|

Games that make spectacles of themselves

So, there’s a genre for which we don’t quite have a consensus name. Games like Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe, Bayonetta, Vanquish, etc. were dubbed “spectacle fighters” by Yahtzee in 2009 and this seems to be the most popular name, though I’ve also seen them referred to as “character action” or “stylish action” games.

I’m mostly okay with “spectacle fighter”. After all, these are games where you fight a lot of enemies but there’s a mechanical emphasis on the spectacle you create by doing so with uninterrupted combos and varied moves, tracked by some combination of style meters, high scores, and grading systems. The problem is that a fighting game is something else - a game like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. The name we have for games where you fight a lot of relatively weak enemies is a “brawler” or a “beat ‘em up”. So really the Devil May Cry genre should be called “spectacle brawler” instead of “spectacle fighter”. It’s a subgenre of brawler in which spectacle is emphasized. The name fits (and conveys more information than “character action” or “stylish action”). Take out the spectacle scoring system and you’re left with a brawler.

By analogy, we can imagine spectacle-focused subgenres to other game genres. And in fact, I think a lot of extreme sports games qualify as “spectacle platformers.” Think of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater or SSX - these are games about navigating a platformer-like playground, but your goal isn’t just traversal. It’s getting long varied combos along the way. These combos are of tricks rather than attacks, but it’s still the case that if you took out the spectacle scoring system you’d be left with a platformer.

And in practice, it turns out I dislike spectacle platformers in roughly the same way I dislike spectacle brawlers. I understand the appeal of spectacle as a way to raise the skill ceiling (once you finish the level, you still have the goal of doing so with a better score/grade) but I like my challenges, successes, and failures to be inherent to the game’s world rather than imposed by an external scoring system. If I meet a hard challenge and find a way to deal with it, but have used a lot of health or ammo or time because I made mistakes, I’m still satisfied that I rose to the challenge and it’s up to me whether to try to do it better - which would mean doing it faster and more efficiently with fewer mistakes. If instead I deal with a hard challenge and then get told I only earned a D because I didn’t do it in the way the developer decided was stylish, that feels like an arbitrary constraint on my experience and makes the game less fun.