Editorial: Sad Pander

GUYS, remember Sonic?! Haha, ok!
Link and Saria’s departing on the bridge was a nice scene but…

Good day, wintery readers, there are not too many weeks left until this fierce cold melts away into something more tolerable (except for our friends in other hemispheres). Until then, why not abandon the outside world and its harsh demands and read a good Mel article instead? This week, I am going to touch on a pervasive topic in modern gaming, something that has become common if not detrimental only recently as gaming grows an ever bigger history to draw from. It might seem to tread a lot of common ground with my previous article about remasters, but this goes a lot deeper than reheated content. Modern gaming has become rife with examples of pandering to a specific playerbase that is predicted to respond well to it. This can take several forms and in nearly every instance it represents lazy game development often with an insulting connotation to those who pick up on it.

Reheated content, as mentioned previously, is a very common form of pandering to players as it attempts to offer them exactly what it is thought they will enjoy. It does not even attempt to produce something similar, instead this sort of lazy development takes a previous product and (sometimes literally) repackages it as new again. The biggest problem with this method, and the others I will go on to mention, is that does work. That is the player’s problem anyway, as it guarantees less time and effort for original content. But it also ends up being the developer’s problem, as they paint themselves into a corner of burnt out consumer interest when the market is flooded with re-releases. It serves little more than to kick the developmental process of the industry down the road to be resolved another time and the problem is only exacerbated when new hardware is designed not to communicate with old storage mediums. This made more sense earlier on when systems like the NES, SNES and N64 used very different cartridges, it could be reasoned that designing a system and a cartridge that would be backward compatible would probably be more effort and expense than it was worth. Some games would see re-releases, but not very many. Today, the systems are entirely capable of being backward compatible not only because of the ubiquity of the disc format but because the system offers those games as premium downloads. Taking advantage of the information gained from sales of previous re-releases, console makers decided it no longer makes sense to give players access to their old games for free when they will eat up reheated content sometimes at full price all over again.

The complicit nature of players when it comes to industry pandering might seem to challenge the label in the first place, but to pander is to appeal to baser desires. My examples here are all low-effort appeals aimed at getting low-effort responses. A popular old game is on the shelf again, and a simple nostalgia factor drives those purchases. Pandering is almost always referential in some way, which lets the thing in question call on something else to do the mental heavy lifting. In-game references are therefore a major part of the industry’s reliance on pandering and eventually this plague infects every major series. Some new game series even decide to be referential by lazily plopping in callbacks to other games completely out of context, however these examples seem more secluded to the Steam Greenlights of the world. More common is an older game series attempting to deliver on “fan service” by emulating a popular entry in that series. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is largely made of callbacks to the very popular Ocarina of Time, and can be seen as a remake of that game in many ways. That is the obvious example in the series, but in truth the Zelda series has been making callbacks to that particular game ever since. Wind Waker drops references less often but with little reasoning beyond “people will get the reference”, and a time travel mechanic of some sort now seems all but necessary for a console Zelda game. Even when the examples of callbacks and self referential design are inoffensive, as I personally find them to be in most Zelda games, they are still disappointing. Instead of crafting an entire world that could be used to raise the specter of Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess could have been much more original and memorable in its own right. Majora’s Mask, for all its flaws, did an amazing job of being a post-Ocarina entry by keeping the callbacks to minimum (aside from the recycled character models but I do not think they count) while giving context for the callbacks it did use (time traveling).

But mostly it was just sailing.
For all the originality of Wind Waker, it still uses the popularity of Ocarina like a safety blanket at times.

Callbacks and re-releases are all bad enough, but I think the reaction to them is fairly muted. At least it is compared to the kind of pandering I am about to mention which seems to elicit vein-popping outrage in some. Social pandering has come to the scene only recently as social issues in gaming discussion becomes more of a common thread. While personally I am not opposed to a game creator making a social comment in a game of any kind, it is just as disappointing as a lazy callback when some kind of unrelated cause is given a spotlight. The outrage comes less from the fact that pandering in gaming is lazy, because if it did then the outrage would have been here long ago, and more about real people’s reactions to this kind of pandering. When the inclusion of a hotbutton social issue is deemed out of place or lazy it riles up the people close to that particular cause as being evident of opposition to their cause (often labeled casual or unwitting opposition). Issues of gender equality, sexual orientation, and gender identity are usually the topics on the table and unsurprisingly the people enured to those topics treat them very seriously. Whatever conflated attack they perceive on those topics that might actually be directed at the game or at them personally (sometimes illegally, which complicates the discussion), and whatever accusations of misanthropy directed at criticizers, are enough to make sure everyone gets offended to the point of missing the forest for the trees. When battle lines get drawn, any comment coming from “that side” get contextualized out of context, in a way, and the discussion goes no where. Nevertheless, the cheapness of social pandering has not prevented its inclusion in games (which leads to suspicion of outside pressure, which complicates the discussion even further) in much the same way cheap callbacks and re-releases continue to be produced. Eventually these examples mount up and a backlash occurs (not just among those sensitive to examples of pandering) which will suppress these efforts until the industry needs another quick cash injection in four or five years.

Well, I did it, I mentioned social issues in one of my articles. Will you comment now?! I would deliver a more robust prompt here, but I somehow think it will not be necessary. See you next week!

11 comments

  1. @”wintery readers”: It’s a pleasant, breezy, sunny day in South Florida! The power shut off, so I opened the windows to let the mild, aromatic air flow through the house. Now I’m just chillin’ with the 3DS.

    I am sensitive to the issue of pandering and your article has triggered me. Thank you!

  2. @South Florida: I hate you.

    @Triggered: Just don’t blow your load all over ME.

    …do it on Ethos.

  3. I take it back, it’s dipping into the upper 40’s tonight! Brrr!

  4. It’s negative 23 around here. I like Winter, but it would be nice to grab some of that 10 degree weather that Matt is Dancing in. I used to feel that TP relied too much on OoT, but I don’t think that’s where its failings are, really. I know people who started with TP and never felt lost to reference. It’s like how FF9 was supposed to be a throwback, but it was the first Final Fantasy I completed and I didn’t catch any of the callbacks. It feels less like pandering and more like an extra element for those in the know.

  5. AHHHHHHHHHHHH SONIC!!! Where did THAT come from!?

    Sailing is the best part of Wind Waker. It insulates me from the terrible gameplay that would follow in the franchise.

  6. The motion control era was very interesting for Zelda.

    It was exclusively terrible in Twilight Princess. It added an extra layer of frustration to what is already the most bloated and directionless Zelda game. The interesting and unexpected boon that Skyward Sword gave the series was the developer’s need to rethink how to form the relationship between interaction and environment in the Zelda series, albeit on the unfortunate shoulder of motion controls. Twilight Princess had none of this thought, only tacked on controls based on the shittier version of the already shitty input system of the Wiimote.

    Skyward Sword has freshness and creativity to it, although it also suffers from not only an unnecessarily slow start (though not as bad as Twilight Princess‘) but also a strange indecisiveness that feels like Aunoma trying out a lot of things, but not really sticking to any one of them- a restlessness that isn’t satisfied yet, a need to keep experimenting. But either way, despite Skyward Sword revitalizing the interaction/environment relationship that Twilight Princess keeps alive in sacred flames inside its temples and almost nowhere else, it still hits the wall of the Wiimote technology that was much too primitive to ever have been the primary control scheme for video games. Not to mention the bad name Twilight Princess rightfully gave to the combination of motion controls and Zelda.

    Either way, motion controls will always be a blemish on those two games, but both of them – in addition to flaws unrelated to motion controls – certainly have plenty of excellent gameplay.

  7. @Ethos: The controls are such an impediment that any exemplary gameplay is buried beneath them. I hope that the new Wii U move means that we will one day see them re-released with proper controls. The world of Skyward Sword is gorgeous and immersive; I desperately want a way to play it which will feel natural, rather than a constant battle with motion control garbage.

  8. @Lusi – Completely understandable. While I also wish for such a thing, I’m not sure it will ever be the case. The input method is so tied to world/enemy design that they would have to do more work than I expect Nintendo would want to undertake. More than anything, its design is what gives me optimism for the new game.

  9. I think the problems with Skyward are much deeper than just the bad controls (which also cause the enemy design to be kinda lame), but the world design is poor, too. While pretty, it’s vapid. The sky in Skyward Sword is… barren. If people complained about Wind Waker, this is worse.

    On top of that, there’s an even worse fetch quest by the end where you have to collect notes from all the previous worlds.

    The game has some bright spots (certainly not the beginning that takes an eon to get going), and I think they’ve learned a lot from this game. It seems like the next one will drop the overbearing story and just focus on dungeon and puzzle solving and combat. Link is Link, do we need another origin tale at the beginning?

    Just my quick thoughts on Skyward Sword for right now.

  10. I must make it clear that I do not think that Skyward Sword has bad controls. I think that the Wii version of Twilight Princess does, but I do not think Skyward Sword does, and I think it is the biggest area of misunderstanding surrounding the game. I think the controls are deeply flawed, but mostly on account of the fact that the Wiimote is deeply flawed. It is enormously primitive. That being said, Skyward Sword’s motion controls take time to master, but they can be mastered in a way that can be largely ignored with waggle, ie. playing it like Twilight Princess. But that way induces a great deal more frustration, which I shared myself until I got better at the game. The problem is that you don’t HAVE to get better at the game to beat it, so this is an element that’s easy to ignore, especially so late in the Wii’s lifecycle when the system had proved motion controls to be almost fully terrible with a few notable exceptions. The sky overworld does not feel so large and empty when the flow of flying finally clicks. Now it’s a thrill, like with Flower. It’s a matter of exploring the controls in a similar manner that one might explore the environment. I think it’s hard for seasoned gamers like ourselves to think of ourselves as beginners, especially in a game like Skyward Sword that can treat you like you’re 2 years old sometimes, but taking on that mentality increased my enjoyment of that game significantly.

    All THAT being said, I do agree with a lot of what you are saying, and it could be considered the fatal flaw of the game that it can be completed with ignorance of the most beautiful relationships that game can form with the player.

    But looking at it with this view also sours many elements of it as well. I feel like Aunoma wanted players to interact with the environment in different ways, but didn’t really quite always know how, so he ends up just throwing a billion things at the wall to see what sticks. It almost feels like frustration, although usually too tightly executed to feel like desperation. It’s because of this that I agree with you that I think the new one will adjust its storytelling pacing to its gameplay pacing and get rid of the five hour openings, and let the world and puzzles tell the bulk of the story again. I like Zelda stories and I find that for all their simplicity, they are thematically poignant to gameplay in a way that many other developers have no idea how to replicate yet.

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