Before the hiatus, I was talking about why I thought that, despite the very simple mechanics and gameplay, the game ‘To the Moon’ was a better experience as a game than it would have been as a movie. In that, I made a comment that there were a few games that I really enjoyed for reasons that were difficult to describe – not because they’re flawless, and not despite their flaws, and not because of their flaws, really, either. I also said I was going to come back to that later, and so here we are.
At the time, I think I described the games as “little games with big hearts” and I think that still holds true. It’s a little condescending, perhaps, but it’s certainly not intended that way. I like thinking about these games, and I think there’s something interesting about the way that I enjoy media. Discussions with friends have confirmed that some of them have a similar ‘category’ of enjoyment but none of us have really spent enough time thinking about it to really determine what we enjoy about it.
The way that I’ve talked about this ‘category’ with my friends so far has sort of revolved around examining the relationship of these media to their flaws. I won’t use the term ‘games’ from here on out, because while I generally find that it’s mostly games that fall into this category, I’m not ruling out that other media will also fall into that category. In fact, at least one of my friends has told me that they find it’s mostly movies they think of when they think of that category, and they can’t think of games they would personally categorise like this.
But I will be basing this post mostly on my experiences, since I haven’t talked to those friends in depth enough to attempt to crowdsource my opinions yet, and I don’t want to misrepresent them. Just know that they encouraged me to believe this isn’t just “a me thing” and thus they are indirectly and partially responsible for me going ahead and writing this post. I’ll be discussing mostly ‘To the Moon’ and ‘RiME’ because these are the most prominent games in my mind in this category.
The best way I’ve come up with to describe these works so far has been “I enjoy these adjacent to their flaws”: I wouldn’t say that I enjoy these works despite their flaws exactly? I certainly don’t feel like I’m ignoring their flaws. In fact, the flaws are … if not part of the reason I enjoy them, then certainly an element that affects my enjoyment, either positively or negatively. But I certainly don’t enjoy them for their flaws, either. They are flawed and I would really, really love to see what happens to those stories if the flaws weren’t there. For a while, actually, I had to really process the last third or so of To The Moon in order to decide that I liked it, despite the pacing issues.
I also think that it’s doing a disservice to these works to say that I ignored the flaws in order to like them. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely works where I ignore the flaws in order to enjoy them better. Several of the Star Wars movies, for example. And parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But these ‘little works’ aren’t like that – I feel like I shouldn’t ignore the flaws here because it’s clear that people who were very passionate about their craft created these stories. I don’t think that these were people writing stories in order to capitalise on a franchise or a story type that they thought would be popular. While many people worked on them to bring them to fruition, they don’t feel like a ‘story by committee’ the way some big-budget works do. There’s something about these ‘little works’ that makes me feel – especially in the case of RiME – that I’d be doing the developers a disservice if I ignored the ways they tried to incorporate theme and meta-story, or if I stopped trying to appreciate all the little touches and notes they put into the story in order to gain a less critical, pure enjoyiment.
But nothing in this category fully capitalises on what the story could have been, either. There’s always something that gets in the way – pacing, or the feeling that production was too rushed for them to finish the game with the same attention to detail as the start, whatever it happens to be.
I think that it reveals something interesting about the way that I, at least, enjoy stories. I feel like I’ve been taught to constantly think of stories in terms of flaws vs strengths, to assess what things enhance the experience, and what detracts from it. It’s helpful, when you’re a writer, to think of stories this way, of course – it helps you see what you can adjust and change in your own writing to make your stories work better.
But I’m not convinced it’s the best way to discuss enjoying stories. After all, thousands of frustrated authors will tell you that people don’t necessarily enjoy the stories that display technical skill, or dislike stories that are badly paced or badly put together.
I think there is a little correlation, but it’s definitely not one-to-one. This is why criticism and creation are fundamentally different skills, or at least, one of the reasons. Creating something and appreciating it will never have a direct translation, and that’s important for understanding stories.
So if I had to change the frame on these stories that I love while also admitting they are deeply flawed in ways that occasionally make it difficult to enjoy them, how would I do that?
I think I might start with the fact that, despite all the story elements, I enjoy the experience. And I feel like that often gets put in a different category to enjoying stories “because of the writing” or “because of the acting” or “because of the pacing” – experientially enjoying something is a lot more nebulous, and often ties into things that don’t obey rules of logic or reason.
But there has to be an element of reason as well, because part of the reason I enjoy ‘RiME’ is because of the metafiction, and the allegory that it represents. Honestly, if it didn’t have that allegory and if it didn’t invite me to pick apart the story elements to create the meta-story then I wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much. Definitely part of why I enjoy ‘To The Moon’ is because of the way it makes me think about the story, and compare the viewpoints of the characters to come up with my own opinion of whether certain events or views are “good” or “bad”. So clearly there’s something about these that goes beyond just what I experience in the moment, and there’s also an element of technical and storycraft enjoyment that goes alongside understanding the flaws in these works.
I keep coming back to this description: Little stories with big hearts. I think that’s still core to the way I think about these stories. All of them are short or small, or in some way don’t have the scope of, say, a big-budget movie or a AAA game, or an expansive RPG. They all try to do a lot more than it was physically possible for them to pull off. They all delivered on a core aesthetic extremely well, even if not all the details came together exactly the way they were intended to. It sounds condescending – like how you might talk about a child’s crayon drawing of a packed movie theatre – maybe the kid isn’t good at perspective and all the people look the same, but wasn’t it a great idea and ambitious to try!
I swear I don’t mean it like that, though. That’s the ‘big hearts’ part of the definition, for me. These are fundamentally works that were created by people who love what they do, and put a lot of time and effort into making things as good as possible. Sometimes I wonder if the flaws don’t feel like people running out of time. In the case of RiME I feel like they spent a lot of time on the first couple of levels and ran out of time on the last ones, like they needed to cut out details from the final levels because they were approaching a deadline. I could be wrong, of course, having neither talked to the developers nor been on a game development team myself. But that would be my guess, if I had to guess. For me, the flaws of a little story with a big heart don’t feel like flaws because the creator/s didn’t care, or had the attitude that close enough was good enough, and that it was better to cover a lot of problems 80% of the way than really pay attention to each problem and maybe not solve all of them. That’s the feeling that I tend to get from those big team, big budget stories (I return to the AAA game example, and big franchise movies and TV shows with lots of staff writers). That’s probably uncharitable – those works do have lots of people who care a lot about their work, doing their best work, and they are definitely skilled and talented people. But because of the way that the systems are set up for creating in those environments, that can be the impression they give. Because of the budgets they work with, it really is better for those big stories to be good on average with lower high points and higher low points. There’s a whole other blog post in here about the creative process of making a product vs the creative process of making an idea, but I’ve rambled for long enough.
Ultimately, I think these works are about enjoying the idea of creation. They’re about getting to see that someone was truly excited about a project, and had an idea that they were truly passionate about. It’s nice, sometimes, to see things that feel unpolished, without the edges scrubbed off. I think sometimes that feels more intimate. These stories totally lack that feeling that you’re being ‘sold’ a story, or ‘marketed’ a story rather than being ‘told’ a story, and there’s a charm to that. I think the flaws themselves aren’t what I enjoy – it’s the fact that there are flaws that haven’t been scrubbed out, and that these flaws often feel like they’re born of a lack of time or resources, or sometimes experience, rather than a lack of caring.
Would these stories be better if they weren’t flawed? Certainly – that’s sort of the definition of a flaw.
But just like a precious friend, I wouldn’t change any of these Little Stories with Big Hearts for all the world.