How far do we go to create art?

Jason Rohrer, at it again.
Jason Rohrer, at it again.

Another one of Jason Rohrer’s mind-blasting games, Castle Doctrine, was recently released.  I love what Rohrer does.  Oftentimes, he’s credited with being the person who took games and put them in the limelight as far as “games as art” goes with his most famous title, Passage.  All of his games are very meta.  Everything about them subverts our normal understanding of what a video game is.  Save the princess?  Nope, she just dies.  Experience a story?  No, tell one yourself.  Exposing the nefarious trade of blood diamonds on the Nintendo DS?  Yes, please.  Make a game that’ll be playable in thousands of years… to aliens!  Yup, he did that too.  Jason Rohrer is a nutjob in all the good ways.

There’s a saying that no one will recognize you as an artist, your talents, or know who the hell you are until you’re dead.  This clearly isn’t true because plenty of people know who Jason Rohrer is.  There’s another saying where artists will always be poor.  Now this is the biggest question as far as creating something that is marketable to the mainstream while still trying to support yourself.  Of course, this can be done.  Heck, Rohrer has a family to support (albeit they live in some crazy self-sustaining tall grass growing hippy property, it’s nuts).

I was checking out Castle Doctrine on Steam when I came across a really hilarious review that prompted the idea for this post.  But first, let me explain to you what this game is about.

More after the jump.

Basically, you are the man of a household and it’s your responsibility to support and protect your family (as all men are destined to do, duhhhh).  You, unfortunately, live in a very terrible world where people will want to break into your house and steal your shit.  These people robbing you are other men who have families to take care of because minimum wage doesn’t get you anything in this country so you resort to a life of robbery to support yourself, your wife, and your adorable children.  These other bread winners are other players, it’s a multiplayer game.

So with people robbing you and perhaps killing your family at the same time, you have to protect yourself by spending cash to buy security systems like electric fences, dogs, and turrets.  The catch is that your family needs to be able to access the exit and their bedrooms (something like that) without getting killed or trapped by state of the art security.  Once you die, you die and you have to start all over again.  Another man, another family, more robberies, more security.

Quite an interesting premise.  An even more interesting commentary about the state of our country.  Now here’s that Steam review that I was taking about.

I’ve had the alpha of this for a long time, so I’ve played it much more than my Steam account would suggest. I love the concept of this game. It’s really a great idea behind it.

 

The problem for me is that the game itself has trouble matching up to that actual concept. I don’t think this is the developer’s fault at all. He clearly has tried to balance the game as much as is possible. It’s just that it quickly devolves into a sort of class system. If you’ve got a ton of money, you can protect your house amazingly well and do some incredibly intricate work. If you don’t have a ton of money, you’re pretty much screwed, because you can’t protect anything well at all. And the problem here is that being able to get more money depends on robbing some other houses of people who do have money… meaning that you’re up against near-impossible traps and schemes.

 

And another issue for me is the family mechanic. Having a family prevents you from doing some things for protection because you need to have a clear path for them to escape. But as soon as someone kills your family, you’re actually in many ways BETTER OFF, because it means you can make even crazier traps. The amount of additional income they add just doesn’t make up enough for the amount of people who will die trying to rob your house if you’re able to make some of the more deadly setups.

 

Again, I don’t think that any of this is the fault of the developer. There have been a bunch of updates since the first alpha that have attempted to improve this situation. Unfortunately, it almost seems like it is a limitation in the concept itself – one that takes all the fun out of it for anyone who is starting out. I really wanted to like this game, but I just haven’t been able to despite checking in after many different versions/updates.

 

—Jhoff80 (782 products in his library, lol)

The first striking comment in this review is that the game “devolves into a sort of class system” where if “you’ve got a ton of money, you can protect your house amazingly well and do some incredibly intricate work. If you don’t have a ton of money, you’re pretty much screwed, because you can’t protect anything well at all.”  That’s particularly hilarious to me because that’s, what I think, what Rohrer is exactly trying to say.  His titles have always been heavy handed with the commentary so if we follow his trend, Castle Doctrine is not only about our false sense of security and arms escalation to protect ourselves but also speaking about income disparity and socio-economic issues that are pervasive in most countries.  The rich family escalates and gets AA missiles while the poor have nothing but a stray chihuahua barking at their door.  Such is the American Dream.

Attempting to bridge the mechanics into metaphors and real-life corollaries will ultimately be harshly scrutinized by the mainstream community.

As designers, we know that games and systems are great for teaching people complex concepts.  By giving a safe space to someone to explore and discover the many facets of the system that is carefully (hopefully) designed and laid out… well, that’s something very unique to games.  Systems learning, systems thinking.  These are things that games do very well and is slowly being discovered by the education community to be used to actually teach our progeny (heyo science is systems! Math Blaster, heck yeah!).  However, do these games really have a place in mainstream gaming?  Jhoff80’s review seems to be a resounding ‘no’.  Mainstream games are systems too but they are only good at teaching their mechanics for mechanics sake—and blowing the bloody shit out of each other, of course.  Attempting to bridge the mechanics into metaphors and real-life corollaries will ultimately be harshly scrutinized by the mainstream community.  Putting this op-ed off for longer than I had hoped (as usual) was actually fortuitous because Steam recently launched a game tag system where players are able to add tag descriptors to their games.  So what did games like Gone Home get?  Well, just imagine some of the most hateful and inappropriate things and you’ll be right on the money.  Thankfully, Steam managed to enable better self-curation with additional features.

Jhoff80 is also right on the money with the rest of his critique, which is definitely valid, except that his critique on the game’s message is also his gripe about it being not fun as a game.  I’ll admit that not all of these kinds of games are the best examples of ‘games’.  Rohrer’s Passage would be considered a pile of steaming horse shit because it’s absolutely not a game… but we’re applying too harsh of a standard of things that aren’t trying to be something we think they’re trying to be.  We can apply these harsh standards to core games like the Call of Duties or Battlefields.  It’s clear, to me at least, that we can’t dole out the same judgement towards games like Kentucky Route Zero or The Novelist.  In other words, can mainstream and (for lack of better terms) avante-garde exist peacefully?

PBS Gameshow did a great piece about fanboys/girls potentially ruining game development and they strike upon a similar idea that we shouldn’t judge something for what it isn’t.  They quote Hume’s is/ought problem where we perceive something as “ought to be” rather than for “what it is.”  I think what this boils down to is a lack of willingness to change or evolve on the consumer’s part.  Just pure stubbornness.  To put it harshly, one of my core opinions, is that the majority of people who play games still act like children.  While it’s great that games can bring about the essence of childhood and play at large, acting like you’re in your terrible two’s because you didn’t get an ending you want (and trolling with death threats that led to people quitting) is juvenile.  You need a good spanking.  This immature behavior sets a bad example for those people on the outside who then critique the gaming mainstream based on these behaviors.  Games are losing the greatest war they’ve been dragged into and it’s not looking good.

However, onus does not lie with just the consumers of video games.  The responsibility to change all this also lies equally with the creators.  While Rohrer’s Castle Doctrine may not well received by some, it’s one additional example in a sea that constantly manages to drown out the avante-garde.  Theory is, if we keep on producing Rohrer-like games then we’ll eventually be able to push back the tide!  Hopeful?  Yes.  Simple?  Overly so.  Developers cannot simply reach out their hands into the brains of their consumers and alter the way the perceive and expect out of video games.  We can only put another game into their store front to click “Add to Cart.”.  More and more of these kinds of games make it to the front page of Steam every day so it’s looking hopeful.

A powerful message expressed in a flawless system will help your sales, but as an indie it’s still difficult to market such a title.  With little money and notoriety there is only luck.  You only need to create a good game and it will sell, they say.  Not really.  There are things that will sell more easily than others.  Perhaps make those first… make a name for yourself… appeal to the mainstream… gain their trust… and then take the risk to change the formula up on them to create something wonderful.