Is Rock Band a Drug or Food?

Seth, Chris, and Stephen,

I’ve still got too many games left to play—among them Super Mario Galaxy and Crysis, along with much of Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty 4, Mass Effect, and Uncharted—to put up my definitive Best Games of 2007 list, as Stephen has done on his blog. Still, until just before Thanksgiving, Desktop Tower Defense was my high watermark. Stephen introduced me to DTD at the end of our August exchange on short-session games, and I was immediately hooked. (For those who don’t know, Stephen and I do a regular gaming dialogue on and called Vs. Mode.) Desktop Tower Defense was all I could think about for a month, and I had to go cold turkey before it began to decimate my life. (I’m not sure whether game designer Jonathan Blow would consider that fast food or fine dining, but I’ll get to him a bit later.) Even though I hadn’t quite articulated it to myself in the form of, “This is my Game of the Year,” I had already sensed that my obsessive response to Desktop Tower Defense made it singular among the games I’d played in 2007.

The other two games in contention for my top pick were Queasy Games’ music-driven Everyday Shooter and Valve’s Portal. Then I found myself in Los Angeles for Thanksgiving when the friend I was staying with brought home Rock Band. For the rest of Thanksgiving week, we did little else but eat, sleep, and play Rock Band. I still wouldn’t have said that Rock Band was another Game of the Year candidate … until I got back to New York City and felt a gaping absence now that I was 3,000 miles away from my bandmates. Keep in mind that I go to Los Angeles fairly regularly, both for work and because one of my sisters lives there, and I’ve never, ever returned home and felt as though I missed my Westside crew. Now I did—terribly. Even though I had a copy of Rock Band waiting for me at the office, it just wasn’t the same. At the same time, I found myself wanting to practice, to get better at the drums and the guitar and vocals (no, I can’t really sing, but I can vocalize well enough for Rock Band), to learn where the Overdrive notes are located in various songs so that when my friend’s band, Manny Being Manny, finally reunites, we’ll be able to rock harder than ever. That’s when it dawned on me that Desktop Tower Defense had a legitimate rival, and here I sit, today, as yet unable to choose one over the other for my Game of the Year.

Is obsession a valid selection criterion? I’d say so. It’s certainly one that I apply to other art forms. Whether I’m thinking about my favorite song, album, movie, TV show, novel, or play, I generally pick the one that I’ve responded to the strongest, the one that I can’t stop thinking about. The challenge with games is that, as a relatively new art form, there isn’t the same critical vocabulary to explain why we respond as we do to a particular game. That’s part of the reason Stephen and I started Vs. Mode, to initiate a dialogue that goes beyond rating the premise, graphics, and gameplay on a 10-point scale. It’s the difference between a reviewer and a critic: A reviewer tells you whether something is worth your money or time; a critic helps you think about what you’ve spent your time and money on.

Speaking of critics: Chris, you cited some remarks that Blow made recently at the Montreal International Games Summit. Let’s separate Blow’s own words from those of Daniel Radosh, because as you’ll see later on, they contradict each other. Radosh’s critique of video games and their use of cutscenes, as expressed in his New York Times op-ed, is twofold. First, he says that video games have been too busy aping the language of film to develop a language of their own; second, he says that in order to, like cinema, “embrace the dynamics of failure, tragedy, comedy and romance,” game developers should look to the “deeper narratives” that were found in old text adventure games.

The first charge is untrue; the second, misguided. As I wrote in my most recent column in the U.K. gaming magazine Edge:

Radosh makes a fundamental error in assuming that the art in story-based videogames lies in their narratives. The function of a game is not to tell a story, but rather to simulate an experience in which narrative elements are merely a single element. Halo 3 is more akin to the combat sequences in Saving Private Ryan, except rather than watch Tom Hanks or Tom Sizemore make the moment-to-moment decisions, we get to experience an abstraction of combat wherein we can make those moment-to-moment decisions ourselves. That’s where Halo 3’s art resides. … It’s also mistaken to assert that game designers have relied on the language of cinema rather than invent one of their own. After all, what are health bars, pickups, powerups, ammo counters, damage indicators and inventory screens if not an iconographic language? But, unlike the visual language of cinema, it’s there to support our agency rather than tell us a story.

Both movies and video games are built around conflict. The difference is that in games, you don’t observe the conflict, you play it. Halo 3 could certainly stand to tell its story better. But as a combat-focused game, I don’t know that it would benefit from more narrative depth; after all, the lingua franca of video games is simulation and gameplay, not story. If Bungie were to follow Radosh’s suggestion, they would have made Mass Effect instead of Halo 3. And, personally, I struggle to focus on a story when it’s delivered through piecemeal conversations. I found it somewhat challenging to piece together the story elements in BioShock—delivered largely in the form of recorded monologues, much like a radio play, into a cohesive whole. I don’t know what Radosh would think of Portal, but I thought its stripped-down approach to narrative made it both easier to understand and more powerfully mysterious than BioShock. You have to use your imagination to fill in the blanks with Portal, whereas with Mass Effect or BioShock, you’re looking for breadcrumbs of plot. I think the former is a better way to go. Blow clearly prefers Portal to BioShock, Chris. Why didn’t you?

Even though Blow cites Radosh at the beginning of his remarks, his critique is both different and more profound. Unlike Radosh, he’s not arguing for the primacy of story. In fact, Blow cites story elements as one of the many scheduled rewards—like collectibles, unlockables, and achievements—that are thrown into games to hook the player without any concern for whether they’re meaningful. Right before the PowerPoint slide where he equates World of Warcraft with Joe Camel and McDonald’s—Seth, maybe you and Morgan Spurlock should team up on a new documentary: Super-Grind Me—Blow puts up a series of slides, stating:

Rewards can be like food (naturally beneficial) or like drugs (artificial stimuli).We overuse the drugs, because we don’t understand food.In pursuing ever-more players, the game industry exploits them in an unethical way.We don’t see it as unethical because we refuse to stop and think about what we are doing.

Stephen, you said that you wanted Blow to be a guiding light for this exchange. So, which categories do our various Games of the Year fall into: drugs or food? Two of my top six choices thus far—Portal and Everyday Shooter—are already Blow-approved. Halo 3 and BioShock? Not so much. (He calls both games out by name, the latter pretty forcefully, because of the multiple ways in which the values of its gameplay conflict with the values of its story.) Would Desktop Tower Defense and Rock Band make the cut? I’m not sure—I suspect that Blow might be worried about the way that both games tapped into my obsessive streak.

I’ll close in the Blowish (Blowesque? Blovian?) tradition of assumption-questioning by asking you, Stephen, what you meant when you asked, “Has the medium produced a Citizen Kane or a Schindler’s List or even a Jaws? Maybe not. Maybe never. But it sure has created its own basketballs, footballs, and baseballs.” Would you ask whether literature had produced a Guernica, or whether photography had produced an Oedipus Rex, or whether film had produced a Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde? What’s with this urge that many people have to compare games to other media—particularly movies—and find them wanting on those other media’s terms? (Are we all Roger Ebert now?) For instance, I know that the Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is your favorite game of all time. Mightn’t that be whatever you imagine the Citizen Kane of games to be? Or to use your sports analogy, is it simply fencing mixed with equestrianism and archery?

I’m passing the mic to you, Seth. Tell Stephen why Blizzard’s WoW expansion pack, the Burning Crusade, is to World of Warcraft as The Magnificent Ambersons is to Citizen Kane.