‘gameplay’ … is the single most useless and misleading word in videogame terminology.
Alex Kierkegaard, The Stupidest Word in Videogames
There’s another more damaging element to the rampant use of the word. Let’s take a game like Gears of War, and think about the implications of the oft-repeated phrase, “The most important part of a game is the gameplay”.
First of all, if you find yourself saying and believing stuff like this, it isn’t long before you start devaluing the importance of cutscenes, and the idea soon plants itself in your head that when you are watching one of the many splendid mid-mission Gears of War cutscenes, that you are not actually playing the game. This idea practically cements itself inside the afflicted mind, despite having a controller in-hand while watching them and being just as immersed (sometimes even more so) than at most any other time spent shooting Locust in the face. Now I’m aware that there are a certain segment of gamers that like to put the controller down during a cutscene, but it would not be well for me to dig into that particular habit at this time. It’s enough for me to say that I find it completely ridiculous.
But by now the seed has already taken root, and as it grows, it becomes an ever greater delight to see on the bottom corner of every cutscene “Press X to Skip”. This because the developers have been so mercilessly cut down anytime that the game impeded a player from diving right into the “core gameplay”. As if these were arcade games or something (which is ironic considering their general attitude toward arcade games). So anytime one of these cutscenes come up, they are treated like unwelcome loading screens, which is why some of the more cunning developers have them overlaid on top of loading screens in order to assuage an audience that may not take too well to them being anywhere else, like in Call of Duty’s pre-mission briefings.
But then there are those moments in games like Gears of War where Marcus Fenix reaches up for his Tac-Com, starts speaking into it with someone, restricts himself to a walking pace and before you know it, gamers everywhere start to lose their minds. By now the seed has sprouted, and the damage it does is unmistakable. They view these sequences as disguised cutscenes, which is nearly the right way to begin thinking about them, but their conclusion undoes any insight into the matter when they imagine themselves no longer playing the game during these scenes and begin fuming with rage. Very often they end up destroying the game in their tantrums by making the game look ridiculous. Sometimes this attitude will even extend to those moments where Marcus is sitting behind cover, waiting for a break in the bullet stream. What kind of shooter has you waiting against a wall for such a large percentage of its firefights anyway? Isn’t that “bad gameplay”? You can’t even jump, for crying out loud! With them it’s no longer acceptable for an avatar to do anything except charge straight into the fight like a maniac, and if there are long periods in which nothing happens save for a change in scenery or something along those lines, then it is considered “bad design”. No matter what the designer intended with these sequences. Or how beautiful.
Forget about all the wonder and amazement you felt upon witnessing first-hand the tram ride at the beginning of Half-Life back in 1998. Or the rekindling of such upon your first playthrough of its sequel. And in countless other games that have taken the lesson to heart. These accomplishments are now diminished and laughed at today for being “unskippable cutscenes”. But what was it that made Half-Life so special back then? Was it the “core gameplay”, i. e. the shooting? Or wasn’t it everything else that made it so.
One of my most cherished gaming memories was my recent playthrough of the Shenmue games. I loved every moment of them. Truly, every moment. But I’ll never forget the comments made by a friend who happened to see me playing and came away with a rather negative impression. “But you’re not doing anything!” The implication behind this accusation was that I wasn’t doing any “gameplay”, and were it proved to him that I was, his only conclusion would either be that it was “bad gameplay” or a product of “bad design”, which amounts to the same thing for him. Either way, the game didn’t survive its encounter with him.
I tell you, it’s this “gameplay” curse. Where games dare to fight it, like in certain unforgettable sections of The Order: 1886 and Psycho Break that pull it off with stunning results, it goes unnoticed by the gaming audience at large. The critics yawn, and the players laugh. All the while, game developers are hard at work on the front lines, fighting sometimes to the death for the state of the art that players cannot even see for their blindness. Not only that, but had those players been employed at any of their studios, they’d have been fighting tooth and nail against it.
You can see this thinking run rampant across the Internet today in the rejection of games like Gone Home, The Walking Dead and The Stanley Parable for not having any “gameplay” and thus their status as videogames is revoked. They’ve been found guilty of the crime of not having enough “gameplay”. That alone is enough for them to be dismissed out of hand as nothing more than walking simulators or barely-interactive cutscenes.
But where cutscenes are devalued, and “gameplay” is made king, the games’ worlds themselves inevitably fall under attack. Every cruelty is now done to them to force it to fully accommodate the player’s precious “core gameplay” at all times. Sometimes they cannot take this abuse and die from it. So instead they are often engineered from the ground up to be nothing more than outrageous warzones that serve as a paradise for gamers born on the battlefield and who cannot function outside of it. This “Outer Heaven” is a dreamland where gamers can exercise their skills acquired in combat and do not have to worry about anything else beyond the mission and what to shoot next. It is the land of the “gameplay” champions. And it is cursed with a curse.
The late ‘90s and early ‘00s saw the realization of many a dream. Of a kind thought previously impossible to realize in our time. But what has since happened to our trailblazers, our champions of the dream? Games like Shenmue, Thief: The Dark Project, Deus Ex, Tekki, The Last Express, Metal Gear Solid, and others? We recognize their attributes here and there today in a few titles, but usually only as a small chunk of iron among a sculpture of clay. Only a remnant remains. Everything else has been ravaged by the “gameplay” curse.
This curse must be fought against, and the damage can only be restored through the sweat of our brow. And every discipline involved in the art of game creation must be a part of this reconstruction process. United together. That there be no division or dissonance within the game. Nothing out of place, or out of proportion. With no arcade relics. And no “gameplay” idolatry, i. e. figuratively passing your game through the fire.
Perhaps with this mission realized, we’ll see more big budget games released where something isn’t being killed or destroyed every 30 seconds, and more of the kinds of games that previous decades had worked so hard to make possible today. VR gaming has slowly begun to steer developers back in that direction for now, but only because of the severe input limitations. As soon as those are lifted, the trend is likely going to regress back to the days of the virtual arcade machines set up in malls throughout the country that played Quake.
Let’s fight to make sure it doesn’t come to that, and the squandering of our talents.