Mindlessness in games

I read a good article recently on the heavy use of the word “gameplay” in games journalism. Agree with it or not, the author makes a good point; there is no equivalent word in any other industry jargon. Most sentences that use the word gameplay can be rewritten in some form to create something more descriptive and authoritative. It got me thinking about another mainstay of the lingo that has been bothering me as of late – “mindless”.

The word is used all too often, so much so that I can’t even generalize about whether it is usually in a pejorative or positive sense. According to my scouring of IGN, reviewers and gamers find the following games to be “mindless”:

Tomb Raider Legend
Rainbow Six Vegas
Sonic Riders
Resident Evil 4
Trigger Man
Ninety Nine Nights
Both Half Lifes
Call of Duty 3
Tekken Tag Tournament

For the sake of discussion, let’s just say this (very partial) list is a mix of terrible, average, and a few Game of the Year winners. It doesn’t seem like its being used as an indicator of quality (or its lack). So what the hell does it mean? Generally, we could consider it to mean that the game doesn’t require much thought or energy to get through. That would be likely for Trigger Man and is certainly true for Tekken Tag, at least in the hands of two newbies. But is RE4 really mindless? It is true that the game is 90% shooting zombies (10% suplexing them), but a fresh save with no accumulated weapons isn’t always easy. Neither is Mercenaries mode, which requires quick movement, quick thinking, and wise use of ammunition. Throughout the game you have only one purpose; kill all the zombies. Yet RE4 is far more intense and engrossing than its competitors.

And what about Half Life? The original had fantastic AI for its time, and a good strategy alway made things easier. This isn’t quite the case in the sequel, but some of the chase scenes (as well and any battle with a Strider or gunship) keep you on your toes. Again, it’s all about the gunplay, but there is far more going on than squeezing the trigger.

Leon takes a break from mindless zombie blasting to reenact the climactic scene of The Karate Kid.

There are plenty of other places where you might find the word. I’m sure you can find someone using it to describe God Hand, despite being one of the deepest brawlers of its generation. Same thing for ‘schmups, which can be some of the hardest games in existence. The more I think about the word, the more I realize that something is amiss. Notice the list above. Shooters, fighters, hack ‘n slash. Genres that focus on a singular game type and not much else. The word isn’t directly a measure of quality, but beware nevertheless. It is the spawn of pretentious and haughty gamers trying to maintain an image.

Think of this; Final Fantasy games are held as high points in the RPG genre. Same with Dragon Quest. Most of these, quite literally, can be won by “mashing x”, bypassing magic and strategy and instead using brute force melee attacks until you’re strong enough to overpower anyone. Toss in traditional random battles, and you have a genre that quite often can be overcome by muscle memory. Now try loading up Resident Evil 4 and kill every zombie in an area without moving or aiming. You can’t do it. Now try aiming but not moving. You might be able to do it, but not unless you’re a crack shot. There’s far more skill involved in an RE4 firefight than Squall’s first battles outside the Garden.

Now, how many times have you heard someone call Final Fantasy mindless? I’m sure it’s out there. In fact, here are some! But how common is it outside of a few fan reviews or offhand comments? How many times will you find it in a professional FF review? It isn’t likely, though damn if it isn’t an appropriate use of the term.

Then again, we already established that the word isn’t used properly. If a game has a one track mind ,if it focuses on stiff challenges or simple mechanics, it is fine for us to call it mindless. But if it focuses on plot and character development and is loaded with cutscenes and cliches, it seems the word is forbidden. It’s not that fans and critics can’t play Resident Evil 4, they just can’t let anyone think they’re holding back the industry with “stupid” games that don’t cinematic and serious gaming. We need to look mature and sophisticated, so we say it’s “mindless entertainment – not that there’s anything wrong with that!” It’s silly and childish and I’m not quite sure why we’ve gotten away with it for so long.

We (myself included) need to stop feeling guilty about playing a game because it is fun. We shouldn’t feel wrong because something we buy doesn’t use interactive entertainment to push concepts to the next level. Its cool to have a Van Gogh poster in a college dorm, but its just as cool to have the Boondock Saints on your wall. Why do we sometimes frown when a military simulation doesn’t have character development? Perhaps we should curse Contra for not exploring the secret romance between the two heroes.

Or maybe we could just play something that tests our skill and reflexes.

Is “mindless” it keeping good games down? Some, but not many. Is it going to ruin the industry? Absolutely not. But when I see people complaining about the quality of games journalism, when we discuss how to make gaming a “legit” form of entertainment, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to take the best genre pieces and give them a label associated with a lack of intelligence.

Christian invites anyone who finds the word mindless in his older game writings to let him know, and he will gladly fix this glaring error.

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17 years ago

You are totally right. The only thing the word “mindless” does is take legitmacy away from a game. Shooters may not have the most detailed plots, but to say that you could beat one without having to put your mind to it is just wrong.