I know what I want in a video game. I want a smart story, innovative gameplay, and to be challenged intellectually. At least, I thought that's what I wanted. But then I played the new DOOM, which had none of that, but was also the most fun I've had in front of my TV in years.
I'm not sure if you've heard, but this is a thing you can do in that game.
That's when I realized that I don't actually have the faintest damn clue what I want in a game. And what I think I want is actually just a bunch of malarkey. Also: I'm bringing back "malarkey." It's a good word.
4 Absolute Freedom (Means There's Nothing to Do)
What We Think We Want
Freedom, baby. Ya feel me? More than just a word for the type of radiation given off by the American flag, "freedom" is the greatest thing that a video game can offer you. In real life, we're trapped in stupid human society, with stupid "laws" and petty "physical consequences for our squishy human bodies" preventing us from fulfilling our deranged fantasies. But in video games, anything is possible. That's why the best games are stuff like Grand Theft Auto and Minecraft -- ones that don't even tell you what to do. They just point at the world and say, "All yours, my child. All yours. Also, here's a machine gun."
And hey, did you hear about this No Man's Sky game? It's like that, but with an entire universe! There's so much goddamn freedom in that game that anyone who goes near it becomes riddled with malignant patriotic tumors. That much freedom guarantees it'll be awesome, right?
Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but "freedom" in a video game is a lie, man. You're only ever doing what the video game was programmed to allow you to do, man. And that's always how it is.
For example, take Grand Theft Auto. You can't do "anything" -- you can do the violent, hyper-masculine activities the designers remembered to program. That may be fun as hell, but it's still not "freedom." Even Minecraft, which seems like the purest sandbox game possible, still only lets you mine and repurpose materials into your own creations. You can't, say, try to sustainably coexist with nature. There's no granola-munching hippie lifestyle in Minecraft. And these limitations, it turns out, are what make the game fun. If you don't give us direction, we get sorta lost.
For proof, look at the saga of No Man's Sky. It's a game about exploring space, and when they debuted a trailer at E3, everyone lost their goddamn minds over it, as I did above, because of all that sweet, intoxicating freedom. The main hook was that there were nine quintillion planets to explore, and you could go anywhere and do anything. It seemed pretty damn neat. But then it came out, and everyone was so horribly disappointed that fans dubbed it "No Man's Lie," and demanded refunds (and in many cases, received them). What was the problem? Were there only two quintillion planets? Were all the planets the same? Did the game just straight up not work?
Was it this guy?
No, nothing like that. The problem was that multiplayer didn't work, and a lot of the aliens you met were kinda boring. The nine quintillion planets, the space travel, that was all there. In fact, No Man's Sky does absolutely everything it promised from the beginning; everything that made us excited to play it in the first place. It's just that exploring an infinite video game universe -- the very thing that we got so excited about in the first place -- is super boring if there isn't anything to do. This is why we defunded NASA in real life, it turns out. Exploring is boring. Freedom, it turns out, isn't enough. Gamers need tasks. We need you to tell us to do something. We want you to make us think we're free, when we're actually doing exactly what you want. That was the message of Bioshock, right?
3 We Want Movie-Quality Stories (As Long As They Don't Get In The Way Of Our Murder Fantasies)
What We Think We Want
Look, I don't just play video games because they're hyper-violent fantasies or because I'm afraid of the mosquitoes and loud noises that are outside. I play them because of their great stories. Stories like in The Last Of Us or Bioshock or Spec Ops: The Line. See? This is a real medium. Shakespeare would've probably written video games if he were alive now, I bet. For sure.
The reason video games don't have great stories is that they're games. Games are different from stories. The first goal of a video game is always to be fun, but somewhere along the line, we decided that the only way to have games be taken seriously is to give them Serious Stories. So we decided to splice in cutscenes -- whole chunks of the game in which instead of "playing," we're watching a CGI movie. This is the equivalent of playing chess with your friends, but taking five minutes before your turn to explain the motivation of your rook, and the tragic injury in his youth that prevents him from moving diagonally.
"My father looked up at me, and with his dying breath, whispered, 'Never move diagonally.' I am a talking parapet."
I remember loving The Last Of Us's story, but when I think back on it, I realize that the story kept being hurt by the fact that it also had to be a game. In the beginning, Joel and his buddy ruthlessly murder like 50 dudes in the middle of a town, but we're still supposed to see him as a relatable hero. We're also supposed to be worried about Ellie, even though she's invincible through all the gameplay, because otherwise that'd be irritating. The game I played and the story I was following were happening in two totally different worlds, so I kept having to switch.
That's when I realizes that there are the three types of "great video game stories."
1. Thesis statements on the nature of video games (Bioshock, Spec Ops: The Line)
2. Several dozen cool, loosely related ideas, scattered around a map for you to discover on your own (Fallout, Oblivion, Dark Souls)
3. Something that would work better as a movie (The Last Of Us)
Calling this stuff "stories" is the same simplistic, reductive thinking that leads game designers to throw in random references to sexual violence because they think it's mature. Games don't need to be movies. They can be games. They are games! Stop trying to make them something else! Why am I shouting at myself!?