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Gimme Danger

tomb raider combat

The recent Tomb Raider reboot, mistakenly cited by Tom Chick as one of the best games of this generation, is bullshit AAA games-making at its worst for a number of reasons. But the moment where I decided to check out of it was when I was tasked with guiding Lara Croft across a girder spanning a chasm. The camera tilted forward to show me the danger of the fall. Lara’s arms went out to balance, and I assumed that I would need to carefully nudge the stick, moving her slowly so as to maintain footing and overcome the perilous obstacle. I stopped halfway and I watched her, fidgeting and nervous, feeling that strange fear of ersatz death that video games can sometimes create for us. And then I just started jamming on the stick to see what would happen.

I wasn’t even treated to one of the many canned, grisly death animations that the newly “empowered” Lara is subjected to throughout the game. Instead, she did this ridiculous chicken dance- literally unable to fall. The danger was a lie. Lara was not in jeopardy, there was no stake in using skill, patience, and a steady hand to overcome a perilous situation. Imagine Raiders of the Lost Ark if the camera pulled back during the boulder sequence to reveal that there was no way Harrison Ford could actually be crushed by it. Between realizing that I could fool the game’s enemy AI by running up and shooting bad guys in the face at point blank range with a bow and arrow and this moment, I realized that despite all the adventuring and derring-do, there was no actual danger in this game. Zero threat to anyone involved, including the player. The only casualty was suspension of disbelief. This is something that is all too common in big budget, story-driven games. The sense of risk is completely neutered, and this can render narrative and subtextual content completely sterile when it comes down to defining how the player’s actions interface with the script.

I did realize that I could push the jump button and actually make her fall by apparently clearing the invisible wall, but the game was too far gone. It caused me to reflect on the nature of danger, risk, and threat in games and how games like Uncharted and any number of recent adventure or action games have mollycoddled and pampered a fictional gamer-consumer (cooked up by publishing house executives and cowardly game designers) that is apparently afraid of failure, particularly in regard to story-driven games. It is in some sense the difficulty question that comes up from time to time, usually with games like Dark Souls and a Roguelike or two waiting in the wings to put in an appearance.

But it’s more than just a question of how “hard” a game, how much resistance its level design, AI, or other elements put up against the player. I like tough games, I like to feel that I’ve overcome a challenge because I’ve developed the required gameplay skills or acumen and answered the designer’s call to learn and play. I also like to feel like I’ve just barely squeaked by with a touch of luck, left wondering how in the hell I made it through that part of the game. I like the exhilaration of being almost to the end of a level in a difficult platformer, tensing up, and being afraid to lose. There’s no reason that a game that’s telling a story shouldn’t be as demanding in terms of skill as a classic arcade game. Make me work for the story. Change it up if I miss the mark. Make me feel that I am in real danger.

Not everyone wants the roadblocks and frustrations, I get this. Some folks want to play a game and face no resistance at all, just to see what’s in it and move on until they get the good ending. That’s fine. But there is a major issue in question here when game designers are removing any sense of risk, challenge, or danger through silly mechanics like Uncharted’s failsafe “golden ledge” platforming. If it’s a high-spirited, seat-of-the-pants adventure and the only sense of danger is quite literally faked as in the case with Tomb Raider…what’s the point, at that point, of playing that game instead of watching an Indiana Jones picture that completes the illusion of threat much more completely and believably- sans chicken dancing on a girder a million feet up in the mountains?

I want to see story-based games that aren’t afraid to take things away from me if I lose or hit whatever failstate there is. The faltering survival horror genre was great at this, until making horror games more “accessible” meant piling in more bullets, health packs, and hit points. Permadeath is obviously one way that designers of games like Fire Emblem or XCOM accomplish this by removing characters from your roster. The Souls games and later ZombiU brilliantly built in a sense of high stakes as well as an impetus to learn and try again by leaving your bloodstain and all of your accumulated souls way down in some dungeon at some point you’re afraid you won’t make it to again and this is all built into the narrative and setting of these games. Metro 2033’s higher difficulties, including the absolutely grueling “Ranger” mode, make the surival aspect prominent and grants the game an almost overwhelming, insurmountable sense of despair and fatalism. These are meaningful ways to make games feel dangerous and challenging but also engaging at a storytelling level.

These days, a “hard” difficulty setting is just a bone thrown to gamers that remember when you actually had to learn to play games to beat them. It usually just means that the bad guys need five or six more headshots to kill or there are more of them. The AI isn’t any better, and the stakes aren’t any higher. It’s a way to fake a challenge, as are achievements and trophies. All of these options are low risk to the developer and publisher, afraid of gamer-consumers who might be scared to lose and take their money elsewhere. And none change the vaunted, terrible scripts to which these games are metered and tethered.

Are gamer-consumers really afraid to fail? Will they not buy a game if they think that they can’t win or complete a storyline? If this is the case, then why is competitive multiplayer from Call of Duty to Starcraft II to League of Legends so popular? Why was Dark Souls a big hit with its taunting come-on “prepare to die”? Why are sports games, where you have a binary win/loss outcome, popular? Everybody that’s ever played a tower defense game knows that the best part is in those last few minutes of a game gone pear-shaped, where you’re trying to hold out and turn it around. Same goes for any “horde mode” you care to name. In these games, failure is real and meaningful. In a story-driven game, the best you might get is an item on the quest list marked as “failed” with a minor variation in the outcome or a different ending based on a facile moral choice. Larger games like Mass Effect might manage to weave a larger tapestry of successes and failures to create a greater sense of player agency, but ultimately there is still little at risk in terms of completing the game or its intended arc.

But in a big-budget, AAA action adventure game like Tomb Raider, danger is when the entire image freezes on a scene of Lara about to be stabbed by some guy and a big circle closes in on whichever button you’re supposed to press. Or you crouch behind a waist-high wall, moving when the bad guys throw some kind of explosive or incendiary because the designers can’t work out how to make a believable or realistic firefight with believable or realistic AI. It’s not gameplay, it’s not tension, it’s phony drama. The only thing at risk during one of these scenes or in any other life-or-death situation is usually two or three minutes of playtime. Nothing changes in the story, it carries on as it was written by— in the case of Tomb Raider- D-grade 21st century kinda-sorta television writers aping JJ Abrams. The “interactive media” mask drops, revealing that the game is just as fascistic in directing the viewer as a film is. You just get the option to make the character dance on a girder during a false life-or-death sequence.

So Sick of Your Excuses


It’s not uncommon for folks in the video games industry to say incredibly stupid things- the kinds of things that point out how clueless, in denial, and utterly corporate the business has become. Two recent items caught my eye and ire. One is a statement made by a Capcom executive during a 3Q shareholder call. The question was point blank- why did Resident Evil 6 miss its sale mark of 6 million copies sold, landing somewhere around 4.8 million? The response was typical corporate bullshit, saying absolutely nothing in a way that sounds important. There’s talk about analyzing causes, validation that 4.8 million sales indicates a popular title, and a bunch of unmitigated corporate  bullshit about how marketing and “internal operating frameworks” need to be examined to determine shortcomings (you can make your own “jackin’ off” gesture at home). The other is a comment made by Puzzle Clubhouse CEO Jesse Schell  (who?)  at last week’s DICE conference about how releasing a demo harms game sales, potentially halving them. He went on to explain that the best way to sell games is to release a trailer and provide the consumer with no possible way to try it before you buy it. Love you too, buddy.

Both of these statements put me in mind of the kinds of post-sales failure finger-pointing and “dog ate my homework” excuses that we’ve seen too often in this video games generation- like poor old Warren Spector claiming that Epic Mickey failed because they used a adventure game camera instead of a platform game camera. Or the tired “gamers didn’t get it” response.  For all of the money in the video games business, it’s just incredible that none of these analysts, developers, executives, or stakeholders has bothered to own up to what the truth about these games failing actually could be. Nobody wants to state the obvious and take responsibility for all of these millions of dollars in development and promotion squandered. So many excuses, but nobody talking straight.

It could be that your game just fucking sucked.

Or that nobody wanted to buy it for any number of reasons ranging from market saturation to the $60 price point. Or maybe people DON’T want a Resident Evil game that moves further and further away from the core values of the franchise in ten different directions. Maybe the demo showed potential buyers that the game was just BAD to begin with.

And maybe- just maybe, guys- gaming consumers aren’t Pavlovian idiots responding to your marketing. Maybe- just maybe- consumers should be respected instead of treated as marks for day one DLC scams, unasked for multiplayer, and used game lock-out tactics like online passes. Could it be that maybe people are starting to NOT want the shit you’re selling? Could it be that with more choices available, the guys that treat their customers like mindless trash are the ones seeing losses, failures, and missed expectations?

Hearing these kinds of excuses just points out how the desperate this industry is becoming and how far removed from reality the people in positions of power in it really are. It shows- yet again- that video games and corporations don’t always mix so well.  And it shows yet again the latent contempt these companies have for us. This Jesse Schell character wants to tell the business to NOT let us see their game before we buy. He wants us to make a blind $60 purchase based on a trailer. A trailer. I hope no one listens to this clown, who has no business being CEO of anything.

It blows my mind that people with business degrees, corner offices, decades of experience, and other attractive resume elements can’t see something that I and a lot of you have had figured out for as long as we’ve been spending money on any kind of consumer good. There is no analysis needed, no one needs to be paid a dime for the kinds of simple business wisdom the video games industry has forgotten.

If you make a great product or offer a great service and you treat your customer with respect, you will make money.

Let me repeat that. Consider this a free course in running a business. I don’t think they teach this in MBA school. Memorize it. Jesse Schell- you need to hear this.

If you make a great product or offer a great service and you treat your customer with respect, you will make money.

Really, it is that simple. If you’re making huckleberry pies or satellite guidance systems, all of the marketing and hufflepuff in the world doesn’t make a lick of difference if you’re treating people badly and delivering sub-par product that no one wants to buy. Yeah, you need to get the word out.  But people do not buy things just because of an advertisement- regardless of what the folks in marketing trying to hold onto their jobs will tell you.

I never saw endless streams of trailers, previews, preorder bonuses, transmedia, or an E3 presentation for Minecraft. It seems to be doing pretty well. I wonder if Mojang blames “internal processes and administration” or the availability of a demo for his game selling 20 million copies instead of 21 million.

More and more, I regret ever giving most of these companies and developers my money. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that for too many in the industry that the business/customer relationship is an adversarial one. There are good people in this business, good businesses. Let’s run these corporate jackasses and their excuses for failure out of town and get the good guys back in control. Folks that understand the Barnes Maxim-

If you make a great product or offer a great service and you treat your customer with respect, you will make money.

No excuses.

Rethinking Mass Murder

The above panel is from issue #25 of Grant Morrison’s phenomenal run on DC Comics’ Animal Man. The pale guy is actually the author speaking directly to the character he’s written for two years at the point and the statement he is making is specifically about comic books and the state of the medium circa 1990. It’s a reflection on how grim, dark, gritty, and graphically violent comics had become in a rush toward feigned maturity and mainstream acceptance. It’s a statement about how the gee-whiz wonder and optimism of the Golden and Silver Age had been washed away by writers and artists over-eager to Frank Miller everything up, to darken the vibrant palette of comics to reflect the real world. I read this issue over the holidays, not long before the Connecticut school shooting.

Of course, neither that tragedy nor Animal Man have anything to do with violence in the real world, regardless of the pundits and opportunists that would have us believe that media is a causative factor in increasing the number of murders or violent crimes that we see on the news. People make choices, people have problems. Consumer media doesn’t make those or create those. Ironically, even the bloodiest, most brutal video games are less socially harmful than any given car commercial that promotes an illusion of American affluence or a reality show that celebrates crude, unbecoming behavior.

Between reading Morrison’s rather profound, simple statement against the darkening tone of the comics medium and thinking about twenty- twenty– children shot to death, I’ve been thinking heavily on violent video games content and in a way that I never really have before. Maybe it’s something to do with getting older, maybe it’s something to do with being a parent. Writing as someone who has never had an issue with violence in video games, movies, or any other kind of entertainment, I’m rather shocked to find that for the first time in my life I’m really kind of sick of being entertained by mass murder.

Brace for unpopular opinion. The anti-video games crowd isn’t entirely wrong about violence in video games. They’re wrong because they don’t understand that games aren’t non-stop slaughter-fests oozing with blood and rape. Most of the people that make comments about video game violence have barely played the games they’re talking about, if at all. It’s the exact same situation as with the Video Nasty, Satanic Panic, and Gangsta rap controversies in the 1980s The moral watchdogs don’t understand that video games have finer literary qualities like narrative context, signification, satire, and metaphor.  And that they are entertainment, and that it is OK to be entertained by darker, more questionable material. They don’t get that video games are an artistic medium that can- and in fact should- represent all aspects of human life including violence and death.

But what they are, at least in part, right about is that it has become too pervasive and there is a certain climate of brutality, nihilism, and devalued human life that games (along with other media) are promoting in the larger cultural spectrum. Witness any number of games released in 2012, where the primary action is killing somebody or something. Witness any number of games where the environments are broken, destroyed, or otherwise ruined. Witness any number of video game covers where the central figure is a “chin down, eyes up” killer of whatever stripe. Witness the aggressively macho, roughneck tone, sound, and visuals of many games. You cannot possibly claim with any degree of credibility that video games do not glorify, reward, and celebrate the taking of simulated life. Achievement unlocked, there’s pixelated blood on your hands.

Lionizing murder is one thing, but stripping death of all of its finality, meaning, and immense power is another. Video games are practically founded on frivolous representations of death without consequence or meaning, barring games such as Dark Souls that make dying an important mechanic in the game. But rare is the game that comes along saying to the player “hey, maybe killing all of these people was a bad idea”. Spec Ops: The Line did that in a particularly chilling way. The victims of a white phosphorous attack are revealed to be innocent civilians, not enemy combatants. I can’t think of another game that really shows the player what happens when they press a button and lots of people die. People that shouldn’t have died.

Video games have always been criticized for violent content. I recall reading a video games magazine sometime around 1983 or 1984 that had an article about what could happen if video games were made illegal because of their violent content. At that point, the most violent game you could play was the old Death Race arcade game. Decades on, and slaughter has become casual and in fact expected of the medium.

To some degree, it’s natural. Simulated violence is one of the key elements of any kind of play. When animals play, they mock fighting, competition, conflict, and aggression.  And people have always been entertained by violence from the gladiator arena to the Grand Guignol. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and I do believe that there should be violence in video games because they, as art, should necessarily reflect who we are as a civilization. I’m still going to play shooters, because I love them. Violent video games are entertaining. But I do find that I am questioning why there are so many games that put the player in the role of a mass murderer- regardless of context, cause, or justification. Why is it always about killing?

Think about it. How many digital lives did you end last year, not including online multiplayer opponents whose on-screen personages map directly to a live human being? How many over the entire time you’ve played games? For my part, I can’t count that high. If the world of Tron were a reality, I would be a Hitlerian figure of evil. And so would you. Yet I’ve never once flinched at a headshot or a backstab. Have you? Why aren’t we shocked by decapitations, dismemberments, throat-cuttings, eyeball piercings, or evisceration? It’s all become so powerless, inert, without impact.

This adherence to a standard of killing as core design element is one of the key things preventing, I think, games from progressing as a medium. We- the people that buy and play these games- have set a very, very low standard that appeals to the basest instincts and desires, valuing murder fantasy over creativity, exploration, and transcendental reflection. We got tired of killing living video game people so we started re-killing video game people that are already dead. It just goes on and on, and it’s sad that there’s no end in sight.

There are exceptions, and they are important. Games like Catherine, Journey, and Little Inferno. Games that are about other aspects of the human experience than killing other people. Over the holidays the game I played the most was Waking Mars, an IOS title about exploring Mars. It’s a science fiction game, but there isn’t a trace of the kind of xenocidal, Aliens-influenced bug hunting that characterizes an overwhelming percentage of all the science fiction games ever made. Instead of shooting the place up, you observe lifeforms and learn about the ecosphere.  Yet it’s compelling, fraught with danger, and offers challenges far beyond killing everything and then shooting a boss in its glowing bits. What if Mass Effect did away with all of the shooting and instead was a game about exploration, discovery, and the pioneer spirit? Did Bioshock really need to be a FPS to tell its story or convey its message?   Why can’t more video games follow the example of 2001: A Space Odyssey instead of fucking Pitch Black?

Think about an alternate reality where mass murder in video games wasn’t acceptable- or demanded- by the audience, where creators understood the power of depicting death economically and with meaning. Imagine Assassin’s Creed in this world. Instead of cutting down hundreds and hundreds of random enemies, your character would spend the entire game gathering intelligence, observing, and preparing for ONE murder in a 20 hour game.  How awesome- and more profoundly thrilling- would that assassination be? Imagine more games like the original Rainbow Six, where one shot kills, every bullet counts, and the goal is to complete a mission- not just kill everything in sight as you walk through a shooting gallery toward an “objective marker” to press X and flip a switch and trigger a cut scene that serves as a phony justification for the actual gameplay and actions depicted.

There’s a reason that casual gamers flock to games like Farmville, Angry Birds, and the like. They’re going to games that DO NOT reflect the real world, they aren’t escaping like “hardcore gamers” are into a world of persistent, continual, and endless violence. They aren’t using silly excuses about “blowing off steam” or “getting out some aggression” to participate in this kind of simulated mass murder. They just don’t want to see it, and I don’t think that’s wrong. I think that’s actually more normal than locking in for two hours of constant death and killing during a Call of Duty session. And I don’t want to hear developers whining that games without guns and shooting don’t sell. Because they most certainly do, as evidenced by any number of games that aren’t about shooting versus Body Count, Inversion, Homefront, Syndicate, et. al. It’s just that there are a very small number of killing-centric games that have dominated the AAA market.

But why, developers, do you keep shepherding us down this road where mass murder is the overarching theme of the video game medium? The irony is that these games are rated “M for Mature” when they’re more often than not anything but that. Is there even a possibility for us to have a Cannibal Holocaust moment in this medium where people say “OK, that is taking this kind of entertainment killing and death worship a little too far.” I don’t know that there is, and as much as I like games about fighting, shooting, stabbing, punching, and blowing things up I find myself asking if those things are actually entertaining anymore. Mass murder has lost its thrill, and I’m more excited by a game where I’m watching how water affects a subterranean organism on Mars than I am by a good K/D ratio.

The pale guy up there, one of the best writers that comics has ever seen, says it all but I’m going to quote with liberty.

“They’ll stop at nothing, you see. All the suffering and pain and death in the video game world is entertainment for us. They thought that by making the video game world more violent they would make it more “realistic”, more “adult”. God help us if that’s what it means. Maybe for once they should try being kind.”

A Very Grinchy Wii U Impression Post

I was in the shower yesterday, just a couple of hours before heading out to the Gamestop to pick up my Wii U preorder, when I thought to myself “why the hell am I buying that stupid thing?” Thus began a tumultuous, flippity-floppity bout of a priori buyer’s remorse as I reminded myself of how I really didn’t want to play yet another Mario game (but in HD!) or a host of ports with pseudo-tablet support bolted on. ZombiU, my other pick out of the launch lineup, was getting a critical drubbing- most notably from IGN, who just a couple of weeks ago posted a radioactively glowing preview calling the game the Wii U’s “killer app”. I guess the IGN editors’ idea of a “killer app” is one that rates a 6.3 or “Okay”. What’s more, I found myself thinking that if I were going to buy it, I wanted the deluxe set after all. Not the 8 gig poor man’s version that I opted for to save $50. Damn Borderlands 2 for coming out the day I went to preorder.

At any rate, I wound up dropping my wife off to get a mani/pedi (on my dime, of course) and hauling my two kids over to the shop. I picked up the console and Mario, cancelling the ZombiU preorder in favor of waiting for Gamefly. After hearing multiple reports of folks walking into stores and buying them right off the shelf, the Gamestop clerk’s ranting and raving about how there would be absolutely none of these available at retail by the end of the day seemed awfully hyperbolic.

Once the family were all in bed, I found myself in the living room with the Wii U in its box just sitting there. At once, there was that “OMG new game console” feeling that’s very rare. Especially when we’re talking about a console that is sort of the advance warning of the next generation of hardware. But I also found myself checking Ebay to see what the aftermarket prices were looking like. I’m not proud. I’d double my money on it in a heartbeat if it meant buying the kids a bigger Christmas gift and one of the coveted deluxe Wii U sets.

I wound up reading a couple of comic books (Morrison’s superlative Batman and Robin, in case you’re wondering) instead of just tearing into the box and plugging in all of the rubber and cooper spaghetti into my stupid TV that only has two HDMI jacks. I had a flashback to 2006, when I wound up rather ridiculously with three Wiis on launch day, but had to wait until Christmas to open mine. I half wanted to just wait on it. But I also half didn’t really care about breaking it out.

I gave in, and yes it was fun and cool to see the new hardware. The gamepad is cool and it actually feels great once you get used to it. At first, it kind of feels like holding a coffee table even after endless hours of pawing an iPad. I rolled my eyes at having to set up another sensor bar, right over the remnants of the sticky tape where the last one went. It powered on, I got a little excited, and then that update you might have heard about started spooling up.

After 20 minutes and another issue of Batman and Robin, I decided to just play some Black Ops 2 (review forthcoming, by the way). After an hour or so, the Wii U was finally ready to do its thing. My first impression? God damn, the menus are slow. Second impression? I really don’t want to be reminded of the Wii, even though I had some good times with it and played some great games on it. It’s too soon.

I half-heartedly made a Mii. It was hardly the joyful “OMG it looks like me!” experience it was the first time. I just didn’t really care. I knew which glasses to pick, typically scowling mouth, tousled hair without poking around. Of course, there wasn’t anyone else in the room to laugh with me about it like there was last time. Regardless, I just couldn’t care less about making a goofy character that looks like me at this stage. With that done, I did all the usual setup steps, fumbled around to find a way to recover my old WiiShop account and purchases to no avail, and finally- some three hours after hooking it up- played some damn Super Mario Bros.

You probably expect some kind of epiphanic revelation, that after playing Black Ops 2 I was tickled and delighted to see Mario and the gang in bright colors. You might expect me to rhapsodize about how moving from brutally killing xXxshawtymac420xXx and JUGGAL0JEWK1LLA to one of those Magical Games of Our Youth somehow reminded me of the whimsy and wonder of video games. Not so much. My heart did not grow two sizes and all that. Instead, I thought “huh, HD”. Wondered what the point was of having the exact same image displayed on the gamepad as was on the TV. Thought for a minute that maybe I’d just turn the TV off and play it as a handheld. Made it through a couple of courses and died a bunch. Turned it off about 20 minutes later thinking “yep, it’s a new Mario game”. Of course it’s good. Of course it’s cute. But at this point in the franchise’s history, so what?

So I went right back to take up a slot on the wonderful all-Nuketown 2025 playlist. Maybe Call of Duty hasn’t budged all that much of the Modern Warfare design document. But at least it hasn’t been virtually the same nostalgia-coasting game that Super Mario Bros. has been since Super Mario World. I’m not really sure what I expected, but that last Rayman game blows it out of the water.

I did turn the Wii U back on to check out its Netflix functions, and that resulted pretty much in a shrug as well. Yeah, it’s cool to fiddle around with the menus on the tablet, but again, it’s a big so what. I stopped off in the eShop, remembered that I just had the 8gb model, and turned it off again. Didn’t wan tto pay $20 for Trine 2 anyway.

Here’s the thing. This is a very cool, potentially great console despite my ho-hum, Grinchy attitude toward it. Even though I didn’t feel that “this is the future of gaming” feeling that I felt using a Wiimote the first time (look how that turned out), I can imagine all kinds of awesome applications and innovations that would take advantage of it. The question remains if developers are going to leverage the novelty to do something interesting with it. Or if it’s the new waggle. There’s a very big “if” involved in assessing the Wii U and in particular the gamepad.

I’ve got a rental Darksiders II on the way, which I’m looking forward to, and I’ll probably try Assassin’s Creed 3 on it. I can finally play Xenoblade Chronicles, which I’m picking up today. I don’t have- and don’t care about- Nintendoland. Most of the other launch games I’ve either played elsewhere or have zero interest in. The promise of Bayonetta 2, Platinum’s other title, and using that gamepad in Colonial Marines give me much to look forward to. Developers, it’s in your hands whether this console becomes a major player or another laughing stock like the Vita. Sure, there will definitely be good Nintendo games on it. But what else? The tools are definitely there. The other very big question involved with the Wii U if there’s money there to convince game makers to use them. After atrocities like the Cold Stone Creamery Ice Cream Game and M&Ms Cart Racing, not to mention any cut-rate minigame compliation, it isn’t hard to worry about what’s on tap for this new, promising hardware.

This morning, I looked at the console as I was putting a movie on for my son. It couldn’t be. Was that what I think it was? No. No. It can’t be. It can’t be a speck of dust. Not yet.

Cracked LCD- Rules Writing Matters

I’ve finally had to a chance to play Dirk Knemeyer’s Road to Enlightenment, and the good news is that all told it’s a pretty darn good game. It wouldn’t be proper for me to formally review it since Conquistador Games’ Director of Operations is none other than Bill Abner. You might could say that I’m in cahoots with him. He used to technically be my boss. There are all kinds of impropriety that would be bound up in my reviewing the game, which just shipped to Kickstarter bankrollers or whatever they’re called. I thought this game looked good enough to support, and the good news is that it’s not a disappointment.

But I am going to make an example out of the game to illustrate a larger point. Road to Enlightenment has one of the worst rulebooks I’ve read in recent memory. After reading through them one time, I had no idea what the core mechanic of the game was and it wasn’t even apparent that it was fundamentally a deckbuilding game. Basic game functions and processes were poorly explained to the point where it’s not clear how to play Vermeer, Newton, and Cromwell into one of the game-driving action stacks. Objectives were not clear. How to pay costs for cards wasn’t immediately evident and issues of timing were vague at best. Really important rules were crammed in an appendix of terms, stuck into call-out boxes, or hidden deep in paragraphs. Oh…so I can’t use the politics points on a Catholic card if I’m anti-Catholic? You mean there’s really not a turn marker, even though there’s a turn track or did I just miss something? Examples of play were sparse, and I came out of the rules scratching my head over them. Looking online for answers, I found rules questions and FAQs picking up the slack.

The trouble extended to actually playing the game with a table of five other seasoned game players. I had enough of an idea of how it would operate to get us going, but after literally going page by page through the rules and hitting the most significant points they all looked at me with that “what the hell are we supposed to do” thousand yard stare. That’s before they got dealt ten cards with a bunch of esoteric icons, numbers and text rules on them that they had never seen before. It was definitely a learning game to say the least, with questions and rules consultations at every turn foreclosing on anyone getting into the more interesting parts of the game. There are only about five pages of rules, which suggests both that there are about five too few. The game simply was not explained adequately by its rulebook.

Having read hundreds and hundreds of rulebooks in my time, I’ve seen more than a fair share of terribly written, formatted, organized, and explained rules. Road to Enlightenment isn’t nearly as bad as some of the rules I recall reading in the early 1990s, where designers and publishers seemed to be ephemerally suggesting how you should use the components in the box. It’s also a far cry from the confusing and complicated rulebooks that Nexus tucked into the first edition of War of the Ring and Marvel Heroes. It’s nowhere near the atrocity that was Return of the Heroes’ rulebook, presented as a conversation between characters. And we’re obviously not talking about an issue like with Magic Realm or Up Front, where it’s a very complex and detailed game that virtually requires you to learn how to play in stages.

But it is an example of why concise, clear, and well-organized writing is essential and why badly written rules are frustrating- especially when the design is good. When you’re writing a set of rules, you’re writing something that is going to be sent out into the wild and used to re-enact your game as it is intended to be played. More significantly, it is a document that game players are going to use to effectively complete the alchemical cycle of game creation by completing the design through play. With this in mind, there is no excuse for the rules to be the chief stumbling block or barrier to entry for players to experience the design. Card FAQs in a game like this should be expected, but FAQs practically required to comprehend the game at a basic level should not be.

You can’t assume anything about the reader. You have to understand that you’re giving the ingredients and the recipe for the cake but if it’s not clear if it calls for milk and pickles, then milk and pickles can and will find their way into what comes out of the oven. You’ve got respect the consumer and provide them with the best, most authoritative rules out of the box that they have purchased, not in an Internet fix-it-up file. By the time a table of six players plays the game and it bombs because of bad rules writing, it may be too late for the online FAQ. The rules are where players are introduced to a design and learn how to execute it, so don’t screw it up. That’s the TL;DR version and the moral of the story.

Like a lot of rules sets from first-time designers or smaller publishers, Road to Enlightenment feels like instructions that would make perfect, complete to sense to someone who has had the game explained to them or that has played it enough to fully comprehend its process and mechanics. But consumers purchasing this game are not those people, barring those who have had Mr. Knemeyer or our very own Bill Abner teach them how to play at the World Boardgaming Championship or elsewhere. This is why the rules FAQ is already available and growing, and it is something that could unfortunately jeopardize the success of the game in the marketplace as word gets around that the “rules are really bad”.

Getting the rules right- and I mean the writing part more than the design part- is obviously essential. But it’s also something that is a very tricky proposition that demands accessibility, proper formatting, examples, clarity, and completeness. Looking across the shelf at the rules writing at other companies provides some good examples. GMT’s often very complicated games have a uniformly impeccable, clean presentation using the traditional case-based numbering system that doesn’t necessarily make for good cover-to-cover reading, but the practicality of reference can’t be beat. And they usually include a more prose-oriented playbook with extended examples of play or a completely explained sample turn. All of the above can make their rules seem more difficult than they really are, so it’s sort of a trade-off.

Fantasy Flight Games used to have some of the worst rulebooks in the business. In recent years they’ve scaled back the text and improved their organization to the point where even their most complex games have concise rules, well-organized and thoroughly illustrated with an eye toward making it playable by someone who’s never picked up a hobby game before or a veteran. The problem with their rules is that they can’t seem to get QA issues and basic copyediting nailed down.

Mage Knight’s rules, although split between a play-through tutorial and a reference rulebook, serve the game well by making it actually quite easy to understand if you learn it as intended. I remember looking at the rules when I first got that game and thinking “oh no, this is going to be a burden”. But it wasn’t. Reading through the rules I was surprised at how well-written and executed they were, and how there was almost no confusion or vagary. The game needed this kind of entry point, and it contributed to my enjoyment of last year’s best release. If that game had a bad rulebook or if it weren’t so well-explained, I doubt it would have found the fanbase and acclaim that it has.

Road to Enlightenment presented me with a set of rules that gave me a feeling similar to what I get from reading a Phil Eklund game for the first time- complete confusion. But instead of feeling like the rules were over my head and rigorously academic, explaining a game with lots of very specific (and rationalized) detail, I felt like what should be a very easy game at a rules level was made much too difficult in the telling so to speak. Bad rules often portend bad things for a design, but there are also occasions when a little clean-up and some good old fashioned red pen editing are all that’s needed to tease out a great game buried beneath bad writing. A second edition rulebook- better written, better formatted, and better explained- is likely all Road to Enlightenment needs. Other games aren’t so lucky.