Insomnia | Commentary

No More "Parodies"

By Alex Kierkegaard / January 27, 2008

Out of all the lame "arguments" I've heard so far from those trying their luck at defending No More Heroes, the only one I am willing to acknowledge as valid is, "Well, I enjoyed it". There are players out there who recognize how shallow and gimmicky its fighting system is and how lame and pointless its free-roaming aspect, yet who still profess that they enjoyed the game. This is of course extremely natural and nothing less than anyone should expect. After all, people enjoy Britney Spears albums, Jerry Bruckheimer movies and Tom Clancy novels. I mean hell, man, some people even enjoy when you piss and shit on them too, and some of them will even pay you for the privilege!

So tastes are tastes and we'll talk no more of them (at least for now), but there is another argument floating around the internet in favor of the game, a fantastically absurd argument, a myth of colossal proportions which I think it's about time someone finally exploded.

I am of course referring to the whole "parody" argument. This goes that the reason No More Heroes sucks is because it was designed to suck, since it was conceived as a parody of modern videogames. Therefore, the argument continues, No More Heroes is a worthy game which should be praised by reviewers and recommended to players as deserving of their attention.

Now, first off, what's important to understand here is that this "parody" angle is nothing more than the latest symptom of the modern artfag/NGJ approach to game reviewing. In other words, if No More Heroes had been released back in 1990, and you'd gone to EMAP towers in London, the home of such legendary British publications as Computer and Video Games and Mean Machines, and walked in and said to Julian Rignall that No More Heroes deserves a high rating because it's a fuckin' parody and don't you get it, dude, he'd have bellowed a hearty Welsh laugh at you and thrown your ass out on the street. Such nonsense was not tolerated back then, every single game publication on the planet was staffed by ultrahardcore gamers, and hence what some people now call "videogame parodies" were back then simply called "crap games".

Take for example Desert Bus, a mini-game (part of a collection) from the Sega CD/3DO era, in which the player drives a bus from Arizona to Las Vegas and back, as many times in one sitting as he can endure, a trip which takes eight hours each way and during which nothing happens, and for which the player is rewarded with one point each way. Now Desert Bus might indeed be a parody of a videogame, and it may even be a very clever parody, but if you pay sixty bucks for it and spend a week of your life playing it then you are also a parody -- a parody of an intelligent human being.

It all comes back -- as it often does -- to dumb kids on the internet using words whose meaning they don't understand nor care to look up in a dictionary. I mean what does the word 'parody' even mean? Does anyone even fucking know? Here's how grown-ups use this word according to the American Heritage Dictionary:

par·o·dy (pār'ə-dē)

1. A literary or artistic work that imitates the characteristic style of an author or a work for comic effect or ridicule.

2. Something so bad as to be equivalent to intentional mockery; a travesty, e.g. The trial was a parody of justice.

So a parody of a videogame is a game "so bad as to be equivalent to intentional mockery; a travesty". So when someone says that NMH is a parody of modern videogames, what they are in fact saying is that NMH is a travesty of a videogame, which is something I kind of agree with. I don't completely agree, you see, because NMH is not quite that bad -- it is in fact just below mediocre, which is why it fails even as parody.

You see what parody does is exaggerate flaws. So even though we all know what we mean by "a parody of a politician", and we would all laugh at whoever pretended to act that way on some late-night comedy TV show, we wouldn't actually vote for him if he tried to run for president. Or if someone built a parody of a hospital and staffed it with parodies of doctors, we wouldn't take our loved ones there when they got sick. Or if someone came up with a sport that was a parody of basketball, we might laugh at the concept, but we wouldn't buy all the gear, train twenty hours a week, set up leagues, teach it in schools, start international championships and devote our lives to this "parody of basketball" game. Et cetera, et cetera.

What this line of thought brings us back to once again is the concept of a game, which is very different from the concept of a book, a play or a movie, and which should be treated as such. One might write a book that parodies Agatha Christie's detective fiction, for example, or stage a play that parodies Elizabethan revenge dramas, or direct a movie that parodies Star Wars, and all those works might end up worthy of our praise, of our attention -- of our time and money. But for a parody of a game to be equally worthy of our attention -- to turn out into something a man can call good without self-disgust -- what would such a thing require? After all, it is perhaps no accident that Desert Bus, the greatest parody of a videogame yet made, was never actually released. I mean, who would have bought it and played it if it had been? (Yes, I know, human nature being what it is, I realize that some people would have. No doubt the same ones who enjoy being pissed and shat on.)

So what would it take then to apply the concept of parody to a videogame in such a way that the end result would be a game worth playing? There are two ways to achieve this: through theme only, or through the use of appropriate game mechanics.

1. Parody via theme
This is by far the easiest option, and therefore the most widely adopted. The classic Rock Star Ate My Hamster (1988), for example, poked fun at rock stardom, No One Lives Forever (2000) was rife with jokes about Bond-like secret agents, The Bard's Tale (2004) spoofed fantasy CRPGs, while the theme of Metal Wolf Chaos (2004) was such a bold-faced, extravagant satire of American politics that, even though the giant robot action found in the game was a perfect fit for the tastes of most Western players, no publisher dared release it outside Japan. What's important to note is that all these games were above all good games, occupying, at the time of their release at least, the vanguard of their respective genres' development. So Rock Star Ate My Hamster was, above all, a good board-style computer game, No One Lives Forever was a solid example of late-'90s FPS design, The Bard's Tale was a worthy Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance clone, and Metal Wolf Chaos was, and still remains, an excellent 3D action game. The fact that these games managed, through the use of dialogue or comic imagery, to elicit the occasional laugh (or, more likely, the occasional grin) from the player was nothing more than a bonus. In game design humor should be a condiment, not the main meal. Intelligent people play games for their mechanics after all, not for cheap laughs. If I feel like laughing I'll watch Frasier or Seinfeld reruns, or a Monty Python or Peter Sellers movie, or go to a stand-up comedy club or some shit. What I will certainly not do is sit in a couch for ten hours mashing a button in-between two-minute movie clips written and directed by people who wouldn't know an intelligent joke if you smashed their skulls open with it.

2. Parody via mechanics
Here's where the going gets tough, and consequently more rewarding. Creating a game that parodies other games in terms of mechanics is a task reserved for the most creative of individuals. A task reserved, that is to say, for companies like Bullfrog Productions and people like Peter Molyneux. Molyneux's 1997 PC title Dungeon Keeper was an ingenious strategy game in which the player builds dungeons, recruits monsters, sets up traps, and fends off the computer-controlled heroes that regularly attempt to invade. A similar game in concept, if not in execution, was the recent Yuusha no Kuse ni Namaiki Da. for the PSP. These games took the well-established (and done to death) sub-genre of dungeon crawling and turned it on its head, producing in the process a new sub-genre that's equally enjoyable. But, and here's the gist of all this, the effectiveness of these games was always due to sound and rewarding mechanics -- in other words, if you stripped the humor aspect out of them you'd still be left with good games. Last year's Chronicle of Dungeon Maker, for example, was a game that did just that, and did it brilliantly. The story in that game goes that, in an effort to protect a small town from attacks by monsters and demons, a novice "dungeon maker" decides to create a dungeon in a nearby cave in order to lure the monsters away from the town itself. The architect then ventures into the dungeon and exterminates them. So while in Dungeon Keeper and Yuusha no Kuse the laughs come from the player being evil, in Chronicle of Dungeon Maker there are no such laughs. But is this a bad thing? Well, not according to the Famitsu reviewer who gave it 10/10, saying that "if you have an enthusiastic friend, this game will last forever, and you shall never tire of it", and with whose opinion I completely agree. So! Game designers and game journalists and gamers of this world: There is a lesson to be learned in here somewhere, and I think I've spelled it out quite clearly for you.