opinions, criticisms, art consumption

Saturday, October 26, 2013 :: Tagged under: culture video_games pablolife. ⏰ 7 minutes.

Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄

Tevis Thompson wrote a great little article making the rounds that reminds me of a lot of Bret Victor essays: fantastic for inspiration, much that I agree with, but glossing over just enough details and complications such that the universal praise it receives perterbs me.

He starts with BioShock: Infinite and how how terrible it is, continues to analyze the fan reaction to it, and makes a broader case for STRONG OPINIONS in game criticism, and life in general.

First things first: I fully agree with virtually everything he writes about BioShock as a game. He writes that its critics take a less confrontational approach (much like when I wrote about it) and it's refreshing to see him take it to task so directly. I didn't write all my strongest impressions, but his section 6, "Press X To Elizabeth," nails another strong feeling I was having, especially with Gamers reactionarily touting up Elizabeth as a Great Female Character in reaction to Anita Sarkeesian's analysis of women's representations.

On the whole, I'd love more voices like Tevis' in the conversation of games and its press. Read it even if you don't finish this, the rest is mostly nitpicking.

Details glossed over

Where I differ isn't in any of his assessments of the game or the industry (yes, the video games mainstream is dominated shallow investigations of cliché themes narrated via white male power fantasies), it's with how to process that reality in your own actions after the fact.

More simply: it's not too hard to see why this is the case, and please, continue to fight against it. But you'll burn out hard, fast, and may lose your bearings if you can't learn to live in it a little.

First, let's talk about counting arguments. It's the idea that for any X that needs a Y, you can make statements about how many X's or Y's there are if you match them up, e.g. if you tell everyone to sit in a chair and there are still people standing, there are more people than chairs; if there are empty chairs, there are more chairs than people.

In his plea for us to stand strong by our OPINIONS and stop tempering it with qualifiers like "it's not for me," he states that in his life, there are few things he rates as average -- after lots of thought, he either Likes it or he Doesn't. This makes his distribution look something like this:

-- reverse bell --

But, the definition of average means that he'll actually enjoy each game an average amount. As you move from average, you'll see the numbers lop off. So it's not unreasonable to say his experience will more likely be this:

-- bell curve --

So when you've decided that accept the reality of the first curve (two peaks he's decided Good! and Bad!), but simple definitions suggest the world is naturally more like the second curve (one peak for whatever his mean enjoyment is), you can already see he's stacking the cards to a narrative more to his liking, rather than providing an accurate assessment of his own experience. He's at first experiencing something like the second graph, the after critical analysis, "corrects" it to match the first graph.

An example, provided by -- Tevis!

Tevis wrote another article that got a little less circulation, but I reacted to in a similar way: his Saving Zelda.

Namely, he writes a ton of words to complain that Zelda is exactly what it is: a Big Gun release by a for-profit, publicly-traded company engineered exclusively to sell as many copies as possible. What it is is pretty much enough to let you know it's not going to be at all interesting or surprising to people like him and I who write essays on our blogs in our free time.

Now, people complaining that a franchise Just Isn't What It Was 20 Years Ago isn't particularly interesting, but what got me most was how he frames the experience of playing the old games (emphasis mine):

Zelda would be better if it had no story. Or more precisely, no plot to structure the adventure. The first Zeldas barely had any plot, and they were the better for it. With plot, sequence matters too much. The early Zeldas had situations, worlds and scenarios that framed the action, gaps to be filled in by the player, sequences to be broken. Optimal paths and shortcuts weren’t a given; they had to be earned. Items were the most prominent plot devices, and even they were not unduly strict about order. You could be slow and steady or blast straight through with a little know-how. The basic rules of the gameworld were what bound you, not some artificial necessity imposed for the sake of plot. You could even play through the entire first Zelda up to Ganon without ever getting a sword.


Another way to say this: modern Zeldas do not respect the player. Many gamers express this as too much handholding and blame the Nintendo helpline reps who accompany you through Hyrule. No doubt, Navi, Midna, and Fi intrude, remind, and overexplain, all naggy and mothersome


Plot in modern Zeldas is another culprit in the Case of the Sluggish Pacing. It only thinly veils the mechanics being explored, and it bends the adventure in ways that feel forced and unnatural. Especially when the needy denizens of Hyrule get involved. At this point, I fear speaking to anyone without a golden triangle on her hand. When did everyone become so inane and needy? The original Zelda had no villages or houses; the only remaining residents were hidden away in caves, the clearest indication that Hyrule had already fallen to the enemy. They were cryptic, terse, mercenary and only rarely asked anything of you (one letter to be delivered to an old woman, one grumbly Moblin to be fed).


The pleasures it first offered – those that come with being an explorer, a pathfinder and labyrinth conqueror, a fighter and survivor, a finder of secrets – remain completely viable in modern games. They’re just not present in modern Zeldas.

But the truth could also be that the Old Great Zeldas were so spartan and player-empowering because they were written by a much smaller team to run on much more restrictive hardware for a completely different audience. This was never a case of Miyamoto considering his options, among them a Zelda with all the flaws he points out, and deciding against it. They never could have made a game like the modern Zeldas because a) they really simply couldn't, with the dev schedules and hardware resources, and b) even if they wanted to, the people who'd buy it and love it weren't playing video games at that point, since the industry was radically different then.

The same thing has happened with virtually every loved, long-running series that studios recognized as cash cows. Castlevania is a shadow of its former self. He cites Mario as a franchise that hasn't lost its soul, but even at that point, Super Mario Sunshine was an embarassment: for any puzzle, shoot water at it. Platforming? Don't worry, you can float for a few seconds now, except in the no-jets minigame in each stage (which was the best part of the game, incidentally). And that had a lot of the flaws he discusses in Zelda: needy citizens of Delfino who all wanted to talk to you, F.L.U.D.D giving you advice, and only one mechanic to solve most puzzles.

As before, I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment that modern Zeldas are a paint-by-numbers affair that gets joyless after your 3rd or 4th time doing it. As before, agree with premises, but disagree on conclusions or takeaways: to then go back and frame the older games as better when it was probably just limitations and conventions or the era is myopic, and to even let yourself get disappointed that modern Zeldas don't resemble old ones, when you operate at the level he does, signals a poor understanding the the world and how it works. It'd be like walking into a Wendy's and wondering why its not like Five Guys, ruminating on the Optimal Burger Experience when what did you expect you walked into a Wendy's?

You could say that in a Better World, someone at Nintendo along the way will use modern hardware to create a Very Hard Zelda that will be unpopular with some critics (but still score a 7 or an 8, natch) and finally please those of us True Zelda Knowers who had magical experiences 15 or 20 years ago. I get that, and it's not untrue. But it's about as likely and useful an observation as "politicians should reject private funds from rich donors and SuperPACS since it corrupts the political process:" true, hardly news to anybody whose been paying attention, and doesn't offer much moving forward, since it doesn't at all address the status quo and its ability to do what it does best: assert and preserve itself by doing absolutely nothing.

If you really want that magical Zelda experience back, you can either write essays, hope the messages percolate to the higher ups, and hope hope hope that someone will take a huge financial risk with daring design decisions on one of Nintendo's biggest assets...

(actually not incredibly far-fetched, given the public's first reaction to the Wind Waker graphics and that it was released to acclaim anyways)

... or, alternatively, get rid of the attachment to the Zelda name and brand, jump ship from AAA gaming, and play exclusively indie games. One of these is much eaiser than the other. Complain from the wings all you want, even if you're right (and I think you are) it doesn't change the fact that Nintendo's in this game only to make money for their shareholders, not make great games.

All this to say...

All this to say, in an OPINIONS based-world where everything is Great or Terrible for Your One Perspective, you'll spend a lot of time spinning tires, kick up a lot of mud, and it will be very cathartic! But you won't actually go very far. Like in the Zelda example above, you can say a lot of smart and necessary things, but to do this for every thing in you life is an easy way to tire yourself out, not move, and cover your walls with mud.

To actually move forward, you need to remember that the world is full of mostly well-intentioned people just trying to do their best with whatever abilities they have (which may be many, but by definition, is usually average) and pretty much every construction (industry, culture, government) is just a big hack.

Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you 😄