minimum needed to milieu the hell out of me. Lovely.

  6. Thanks kfix! I guess by “milieu” I mean not quite “atmosphere” but something more like “setting” or “w-rldb–ld-ng.” With Mad Men it’s the setting of the ad agency and the changing society of the 60s, where something like the new Blade Runner has a little more emphasis on atmosphere–the stuff with the statues in abandoned Las Vegas isn’t there because it is an extremely important part of the backstory that Las Vegas is abandoned and full of big statues, it’s the feeling. In fact I just searched for “abandoned statues in Las Vegas blade runner” and found this, which sums it up perfectly:

    “Before [Las Vegas] was abandoned, all of its gaudy statuary had been replaced with gargantuan reproductions of the statues from The Korova Milk Bar from A Clockwork Orange. Really? That’s all you got?”

    And it’s like, yeah, the point isn’t necessarily to have something that fits into the backstory or world-building. Which may be a flaw. I don’t know.

    To choose something where “atmosphere” doesn’t necessarily mean “spooky ambience,” some of the complaints people have about the last couple of Star Wars seems to be that it neglects milieu for atmosphere. It doesn’t spend a lot of time on explaining exactly what’s going on–nobody seems to know exactly how the First Order fits in to what went on before–but we can all grok the basic moods.

    In games, I’d say that LIMBO is drippppping with atmosphere which sometimes people mistook for milieu–the story or status of why exactly there are all those deathtraps and things trying to kill you isn’t that fleshed out or important. NightSky is full of atmosphere but… well, I don’t want to identify milieu entirely with coherence of setting, so there’s something of a milieu in the caves and the forest and the factory stuff, but it’s not as full of milieu as Knytt Underground, which has characters and a world that’s more of a piece. When there’s a tank in NightSky it’s just a tank that’s in the setting, when there’s a mysterious shrine or random clump of houses in Knytt Underground it seems to point to something in the game world even though it’s a riddle that doesn’t have an answer.

    Anyhow this is all a little moot as games are clearly at least as good at atmosphere as milieu. Though maybe there’s something about length there, where super-long game needs milieu and not just atmosphere. That’s why Samorost 3 gives me the willies–the surrealism of the first two Samorosts was great in tiny doses but seems like it’d be intolerable in a massive game. Machinarium which was a lot longer than them also had more milieu, conveying what the city was like even if it didn’t really make sense (and also the puzzles where somewhat less free-associative).

    Speaking of Nifflas, Joel, I saw you had Uurnog in one of your recently played lists but without a heart. Thoughts? I’m kind of not mostly buying games right now but Nifflas has two on my top five games ever list (Knytt Underground, Stephen’s Sausage Roll, NightSky, Cave Story, and I keep forgetting the fifth one which I think might be a puzzle game but for now maybe I’ll put on nethack even though I never intend to play it again?) Also it’s increasingly apparent that I should get into DROD, and that if I want to do that I should be on Steam where I can get things for literally one tenth the price, which may save me from getting into DROD for a while.

  7. So are you actually talking about two different concepts here though? Or to go back to Delacroix, just the level of competence at building the… stage? How about mise en scène? So the level of technical competence and artistic judgement (which requires technical competence amongst other things) to set the stage for the game in the appropriate way for that game.

    So the artist knowing that the back story for a game like Limbo isn’t that important, where for Gone Home all the little objects scattered around the place that weren’t directly part of the story were still very important and very much in place.

    Or are you getting at more the difference between purely superficial things (music in a spooky key, “moody” lighting whatever the hell that means, curvy “organic” lines versus straight “mechanistic” lines or whatever) versus things with… um… a story? A personality?

  8. Joel, I guess there’s a couple of aspects to the “write what sells” thing that also make me feel a bit icky while still getting to a real issue.

    First there’s the whole argument about public funding for the arts, where the super icky argument being made by those against is that if you can’t interest people in paying money for your art then by definition it has no value to society. I think that’s clearly a ridiculous argument often made in service of quite different ideological goals.

    (I also don’t support direct funding of specific arts or artists in the ridiculous arts-council-patronage model that has blighted my country in various forms over the years – not sure of the state of affairs in the UK – don’t you have some weird gambling-fund thing going on? – rather a stronger safety net/guaranteed income to make sure no one starves, but that’s getting far off topic.)

    But there’s another aspect to “write what sells” which I think is more valid, which is that if you can’t interest people in paying money for your art then maybe what you are doing has no value at all to anyone but you. This (depending on your goals) shouldn’t be the only metric by which you should gauge your own progress, but maybe it should be a factor along with other metrics (YouTube likes, page views, attempts to scrub your giant penis murals off public buildings, etc). But I don’t think it should be used as some kind of gatekeeping score by others, or be the sole or even major consideration for you as an artist, again depending on your goals.

    (To your point that we need artistic experimentation, I completely agree that this is very important, and not just in art but in science, philosophy, technology, commerce etc. And I don’t think that western societies do enough to facilitate experimentation in all of these areas, and the tools that were created to foster experimentation, like copyright and patents and – for some proponents anyway – the welfare state, have mostly been turned to corrupted purposes and concepts like ugh Intellectual Property now serve established interests rather than fostering the new. Off topic again sorry….)

  9. So, to the extent that ‘literary’ authors go to the trouble of getting themselves published by commercial publishers and offer their books for sale for (often quite a lot of) money, then it’s fair to include consideration of their sales in your criticism of their work. And to point out to twerps who disdain story and plot as “merely secondary interests” that quite a lot of people (dirty commoners often, but still people) pay a lot of attention to, and money for, writing which does story and plot well.

  10. Matt, I was going to make some disparaging comment about you barely watching any television because, you know, there is decent stuff to be found, but then I realised I had a horrible Achilles’ heel – I’ve barely read any books over the last five years and it winds me up good and proper. Gah! You win this round, you pesky kids.

    You know Eric and Richard have been debating the importance of plot and character recently on their Trekabout podcast and Eric really doesn’t care for plot, he’s more a character guy. So if he was here, he’d probably take a punch at the fellow who wrote that article.

    Those space station designers really deserve to get it but I’m going to move on to Uurnog. Now when I play Uurnog, I play it when I usually play games, which is late. The problem with late gaming is that if it requires even the teensiest bit of brain power it can shut you down fast. Now I remember when I had a go at Knytt Underground, the world becomes open pretty fast. Openess tends to be taxing as you have to maintain a mental map of where everything is without giant yellow arrows pointing towards your next destination.

    Uurnog throws open multiple avenues of progress all at the same time, and all the decisions on gear/guns are also instantly available – more or less. In the late night gaming session, I found it a bit of struggle to fit it into my head. It’s got style and it feels clever, but I haven’t been able to embrace it yet. The lack of a heart may only be a temporary indicator. Six Match last month was heartless but will definitely have a heart on the next newsletter.

    I think worldribbing is a far better description than worldbuilding or milieu, but maybe we can save that neologism I just invented for a rainy day. I’m totally going to have to write an essay here with the term “worldribbing”.

    kfix, my current feelings with the little amount of research I’ve done for later book chapters is that public arts funding has a role to play in getting stuff made but it would never be a serious solution. We wouldn’t want that to be the case either, as it creates a narrow gatekeeping mechanism.

    Right, now, I have some issues with “if you can’t interest people in paying money for your art”… because, well, there’s always someone interested in your art. The big excitement was that the internet would bring you the small audience that cared for your work, except that turned out to be bullshit – we got attention herding like as always. People who would have cared have been funnelled away to Breath of the Wild for half a year. And another problem: we’ve seen that the willingness to pay has drastically changed with the rise of free content and F2P practices. Our appetite for risk has seemingly collapsed. People are willing to rant about how a $4 game is ripping people off (I’m thinking Monument Valley here). That is way lower than the amounts we were paying for games – including crappy ones – in the main 20 years ago.

    So “If you can’t interest people in paying money for your art” ends up embedding a lot of assumptions, which is why I’m wary whenever presents a money/value equivalence.

    But, yeah… the real problem is how little we value failure. Failures fuel our cultural future. But to hear some people, failed works should have been strangled in the crib. Making failure costly directly impacts the enthusiasm to experiment. (Much has been said about what the lack of a medical safety net does to American creativity.)

    James, confession corner time. I actually meant to include a link to your kickstarter when it was running. I have a house rule not to promote kickstarters, but this was more like “one of prolific commenters is doing a thing”. But I just plain forgot, such is life right now…

  11. Ha, no worries, but I really appreciate that you even considered that. Promoting crowdfunding projects (especially Kickstarters) is always a bit fraught, and I knew you have a standing rule. 🙂

  12. There are so many things going on in this thread but I’ll pick the one that stuck out:

    “But to hear some people, failed works should have been strangled in the crib.”

    Absolutely. I do not understand that outlook at all. No game is perfect because nothing can be perfect. So I look at each game I play, and think “What does this game do really well, and where does it fall down?” And sometimes a game is just really well put together and I lose myself in it, and sometimes a game is janky and weird and it doesn’t click, but in either case I feel satisfied that I’ve learned something about design.

    To me, the only true failures are boring games that just copy designs from other, better games, or mix existing designs together without a creative vision. Sure, they work – you can play them and they have a sort of satisfying progression curve or whatever – but if they don’t add something interesting or novel to the mix then I really don’t care. I’d rather play one broken but interesting game than ten boring clones.

  13. The big excitement was that the internet would bring you the small audience that cared for your work, except that turned out to be bullshit – we got attention herding like as always.

    I’m not sure how much quantitative research you’re planning/hoping to do on questions like these, but I’d love to have some feel in numbers for how much the audience and their spending has changed in the last 20 years. It feels to me like there are many more games available now than there were 20 years ago, and that there is an incredible diversity of theme and structure that wasn’t there 20 years ago, and the internet must have had something to do with that change. But I didn’t really take part in the shareware culture on disk and BBS and whatnot so I don’t maybe appreciate how much that kind of thing has always been around.

    I assume that game makers are much like musicians – the vast majority do it for love and maybe a bit of beer money but need support (“real” job, parents, partners, group living etc) to live, some make it to the big time with the massive establishment infrastructure sweeping them up and swallowing them (and perhaps spitting them out after a time), and a few who are both extraordinarily lucky and sufficiently dedicated and talented “make” it at varying levels of independence. I would have thought that last category would have gotten bigger over time with the internet, but I’ll admit I have no actual idea.

  14. … we’ve seen that the willingness to pay has drastically changed with the rise of free content and F2P practices … People are willing to rant about how a $4 game is ripping people off …

    Another question (for which there may be no answer) – how much of this ranting is actually about the money (and therefore perhaps changed in response to F2P and the like) and how much is that awful gatekeeping horribleness where the thing they don’t like should not even exist and the people who made it are a threat to their identity?

  15. James

    I think in the same vein, I tend to be attracted to beautiful failures yet happy to scold obvious successes as they’re less likely to do impress. That’s not to say every AAA title is “riskless” due to how expensive they are, but I wonder how many of them will be notable for moving things forward.


    I’ve not got anything to cite other than there’s been obvious pressure on game pricing. One of the things I point out in the book IIRC, is that you can’t just take the public price because it’s just an illusion – most stuff goes at discount and that is the real price for the developer.

    I think there are more games around today but I could just say, in a facile way, of course that’s true because the number of games that exist is cumulative 🙂 We’re really talking about the rate of creation, games per second. The best we can do is look at the Steam catalog or the App Store but they’re not necessarily representative. Do you count crappy clones which are there just to catch lucky purchases? If Steam keeps changing its procedure for accepting developer submissions then, well, what does that tell us?

    And again, I don’t think the problem is necessarily the volume but the fact that so much of the output is visible at any moment. This is the backbone of the next chapter of the book: the visible range was very small and a lot of the free games were limited to user groups and pirate networks. Channels existed but they were not universal.

    “How much of this ranting is about the money?” On my mind was this post from Terence Eden who is a tech blogger, and was also behind that Twitter CYOA. I’ve met Terence in real life at an IT conference, so I can tell you he is a reasonable guy, like we all are around these here parts. But Terence is zeroing in on the fact that Monument Valley is like an hour long. Comparisons are difficult. The expensive games we played in the pioneer years kept our attention because, most of the time, they were so dreadful and forced horrific repetition on us.

  16. Joel:

    “I don’t think the problem is necessarily the volume but the fact that so much of the output is visible at any moment.”

    This, I think, is a big problem with games right now that might actually not be impossible to fix? I read an article a while back on RPS about how the problem isn’t that there are too many games, it’s that we still mostly have big sites that try to cover everything. The idea of small sites that only cover, say, strategy games or walking simulators or LGBTQ+ games is still quite niche, but I think it might help to split up the market into more manageable chunks of people, and then that means there are more channels where devs can reach consumers rather than fighting over the same bottlenecks.

    Having said that, I also think there are 2 reasons I’m wrong about that. (I guess I just like arguing with myself.)

    1) I can think of 2 examples of that kind of site which had everything going for them and failed. One was sneakybastards, the excellently named stealth game blog. It had quality content. I think they went into the business of MAKING games rather than talking about them and I never heard about them (though they did get in touch to say they were relaunching the site so maybe?) The other is Offworld, which was GREAT, but apparently didn’t have the LGBTQ+/diversity audience needed to sustain it, despite having quality articles from brilliant writers. So maybe the money/attention just isn’t there for these blogs, even though we do actually need them from an ecological standpoint.

    Also, the one super successful example of this is, but maybe the only reason it’s so successful now is that indie has become so broad that it’s just become another super broad channel? Maybe, since indie gaming became such a vague term, there would always have been a place in the system for an indie game site, and just happened to slot into that?

    2) Do consumers even get most of their recommendations from news sites any more? I do, but I’m not typical. When I did my Kickstarter I got a write up on indiegames and thought “Wow, I’m set!” It got me about 5 sales. When splattercat streamed my game, it gave me roughly an extra two hundred sales per day. :O

    Point being, I thought I understood channels and marketing and all that. I did not, and still do not, but maybe game blogs are a fun thing that’s hanging around because we kind of like them but are economically not that significant?

    So now I’ve concluded an argument, which I started, against myself, and I haven’t moved the discussion forward. I guess this is the comment equivalent of tripping over your own shoelaces? XD

  17. Wow. That Terrence Eden post is… yeah.

    The line that defines it for me is “They don’t care that proper sound design is expensive.” I mean, that’s just not an argument that a game is overpriced. Thanks for pointing me to that.

  18. That Terrence Eden post seems like a good pretext for an overlapping series of rants, one of which will connect back to the newsletter in unsuspected ways!

    OK, the first is that I dispute his math. He says Monument Valley a bit derivative of Fez, and complains it’s not much value for money at one hour playtime. But if you consider that you get to spend like one hour playing Monument Valley and like twenty-five hours not playing Fez, it works out to a much better rate!

  19. James

    Hmm, but I think you’re pulling at the original hope of the internet as providing silos of attention turning out to be too much hard work for everybody. Few people want to “curate” and end up plumping for bigger sites which give them a feed that feels like the world of everything. People think they want choice, but they don’t want the perfect choice – a selection from infinity – they want to be able to execute a choice perfectly because that’s what your brain is looking for. That means some artificial filters that you convince yourself is actually everything. This applies not just how you seek out video games but how you seek what outlets to follow. There’s a massive range of magazine sites – how the heck are you going to spend time figuring out what is good? Infinite choice is no choice.

    Yeah I think streaming is the rage at the moment in terms what gets you hits. YouTube still does the business I think, but Punch Club’s success set the precedent to say that YouTube was dead for marketing already.

    My feeling is that traditional press are no longer effective enough to get people buying a game but it does get the word out there. It’s not enough to start the fire, but it lays down the tinder.


    If I’m going to take it back to the book, and this whole conversation is very book, prices are what people are willing to pay. In the end, if those prices are not enough to keep a developer in business, those games will not be made, at least on a purely business footing.

    From my helicopter view, arguing for the monetary value of game is a trap, although I think developers are entitled to set whatever they like and justify that too. But after decades of trying to turn every single creative endeavour into branded products, no one really cares how expensive any of it was to make.


    I would have replied to this sooner but I had to ponder a bit on James’ comment, but all I wanted to say was your comment gave me a chuckle.

  20. I feel bad about having left that bit of snark about Fez as the only thing I say here, so: One of the overlapping rants, with more nuanced commentary about Fez, can be found here. (Another can be found in comments to “Alone and Beyond Help.” Future Archivists: Search Electron Dance for that post!)

    The other thing I wanted to say is, and I hope and trust Phil Fish is not reading this and hope but don’t really trust that he’s happy somewhere not thinking about games, but part of what makes me bounce off Fez is the shall we say abrasive public image of Phil Fish, Talker About Game Things, which we all got to experience before we got to experience the game itself. It’s not good for me to be prejudiced against a game in that way but it does happen.

    But one of the ways Fish was abrasive was his over-the-top attitude toward gamers, the worst fucking people he said. He sure seemed like one of the [Godwin’s law violation] from your newsletter! Except, as he learned to his chagrin, he was more right than we could possibly have imagined!

    [That was the unexpected connection back to the newsletter, BTW. All future rants guaranteed 99.34% off-topic.]

  21. Matt, I also have problems sometimes if I find out a developer is not-my-kind-of-person. Art should stand alone and all that, but indie branding is all about the personality these days, you can’t help but ‘know’ them. And even if you don’t care to follow their cat pictures, it will be all over the news one day when they talked shit to a cat. It’s the downside of being an hobbyist games journalist, there’s no avoiding the news.

  22. Reacting to your comment as I read it:
    “I also have problems sometimes if I find out a developer is not-my-kind-of-person”
    …and I feel like my thing was even pettier than that. Why should I be annoyed by Phil Fish? He doesn’t affect me at all. If I let my annoyance at him sap my enjoyment of his game, am I not just hurting myself? The thing you said in the other thread about the huge game full of secrets sounds really appealing to me!
    “it will be all over the news one day when they talked shit to a cat”

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