Praise the Nutella!

In a recent commercial broadcasting on Italian television the speaker asks the audience if they’d like some cocoa spread. Or an adherable yellow paper rectangle. Or maybe a plastic brick to build something.

The clever hints to Nutella, Post-it and Lego brands work well with the publicized product (which I unfortunately forgot, lol). However, this made me think about how much brands influence our language, and therefore our way of thinking. Sometimes with very dangerous, or at least worrying, results.

Take Dark Souls as an example: since it became ultra popular as a game, and then as a genre (the souls-like), its brand has been used to define and describe all the kinds of stuff. There’s a quite funny Twitter profile that aggregates every questionable mention to From Software’s title. To give you some examples:

Now, you can start to see my point here. Dark Souls nowadays has become a synonymous to “difficult game”, and many people on the internet begun to use it in a re-definition of highly punishing titles that already existed, or that share some common features in terms of gameplay, structure, aesthetics. As if difficult stuff didn’t exist prior to Dark Souls and languages didn’t offer any coherent way to express the concept of hard-to-beat game before. There’s an implicit subtext of laziness around this phenomenon, that finds its peak in the more recent exploit of the TV Series Black Mirror.

(git gud, Netflix)

Since our world seems the prelude to a very big dystopian fiction, many creepy facts that involve a wrong use of technologies are happening all around the globe. So, how do you think that journalists, opinion leaders, and newsers are defining those? With the sentence “It’s like a Black Mirror episode” (or any other declination of it), OF COURSE. Because, you know, dystopia as a genre never existed before. Orwell, Bradbury, Ballard, Dick, and co. are just pre-copycats of Black Mirror, apparently.

This association of a brand to an already existing product, or fact, tends de-construct said product/fact. The brand becomes a category, it becomes the product itself. Hence, influencing our way of thinking. Opening Twitter (and Facebook) these days feels like Dark Souls was the precursor to challenging games (say hi to NES’ Ninja Gaiden or Prince of Persia), while the Black Mirror brand created a genre on its own – de facto erasing from people’s memory a whole literature of dystopian classics.

Which, paradoxically enough, sounds too much like a damn Black Mirror episode.

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Everything is (not) under control

What better chance there is to get back to write (about games) than a damn rant? Exactly: none.

So here I go and spend some words just for a personal vent.

Today I re-started Never Alone, a platform imbued with Inuit culture, that is a masterpiece in the field of cultural heritage representation on digital media. Which means that the game is all about you discovering a foreign culture through play, in a nice, emotional, powerful, and meaningful way. It is an important game to me, as I tried to achieve the same goal with a project, learning (the hard way) how difficult this could be.

However, as beautiful and mind-blowing this game is, it grinds my gears nevertheless.

IT DOES

The reason is simple: controls are difficult and sometimes counterintuitive. Not all of them, yet enough to become annoying in certain moments of the game. It is the same situation I found myself into when playing The Last Guardian: all is beautiful, deep, and spectacular, but then you find yourself swearing because things went wrong when they should have gone right. Not to mention any FIFA.

So let me be really straight about this: controls, in video games, are not important.

They are fundamental.

We are talking about artifacts that, for their very nature, require some kind of input from the user to properly function. There is a lot to be argued around this topic, but I believe that what I mean is common ground for many of us. Ok, sometimes the input from the player can be scheduled and automated, or received from uncommon hardware (did someone say BANANAS?), but remains a fundamental component of this medium.

Then what happens when a player is unable to send the desired input to the game? It just does not work. The experience becomes frustrating, and that frustration distracts the player from other stuff. In Never Alone’s case, an enraged player pays less attention to the message that the game tries to convey. He disregards the informative videos or, in the worst scenario, uninstalls the game. Losing an opportunity to learn something new, while the game lost the chance to teach that something.

>inb4 “But Dark Souls has major control flaws as well!”
>”[any Behtesda-related comment]”
>”Just git gud fam.”

Jokes apart, I think this is a serious matter, too often underestimated. When designing a game, it should be very important to be sure that the control scheme works properly or else the risk is to make something that no one would ever play. Or enjoy. Or even understand.