I’ve expressed unpopular opinions about nerd idols before, but this one is a little harder for me to talk about. My dislike of Terry Pratchett’s books is simple: I don’t like the deconstructionist genre. Easy enough; I can just stick my tongue in my cheek and go on a rant. But my reasons for disliking World of Goo and Little Inferno aren’t so straightforward.
My first time playing World of Goo came soon after my experience with Jason Rohrer’s Passage, perhaps the definitive “art game” and one that arguably jump-started the genre. Playing Passage was a revelation. It told me that games could be more than mindless Skinner boxes or virtual gore. They didn’t need points or levels or combat to be engaging, and they didn’t need cutscenes or narrative to tell a story. For all its flaws, Passage was my first hint that there was something more to videogames than competition and rules, and I wanted to know what that was. I bought and played World of Goo hoping it would be another revelation along the same lines, but unfortunately it left me sorely disappointed.
Before I get into what I don’t like about World of Goo and Little Inferno, let me first go over what I do like about them. If you’ve read anything else about these games, then this will sound pretty familiar: beautiful art and music, finely-honed mechanics, a high level of polish, intelligent and engaging stories, wry commentary and satire, playfully self-aware humor, and a constant mood that somehow manages to be both bleak and hopeful at the same time. These are all great things, and they are the reasons why I bought and played these games, and why I will continue to buy and play whatever games follow them. They are good games. But, they still frustrate me.
One reason is simply the same reason I’m often frustrated with art games–that is, games with pretensions (justified or not) to being “serious” or having a “message” or telling a “meaningful” story; games that don’t just aspire to be entertainment. My frustration is that, while many of them do in fact tell meaningful stories or have messages beyond simple entertainment, they are all too often merely thin graphical and narrative layers spread over the top of the empty tropes and mechanics of conventional games. But, okay, there isn’t actually anything wrong with that–games are great, I like them, and even if I didn’t I have nothing against conventional games telling unconventional stories with elements like cutscenes and narratives. I might prefer that, like Passage, they try to tell stories and engage players without the standard Skinner-box-punctuated-with-narrative-wrapped-in-pretty-pictures format, but I get that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that format. Not my cup of tea, but it’s a quality tea, objectively speaking, as long as you don’t mess it up. Whatever.
I have a bigger problem with World of Goo and Little Inferno, though. The thing about using conventional mechanics to tell unconventional stories is that it doesn’t work as well when the stories are about how conventional mechanics suck. When I play these games, frankly, I can’t shake the feeling that they just sort of hate themselves.
It’s not any one thing that gives me this impression, it’s a lot of little things taken together. Like the way World of Goo satirizes consumerism and demonizes corporate homogeneity, then charges you $20 a copy and requires you to literally suck the individuality out of the game’s eponymous goo balls in order to progress. Or the achievements you can earn in each level that mock themselves by being called “Obsessive Completion Distinctions” (OCD, get it?) yet nevertheless reward you with a verbal pat on the back and a little flag. Or the hints Little Inferno constantly drops that you are wasting your time and that there is more to the world around you, while requiring you to play it complicitly for hours before it will actually show you that world. In short, it’s all the ways in which these games criticize you for being a passive cog in the machine of their mechanics while at the same time rewarding you for it. The irony is that although they are constantly telling you that you should think and act for yourself, you are unable to actually do so. You can’t break free of the games’ expectations and mechanics except by complying with them until the game “breaks free” for you. Like the anonymous mailman in Little Inferno, they deliver prepackaged enlightenment straight to your hands for your convenience. You can’t miss it, and you don’t have to do anything unexpected to find it. In fact, you’re not permitted to. These games don’t trust you to find your own revelations.
Compare this with a game like Braid–a game so dedicated to the agency of the player that its official walkthrough encourages the player not to use a walkthrough. Where Little Inferno delivers its homilies about noncomformity and independence in identical packages at carefully regulated intervals, Braid challenges its players to find their own solutions and meanings, and doesn’t necessarily pat the player on the back if and when they do.
Or, for an even more relevant comparison, consider Every Day the Same Dream, a game about nonconformity, individualism, and breaking free of routine. While Little Inferno–a game ostensibly about the same things–requires you to follow its instructions to get to the ending, following the instructions in Every Day the Same Dream will get you stuck. The game requires you to defy its conventions and explore the edges of what’s permissible in order to progress, and when you do finally reach the ending it is not at all obvious what the intended meaning (if any) is. Just as you must find your own way through its world without instruction in order to progress, you must find your own meaning in its ending as well. This makes the story and the game feel consistent with each other, even if the story may not be as clear.
Is this a better way to tell a story? Maybe not. But is it a better way to tell this story? I can’t help but think that it is.
What do you think?