Video game reviews typically evaluate several criteria: gameplay, length, story, graphics, sound, etc. Which begs the question: if you’re trying to determine the overall quality of a game, which of these criteria is most important?
Well gameplay, obviously.
At least that’s what I’ve always told myself. After all, you’re playing a game, and the quality of that experience rests on the game’s content. How the game actually works, the obstacles you face and your means of overcoming them, these qualities are what gaming is all about. Things like graphics and sound are cool and all but, but they’re also kind of…
Kind of what?
“Kind of superficial.”
And just like that, what started out as an innocuous post about graphics vs. gameplay within the context of video games has cracked open an ugly debate about something much more fundamental and far-reaching: content vs. design.
Donkey Kong Country: A Case Study In Content Vs. Design
I’ve probably clocked in more hours playing Donkey Kong Country than any other game. I was in a band in high school and my drummer had the game at his house. After a half-hour of practicing we’d usually just play Donkey Kong for hours on end. I’m sure we’d be rock stars by now if we’d put half the time into writing songs that we put into playing video games.
And don’t get me wrong, the gameplay in Donkey Kong was phenomenal. But there was more to it than that. It wasn’t just about jumping and swinging, bashing bad guys, collecting bananas, blasting out of barrels. There was something else.
Donkey Kong Country was a beautiful game.
I mean look at it!
Younger readers might not appreciate this, but when I first saw the pre-rendered 3-D graphics of a monkey wearing a tie scratching his head my jaw dropped. And the music… my friend and I both had MP3s of the entire soundtrack. The underwater music alone still gives me chills.
There have been other “wow” moments like this throughout my gaming career, usually corresponding with the release of a new game console. I remember when I first saw Mario jump out of a 3-D pipe, and realized that gaming as I knew it had changed forever:
More recently, I played the latest installment of the Zelda series, Breath of the Wild. I remember walking onto a cliff and staring in disbelief at what looked like a painting but was actually an intricate world I could explore to my hearts desire:
But even I have to admit that Donkey Kong’s graphics are showing their age a little bit. So how important are they, really?
Well, let’s just talk about the “mine cart” levels. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, these are levels in the game where you’re traveling at high speeds in a mine cart, like this:
Everyone always fights over the controller when it comes to the mine cart levels. They’re so much fun! But why?
Is it the gameplay? If you think about it, the control functions in the mine cart levels are actually fairly limited. Whereas in other levels you can jump, climb, crawl, explore, go backwards forwards and so on, once you’re in the mine cart all you can do is jump. Period.
So why is it so much fun? I think the answer to this question, and the question about the relative importance of content vs. design, is the same. The quality of a gaming experience isn’t just about gameplay or sound or graphics or plot: it’s about everything.
The pace of the music, the spacing of the obstacles, the objects flying by in the background, and yes the responsiveness of the A-button you’re tapping to jump, these qualities all interact and come together to create a magical gaming experience. Like legs of a stool, each of these has equal importance, and you’re going to notice if one isn’t in line with the others.
So why is this important? Well, for years I considered content and design to be a zero-sum game, where favoring one would always come at the expense of the other. I think this attitude is misguided, and could have far-reaching implications in my life if I’m not careful.
Take this blog for example. Zero effort was put into the design of this blog. Font? Default WordPress setting. Structure? Default WordPress setting. The only thing I changed was the background color, which I recently updated to a particular shade of blue-green that I use at work because it’s supposed to be easier on your eyes than looking at a white screen. You’re welcome!
As I dig deeper, I realize that I haven’t just shown indifference toward design, I’ve shown contempt for it. And I’m afraid that this attitude might be grounded in a deep seeded insecurity about my own lack of knowledge in this area.
Saying that “design is superficial” is much easier than admitting I have a blind-spot when it comes to design. It’s easier to say that fonts don’t matter, rather than admit that I’m too lazy to research fonts. If I can convince myself that something isn’t important, then it doesn’t really matter if I don’t see or understand it, right?
Wrong. Basically what I’m saying is I’m Anne Hathaway’s character in the blue sweater scene from Devil Wear’s Prada. And I want to fix that.
So How Do I Fix It?
I think it starts with withholding judgement. We tend to judge what we don’t understand, and judgement in turn acts as a barrier to understanding.
So I just need to break the cycle. The next time I catch myself asking “why does this matter?” or “who cares?” I’m going to try to ask myself a different question:
“What can this teach me?”
And then I’m going to learn.