Everyone who plays video games has an opinion about ‘em.
This honestly feels like it’s even more the case for games than it is for movies. In my experience, there are a lot of folks (who aren’t writers or “content creators”) who will see a movie like Avengers: Endgame and have about 2 sentences of an opinion on it, and nothing else to add. It was alright, it was fun. Or maybe it sucked, and it was boring.
But if early message boards and modern social media networks are any indication, everyone who plays games has a lot to say on their experiences playing them. Which makes sense, especially when many games ask us to spend many more hours with them than a movie does.
I know there are probably some folks who play games that roll their eyes at people who have lengthy thoughts about them (if you’re one of them and you clicked this piece, uhh…buckle up) but it seems fair to me that a piece of media that asks for 60 hours of your life would warrant a thread, post, or article of critique. If you’re gonna give us that much to chew on, we’re gonna talk about what we’re eating.
Although it all perfectly makes sense to me, there’s still this doubt in the back of mind. This feeling of contradiction, or hypocrisy, or unfairness.
It’s this thought of, “Do we hold different games to different standards? And if we do…should we?”
The Prestigious AAA
To be clear, I’m not talking about the difference in scope between AAA (big-budget, big audience, mainstream) games and indie (small-budget, niche audience, enthusiast) games. That’s a whole other can of worms.
In my mind, there’s hypocrisy in how I think of different AAA games. And I think it has to do with who their perceived audience is.
Here’s what trips me up:
For years, every time a big “prestige” AAA game comes out, there’s an avalanche of really interesting journalism, discussion, critique, and analysis of it. People pick it apart, dissecting every aspect of it that works for them, doesn’t work for them, and what makes those different parts tick. This goes for the game design, the art, the music, the writing, the business practices, everything.
You could fill a library with people’s in-depth writing on the Dark Souls series. Or of Final Fantasy. Or of Call of Duty. Or of Assassin’s Creed. Or of Fallout.
The easiest recent example of this is The Last of Us Part II, a game that has sparked a conveyor belt of diverse opinions and deep dives. Everyone had a different experience with this game, and this game left people a lot to chew on. Then everybody did what they do best: they wrote reviews, hosted podcasts, recorded Youtube videos, and posted Twitter threads of their thoughts on this really interesting and polarizing game.
And me? I’ve just been eating it up! Yum yum!
All of these great, thought-provoking pieces for me to enjoy and learn so many things, and I don’t even need to buy or play the game at all. Instead, I get to study and listen in on this interesting critical discussion about this interesting piece of art. Literal hours of podcast, literal pages of review. It’s super engaging and fun and, in my opinion, is a shining example of what I love about art and media in general. It lets us share our thoughts and critiques and lets us delve into so many different topics.
The Last of Us Part II has been praised and critiqued for its gameplay mechanics, its animation, its storytelling, its characters, its studio’s production culture, its themes, its politics, and its creators’ intentions. This, in my view, is all interesting and is all “fair game” just like it is for discussion of any form of art or literature.
But recently I’ve had a realization. Sometimes a game comes along and it makes me feel like a bit of a hypocrite. That game might be Paper Mario: The Origami King
The AAA Toy Aisle
For years, people talk about video games as if there’s a divide between “hardcore games” and “casual games”, and I don’t think this can be further from the truth.
It’s an oversimplification that seems to make sense at first, categorizing games into tidy labels with their own audiences, genres, and monetization methods. But when you look deeper into it, the black-and-white divide between them doesn’t really make that much sense. After all, there are players who play The Sims and Candy Crush in a very very hardcore way, and players who play Halo in a very light-weight, casual way. At most, you could make these labels for shifting attitudes that each individual player might have towards the game they’re playing that day.
But even if we set that aside, you can still say that there are games that are meant to appeal to a wide audience (or new, inexperienced players) and games that are meant for a more seasoned audience. Or you could point out that there are certainly games that are appealing to children (or “families”) and games that are appealing more to the 16–36 adult age range.
The easiest example of wide audience appeal would be Nintendo, of course.
Nintendo is probably thought of as the king of colorful, kid-friendly video games that are super enjoyable to folks of all ages and backgrounds. And I think that reputation is well deserved, because at the end of the day they truly do make great games that almost any child could pick up, find appealing, and have a great time with.
It’s worth noting that Nintendo makes “all-ages” games, not games specifically meant for kids 10 and younger. And I think this is an important distinction because Nintendo is also in the industry of making “mainstream AAA games”, that is to say they’re in the business of making games that are meant to sell as many copies as humanly possible. Which means that ultimately, adults are meant to buy them too.
But if Nintendo games are large, mainstream AAA games that are meant to be successful and are created by a highly-lauded developer, why is my gut-reaction to Nintendo critique so much different?
I think of myself as a pretty fair and logical person. But is it fair for me to be judgmental of people who write huge thinkpieces on Pokemon Sword and Shield, or video essays on Paper Mario, or hot takes about Yoshi’s Crafted World, or huge Twitter threads about Mario Party?
Even though I have endless respect for the craft of these games (and gravitate to them myself way more than I gravitate to Dark Souls or The Last Of Us), there’s still this voice in the back of my head scoffing, “Look at these losers, laying out a thousand words of their opinion on a game designed for children.”
No matter how hypocritical it sounds to say this, there is a part of me that will always find it ridiculous when people have hours and hours of things to pick apart about a Nintendo game. Grown adults having passionate debates about games I played when I was 9. Adults whose careers (or hobbies) as journalists, writers, or critics depend entirely on the dissection of games whose primary goal is probably to be wrapped under the Christmas tree by a parent hoping to surprise their kid.
And to get the disclaimer out of the way: I’m not talking about the inter-personal scandals, forum flame wars, nostalgia-fueled elitism, or anything like that. Maturity isn’t usually known to be gamers’ strong suit, and that stuff is even more gross and ridiculous when it’s centered around Nintendo games. We shouldn’t give attention or credit to uninformed complaints or childish outbursts. And we definitely shouldn’t listen to anybody known to be disrespectful or a tool.
But even if we don’t count that stuff, there’s still this part of me that will prickle at the sight of people giving their lengthy thoughts on kid-friendly games. The most embarrassing part is, I only get this reflex when the lengthy thoughts are negative, not when they’re nostalgic or positive.
Why should I get defensive of kid-friendly games? And why should I judge people who pick them apart? I certainly don’t feel this way about the works of Disney and Pixar, whose films I’m happy to read cutting pieces on any day of the week. But something about kid-friendly video games, the way they almost blend the distinction between media and toy, feels so odd to “over-analyze.”
If I enjoy the open discussion and critique of The Last of Us Part II, Dark Souls, and Bioshock so badly, shouldn’t I also enjoy when people rant about what makes a good Paper Mario game?
People have torn Paper Mario games completely apart, laying out in no minced words what they like and what they dislike about the series. People have strong feelings about what they feel the developer is doing right and doing wrong.
Why am I enthusiastic about critics delving deep into interview quotes from the creators of The Last of Us Part II, but feel weird about critics delving deep into interview quotes from the creators of Paper Mario: The Origami King? If I feel that one is a valid jumping-off point for discussion about the final product, shouldn’t the other one be too? Although the weight of the subject matter is very different, it’s essentially the same concept using the creators’ intentions and process as a way to talk about the final product.
My brain’s defense has always been that “fanboys” are being too ridiculously picky and over-analytical with Nintendo games. But recently, especially with The Last of Us and Paper Mario, it feels wrong to say that one is okay to write a manifesto over and one should be kept to a trim 4-paragraph product review.
While most Nintendo games aren’t dealing with meaty, complex topics like politics and ethics in as direct a way as the “prestige” AAA games, they are still these huge projects that have enough within them to be worth picking apart.
The All-Ages Gray Area
It’s possible that you might also have this “hypocritical” divide in your mind between critiquing games for adults and games that are kid-friendly.
I think one possible explanation, at least for me, is that it has always felt that there’s less meat on the bones of the kid-friendly games, which means there’s less to dissect and study, which means they don’t warrant being talked about like that.
After all, it’s obvious that Paper Mario: The Origami King isn’t trying to “say something” as much as The Last of Us Part II is. It’s not intended, written, or presented that way. So without those clear, powerful thematic elements, there’s a lot less to discuss in the same way you would for literature or film.
Most Nintendo games aren’t meant to be “thought-provoking” or deal with complicated human conflict. The developers often share that their intention is to hone in on really joyful and satisfying play, or just evoke a set of feelings, almost in the same way as a well-crafted toy or an evocative painting. Something meant to bring delight, or feel good to use or experience.
That said, one thing that’s interesting to me is when sometimes people brush past their positive thoughts on a lot of what kid-friendly games are aiming for. I’ll see a full review of a great kid-friendly game where the art gets like one sentence: “The characters and worlds are colorful and really pop in a charming way.” And nothing else about it. Is it not worth digging into your thoughts on the art and music? The presentation is a huge part of what these games are, and are a huge part of what makes them appealing, fun, approachable, and satisfying, especially for little kids. So why is the fact that it worked and appealed to you just footnote in an overview of the final game?
Another thing that always interests me is the fuzzy gray area of games that skirt the line between “for kids” and “for adults.” Oftentimes these games are competitive multiplayer games. Fortnite, Overwatch, Super Smash Bros. These are games where competitive balance, meta strategies, patch notes, and content updates are massively important to a lot of people. In some cases, they could even be important to people’s livelihoods, in the form of tournament prize money or Twitch subscribers.
But despite the fact that these games are taken quite seriously by many adults, there is still a strain of tension when they are “over-analyzed” or debated. There’s this feeling that I’m sure many people share that it’s ridiculous for people to be so passionate about Super Smash Bros., or to get so angry about Overwatch, or have so much stake in Fortnite. By-and-large, I feel the same way. However…maybe there isn’t really much at all that differentiates those games from Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Starcraft, Street Fighter, Call of Duty, etc.
At the end of the day, all competitive multiplayer games are inherently silly video games that have become full-fledged sports. Or at least that’s one way of rudely boiling them down. I can’t scoff at the fanbase for one of them for basing their life on a kid-friendly game if I’m going to take another one marginally more seriously.
But even then, it feels like it’s the competitive nature of those games (or the monetization methods of games like Fortnite) that really drive a lot of that interest in conversation, not the other elements of it. People often analyze it from the perspective of competitive balance, and delve less into the other things that make it what it is.
As a general population, we’ve all just taken for granted that Fortnite, Overwatch, and Super Smash Bros. look amazing. Incredible, appealing character designs and animations that draw all sorts of players in. All-in-all it’s probably one of the most important aspects of those games, and why they spawn so many imitators, and it’s usually brushed under the rug as a given. But these games, despite how massively successful they are, probably deserve even more credit for the things they do well.
Maybe it’s just taken as a given that artists can create amazing cartoony characters, or that game designers can make games “fun”, even though it’s so easy to miss the mark.
When a new game tries to be as colorful and appealing as Overwatch is and I hear someone write it off as “a Pixar artstyle” or “Fortnite look-alike” like it’s some sort of cash grab, it drives me up the wall. I wish we would treat all games with the same full, multi-modal consideration of everything that makes it great.
And that realization is what brought me to write this.
Fair Is Fair
I scratch my head about why kid-friendly games don’t get the full range of praise they deserve, because there’s lots of things about them that are taken for granted.
So why should I get uncomfortable when I hear people tear apart a kid-friendly game if it just isn’t working for them?
Maybe I’m just jealous that oftentimes these games won’t get the fully rounded, lengthy, eloquent, well-researched pieces that the “prestige” games get.
Since Paper Mario: The Origami King and Pokemon Sword/Shield don’t rely on as many thematic and screenwriting elements like film, literature, and The Last of Us Part II do, they rely on different aspects to deliver their intentions. Gameplay, characters, art, music, tone, their sense of wonder, and the pure satisfaction of performing the game’s primary verbs. Most games have these things, but these kid-friendly games rely heavily on them.
So if those things aren’t resonating for you…honestly, you should let the world know!
And I shouldn’t roll my eyes at that.
Maybe the depth of harsh criticism of “prestige” AAA games is a goalpost of what I should hope for with kid-friendly games. Maybe this weird divide only stems from the fact that it’s harder to put feelings about these ethereal things into words than it is to review a film or a book. Maybe even harder to put into words than difficulty scaling, game balance, and mechanic innovation. We’re still getting used to it. We’re finding our words for it.
And I need to have an open mind. After all, is fair is fair.
Maybe this all means I should learn to appreciate the people who hate Pokemon Sword and Shield because the trees don’t look good enough.
Wait, no, don’t end on that, that’s a terrible takeaway…