by Daniel Bullard-Bates
One of the greatest struggles of the artist is to discover one’s areas of expertise and come to terms with one’s limitations. This can be brutal and occasionally heartbreaking: One can’t help but feel sympathy for the person who dreams of being a painter only to discover they are colorblind, or the singer-songwriter who is hopelessly tone-deaf. It can also be empowering; discovering that one has a talent for the thing they most love to do is an awe-inspiring revelation.I remember reading Fight Club and thinking, “There’s nobody I can think of who could better do this than [David] Fincher.” It’s like it was made for him. It’s the kind of text married to someone of his talents.-Edward Norton, AV Club Interview
In an interview with us last month, Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany said that they avoid overt narratives as a company because, “None of us are professional storytellers nor have much experience in it, so why would we try and compete with games that hire extremely established writers?” A statement of this kind may seem obvious to many, but artistry is never so simple. Artistic creation is the stuff of dreams. Art tells us that we can do whatever we want to do. Kellee Santiago’s statement, to me, is both encouraging and humbling.
Many disappointments in video gaming have resulted from their creators’ inability to understand their own limitations, as designers or studios. There are so few companies that have incredible talents in all the areas necessary to make truly incredible games. Valve is the only creative group that I have witnessed consistently delivering top-notch artistry in game design, writing, and technical prowess. A few other companies, like Naughty Dog and BioWare, are getting somewhere close to that plane of idealized video game creation, but they still lean on a few of their key strengths as they develop in other directions.
Other companies succeed or fail in their artistry depending entirely on how well they know their own strengths and play to them. The creative team at Blizzard, for example, is the nearly uncontested king of gameplay and addictive reward systems, resulting in huge success for every product they release. Their writing team, on the other hand, tends to resort to archetypal characters and easily recognized themes and narrative structures. They’re not doing anything special with their stories, and they don’t need to. That’s not why most people buy their games.
Like many other games which receive lukewarm attention, both critically and financially, Brütal Legend was not as successful as it could have been was due to a failure on the part of Tim Schafer and Double Fine Productions. It was not because they are poor game designers or writers. Far from it! It is because they did not fully recognize their own strengths as artists. Psychonauts garnered a cult following for its creative scenarios, clever writing, charming characters, and winning sense of humor. The platforming and gameplay was seen as imprecise and occasionally frustrating.
Brütal Legend was more focused on the gameplay, delivering a very brief story mode and cursory exploration of the characters and themes. The gameplay was enjoyable enough, but still unrefined; Double Fine’s technical expertise has improved since Psychonauts, but not enough to carry a full-length game. If Brütal Legend had been given more focused attention in a few key gameplay areas, and a more involved exploration of the settings and characters of the incredible world that Tim Schafer and company created, it would have been a greater game by far. It is still a worthy game, but it will not be entered into the artistic canon of video games.
Though we have spent a great deal of time poking fun at Gears of War for its poor writing and acting, the reason that games like that and Halo continue to be successful has nothing to do with the writing. It is because the creators have focused their energies on what they do best: gameplay, controls, visuals, and multiplayer. As narrative-focused gamers, we are less likely to find an overabundance of merit in this approach, but there is no arguing with the fact that this is a successful tactic for Epic and Bungie. A game company that knows its strengths and emphasizes them, like thatgamecompany, is bound for success, whether that success be financial or artistic. On the other hand, those who find it too painful to admit their own limitations may be doomed to semi-obscurity and fair to middling achievements.