‘Visually impressive’ is a distraction technique and you should stop worrying about it. There, I said it. Next time you see a game that is being raved about as ‘visually impressive’, realise that something has gone wrong. Whether it’s the game’s own marketing team that is forced to make a big deal out of ‘visually impressive’ because the product has no other basis for competition or whether it is customers who are experiencing buyer’s remorse and attempting to rationalise the fact that they’ve just dropped £60 on a game that’s exactly like all the games they already own, just because it had a pretty face, resorting to the language of ‘visually impressive’ means something is missing. There isn’t anything else to say. And that’s a problem, because games should be more than very expensive wallpaper.
The games industry is tech driven and that’s one reason why games marketing encourages everyone to evaluate games in terms of their impressive graphics. The marketing of AAA games is a giant beauty contest. There are a few problems with this situation.
Firstly, products that are driven by technology aren’t being driven by what customers want. No market research survey or focus group among players of video games has ever resulted in customers saying “actually, what I want more than anything else is sharper, more realistically-rendered water”. But that is what customers are going to get because that is where the industry finds it easier to make progress.
Secondly, there comes a point where the leading products in a category have become so technologically advanced that there is no longer anything to choose between them. You can see this happening in smartphones. Samsung and iPhone are functionally the same. One version might have a camera that’s microscopically better than the other, or fractionally better pixel density but the technical differences are so small that they are effectively undetectable by the user.
Thirdly, there’s a problem which is specific to games. Games are not smartphones. Phones are functional tools, they are devices which allow us to perform certain tasks such as making calls, texting, adding content to social media platforms, reading digital books and yes, playing mobile games. But the phones themselves are not games. We don’t require our phones to do anything but work. Games have a different remit. We expect them to do something more than be a tool for capturing screenshots, uploading content to other platforms and chatting to our friends.
At a minimum, people regard games as entertainment. Entertainment has never been simply and causally linked to a technologically advanced appearance, otherwise people wouldn’t play Tetris. At a higher level of expectation, a whole lot of people in gaming want it to be taken seriously as an art form. Anyone who knows about art will tell you that great art isn’t reducible to prettiness. In order to qualify as worthwhile art, it needs to do at least some of the following things. Challenge the viewer. Explore a topical issue. Say something about the society we live in and the human condition. Break rules and upset convention. Convey a message or ask questions. Make people think. Make them act. Cause a problem for people who evaluate, collect and display art.
At an even higher level of expectation, people want games to change the world. Writers like Jane McGonigal, a passionate advocate for gaming, see what players are willing to invest in the games they love to play. Hours of productivity. Effort, research. Teamwork and co-operation. If all those skills and hours of energy could be invested in games or game-like products which have the capacity to solve real-world problems like homelessness or lack of clean drinking water, then everyone would benefit.
These are big ambitions and I’m not suggesting that gamers should ask whether a game is likely to result in finding a cure for cancer before they get stuck into the latest iteration of Call of Duty but we absolutely should expect more from gaming than the experience I recently had where I got half way through Horizon: Zero Dawn and realised I was playing Far Cry but with added robot dinosaurs. It was the same game with different clothes and make-up. If I wanted that, I could have spent the money on dressing myself up, possibly with more useful and satisfying results.
Thankfully, there are some games which stand out because they have something to offer which is both entertaining and artful in a way that goes beyond prettiness. Without further ado, here are 3 plain Janes that capture gamers with their deep personalities.
Prison Architect (Introversion Software, Double Eleven, 2015)
Prison Architect is a primitive-looking game based on an unusual and bleak concept. A little like Sim City, it will have you zoning areas (administrative centre, cell block, warehouse, yard), placing power cables and managing a large budget. A little like The Sims, it will have you placing doors, windows and toilets, landscaping outdoor areas and choosing from different kinds of floor covering. But the similarity ends here and Prison Architect will immediately plunge you into the darkest of moral dilemmas. On your first day as a prison governer and architect, Campaign mode, a cleverly-disguised tutorial, will introduce you to a man, Edward Romsey – really just a small, orange peg of a figure who nonetheless manages to resemble Walter White of Breaking Bad – who is going to be executed. It’s your job to build an execution block with adjoining holding cell so that your fatal duty can be accomplished. Do you feel bad about that? Maybe you should. The prison chaplain observes that if Romsey had committed his crimes 100 miles further north, he would have received a sentence of life imprisonment instead of execution. The guards, in contrast, are unsentimental. Romsey killed two people and so he in turn must die. They apparently will feel safer knowing that Romsey is no longer with us, although they seem like hardened thugs who are quite capable of defending themselves. In any case, you can’t save Romsey. The law has decided that he must die and your job is to enact its consequences, not to pervert the course of justice. No matter how you feel about Romsey and the death penalty, you will ensure that the electric chair has adequate power and you will decide whether Romsey’s cell will have the benefits of a bookshelf and a clean, tiled floor, knowing that the money you spend on these items is money taken away from the needs of other prisoners. When the fateful moment comes, the game introduces cut scenes which overlay still images on the little peg figures. The still images are referred to in-game as ‘Polaroids’ but they are actually like comic-book art. Romsey dies. You don’t have to pull the lever yourself but you were instrumental in killing him.
Deeper into the game, players are invited to become engrossed in whether it is better to invest in an en-suite shower for each cell than to opt for a cheaper communal shower block (it is, but save space by placing the shower on top of the toilet, this isn’t a luxury hotel), how to determine whether to have a protective custody wing and why there are fewer riots when prisoners are able to exchange more phone calls and letters with their families. Added to this, the game benefits from updates and new content which has recently introduced extra challenges in the form of room temperature, staff needs and improved prisoner escape attempts.
Plague, Inc. (Ndemic Creations, 2011)
This isn’t a new game and that’s a good thing because you can pick it up for a measly 79p on the Apple App Store. It’s not quite an ugly game but it made it on to this list because you are going to spend 90% of your gaming time staring at a map of the world that has hardly any moving parts – just a few white blips buzzing around to represent planes and ships. The other 10% of the time you’ll be looking at a spreadsheet or a pie chart. It sounds like a day spent doing a sedentary office job but in fact it’s quite a gripping, fast-paced game in which you attempt to wipe out humanity by playing as a virus, bacteria or fungus. It’s a game which gives the player the impression of actually learning something and this can be quite rewarding as you deftly manipulate factors that affect transmission, lethality and resistance to treatment. In reality, of course, this isn’t the equivalent of medical school or a degree in epidemiology and what you are learning is probably limited to the populations and locations of various countries.
It’s a game which stands head and shoulders above most mobile tablet games, won The Queen’s Enterprise Award for Innovation and in 2018 is the Apple App Store’s #2 Strategy game, even after all this time. In light of its ongoing success, updates and new content are regularly issued by developers. A touch of modern-day social relevance is added in the new ‘science-denying’ scenario in which most of the world rejects science and only one country keeps the faith and thus holds on to the possibility of eradicating disease. This is a timely development considering that the World Health Organisation has just reported an outbreak of measles in Europe, a disease which can be deadly, especially for children, and which was being held at bay by vaccinations until the number of people vaccinating their kids fell below critical levels.
The game’s real pull and the reason why it won awards is because it upsets the tradition of having the player operate as a human or anthropomorphic character that interacts with other human-like figures to complete some kind of quest such as fighting zombies which resulted from the outbreak of a disease. That is, you are not supposed to play as the disease itself, yet this is exactly what Plague, Inc offers and it is weirdly thrilling to discover that your newly-unleashed fungus or bacteria has managed to wipe out 24% of the world’s population even though you chose to design it as not very deadly and transmissible by only a few methods such as rodents and livestock. The game really heats up when scientists notice the evolution of your disease, triggering a race against time as you attempt to wipe out humanity before a cure can be found. It’s surprisingly difficult to wipe out all of humanity and it turns out that Greenland and Madagascar are very safe places to live. A thoroughly engaging experience that’s based on next to nothing in the way of visually impressive graphics.
Papers, Please! (Lucas Pope, 2013)
One of the worst-looking games you’ve ever played, Papers, Please! is deliberately grim and yet it is a game that will keep you coming back because it is the nature of the irrepressible human spirit to believe that there must be a way through and out of the horribly repressive parameters which it imposes. It won 16 major awards, mostly for innovation and strategy. Set in the fictional country of Arstotzka, you the player do not even get to volunteer for the soul-sucking job that you are about to attempt. You will be informed that you have been selected by a government lottery to perform as a border control guard. Your objective is to comply with government directives by not letting certain people into the country and thus earn a wage sufficient to keep your family alive. This is going to be tricky because you will be paid hardly anything, because the conditions for refusing to allow people in will become ever more complex and because the government will dock your wages if you make mistakes.
You will spend the entirety of the game sitting in a dark booth at East Grestin checkpoint. Unfortunate-looking people will form a long queue next to your booth and one by one will file in to show you their passports. At first, the rules are simple, if rather harsh. You let Arstotzka citizens in and everyone else stays out. It’s dull and repetitive work and this makes itself felt on the first day. At the end of that miserable first day, I had $30 in savings, I had earned $45, but then the government deducted $50 for rent, food and heat so I guess I wasn’t working fast enough. I ended up with $25, which is $5 less than I started out with, so I ended up paying the government for the privilege of working there. I resolved to be faster on Day 2.
On Day 2, the rules have changed. Foreigners are allowed in but now you are obliged to check their entire passport for discrepancies in the information presented there. It’s hard to know what kind of discrepancies you are supposed to be looking for; I had to find out by trial and error. Apparently there was something wrong with the expiration date on one man’s passport. I received a written warning. The very next person I allowed in resulted in a second warning, apparently there was a mismatch between the person’s appearance and the sex stated on their passport. I resolve to check this more carefully next time as well. I then incur a third fault because apparently I should have checked that the person looks like their photo. The amount of things I am required to do for each citizen is larger than I realised. That’s the end of Day 2 because there’s a terrorist attack so everyone is sent home. I was penalised $5 for making my third mistake, I processed fewer people and ended up with a sum of $15. My savings are now half what they were when I began the game.
On Day 3 the rules have changed again. Foreigners can come in but they must show a separate entry ticket, so now I have two documents to process per person. I make a couple of mistakes before realising I’m supposed to check the date on the entry ticket as well as confirming its mere existence. This is hard as I’ve forgotten what today’s date is. Then, just to make things extra tough, a man shows up with no passport at all and won’t go away. Apparently there’s something in the government rule book about what to do in this situation, but I can’t find it. Stressed, I try slamming the shutters down on my little booth but when I lift them again, he is still there. I finally work out how to interrogate him, using my rule book and he goes away. At the end of Day 3 I’m down to my last $5 and the game informs me that my son is sick and needs medicine.
And so it goes on. The rules change. I forget to check people’s gender. I forget to check the issuing city on the entry permits. People show up with complicated discrepancies and have to be interrogated, which takes time. At the end of the day my son is still sick, the rent has gone up and now my savings are all gone and I owe the government $10 instead of it paying me.
I’ve never made it to the end of a full week in this game. It has almost 25,000, overwhelmingly positive reviews on Steam. That’s a whole lot of meticulous and very determined passport-checking.