I just finished playing Paper Mario on the Wii. I certainly had fun with it–I mean, I don’t feel compelled to finish many games. Few games offer sufficient rewards to justify the time and energy required. But something about Paper Mario kept me playing.
It certainly wasn’t the depth of the gameplay or the story. It wasn’t the opportunities for self-expression through play. It wasn’t the opportunity to test behaviors and see the consequences of different choices in a believably simulated gameworld. And the challenges in the game fall under the category “Guess What the Designer Had in Mind.”
The pleasures of Paper Mario were completely different from the pleasures I want my own games to offer players. In other words, Paper Mario embodies almost nothing I think is important or interesting about games. It’s a linear, Pavlovian, utterly diverting yet ultimately empty experience–a way to pass (for me) 25 hours. Frankly, though I guess I’d have to recommend the game as a “fun experience,” I’d also have to say I have absolutely no interest in making a game like it.
Frankly, I find myself in that position a lot–obsessively playing and, yes, enjoying, games I’d be, basically, ashamed to have made. What’s up with that?
The Hypocrisy Conversation
You wouldn’t believe how many times my friends–yes, my friends!–and colleagues give me grief about why I’m such a hypocrite when it comes to the games I like to play versus the games I like to make. (Good thing I have a thick skin!)
The conversation usually starts with someone saying something like this: “You’re a total Legend of Zelda freak, Warren. You’re always obsessed with some puzzle game or other. And aren’t you the guy who loves stuff like Diablo? How come you don’t make games anything like the stuff you seem to enjoy playing the most?”
Well, I have to cop to the truth behind the question.
I am a Zelda goober and have been since the SNES days. (Somehow I missed the NES games when they came out–or maybe I was just more of a PC snob back then–but now that we have the Virtual Console I plan on getting caught up). I do find myself obsessing about puzzle games. And Blizzard’s stuff always gets my shorts in a knot, keeping me up way too late, way too many nights (well, up until WoW, which captivated me for a while but then lost me, the way ALL MMO’s lose me–a topic for another time…)
So it’s a fair question, why DON’T I make games like that? Why do I spend so much time playing and ranting about stuff that doesn’t give players much to think about or much control over their experience? Why do I love games with no story at all? Why do I spend hours and hours staring at a screen until my eyes bleed trying to figure out how to beat some boss monster in some dungeon in some fundamentally silly game that’s nothing more than a way to pass some time? And why oh why did I spend all that time fighting some dude named O’Chunks?…
Well, for starters, let’s be clear about one thing: I do play plenty of games that are more like the stuff I like to make–it’s just that there’s precious little of it out there. Look at the options available:
- The Irrational Games guys seem to be on the same page I am (or, at least, they’re working from the same playbook). That gives me a game to play every couple of years.
- Valve’s stuff is kind of a second or third cousin to the Origin/Looking Glass/Ion Storm/Junction Point games, but that’s not really very similar–they’re kind of the ultimate rollercoaster rides (though they hide the rails pretty well). And even if Half Life and Deus Ex offered identical play experiences, that’d still mean a game every–what?–five years or so?…
- Bethesda’s stuff is sorta kinda close, too (though their stories seem less focused and their simulations broader and shallower than I’d like, personally)…
- Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic had some of the qualities I enjoy in the games I work on. And Lionhead’s Fable felt kind of like my kind of game, too. (Having said that, both of them took a binary, Good/Evil–er, I mean, Light Side/Dark Side–approach that made the games less interesting to me than they might have been with a more nuanced approach.)
- Ubi’s Splinter Cell games are pretty Thief-like (though there’s something about the animation and the responsiveness of the controls that bugs me, but I’ve never been able to put my finger on exactly what that something is…).
- And there’s the GTA series, of course (though I think I’ve said quite enough already regarding my feelings about their content, as distinct from their gameplay–I’m not going back there, thank you very much!)
That’s about it, really. There just aren’t a lot of people making the kind of game I like to make. If I want to play games at all, I’m inevitably going to have to play a ton of games that are nothing like the games I make.
And, despite the similarities between those few games I’ve mentioned above and the Ultima/Underworld/System Shock/Thief/Deus Ex games I’ve worked on, they’re not really as close as you might think–the differences I’ve noted, parenthetically, above are just the tip of the iceberg. Frankly, when I do find a game I could have made, or would like to have made, I spend too much time being annoyed by the countless details that were executed differently than I would have executed them. It’s way easier to play something completely different so the competitive juices don’t get flowing!
Beyond that, though, there are a couple of other factors at work. For one thing, I’ve never said every game should be an Ultima or a Deus Ex. There’s plenty of room for games that offer nothing more than a pleasant way to pass some time. I don’t always want to be thinking about everything I do and the consequences of every choice. Sometimes I just want to be diverted for a while. And games like Zelda, Paper Mario, Bounceout, Jewel Quest, Bubblet and Alchemy are certainly diverting!
And beyond that, there’s the simple fact that I don’t think I’d be very good at making games like Paper Mario. I mean, puzzles just aren’t my thing, from a creative standpoint–my mind doesn’t work that way. There’s no way I could execute a puzzle game or a platformer or a linear story game as effectively as the people who’ve been doing it forever, probably because they feel as passionately about those games as I do about my own. I can play games like Paper Mario all day (and night) long–my lovely wife, Caroline, will vouch for that!–but I can’t imagine sitting down and trying to design one.
And that painful realization–that I could never make a “Miyamoto game” or a “Blizzard game” or a “Valve game” or a Popcap game, even if I wanted to–got me thinking about where the creative process starts for me, and why I make the games I make. That’s what I want to talk about in my next blog entry. So check back in a week for more on this topic.