Why Are Developers Proud That Their Games Have Nothing To Say?
Have you ever wondered why developers will so often proudly proclaim that their games have nothing to say?
Ever wondered why it’s so common for developers to say that they don’t want to make any statements or communicate any message? Why it’s always ‘up to the player to decide’?
“When developers claim they have nothing to say, when they claim they are designing to maximise entertainment, they usually mean two things,” Molleindustria’s Paolo Pedercini told NowGamer.
“One: they are basing their design on established tropes and genre they perceive as neutral, for example a platformer with collectibles, obstacles and enemies or a princess in distress narrative device.
“Two: they are designing according to common sense and dominant values and notions, for example: countries need to build up armies to expand and conquer, there are good guys and bad guys (usually foreign) and so on,” Pedercini continued.
“Any cultural object produces some kind of meaning by virtue of being out there in public.”
“In other words, if you are not saying anything against the dominant system of values, chances are that you are making an artifact that reinforces such ideology.”
Games With A Message – The Benefits Of Being Vague
It’s very easy to say that your game is non-committal and neutral – much easier, in fact, than going out on a limb and trying to address a subject that you might garner criticism from those who don’t like what you’re saying.
It’s also easy to see why publishers would value their games being ‘neutral’. It helps to avoid isolating any potential markets and, to a degree, insulates the game from criticism.
As Pedercini suggests, however, the fact that a game is presented as being ideological neutral doesn’t necessarily mean it is.
Nevertheless, is there not a benefit to having games that are deliberately vague when it comes to matters of politics?
It could even be argued that the medium is better placed to explore ideas and concepts, rather than trying to force a particular message on players, because of it’s interactive nature.
“I’ve said almost this exact thing,” said Papers Please creator Lucas Pope, when asked about the commonality of the ‘our game isn’t trying to make any statements’ phrase that you often hear from game developers.
“For me, politics is such a fleeting and personal thing that making a game about any specific political topic would be dated and uninteresting very quickly.
“Papers Please is a game about a lot of different topics, and it’s possible to see it in different ways,” Pope explained.
“If you hate the NSA and care most about personal freedoms and privacy, it can be seen as a scathing indictment of how citizens are treated in the name of security.
“If you’re afraid of terrorists or care most about personal safety then it can come across as a righteous defense from enemy threat,” Pope continued.
“I easily could’ve framed the game as clearly pro-security or pro-rights, but that would’ve been a lot less interesting for me.”
‘Don’t Forget That You’re Making A Game’
Pope argues that, in fact, expressly setting out to communicate a particular message can be to the detriment of the game, suggesting that it is vital not to lose focus on the importance of game mechanics.
“A common element of many politically-themed games is putting the message before the gameplay. I think games are a really powerful way to communicate but getting the gameplay right is critical.”
“If I was writing a book or filming a movie things would be different. With this game, my focus from the beginning was on trying to make something entertaining to play,” Pope continued.
Gone Home developer Steve Gaynor concurs that it’s important to be mindful of the fact that you’re making a game, but says that there is no reason why a developer can’t make a videogame polemic.
“You can still very much make a ‘message’ game even if it’s a purely systemic set of interactions,” said Gaynor.
“When, as a player, you interact with a system you are gaining knowledge of how it works, so you could make any kind of, for instance, political statement about how a real world system works by designing it in such a way that it conveys to the player, abstractly, ‘the political system in this country is corrupt because I tried to play this game and I can only win by bribing people’, or whatever.
“There are probably more barriers to expressing a message through a very specific crafted sequence of images and events,” Gaynor continued, “because it’s interactive and therefore variability is higher.
“If you just want to put a very specific sequence of events in front of somebody, a book or movie is probably better for that.”
Why Good Vs Bad Moral Systems Don’t Work
The problem that games often face is that attempts to imbue the player’s actions with some kind of meaning that can be interpreted in the context of the game’s overall ‘message’ come off as ham-fisted.
That’s no better example than the binary good vs. bad moral systems that we’ve seen implemented in many games over the years.
Is there a way of having a system that tells the player whether the choices they make are ‘correct’ without having it come off as childishly simplistic?
“I don’t think so,” said Perercini, “but we are so used to win/lose outcomes in games that it’s easy to fall into simplistic choices.”
“One of the biggest issues when making socially engaged games is how to not prescribe solutions to real world problems.”
“In a videogame it’s easy to represent a scenario as a puzzle: if you take certain actions you can solve the conflict in Palestine or global warming… I don’t think that’s the right way because that’s simply not how the world works.”
Leaving the act of interpretation to happen outside the game, in the players mind, may always be the best approach, then, regardless of what a developer may be trying to achieve with their game.
Gaynor is certainly of that opinion.
“I think the decision that is, ‘okay, this guy was a asshole to you and now he is at your mercy – are you going to kill him or not’, is much more interesting if you have the ability to make that decision and the game does not tell you what it means, as opposed to, ‘oh, that’s 50 evil points’.
“I don’t think that the moral binaries themselves are necessarily invalid,” Gaynor continued, “but taking a step back as the designer and trusting the player to make their own decision as to what the meaning of that act is I think probably has more relevance to the experience”.
Should Videogames Have More To Say?
There is undoubtedly value in using videogames to explore political, cultural and social issues, without any particular agenda in mind, and while leaving the act of interpretation to the players.
However, while there are interesting games in that mould, there’s often something tedious about games that are ideologically ‘neutral’.
Would it not be more interesting if there were more developers who were prepared to go out on a limb? More videogames that tried to challenge our beliefs are preconceptions rather than limply acquiescing to the political proclivities of whoever happens to be playing at that moment?
We think so.
After all, if you’ve got nothing to say, why bother saying anything at all?