Silliness is gaming's best feature and one of its big limitations

"I have just smashed a dragon in the face with a church. In space"

That was how I responded a couple of years ago when a friend e-mailed to ask if Bayonetta was as good as it looked. She immediately understood what I meant. Because in gaming we can have conversations like that. We can matter-of-factly throw out such abstract descriptions of ludicrous events and know that, if our audience is savvy enough with game genre, they’ll immediately recognise it as naught but the highest plaudit. See also instances of chainsawing through the guts of a giant worm in Gears of War 2, or kicking a rocket-powered masonry drill up a boss’ arse in Bulletstorm.

I love that about games. They’re a medium utterly unique in the way that they can be flagrantly silly on the most extravagant levels while also remaining utterly cohesive as narrative experiences and mechanical structures. I think it stems from their origin as context-free playthings. Back in the days when the average game looked (and sounded) like the nappy contents of an unattended baby eating Lego, story was just there to add basic context to the act of manipulating the graphics. The blue blob? He’s a space ranger. The red blob? An alien. And that was fine. Games were formed of the basic interactions that developers could create. Everything else came afterwards.

Thus, story was a secondary consideration. Game design teams didn’t attract aspiring Nobel lit. prize winners, because they were a ridiculous medium to try to write for. Gameplay remained the dominant driving force of their content, and story remained a silly sideline. And over several decades, that seems to have developed into a culture of playful silliness in even the most serious of games.

Thus, a game like Bayonetta can contain serious moments of pathos, including one Hell of an existential downer towards the end, and not have any of it clash with its angel-punching, pole-dancing disco excesses. One of the most critically lauded, philosophically concerned action games of 2013 can seamlessly task you with fighting clockwork Terminators dressed like George Washington. Grand Theft Auto can tell a thoughtful parable of modern disaffection and the search for purpose via the medium of stoned hallucinations, geriatric celebrity stalkers and using the inside of planes as runways for smaller planes.

And that’s great. It makes games a richer, more dynamic experience, and it provides a stimulating, refreshing narrative tone that you just won’t find in any other medium. Because in any other media you just couldn’t make this stuff hold together. There’s an accepted unreality to the necessary game mechanics underpinning any video game--all regenerative healthy, 20 foot jumps, super-powered combat and gigantic guns with no respect for the laws of physics--that adds an implicit, abstract unreality to the game’s world as a whole; a sense that normal rules do not apply, so anything goes. That’s the reason that most video game movies fail to satisfy. You just can’t do most games in live action without them appearing ludicrous outside of their own context.

But as great as all of this is, I lately can’t help wondering if it’s hindering games’ perception as a medium out in the wider world. Speaking to Rock, Paper, Shotgun this year, journalist and games advocate Charlie Brooker hit the problem on the head.

"My theory is that video games are like speaking Esperanto. Video game players are like people who learnt Esperanto years ago. We all learnt Esperanto. And there’s all these brilliant Esperanto-language films available, to use a metaphor. They only make sense if you know Esperanto, they don’t have subtitles – but they’re brilliant. And we keep telling people how good they are. But there’s this learning curve which is that you have to learn fucking Esperanto. Because you only have to sit down with someone who doesn’t play video games to understand how high the bar to entry still is" 

Brooker was ostensibly talking about the internal rules of gameplay mechanics, but I think his sentiments can also be applied to the rules of game worlds and their narratives. While I’ve spent the first part of this article espousing the delights of gaming’s silliness and the openness with which we can discuss it, the key part of that second paragraph at the top of the page is the phrase "if our audience is savvy enough with game genre". Because I feel that games have becomes so much a product of their own unique workings that those workings are perhaps a little impenetrable to those who are becoming intrigued by games as an increasingly prominent medium.

After all, with the mechanical interactions of games still the highest barrier of entry to non-gamers, story is the most powerful tool we have for hooking in newcomers. Narrative is a completely universal language. All human beings understand it. Storytelling is how people comprehend and make sense of the very world around us. Without applying an implicit narrative structure to things, the world is just a collection of stuff happening all over the place.

Some games have caught major mainstream interest and respect by leveraging that universality over the last year or so. The Walking Dead was a massive hit as a result of its focus on gritty, human interactions. Gone Home has been picking up accolades all over the place due to its grounded exploration of family drama. But ask more hardcore gaming advocates about the games that show our medium at its mature, creative best and they’ll throw out suggestions like Metal Gear Solid, Assassin’s Creed, and the recent work of David Cage.

For all of their aspirations in the fields of story and world building, the above games are also--intentionally or not--very silly indeed. Metal Gear blends heavy political discourse with poop jokes and scenes of the protagonist uncontrollably wanking. Assassin’s Creed tempers smart, oh-so-earnest alternative histories with ludicrously contrived, disjointed sci-fi conspiracies and apocalypse-touting holograms. Heavy Rain is tonally great, but has more plot holes than a justification for government spying processes, and a seriously juvenile attitude towards character nudity.

Maybe I’m worrying over nothing. Maybe the mass adoption of consoles over the course of this passing generation is going to see the game aesthetic understood and accepted in large enough numbers for a much diminished loss in translation over the next few years. In a generation or so, maybe the general populace will be game-literate enough that the confused dissenters will become a marginalised fringe group. But I’d rather they didn’t have to. The last thing I want is for games to lose their lunatic brilliance, but I also that hope next-gen developments bring more stories that aren’t flat-out bamboozling to the ‘normals’. I think that’s pretty important, and something we’ll all benefit from. 


  • KidKatana - November 8, 2013 2:24 a.m.

    I just completed Assassin's Creed 3 - cos I like to be ahead of the curve - and absolutely agree with you on this. The ancestor characters in that series are usually the engaging story - Ezio more so than the others, but even Connor and Altair were OK - but I thought they were building to something with the Desmond storyline. And then...just no. They were seriously trying to push that as an involving, adult story with an involving story arc, memorable characters and a satisfactory plot resolution?! It was abject nonsense.
  • taokaka - November 7, 2013 3:40 p.m.

    I too am an avid fan of media that's the product of one's unrestrained silly creativeness instead of something that's tied to reality. Although I was a tad confused towards the end because the message I got from this article was, creativeness in games is awesome but we should tone it down to help newcomers, is that the gist or have I misunderstood the purpose of the article? Also you kind of imply that video games are the only medium to embrace silliness while retaining coherence, are you not aware of the medium known as anime?
  • Pruman - November 7, 2013 11:35 a.m.

    My wife is a relative non-gamer, and thus provides me with a lovely foil for understanding how non-gamers think about things. She will happily watch me play Saints Row 4 for hours every night due to the sheer amount of ludicrous insanity going on at any given second, and loved watching Bayonetta for the same reason. Silliness is one of the best things about games, and reveling in it is one of their greatest pleasures. I generally try to avoid games that are realistic or "gritty" for the same reason I avoid movies and novels like that - all of these are forms of escapist entertainment, so why should the worlds I'm escaping to be like the one I'm trying to escape? I'd argue that if anything turns off non-gamers, it's gaming's approach to sex and sexuality, which I'd liken to that of a horny 13-year old who's just discovered that he likes girls.
  • Eightboll812 - November 7, 2013 12:23 p.m.

    Then why did she like watching you play Bayonetta?
  • Pruman - November 7, 2013 12:26 p.m.

    For the insanity. She found the nudity silly, but not offensive.
  • BladedFalcon - November 7, 2013 12:36 p.m.

    Because Bayonetta is actually way more weird and crazy, than it is sexualized. Something that becomes clear once you play the game.
  • Eightboll812 - November 7, 2013 1:28 p.m.

    I did briefly try it out, and it still seemed very sexualized. Yes weird and crazy too. I don't know how playing it more would make it seem less sexualized when you are constantly "rewarded" for your combos by seeing naked butts and stuff. I'll just take your word on that, ;-).
  • BladedFalcon - November 7, 2013 2:22 p.m.

    ...Because you are actually not rewarded with that? yes, that happens, but the camera never really zooms in to show you that in more depth, if it did, then yes, i'd get your point. Different strokes and such, but I'd say the reward comes in the form of the combat itself, i actually cared very little about bayonetta as a character, i simply loved the combat, how fluid and challenging it was, and how it constantly delivered new enemies that required different tactics to beat. But well, if you're not a fan of action games like these, I can see why you probably didn't see past the initial presentation.
  • garnsr - November 7, 2013 11:12 a.m.

    The part in GTA V where you talk to the dog, before the "extreme" side missions, is a good example of how games can toss in little things that aren't part of the main story, that a lot of people probably just passed anyway, that don't really fit in with the universe, but are interesting little additions. Non-gamers would say, "why do you understand that dog, that doesn't make sense," and in a movie it would throw off the universe. In a game, there's so much other stuff that sticks to the tracks, that little bits of weirdness don't throw you off. And I still object to people saying that Prince of Persia 2008 was anything other than a real game. Just because it didn't make you go way back in the level when you failed, then make you restart the level when you failed three times, is that wrong? Harping on games not continuing to follow arbitrary rules set up thirty years ago seems to be going against your desire for change in games, Mr. Houghton.
  • BladedFalcon - November 7, 2013 12:20 p.m.

    That wasn't the only problem the 2008 PoP game had though, many games nowadays have that kind of checkpoint system, that to me isn't the issue. The problem to me laid more in the fact that the platforming was way more streamlined, whereas in the past PoP games, part of the platforming challenge was to figure out what path to take and where to climb or swing to next, this new one clearly outlined it to you and it felt almost automatic. Likewise, while I wasn't a huge fan of the combat in the previous PoP games, at least it spiced it up a bit more by having you fight different and multiple enemies at one time. The fights in the new PoP, being always one on one, felt like they lacked variety, that, and since you couldn't really die, I felt no pressure to even try and learn a strategy to beat an enemy. Again, these criticisms aren't exclusive to this game though, Skyrim has these problems as well, so do many other games.
  • GR_DavidHoughton - November 8, 2013 2:40 a.m.

    What BladedFalcon said. The restart system in PoP2008 was the best bit, I was one of the first people praising it as a great, story-justified solution to checkpoints and the irrelevant old lives system (seriously, why does Mario still have those?). My two problems with PoP are that it took a game about well-planned and tightly executed platforming and made the platforming nigh-automatic, along straight-line, A-to-B paths that you could literally navigate with your eyes closed (I tried). Secondly, the open-world hub structure and ability to tackle the worlds in pretty much any order chosen demolished any hope of a difficulty curve, giving the whole thing a flat sense of progression. Good hangover game, but I couldn't enjoy it on any other level than that.
  • garnsr - November 8, 2013 8:21 a.m.

    I liked the game. It was the first one I'd played after Sands of Time, and I hated having to deal with Farrah getting slaughtered while I was trying to actually play, so I didn't mind less focus on combat in this one, and I'm more interested in going around a gameworld these days, rather than challenge, so your problems with it make some sense. All I ever heard people complain about is that you "never die," which is silly to me.
  • shawksta - November 7, 2013 11:11 a.m.

    Really interesting article David.
  • BladedFalcon - November 7, 2013 8:39 a.m.

    I agree with the the first part about how wonderful it is that games can be so damn silly and workers. But utterly disagree with the second part that we should tone it down or be concerned that people not into games could "get" it. Mainly because, as far as experience has taught us, every attempt that has been made to "ease" outsiders into our medium ends up being something that hurts gaming on varying degrees. The most notable example of course, is gimmicks like motion gaming. Which sure, they attracted a lot of people that had never touched games before... but only marginally, and once the novelty o motion gaming wore of, I am positive that the vast majority of those people haven't touched a game again. And in return, motion gaming for the most part, has crated more terrible games or annoying gimmick control than not, only really working in very select examples or dancing games. Then you have companies attempts in making a franchise "more accessible", and every-time this is said, it usually translate in making the franchise more dumbed down, less complex, and usually, less fun or losing part of the charm of what made it great in the first place. Look at the Dead Space franchise for one of the most recent examples of this. IMO, honestly, games should stop being concerned about appealing to others, and just focus on doing their own thing; Fuck, that's what the overwhelming majority of the games for the PS2 were, and lo and behold, that is the most successful gaming console to this day, it didn't concern itself with gimmicks, or "appealing to a wider audience" and yet it managed to draw in more people than ever before because it simply had a shitton of good and different games, and most of those were concerned with just being fun.
  • GR_DavidHoughton - November 7, 2013 9:01 a.m.

    I completely agree about this generation's obsession with accessibility and the nebulous 'wider audience'. Simply making hardcore games easier is not the way. Simplifying the controls of action games doesn't pull in people who don't find action games appealing, it just makes those games less appealing to the people who loved them for what they were. *cough*princeofpersia2008*cough* When I say we need more comprehensible narratives and game worlds, I mean in addition to the games we already have, not instead of them. Next-gen's openness to indie should allow a lot of those games to fill in the gaps between the kind of games we already enjoy, and hopefully make console gaming as a whole more appealing to a wider variety of people. If the PS4 has games like Metal Gear Solid and Gone Home sitting side by side in its online shop, then that's healthy for everyone.
  • BladedFalcon - November 7, 2013 9:15 a.m.

    Well, when put that way, then yeah, sure, I'm not against that. Just as long as that's what the developer really wants to do, and isn't just doing it to try and reach out to a wider audience. And I mean, I think that the best way to achieve this, is by just simply letting developers do the games they want to play? Like you said, Gone Home and The Walking Dead are steps int he right direction, yet I'm pretty sure neither game was made with the intention of reaching a wider audience, or make sense to non-gamers. Those games were made because it's something the developers were passionate about, and they just did it. IMO, the problem you present here could simply solve itself just by allowing more creating freedom to developers period. The more different experiences they are allowed to create, the more chances that games that have stories that HAPPEN to appealing to non-gamers would increase as a side effect, i think.
  • Vonter - November 7, 2013 12:23 p.m.

    Fun vs. Engagement is an issue developers and gamers have to juggle this gen of what they truly want in games. I think motion tried but failed to take the next step of making gaming fun, more or less what the oculus rift is promising now (making new ways to play). Presentation was what most advanced this gen, but I hope new gameplay ideas aren't stopped simply because one thing work and the other didn't. I just don't want deep storytelling in games I want also that developers keep making new ways to play.
  • BladedFalcon - November 7, 2013 12:33 p.m.

    Thing is, innovating for innovation's sake is dumb, and always ends up backfiring, both the creator suffer, and the customer hates it. I'm fine with people finding new ways to play AS LONG as it is with a legitimate purpose and they have a good, clear idea of what they want and how it'll improve gaming. Motion gaming was created more out of the idea of "look! this has never been done before! it'll blow people's minds" rather than "Man... my idea for this game is limited by the way games control today... maybe motion controls will solve this issue" If motion control really had been created with the second mindset, you'd see far more games that new what to do with motion controls, instead of seeing the overwhelming majority of titles having motion control clearly shoehorned in. So again, if you're going to do something new, do it with a clear purpose, don't just innovate for the fuck of it. Which, in all fairness, it DOES seem like the Oculus Rift has a much more clear idea of what it WANTS to do, so I respect that, as long as they can pull it off. Unlike you though, I'm more concerned with just raw quality, over innovation. I'm perfectly fine with games playing the same way they have been so far as long as they keep coming up with exciting new ideas to play within that scheme, or have better stories to tell, or just be weird and have fun. One should strive to do GOOD, not to do NEW.
  • Vonter - November 7, 2013 12:46 p.m.

    Ok I agree with everything except the last line. Since that implies one should not try doing new things, and that's bad in any medium. Mainly adding that new things are generally flawed, but people still like it either because of novelty or because it establishes things people hadn't considered before.
  • BladedFalcon - November 7, 2013 2:33 p.m.

    I wasn't implying that. I just meant that one should try doing new things preferably in order to IMPROVE something, not just doing it in order to be new or different.

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