Weird and Hollow

Brendan Vance kicked up some dust on Games Twitter yesterday with some comments about the "weird and hollow" state of current mobile games. There's a lot to chew over in that thread, but this in particular snagged on some thorny place in my mind:

"Good" is a subjective judgment, of course, but in the context of videogaming, it's one that's subject to a loose sort of consensus. The word "community" gets thrown around a lot, but I think it's more accurate to say that there are thousands upon thousands of little communities linked together by a language that conveys some shared assumptions about videogames — or, at least, the perception that those assumptions are shared. We're most aware of that perception when it plays out in a number of familiar bad scenes, as when there's backlash over a review that rates a game lower than the perceived consensus, but it's also operative in less obviously toxic situations.

Part of Vance's argument is that the mobile industry has adopted a strategy that negates any need to make games "good" by making them, instead, trivially easy to pick up. There's some truth to that. In part, that's built into mobile as a category: by definition, mobile games are designed for platforms consumers have already bought for their utility, not specifically in order to play games. Relative to games that require an expensive console that's mostly geared toward entertainment, that's already a pretty low bar for entry. Revenue models like free-to-play serve to minimize the already low investment required, while microtransactions work to maximize the price players will play by spreading the potential costs out over time. And there are, as has often been noted, serious ethical concerns associated with both.

Nor is it unfair to suggest that the low bar of entry consistently (if not quite universally) has aesthetic consequences you could characterize as "weird and hollow." I'm just not so sure weird and hollow necessarily make for a bad game. It seems to me that the perception that those negative qualities are anathema to good games is largely a result of the consensus that the best games are those that strive to convey a sense of fullness or solidity that spools outward from some logical kernel into an internally consistent world. Which just happens to be the specialty of the AAA industry.

Maybe Vance and Stephen Gillmurphy, aka thecatamites, are right that the AAAs are living on borrowed time. Maybe not. In any case, I think we ought to be seriously contemplating the potential virtues of weird and hollow, not just because they might be inevitable, but for their own sake. The specific cases Vance describes feel weird and hollowed-out because they were designed around an often predatory payment model, but it is possible to eschew the model while still designing toward those qualities. What happens when we strip away the conventional ambition toward fullness and focus on hollowness as an aesthetic goal?