In praise of blowing &*@% up

Clive Thompson has a good column at Wired about loving first-person shooters — and not being ashamed to say so. He writes:

This is a subject that huge numbers of gamers feel strongly about, but are terrified of saying out loud. After all, we now live in an age where the pop-culture mainstream has decided that games are fascinating — but only the “complex,” socially nuanced ones. Everyone moons over Will Wright’s emotionally sophisticated Sims, and his impending, world-modeling Spore. Critics gush over the social valences of life inside World of Warcraft, or the cinematic scope of the Final Fantasy series, or the massive forking narratives of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. But when it comes to shooters — the Cro-Magnon sector of the gaming world? Everyone recoils. If only gamers would grow up, sigh the pundits, these infantile titles would finally vanish, and gaming would finally be respectable.

It’s funny how the game castes have shaken out. For all their epic scope, the Final Fantasy games are still cliched, geeky-level-building RPGs. And I haven’t gotten to play Elder Scrolls yet, but I bet the huge world is full of badly written fantasy dialogue. The Sims and Spore are trying to do something different, is all. The problem with shooters is just that there’s only so much they can do. But that’s also why they can be so fun: Sometimes you just want to blow stuff up. (As I said in my review of Mercenaries, “The game makes a big deal out of the moral implications of selling yourself out to the different factions, but whatever. Just put me in a tank and let me turn buildings into rubble.”)

Thompson also answers a question I’ve had for a few years: What’s the deal with Halo? I’ve only played a bit of the first Halo on the PC, and I was thoroughly unimpressed. But all the slobbering made me think I missed some great story or amazing level or something. Nope, Thompson says:

Everyone blathered on and on about the immersive story, the fleshed-out characters, the great script, yadda yadda. But that wasn’t why they played it. No, they played it because of what the designers called the game’s ability to deliver “30 seconds of fun,” over and over again. And those 30 seconds didn’t consist of moderating a frickin’ guild meeting, if you know what I mean. Nosiree: They consisted of wasting every last freaky alien that wandered anywhere near your muzzle.

Now it makes sense.

That’s not to say first-person shooters are critic-proof; a crappy game can’t hide behind Thompson’s argument. There are still good shooters and annoyingly overpraised ones. But one of the main reasons for playing video games is they let you do things you can’t do in real life. Things like blowing *%@$ up. Nothing wrong with that.

— April 11, 2006

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