Down with Features!

There are three disciplines that maintain a strong influence over the medium of Videogames: Art, Technology and Business.  Videogames are a commercial, technology driven, art form.  If you’re in the field of games, it’s hard to think about one of these aspects without being at least some what influenced by the others.

One of the ways that this is most evident is our predilection with “features”.  You don’t often see “features” on other pieces of art.  If you look at the back of a book or a movie, you’ll see a plot synopsis.  Probably the closest thing to a “features list” you could find would be the taglines of a cheap exploitation film.

Where you do see features are in areas where Business and Technology meet.  Features are a great way to develop and sell pieces of technology.  They satisfy the technology side’s desire to innovate and the business side’s desire to have concrete selling points.  Features lists are the hallmark of consumer electronic and software utilities.  “Buy our toaster: it’s got 4 slots, a timer, and can even be set to toast only one side of your bagel!”

But art is less about what you do and more about how you do it.  A game could have all the innovative features in the world and still fall flat, while another game does nothing which hasn’t been done before, but puts love into the details and pays attention to how the whole coheres *cough, Dark Souls, coughs*

And, not only are features a bad judge of quality, but designing around features can limit what we can do with the art form.  Features are all about adding More to a game, when often times, the right artistic decision is less.

In these situations, I always trot out the example of Megaman.  In Megaman, the game is built around the fact that you can only shoot horizontally.  It allows the designers to carefully craft each challenge around that limitation.  If you could shoot in any direction, the game would break down.  You would lose out on that type of precise level design.  But “Can only shoot horizontally” is not really something you can use as a feature, while “360 degree freedom!  Aim in any direction you want!” certainly is. On a features list, “100 levels” sounds  a lot better than “10 levels”, but that doesn’t take into account the quality, length and variation of those levels.

But here’s the weird bit: features have become such a pervasive part of the medium that even the artistic side often thinks in terms of them.  Just look at the games that were coming out in the early indie scene: we were finally free of corporate influence and the need to use the most up-to-date technology and what do we make?  It’s a platformer but with This One Cool New Feature.  The New Feature is what Elevates it to Art.

To give another example: I remember some time before Fable 2 came out, Peter Molyneux did his standard shtick of hyping up his game with claims that it would completely revolutionize games as an artform.  To this end, he said that you would have a dog in the game, and over the course of the game, you’d grow attached to the dog, and then, two-thirds of the way through, the dog would die, and you would feel sad (unfortunately I can no longer find this interview, so, take the caveat that this is just my recollection).  So, let’s ignore, for a moment, that “killing a beloved dog” is more in the realm of cheap melodrama than high art.  Instead, let’s think about how what was supposed to be an emotionally resonant moment was brought up before the game was even out, as a selling point for the game.  “Sadness” is a feature.  This is how we think of games.  Even when we’re trying to evoke some real, emotional reaction out of the player, we think of it in terms of a bullet-point we can put on the back of the box.

Buy our brand new toaster!  It has four slots, a timer, a bagel setting, and it will even make you sad!

While this has gotten somewhat better over time, Features still permeate how we think of games as an art form, and we certainly still lean on them heavily when trying to sell our games. How many games are content with a tone-setting synopsis on their Steam page or on the back of the box as opposed to a sentence about how many different types of enemies there are and a sentence about how the game features the ability to slow down time?  Even a quick look at my games will tell you that I’m not immune from this.

It’s a hard habit to break, but I think it’s worth it.

Movies, music, books and paintings all do fine without features lists.  Leave that to toaster ovens and smart phones.

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