Wow. N'Gai, Stephen, and I are beginning to sound notes of despair. Let me end—or begin the end of our conversation—on a note of hope. It has been an honor and a pleasure to participate in this Gaming Club, and I'm already looking forward to next year's, when we can discuss the merits of Spore, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Duke Nukem Forever. N'Gai, your contributions, along with those of Seth and Stephen, disprove your contention that the game critic is dead. And we're developing a lot more game critics—check out some of the comments in the Fray if you don't believe it. Which I suppose was your point in the first place.
Things I'll remember from this exchange: Stephen's prediction that games are becoming more nimble and responsive to the currents of the culture; Seth's reminder that games can foster camaraderie, and not just competition, among players and friends in online multiplayer titles as well as games like Rock Band; N'Gai's insistence on the singular virtues of offline games, in which an individual player can put himself in the hands of a gifted designer instead of entrusting "the limited amount of time I have for entertainment to amateurs instead of professionals."
And Stephen, I certainly think it's OK if you want to proclaim that you "beat" Moby Dick, or War and Peace, or The Brothers Karamazov. I'm going to start using this lingo all the time: I've almost beaten Robert Fagles' translation of The Iliad! (Though I kind of prefer the old-school term, conquered.) Take that, Fagles! I can't wait to conquer The Iliad 2.
I do have one lingering objection, Stephen: I hope that Wii Play does not become an Important Game that other companies copy. It's a fun enough little game, but its minigames don't have the exhilarating "virtual reality" feel of Wii Sports, a game in which you actually feel like you're playing tennis, golf, and bowling. I haven't touched a Wii title that's lived up to the promise of Wii Sports.
That said, you're right about the appeal of the Wii to nongamers. My 57-year-old father wants me to bring the Wii home for Christmas—last year he and my uncle were chastised for sneaking downstairs to try to squeeze in a round of golf. But to me, the Wii remains a system full of potential on which it hasn't really delivered. Even Super Mario Galaxy—again, a game I haven't played enough to render an opinion on—makes me wish, at least in its opening hour or so, that all of its creativity and inventiveness was applied to something more than "once again, Bowser kidnaps the princess so Mario must collect stars to save her." Even though that story evokes a warm feeling of nostalgia. Shigeru Miyamoto may be the Walt Disney of video games, but I'd like him to take a shot at an interesting and ambitious failure like Fantasia. Mario is more Mickey Mouse—an iconic figure who is nonetheless enigmatic and not all that interesting—than Dumbo.
My other fear with the Wii, expressed to me by a hard-core gaming friend of mine, is that its success will mean the end of one of the great deals in electronics: the way Sony and Microsoft sell their consoles to us for less than it cost to make them. The Wii proves the truism that graphics aren't everything. The 360 proves the truism that they're not irrelevant, either.
And now it's time to unveil the Gaming Club's Marshall McLuhan-in-Annie Hall moment, to answer Stephen's question about whether gameplay is overrated. I e-mailed Daniel Radosh earlier this week, after N'Gai critiqued his New York Times op-ed, which argued that games "need to stop pandering to the player's desire for mastery in favor of enhancing the player's emotional and intellectual life." I asked Radosh to jump into this exchange to tell the Gaming Club "you know nothing of my work." Here's what he wrote to us:
Hi all. Think of me as Atlas, joining you as a disembodied voice to pester you along your journey.
I just wanted to say that I think N'Gai slightly misunderstands my point about story. I wasn't asserting that it ought to be the only, or even primary, criteria on which games should be judged. As N'Gai himself seems to understand, when I wrote that "the games that come closest to achieving artistry tend to be non-narrative: manipulable abstractions of light and sound, whimsical virtual toys or puzzle adventures that subvert the gamer's sense of space, time and physics," it was precisely games like Portal, Katamari, and Rez that I had in mind.
All I meant was that games can tell stories, and that the ones that do attempt this have not yet found the best way to do it. As much as I loved BioShock, I thoroughly agree with the frustration about the "radio play" format. I'm merely a guy who plays games, not a designer or a professional critic, so I have no idea how to fix this problem; I just believe it ought to be possible to harness gameplay itself for the purpose of telling a capital-S Story (that is, not merely a narrative), and that this has not yet happened.
That said, after my op-ed came out, a game designer did post a comment on my blog about "progress gradients" that made me think that part of my premise may have been simply wrong—that my problem is not with the underlying mechanics of storytelling in games, but merely its execution.
So there you have it. My whole fallacy is wrong.
I'll leave you with this: If games don't one day have a Citizen Kane, I really hope they get an Annie Hall. And yes, a Guernica and an Oedipus Rex, too. And a Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
It was wonderful to be here. It's certainly a thrill. OK, Seth. Bring us home.
The cake is a lie,