Is nostalgia an excuse for bad design? Is it even bad design if it's done on purpose to evoke nostalgia?
My dad can't watch old movies (let's say, '50s and earlier) because he finds the acting universally terrible. Other people I know enjoy older movies over modern movies. Opinions and tastes vary, but there's no denying that the art and craft of acting has evolved in the past 60 years. The art has changed, the criticism of that art has changed, and the cultural appreciation of that art has changed.
While the art of yesterday exists as a time capsule of our former cultural and artistic values, what about the modern art that mimics those older aesthetics? By what standards are we supposed to use to judge that art?
A game I recently reviewed, Quest for Infamy, is a deliberate throwback to a time when adventure games were full of obtuse puzzles, and they didn't give a damn if you got stuck and gave up. In other words, the "golden age" of adventure gaming. By today's standards, this kind of design is considered, well, bad. Adventure games have evolved into simpler, more streamlined affairs, and even those games that adhere to this kind of design add in other systems to make the game easier, like hints or object highlighting. Quest for Infamy has none of those user friendly features, and it's all the more frustrating for it. But these flaws are purposeful, a byproduct of its inspiration. This raises the question (for me at least, in trying to review the game) is nostalgia an excuse for bad design? Is it even bad design if it's done on purpose to evoke a sense of nostalgia? How do you judge a game like Quest for Infamy?
The more I think about this question, the more I realize that my assumption of what a "modern" game is like may be way off the mark. My understanding of the industry and its history probably crystallized sometime in the mid-2000s, during the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 generation, and I've been building on that foundation ever since. But that foundation might be getting out-of-date at this point.
The biggest flaw of Quest for Infamy is its unintuitive design, the way it seems to embrace and chase those moments that leave you confounded as to what to do next. These moments kill the pacing, they bring progress to a halt, and they make me want to stop playing. However, to call this bad design presupposes that intuitiveness and progress are the gold standard of game design. This was likely the case a decade ago, as the popularity of gaming boomed and shooters became common on consoles -- intuitiveness is generally considered necessary for mainstream entertainment -- but the industry now seems to me to be moving away from that ideal, circling back on itself to a time when games demanded more from players.
Dark Souls, Minecraft, and League of Legends are all critically and commercially successful, and they're designed to be uninviting. Like Quest for Infamy, Dark Souls doesn't give you any objective or instruction, but then it goes the extra mile to not explain its world or mechanics. Minecraft is so open that it demands the player make their own objectives and figure out for themselves how to make items. League of Legends is an ultra-competitive eSport with a roster of hundreds of characters and defined roles for each player -- God help you if you don't play your position well. Dark Souls is critically lauded, and Minecraft and League of Legends are two of the biggest games in the world. They're all unintuitive, uninviting, confusing, and demanding in their own ways, and they all have dedicated followings largely because of this. These are modern games designed with the same philosophy as those old adventure games: Intuitiveness and progress and not their chief concerns. The industry has splintered to the point where niche games that are intuitive to only a niche audience can be financially successful and thrive.
So where does that leave a game like Quest for Infamy? In theory, you could describe its unintuitiveness as a throwback to old adventure games, or if you wanted to make it sound modern, you could probably argue that it applies the design philosophy of Dark Souls to adventure games. So is it a throwback or an ultra modern twist on the genre?
The fact that you could argue either side is pretty neat from a historical perspective, but the question remains: how do you judge a game like Quest for Infamy?
That’s really a trick question since there’s only one right answer: You judge it like you would any game, based on your personal standards of quality. We all have biases and preferences, and we can’t escape them -- to try and do so would be fundamentally dishonest. I appreciate that Quest for Infamy exists, that the industry is growing so much that the niche of hardcore adventure gamers can be catered to with financially successful results. I think it’s fascinating that the evolution of game design and the romanticization of the past have created so many different sub-cultures within gaming that the word “gamer” is no longer a unifying trait. But it’s impossible to love every single one of those sub-cultures.
I understand what the game is trying to do and why people might like it, but personally I think it kinda sucks. I don’t think the experience is ultimately rewarding enough to excuse the lack of direction (I love Dark Souls, but that game does provide direction through level design. It’s uninviting but not as unintuitive as it initially seems.).
It’s strange to think that this desire for intuitiveness and ease of use might be generational, that standards of quality could be generational, but I’m sure people who love Quest for Infamy felt the same way as they watched the adventure genre fade away and then come roaring back in a far more simplified form.
Every niche can be catered to, but that doesn’t meant I have to like every niche. I do think that it’s good to understand them and their unique standards of quality, but I can only judge a game based on my own standards. So you go enjoy your (in my opinion) awful games, and I’ll enjoy my (in your opinion) awful games. That’s the great thing about the industry now. Everybody wins.