Kill Your Sacred Cows

A long long time ago, I used to like Zelda, Okami, and Mad World, among others. I thought they were good games, and I never really questioned it. I remember before I played Ocarina of Time how much everyone said it was the best game of all time. There were memes back then of the OOT box, with a warning label, “Warning: Playing this game will make every game you play following this a slight disappointment.” I played OoT and somewhere at the back of my head thought, “huh, it’s not the greatest game I’ve ever played”, but I completed it, and all the sidequests, and never looked back.

I never really questioned liking the Zelda games until Tevis Thompson’s essay, “Saving Zelda” released in 2012. Dark Souls and Zelda: Skyward Sword had released around the same time the previous year, and I came home from college and played them both over winter break, jumping back and forth between them. I was completely on the hype train for Skyward Sword. I’d played a demo of it at New York Comic Con. I pirated that demo shortly before release, and I was hyped to see motion controls finally get their moment in the sun after being disappointed with how Twilight Princess used waggling as a substitute for the sword button. Despite that, with the actual game in my hands, I found myself playing a lot more of Dark Souls and I didn’t really know why.

Then “Saving Zelda” dropped a couple months later, and I read it, thinking, “This is ridiculous, Zelda’s a great series. Everyone loves Zelda. Skyward Sword is amazing”, but it planted the seed of doubt.

I played more Skyward Sword, and saw more and more of what Tevis was talking about. And I’d had the same experience he did with his comparison to Demon’s Souls. I had beaten Demon’s Souls and loved it, and I was playing Dark Souls directly next to this overhyped Zelda game, and at some point I realized, “Oh wait, the entire time I’ve been playing this game, I wasn’t actually having fun.” I was bored, waiting through mini-cutscenes, excessive dialogue, the reminders that my battery was low. The combat was rote and not very thoughtful, unlike the better game I was playing beside it. The Wii Motion+ was not calibrated very well at all. The game was a dull slog which consisted entirely of doing exactly whatever was laid in front of me, which was *entirely* Nuzzles, especially since the new motion+ combat meant that even combat was now a Nuzzle.

Around this time, I was also getting involved with the dregs of the Icyclam community. It’s worth nothing that Icyclam is a criminal and a megalomaniac who shouldn’t be bothered with, but his community, and the dregs surrounding it (which are more sane than his direct circle, but still share his core values), tend to have pretty good taste in games, and I ended up playing a ton of old and obscure games I otherwise wouldn’t have if I didn’t take their suggestions. I’d considered the idea of starting a youtube channel, or games criticism site with friends because I felt like game reviews didn’t have their priorities straight (I thought Gamespot’s Twilight Princess 8.8/10 score was a crime against a masterpiece).

I had always heard, “gameplay is the most important part of a game” as like, a truism, and I joined the Icyclam spinoff community I did because I thought they’d be the hardcore community of gameplay enthusiasts I was looking for, instead of just believing in Icyclam’s same immersion ideology that I abhorred. I wanted to find people who took gameplay seriously, and I found a community of people who liked difficult, complex games, while seeming to reject Icyclam’s fanaticism. I ended up disappointed as I eventually realized that no, they hated glitches, they loved fancy graphics, and they didn’t really care about gameplay that much, just whether a game was hard or not (and they rationalized that masocore games weren’t “really” hard, to avoid the obvious contradiction of a hard game that was bad).

And being in that community, I ended up constantly arguing that no, graphics aren’t really that important, and I had it pointed out, “Well don’t you like Mad World and Okami? Those are pretty, but the gameplay isn’t actually that good.” And oh shit, he’s right. I had just like, assumed these games are good and I liked them even though I could reflect on them and remember how I was bored the entire time I was playing them. They’re made by a company with a good pedigree. They both have gorgeous unique art styles, unlike anything else before or since. They both have a lot of content and mechanics and seem like they should be interesting. And in practice, they’re both actually boring and I had cognitive dissonance about liking them. So from that day on, I stopped attempting to defend games I wasn’t confident about, and I stopped regarding games favorably based on their prestige among other people or the prestige of the company that produced them.

And of course, I’ve looked back on a lot of games this way. Some games I’ve bounced off of without realizing why, before I ultimately concluded that they’re not very fun, like Majora’s Mask or Planescape Torment. Did I actually enjoy the moment-to-moment of them? Not really.

And I feel like if I did this type of self-deception so commonly before (played games that bored me and said I liked them because they seemed like they should be great) then wouldn’t this be common among other people? Have you ever convinced yourself you liked a game, ignoring the feeling of actually playing it?

7 thoughts on “Kill Your Sacred Cows

  1. Mason Spangler September 20, 2020 / 1:51 pm

    Okami was intended to be incredibly easy, you can still find challenge in speedrunning and 100% though (some of the stray beads are no joke). There’s no reason why that is a ‘worse’ way to design a game, compared to old-school, arcade “kick em off the machine if they suck too bad”-mentality – they’re both valid, no?

    Just bouncing off this idea that Okami has bad gameplay. Kinda seems like another ‘self-deception’ you might end up reflecting on in some later article – just because a game has lots of cutscenes, dialogue, running around, simple combat and ‘waggle controls’, does not make it a write-off.

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    • Spencer Hammersten September 22, 2020 / 1:04 am

      “Okami was intended to be incredibly easy” – that’s kind of what makes it a bad game. Games that lack challenge and allow any strategy to succeed run a severe risk of becoming boring as a result. It all comes down to depth, and making sure that your game emphasizes that depth properly. Chris actually wrote a full article on why Depth is so important

      https://critpoints.net/2020/05/23/why-the-hell-does-depth-matter/

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      • Mason Spangler September 22, 2020 / 8:45 am

        Any strategy succeeds, but some succeed better than others. What you’re talking about is how ‘punishing’ the game is, not how deep it is. Okami wasn’t made to be easy out of laziness, it’s a thematic choice. Gameplay elements that would challenge experienced gamers were designed to be optional, while any dumb kid can still experience the story and have some fun, challenging experiences for their lower skill level.

        I can appreciate that maybe you’d rather the game boot you out when you start playing carelessly, or if they lined up the perfect challenges for your particular skill level one after another. But instead, you have to try and set your own challenges, and the only punishment for failure is similarly self-imposed (i.e. “aw man I suck”).

        Can only say that makes a ‘bad game’ if you think that every ‘good game’ is required to spoon-feed our emotional state to us. They’re just different.

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    • Chris Wagar September 22, 2020 / 1:56 am

      “Okami was intended to be incredibly easy, you can still find challenge in speedrunning and 100% though (some of the stray beads are no joke).”
      Yeah, but I tend to review the “canonical” experience of a game (the version of the game most people play), rather than the alternative rulesets people come up with. That and I don’t think Okami has a terrifically interesting speedrun.

      Maybe a few of the stray beads are tough, but that’s not enough to overturn a mostly mediocre game.

      I’m not necessarily looking for a hard game, but a deep one, and I don’t feel like Okami has really deep mechanics. A lot of your attacks and paintbrush moves don’t have any type of modulation to them, they just do the 1 function assigned to them. They’re like pressing [interact] on an object, rather than something that dynamically mutates state. Trying to overlap multiple enemies with the slash paint attack is kind of interesting, but it’s really not much.

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      • Mason Spangler September 22, 2020 / 8:48 am

        Good points. Will just add that casually speedrunning Okami is heavily implied to be the ‘canonical’ experience for experienced gamers looking for a challenge. Emphasis on casually, because glitches don’t always make speedruns better.

        Agree entirely with your last paragraph tho, ‘mediocre’ resonates with me a lot more than ‘bad’

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        • Chris Wagar September 22, 2020 / 9:02 am

          I would say that Okami’s glitches make the run better, but they’re still really boring glitches from a really boring run. I don’t understand how Okami speedruns are encouraged in-game.

          Okami is about the same level as a 3d Zelda game, none of which I’d give as high as a 5/10. I think it qualifies as bad.

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          • Mason Spangler September 22, 2020 / 9:13 am

            Game records your time across the whole playthrough (pretty standard, admittedly), and for each individual battle (less common). The game has several explicit ‘races’ that obviously test your speed.
            Most importantly though: the way that building and maintaining speed works was clearly built with the understanding that people would be speedrunning, figuring out how to maintain max speed for as long as possible IS 90% of the Okami run, and it’s a challenge that ‘dynamically mutates’ with the level layout.

            Watching someone else’s solved speedrun isn’t what I’m talking about either, mind you. The fun would be had in competing against yourself and uncovering new optimal paths, not following some pre-established script of inputs that the community has already set in stone. I know you appreciate bullet-hell games, so you can surely understand the value of self-imposed challenge.

            No one gets into bullet-hell games by playing 100% casually with no intent to get better, nor by looking up the highest score and trying to match the replay’s movements perfectly. The fun is in the process of discovery.

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