The Designer's Notebook: Revenge of the Highbrow Games
September 29, 2006 Page 3 of 4
Historical and contemporary war games, both at the strategic and the shooter level. Battlefield 1942, Call of Duty, “all the Tom Clancy shooters,” and the Total War series were proposed, as well as Jane’s Fleet Command and Harpoon. Both fiction and non-fiction about military history are popular with middle-aged men, and that market is certainly more grown up than the target audience of DOA Beach Volleyball. I would say: the strategy games possibly, most of the shooters no; they’re too unrealistic.
Games that were visually or thematically innovative. By far the most frequently mentioned games were Myst, ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. Other examples included Rez, American McGee’s Alice, the Oddworld series, Grim Fandango and Bad Mojo (a third-person crawler; you play the role of a cockroach). I’m all for more of this, no question. Whether or not an innovative game is highbrow depends partially on the extent to which it avoids clichés of the medium. ICO was beautiful, unusual, and moving, but it still involved an awful lot of running, climbing, and whacking things with a stick. Best examples: Myst and Rez.
Games with better stories than most. Shenmue, Deus Ex, Indigo Prophecy (called Fahrenheit in Europe) and Planescape: Torment came up several times. Unfortunately, “better stories than most other video games” is nowhere near good enough. Planescape: Torment is one of my favorite games of all time, a truly outstanding example of its type, but it ain’t gonna win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Other media have raised the bar on storytelling so high that it’s out of sight. We have a long way to go yet. (And, before anyone says it, no, I don’t believe interactivity precludes first-rate storytelling. It’s challenging, but not impossible.)
Sony Computer Entertainment's ICO (2001)
Adventure games and interactive fiction generally. Among the various suggestions were Dreamfall, Titanic: Adventure Out of Time, The Last Express, Phantasmagoria, and the entire Infocom catalog although some of them (Planetfall, Leather Goddesses of Phobos) clearly don’t belong. Interestingly, except for Grim Fandango, not a single LucasArts adventure game was nominated, probably because many of them are comedies.
We can boil this down to three characteristics that people seem to think makes a game a candidate for highbrow status, not all of them mutually compatible: serious and thorough simulations set in the present or the past, but generally avoiding fantasy and science fiction scenarios; aesthetic or thematic innovation; and an emphasis on story and character. Or, boiling it down again to one single quality they all share: These games are not easy and obvious – either to build or to play. They demand effort, attention, and an open mind. Some also require education or an aesthetic sensibility to fully appreciate.
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