10 April 2008


 


 

 


 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE PFB FACTOR
(Formerly known as PGB)

This feature was originally written on 9th October 2005 for publication in a book to be edited by Kieron Gillen and Jim Rossignol (I don't remember if it ever officially had a title). It was originally intended to be a simple rewrite of the WoS feature "The PGB Factor", but ended up being a completely new piece on the same theme, plus I think it's quite spiffy, so you might as well see it.
 

CATCH!

SWING!

JUMP!

CHOP!

FIRE!

That's MY kind of instruction manual, viewers.

Remember when you were a little kid? Not the rose-tinted fantasy of childhood people tend to develop in retrospect, but the reality. Remember how - in between the boredom of school, and being dragged round the shops with your mum, and having to do your homework, and everyone telling you to be quiet when the grown-ups were talking, and being made to go to bed before you were tired and before all the good TV was on - there was a good bit? Remember those precious few hours in early evenings and at weekends when you'd get a little taste of freedom, and you could go out and meet up with your friends and just play?

And do you remember the hours and hours you would spend learning all the complex rules of Cowboys And Indians, carefully studying the hundreds of pages in the football lawbook, and going through an long, twelve-stage tutorial of how to use a rope swing?

No, of course you don't remember that, because it didn't happen. Like every kid in the world since history began, you just dived in and started enjoying yourself, and picked up the complex stuff as you went along. And so it was when videogames were born. (Even if you weren't personally there at the time, you can take it from me - that's how it was. I'm an honest guy.) The first time us would-be video gladiators of the late 1970s walked up to a Space Invaders machine and dropped a coin in the slot, we knew what we were supposed to do. It was pretty obvious, after all - there's a fleet of big ugly aliens marching down towards Earth, and you're facing up at them with a laser gun. Not rocket science, right?

Then Pac-Man showed up. You were in a maze full of stuff that you could eat, and there were spooky-looking ghosts running around. You knew instinctively that you had to avoid them, way before anybody told you to. (Because they're ghosts, duh.) Giant flashing dots in the corners? Must be something good, yeah? Never mind waiting for some patronising virtual dad to explain it to you in words of one syllable like you were a dumb four-year-old - go get 'em and see what happens! Jeez, you're not stupid. And so it went, for years and years and years of blissful and instant fun. You put your money in, you looked at the screen for two seconds, and you knew what was required of you. Life was complicated enough already, after all. What kind of freak wanted to pay good money for some more work?

So how did we get from there to here? When did the simple joy of playing turn into something more complex and gruelling than that four-year degree in Applied Mathematics you took? By what route did we arrive at games about which people will tell you with a straight face, "It's really dull for five or six hours at the start, but then it gets quite interesting"? What the hell? Did we miss a meeting? WHAT HAVE YOU BASTARDS DONE TO OUR VIDEOGAMES?



The first time I heard someone utter those awful, craven words - about Final Fantasy VII back in the mid-90s - I knew something had gone terribly, terribly wrong with the beautiful artform/entertainment/pastime/sport/culture that I loved. And now that I'm all grown up and I can express my feelings and stuff, I've given my pain a name - The PFB Factor.

PFB, of course, stands for Pre-Fun Bullshit, and it's measured in two elements. The first represents the time taken before you actually get to any of the good stuff (so FFVII's scores six hours, while Pac-Man's is zero), but it takes many forms:

- the unskippable intro movie (voiced by the actors who weren't good enough to do the adverts on cable-TV shopping channels);

- the nine flashy company logo animations in a row, (as if we give a rat's flea-bitten balls what the trademarked polygon-display engine is called);

- the compulsory tutorial (even if you've played three identical previous games in the series and ALREADY KNOW HOW TO DRIVE A DAMN CAR IN A STRAIGHT LINE - you're going to burn in HELL, creators of Gran Turismo 4);

- the hours and days and weeks and months of gruelling, grinding levelling-up you have to do in some dismal RPG before you've got the power to test your mettle against any of the halfway-interesting bad guys (ie pretty much every RPG);

- great swathes of insultingly easy levels designed to give ham-fisted adolescent morons an empty and undeserved sense of achievement (hello, Burnout Revenge);

- and, first up against the wall when the revolution comes, all those games where nearly everything starts off "locked", unavailable to you - despite all the money you've just handed over for the damn thing - until you jump through a bunch of stupid tedious hoops for hours and the Satan-spawned designers will finally actually let you play the bit of the game you bought it for. GOD DAMN THEIR WRETCHED, HATE-FILLED SOULS.

Um, anyway, the second element of the PFB Factor measures a related value - the IGB Coefficient. Expressed as a number of percentage points, it represents that part of total gametime - yes, Zelda, we're looking at you here - where games force you to wade through hours and hours of remedial-class-slow story-reading, and trekking back and forth across enormous empty maps or hub systems, before every little shiny moment of Fun they grudgingly give up. (The IG is for "In-Game", obv, and the IGB Coefficient on FFVII comes out at around 95, multiplied by the six hours of introductory crap for a total PFB Factor of a skyhigh 570. Anything over 50 is a serious problem.)

The player - who started off a fearless and mighty warrior of the universe, remember - finds himself or herself reduced to the status of a rat in a maze, occasionally rewarded with a little morsel of something tasty to keep them performing mundane and tedious tasks of work over and over and over until they grow old and weak and get fed to a snake.



And you can't even break these Herculean tasks of endurance down into manageable chunks, either. Play halfway through a Final Fantasy then leave it for a month, and your chances of remembering what's going on in the insanely convoluted plot when you come back to it will be so remote that you might as well start again. So when you enter into the mammoth undertaking that is a typical modern videogame, you're committing yourself not only to hours of spirit-crushing drudgery, but to sticking at this dullard's busywork for weeks at a single continuous stretch. And that's just offline games, before we even start on those massively-multiplayer online RPGs with their guilds and professions and careers and, for all I know, index-linked virtual pension schemes. If this writer wanted to spend hours every day making shoes, viewers, he'd become a real shoemaker and at least get paid for it.

So cobblers to all that. (Yeah, cheers.) Videogame developers and publishers - take your PFB Factor and cram it somewhere it'll take more than five or six hours of unpleasant, repetitive effort to get it out of. If videogames had started off with all that trolls-and-goblins- and-hoarding-gold-for-a-Level-65-Platinum-Wanking-Gauntlet crap, they wouldn't ever have caught on in the first place. So it's long past time that tribute was paid to the modern games that keep the flame of instant happiness alive. The stuff where you can just pick up the pad, press Start, take a quick glance, and leap straight into the heart of the action, the way it used to be before everyone got so all-fired serious and po-faced about the business of moving coloured lights around on a little screen.

Now, we'll start giving out the medals in a second. But hyper-accessible games are often misunderstood. They're seen as throwaway, short-term entertainment, something you occupy 10 minutes of a bus journey with before you get home to your "proper" gaming. (Uncannily mirroring, for attentive readers, those hours of school we mentioned before that you used to have to endure before being allowed a little sliver of unregimented time to enjoy yourself in.) But a truly accessible game will keep you glued to the screen for hours at a time, even if it only took you two seconds to start playing it, because it wants you to live in its world. Accessibility encompasses immersion. Man, us writers live for sentences like that.



When I was asked to write this article, I sat down with my copy of the Game Boy Advance's magnificent Wario Ware Inc, and wrote down the first five words it said to me - they're the ones that kick off the chapter. I came to Wario Ware knowing next to nothing about it, and having read only a couple of reviews in the gaming media - neither of which seemed to have enjoyed it and mostly just whined about how short and shallow it was. And yet, inside a minute, I couldn't put the damn thing down. Jaded by years of nerd epics, I couldn't quite believe the pace I was having new ideas thrown at me - literally one every five seconds.

"AIM!", it yelled, as a fat man fell from the sky towards a massive floating diamond and a big hole in the ground.

"BALANCE!", as a guy on a unicycle tried to keep a teetering pile of blocks on a tray steady. (Why? No time to find out! Here comes another game!)

"PUSH!" - a beetle with the face of Mario's nemesis Wario suddenly has to shove a golf ball into a hole For Some Reason.

You had one second to read the one-word instruction, one more second to look at the screen and relate the word to the scenario somehow, and one final second to actually do it. The commands come at you like bullets out of a machine-gun.

INSPECT! DRESS!  BRAKE!
GRAB! SCARE! LICK!
DODGE! PUNCH! BOUNCE!

Those are the words I want engraved on my headstone, chums.



Wario Ware was an epiphany. It was the game that made me actually carry my GBA SP around with me (previously, like most people's handhelds, it had never left the house), so that I could play it whenever I had the slightest chance. It could be "finished" (in the sense implied by the clueless reviewers) in an hour, but as with all the best games, "finishing" it was only the start. Every time you picked it up you'd encounter new micro-games, unlock some fantastic bonus feature (and they really were bonus features, not something that should have been there from the start), or see some new thing that'd make you laugh out loud and have everyone on the bus look at you and frown.

(My favourite single moment is still the dungeon boss -"OUTWIT!" - of Orbulon's section. "What are you thinking?", yells the battle's unseen commentator, stunned into disbelieving horror by your complete stupidity. "Blumbarang does not affect Hungraa! Incredible damage!")

I couldn't leave the damn thing alone. Not because I'd forget the story if I didn't play it for two days - Wario Ware HAS a story, but I couldn't tell you the first thing about it - and not because I had to win 79 more battles to unlock the Sword Of Infinite Pointiness and fight Morgnax The Perpetually Bad-Tempered, but because I was addicted to the fun. I lived in Wario's world, and reality was just another minigame. In the supermarket, as my groceries came down the belt, the word "PACK!" flashed across my eyes as I tried to get them into the carrier bags as fast as the cashier could scan them. "AVOID!", yelled my brain as I dodged the traffic crossing the road. "CHARM!", as I tried to pick the right conversational option with the nice girl in the bar. "TWEAK!", as - well, never you mind about that one.

This was videogaming where the fun bits came ALL the time, not like a food pellet dispensed after every four hours of obedient effort. Every time you did something right you got a reward, and every time you did something wrong you didn't have to go back and repeat it 50 times, because there was a whole new challenge coming in two seconds' time. This was - still is - the purest videogaming on Earth, friends.

Not feebly aping some other artform like Dungeons And Dragons; not trying to replicate the empty physics of some more exciting and dangerous pursuit that you're too chicken to go and do for real; not piggybacking on someone else's ideas by tacking a load of generic gameplay onto a big movie licence; but undiluted, unashamed, inimitable videogaming. This was the thing I'd fallen in love with all those years ago. We'd grown apart and grown up and lost touch, but a chance meeting had set the old fires burning again like it was the first time.



But you're probably already thinking "Jeesh, get a room", so I should point out that it's not just about Wario Ware, of course. The gaming world is full of beauty and joy that exists in the cracks between the tired blockbusters and the hyped-up rubbish with the paid-for reviews and the yearly franchise updates, in places where the PFB Factor never existed. You want names? I've got names:

- Namco's brilliant Point Blank series of lightgun games, where all you need is an alert mind and the ability to point;

- The superb Xbox conversion of OutRun 2, the racing game that you can enjoy without sitting a three-hour test first, stuffed full of dozens and dozens of fun little missions;

- The Playstation's tragically unsung Hasbro update of Pong, with more imagination and invention in its little finger than last year's entire Top 40 sellers put together;

- The Typing Of The Dead, the funniest videogame in the world bar none;

- All of Konami's endless Dancing Stage line (just pick the one that has your favourite songs on it), except played the hardcore-gamer way: with a joypad instead of a dance mat. A pure old-skool combination of reaction, mental agility and co-ordination, but one that you can explain to your grandmother and your six-year-old niece alike in seconds;

- Soul Calibur 2, the most exuberantly, gloriously gay videogame ever built around the idea of killing people with swords and axes, its codpiece packed to bulging with tiny little gaming vignettes where you can win a Barbie's wardrobe of new clothes to dress your virtual dolls in;

- and Meteos, the pretty Nintendo DS puzzle game whose single, absurdly simple premise  (drag blocks down the screen with the little stick to form lines, granny) conceals the deepest, most varied, most inexhaustible game structure in years.

I could go on and on, but in fact I'll stop so we can get to the point. Those of us who still have some joy in our hearts, who donít want to surrender all of our free time to plodding with dead eyes and dead hearts around someoneís medieval, goblin-strewn fantasy land (is that the limit of your imagination, you pitiable, Tolkien-obsessed twerps?) have had a hard time of it in the 21st Century. Games have largely become puffed-up, overblown monstrosities, padding thin ideas out to ludicrous, emptily-bloated sizes to try to justify the astronomical costs of their development, and to delay the moment when their unfortunate players realise just how little actual substance they contain.

Imagine a modern videogame as a doughnut 20 feet wide, covered in sparkly sugar, glistening icing, mountains of cream and sprinkles all the colours of the rainbow. It looks impressive and delightful and thrilling, but you'd be bored and queasy long before you'd eaten even a tiny fraction of it, and if someone told you you HAD to finish it it'd feel like a draconian, merciless punishment for some dreadful crime. But if you truly love videogames for what they are and for what they can be (and if you look hard enough) you can find games a hundredth of that size that are a thousand times cleverer, and which will keep you entertained - with a big stupid kid's smile on your face - for 62.8 times as long.

We still, just about, have the power to shape the future of videogames into something better than where it's going - to seize control from the fat, cynical boardroom boss-monsters who have kidnapped our generation's innocent, angelic new artform and enslaved it for the benefit of their vile reptilian shareholder-henchmen. They are Bowser and his scaly minions. We - you and I - are Mario and Luigi.

Friends! Rise up! Save our beautiful princess! Say "NO!" to the PFB Factor!



 

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