Yesterday, International Business Times published a story by Ed Smith who decided to look back at the old Edge Online review of DOOM that started the meme “if you could only talk to the monsters.” One can’t help but feel that given his opinion of gamers in the article that Smith entered it with a decided thesis already in mind to attack gamers, gaming, and praise the review as ahead of its time. I firmly disagree with Smith’s viewpoint here in general, I think it is even historically inaccurate, and attempts to make claims about the gaming industry that are misleading at best.
Let’s start here because this is a place I think that people might be willing to give the most ground in general. There’s a lot to disagree with in the article, but did Smith have a point in saying that the idea of talking to monsters was ahead of the times?
DOOM came out in 1993 originally on MS-DOS, and so it behooves us to look at what other games had come out around then or before. This is a time period when gaming was doing a lot of interesting things, not just technically, but advancing its craft in many ways. While DOOM ushered in new standards in shooters, other games were pushing boundaries in all sorts of new ways. We’re going to ignore some of the more famous games that released that year, which were seminal and notable pieces like Link’s Awakening, Star Fox, Master of Orion, and Sonic CD. No, instead let’s look at a few other games in 1993 that came out and changed how we view games, and some of the other games where you could talk to the monsters in earlier years.
Adventure games had a great year in 1993 with a lot of classics hitting in Day of the Tentacle, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, Sam and Max Hit the Road, and perhaps most advancing (if least talking) Myst. What’s easy to forget is that Myst, not DOOM, would go on to be the best-selling game of the year on PC, and in fact best on that platform until The Sims passed it nearly a decade later in 2002. Like DOOM, Myst was a beautiful and technical masterpiece for its day, but unlike DOOM, there weren’t any enemies in the game. Myst was one of the big pioneers of environmental storytelling as it pushed the boundaries, using almost entirely nonverbal clues. It was an interactive world that you explored and tried to figure out what was going on, while reading what clues were around, solving puzzles, and dealing with an ethical dilemma. In many ways, Myst, despite its notoriously hard puzzles, is a precursor to many of the indie games that seek to just immerse you in the world as back in 1993 that was what the best-selling PC game did. Toss you in a world with no explanation, a plot to discover, and puzzles to solve. I admit, it’s not talking to the monsters, but it’s also a smack at the idea that the only experimental games are those that were cordoned off to some indie scene.
Also in 1993, in a more “talk to the monsters” way, we had Syndicate by Bullfrog Productions. One of Peter Molyneux’s better-known works, Syndicate has you leading a team of cyborg agents around in the future world where corrupted mega corps that became crime syndicates fight each other for control over the world. While this doesn’t sound like a place where you might see “talking to monsters,” Syndicate did, in fact, have important interactions with enemies other than bullets to the face. In the game, you could persuade enemy targets or civilians to work with you through the use of a persuadatron, and it was a key element in the game for some of the play styles and elements of advancement. While you aren’t having a nice sit-down chat with them about their problems, you are importantly interacting with “the creatures” in ways that deal with their skills, choosing who to recruit and how to go about it.
But let’s get to Talking to Monsters. There’s a decent number of games at that time that would allow you to do it in some form, such as the mentioned Day of the Tentacle or Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, but there’s an even more on the nose game to bring up: Megami Tensei. In fact, by 1993 Megami Tensei was not just released, it had a sequel and an updated remake with the first Shin Megami Tensei releasing in 1992. While the Persona series spin-off is the most popular, the Megami Tensei franchise has been long-running and prolific with many aspects that pushed conventions forward and have continued to do so.
All of the games in the series explicitly feature the ability to talk to the monsters as it is the main way you get new party members—by talking with them, persuading them in some way to join your team via bribes, cleverness, threats, and more. For extra relevance, these creatures are literal demons based off of Japanese mythology that you talk, recruit, and all have their own character ticks and responses to know what to look out for. This began in 1987 over 7 years before the infamous “Talk to the Monster” piece. Additionally, Shin Megami Tensei featured a branching story that was based on what you did in the game, aligning you with different factions depending on your choices and how the creatures would react to you depended on that as well. Beyond these early titles launching the series as we know it, it also was an inspiration for Toby Fox for the game Undertale in particular with the talking system.
Other games that released around this time that can also be pointed at for innovations in storytelling, branching narratives, and other advances include: Ultima VII: The Black Gate, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Wing Commander I and II for various reasons such as open narrative and 2’s ability to recruit an enemy, Phantasy Star II‘s characters and themes, and back in 1993 Betrayal at Krondor had dialogue trees and a focus on a well told and complex story.
The idea that games only focused on branching stories and dialogue trees in recent years or that players couldn’t talk to the monsters back then is absurd. In some of these games you can talk to far more monsters than Skyrim or Mass Effect will let you do, where outside of NPCs who are peaceful, many times your primary interaction is weapon to the face as they use a lot of action.
So now that we’ve addressed what might be the point you’re most willing to concede to him, let’s get to the rest of this.
The Review is Prescient
As we’ve discussed above, a lot of the suppositions that Smith makes about the idea of talking to monsters being ahead of its time are just inaccurate. However, he mentions that games might be more interesting if they added more choice in gameplay options and approaches is something you see today, and that is true … to a point. We have also reached a point where games often attempt to do too much because they want to be everything and no longer have to deal with the tight space restrictions that a game like DOOM had to back in 1993. We might say a game would be better if it did this, but just as common is the critique that feature X is unneeded. Elegance can be found in often distilling something down to just the core of what it needs.
Additionally, the review itself misses some of the elements of DOOM. While not a giant fan of the series, stating that it is all just kill, kill, kill ignores the fact that the game often requires you to go on hunts for ammo and health to keep on going and exploring. That is one of the aspects that set it above the other things, and the perspective switch was a big change from your general 2D shoot-em-up, as were the way visuals were presented. Denying that shifting perspective is a large impact today is just laughable after we’ve seen all the issues that have come from that and the struggles of 2D vs 3D that plagued the 90s. While perhaps Edge can be forgiven for not knowing in 1994 how long that transition would take, or that going to first person created a largely different experience for many users, in 2016 there is no way that a video game critic can’t know that and wince at seeing that type of presumption in the Edge review.
As for saying Edge recognized DOOM as a gaming landmark? Take a look at that review again. It doesn’t do that at all. It’s not hypercritical and in many ways, while people can disagree, it was basically saying it was a technically impressive game that didn’t really advance things too much. In fact, it said people would be tired of it in a week or two, something that hasn’t happened, as people still create and play new maps on that core engine to this day. They weren’t speculating on what could have been but saying what they would have liked more of—and that’s fine. He had a different opinion on the game than many others and that’s a good thing for the industry as a whole. But to present that article as a sage reading knowing where DOOM would be is blowing it entirely out of proportion. It is an interesting piece to read and see, as while you might disagree with it, it is well written.
Alright, Smith. Let’s have a talk here. Gaming is as experimental as it has ever been right now and as safe as it has ever been at the same time. It is one of, if not the, largest entertainment industry and people try out all new things all the time. We see games that experiment with new ideas go on and become giant hits, because today a developer can make their game and reach out to an audience directly and do well. The reason why many big budget games are safe is the same reason many big budget movies are safe—they cost a lot to make and are relying on tried and true things. It’s the reason why there will be yet another Transformers film and why there’ll be another Call of Duty: it’s safe, profitable, and works. There’s room for your popcorn action flick and for your Momentos alongside each other, and while I don’t like Transformers, the fact it sells tickets means a lot of people find it an enjoyable distraction for a few hours—even if it is dumb as hell.
The indie scene is more than just a handful of titles that you dismiss it as. While in the film industry, many indie films have issues with distribution and costs, in gaming, because of our large digital distribution networks being pretty open, an indie game has a chance to shine. Not only that, the term indie has exploded as what once represented one or two man jobs can now also represent teams of 15 to 30 or more people working on a vision to make something unique.
Also as for big budget games thinking about pushing a standard? How about I present you Fable 2 by Lionhead, which pushed gay characters just to push back against critics. How about coming out next month, No Man’s Sky, which is pushing the boundaries of many things as well?
You talk about TV demonstrating big budget can push boundaries but take a stop and look. What has happened there? The market was effectively disrupted by a series of outsiders getting in and investing large sums of money. Gaming has some trends that way; we’re seeing more and more indie games get bankrolled, and we have titles like Valiant Hearts come out. But from a business perspective, there isn’t that same opportunity to disrupt because they are all competing on the same core distribution nodes. Where that experience is most likely to happen is some sort of new distribution market, such as VR or a new console if someone releases it.
So here we are. Let’s just take a moment on what you exactly called gaming culture in your piece:
- Trapped inside dozens of ill-defined boundaries
- Bile spitting at women
- Actively resisting sophistication
- Pushing the Status Quo
- Witch Hunters who burn anything that’s different at the stake
If your opinion of gaming is all of this, I have to ask first of all why you take the time to write about it?
Second of all I want to ask you, what is gaming culture? You never define it other than citing it as this awful thing like all of that above. Over 1.2 billion people play games as of 2013—think about the size of that. Whether it’s mobile games, online games (which makes up 700 million of the number), AAA games, or indie titles—if you have Internet, odds are you game. Even if you don’t, there’s a good chance in the modern world that you do, which is why the idea of a gaming culture as a large monolithic structure is stupid.
So for the interest of continuing this discussion some, I’ll take a stab at what you mean by “hardcore gamers.” The ones who speak on the Internet, that 1% on Steam who buy the most games. Part of what makes this challenging is you also have to separate gamers from “general Internet” because the Internet, in general, produces a larger amount of snark and cynicism in general.
Let’s address this idea that these “hardcore” gamers only want safe, status quo happy games and such first. To that point, I have this to say: the numbers say you are wrong. Steam Spy did a post about target audiences last year and published that the top 1% own 33% of all games on Steam, while the top 20% own 88%. That top 1% have to own at least 107 games, while the 20% have to own only 4 games to qualify. The number of people in that 1% of Steam is 1.3 million, or roughly a thousandth of the total gaming market, which while only a portion, will tend to include many of those hardcore gamers and is the home of the indie game scene. These are the people who buy a lot of games and are, on PC at least, responsible for much of the indie surge. That tiny group is who experiment and buy those different games that you are preaching about wanting to see. They are the ones who let games like Gone Home; That Dragon, Cancer; Shovel Knight; and more survive on the market. They aren’t actively witch hunting what’s different to burn it down; instead, they are celebrating it and looking for new experiences.
Does that mean they like them all? No. Not everything will work for everyone. As for That Dragon, Cancer and the response there, that had to do with a mixture of trolls, a highly sensitive subject, a genre that missed for some people, and even then for all the people speaking against it there were others defending it. You say gaming is an insular place where nothing new is welcome? I reject your thesis and say instead that gamers quite clearly want to try new things. They buy them and try them out, and while there’s some cynicism on things like Early Access or Kickstarter or some things just being the same, much of that is people just talking with their friends about their hobby. It just happens that talking is seen more now and people react differently to it. We’ve also seen on PC a wider range of games appear by tags, such as the Visual Novel Tag that only really started taking off in 2012, crowdfunded in 2013, Illuminati in 2010, Dragons in 2009, and more. The Steam marketplace is a vibrant and diverse place for games.
So let me conclude with this: I reject your premise that gaming is some sort of insular place, that the DOOM review was ahead of its time, and gaming is “stagnant.” I think expecting a game to function—that is what you mean by technical proficiency I assume—is something people have a reason to expect. People when they spend $60 feeling like that they got their values worth isn’t some sort of restricting abnormality, instead an acknowledgment that $60 is a lot of money for people. Lastly, mocking and disagreeing with a review that missed the point that a game was developed as the equivalent of popcorn gaming isn’t keeping gaming in a loop as gaming is a constantly advancing medium exploring whole new areas of storytelling and gameplay on a yearly basis.
You talk a lot about gaming being a cynical and snide place. So, I have to wonder: are you just looking in the mirror?