Culture

Cuphead: the arbitrary hostage of the skippability debate

The newly-released indie game Cuphead by StudioMDHR has quickly, and unwittingly, garnered past ripples of contention into a bona fide monsoon of controversy within the gaming community.

For those who aren’t familiar with the game, it’s a retro-style run-n-gun shooter. Your goal, as the eponymous character Cuphead (or alongside your brother Mughead), is to retrieve your soul, which you signed over to the Devil at his casino during a particularly reckless winning streak, by collecting the soul contracts of other indebted inhabitants.

Animated in the signature 1930’s ‘New York Style’ vintage-cartoon direction, complete with crackling voice-over, looped and clumsy movements, scratchy record soundtrack and staticky screen fuzz – the game, in short, oozes charm out of its every orifice.

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Credit: Studio MDHR

Unfortunately, it isn’t the singular art style, clever combination of retro nostalgia and modern gameplay interface, charming story and characters, or revamped vintage shooter mechanics that have put this game in the news. No, Cuphead is making ripples because of its above-par difficulty, which in turn, rekindled the embers on a years-old divisive question of whether boss fights should be skippable.

Now let’s bring back some context. Ubisoft has announced that its newest Assassin’s Creed instalment features a ‘Discovery Mode’, which strips the map of all objectives and challenges and allows the player to simply wander around ancient Egypt. This announcement, which coincided with numerous prominent gaming websites’ frustrated reviews of Cuphead, has manifested new speculations regarding whether or not every game should have a ‘skip fight’ option.

The problem, as I see it, isn’t the speculation. Parley is imperative between developers and consumers, as in any supply-demand structure, plus the ambiguous nature of gaming and its infant status still render any long-term cultural implications and established canons, or ‘should’s’, largely unknown to us, so keeping the conversation ongoing can aid in the industry’s grounding, as well as its evolution.

No, the problem is assumptions. And this is where this issue gradually slides out of the trivial ‘first world problem’ status, and into the wider context of prejudice.

Crude and erroneous assumptions. And to say that gaming journalists are clearing this fog of controversy instead of thickening it would involve some highly imaginative role-playing all of its own.

Amid the predominantly positive reviews of Cuphead, which can basically be boiled down to the spamming of the words ‘challenging’, ‘near impossible’, or the trite ‘just like Dark Souls‘, there were a few articles which instead took Cuphead hostage in their backfired moral crusades.

RockPaperShotgun, quoted in Polygon, offered their take on why there is such a widespread resistance to skippability:

Because the real nub of it is that it’s about exclusivity. It’s about keeping the ‘Thems’, the riff-raff, the outsiders, out.

‘This section of the game, this is special to me and only those as great as I am! I deserve this bit of the game! Those weaklings do not!’

“Gosh, it’s an ugly way of thinking, isn’t it? And so utterly idiotic too. Because it requires the mental gymnastics of somehow believing that one’s own isolated experience of a game is cheapened, lessened, impacted in any conceivable way, by the isolated experience of someone else playing that game.

Polygon, in said-article, chose to play it safe and sit on the fence, offering both sides of the argument. Fair enough – that’s pretty useless, but still a stance. So, unfortunately, the hypocrisy of the above opinions remained unchallenged (bar by the furore of comments, naturally).

This crudely-worded idea of ‘exclusivity’, alongside classicism-bordering-on-narcissism and cult-like affiliation, are notions that have frequently been pinned on gamers.

RockPaperShotgun continued: “The reaction against these thoughts [battle-skips] is one of Us and Them, and a desire to keep the Them from getting near the Us. “Them” are all ordinary, inexpert, mediocre, or worst of all, new. While “Us” are expert, experienced, hardcore, elite.”

Where to begin dissecting this? Shall we start with the unsubtle portrayal of these ‘expert’ gamers as self-adoring royalty who shoo the peasant casual enthusiasts, lest they catch the ‘average’ bug – here basically equated to the Black Death?

The animosity the author feels towards his version of the gaming community is as plain as his lack of research. More importantly, however, articles like this are the reason the ‘us vs. them’ mentality can never be put to rest.

Opinion pieces propagating this standoff, and painting it in colours of good and evil, are undoubtedly helping fuel the fires of misunderstanding and discrepancy which are already lit between current and pre-gaming generations, as well as across different social and media platforms.

Also, such a view is highly far-fetched. In a niche, vintage arcade-type game like Cuphead, can you picture anyone playing as an anthropomorphic cup that shoots bullets out of its fingers and battles giant pumpkins, meanwhile the player is actively self-conscious about how other players are faring?

On the basic level, it’s a fun, indie game: there will be speed runs, and perfect score enthusiasts, as in every other title, but ultimately it is certainly not the kind of game to turn one into a crazed, insecure competitor.

In the wider scope, generalisations like these simply must not exist, and the fact that journalists use their platforms to voice this overt prejudice is alarming. It is unfortunate that this still needs to be stated, but the majority of gamers are not violently competitive, obsessive elitists.

Across the board, many actually abhor the term ‘gamer’, since it has been stigmatised in the past. Apart from participants of actual gaming tournaments and eSports, there are overwhelmingly few individuals who would refer to themselves, or appreciate being referred to, as ‘gamers’.

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Credit: Studio MDHR

The reason for this is the same as for every other generalised stereotype – the offence of shallow assumption. Hyped-up violence, unhealthy competitiveness, anti-social behaviour, among many others, are all check-marks on the list of labels and characteristics readily attributed to the person traditionally termed (less so now, as there is a gradual shift of opinion) a ‘gamer’.

Alright, let’s swerve back from this digression.

Crucially, the irony of the author’s argument lies in the fact that he is advocating for change, while ensuring that this change never comes about. The opinions he states are significantly outdated – his call for unity and acceptance within and beyond the community has already been a trend for the last decade, and the solid battle lines that are so meticulously accentuated in the article have by now become increasingly faded.

However, by using such crude and one-dimensional language, and peppering it with ‘ugly’ and ‘utterly idiotic’, the author is alienating the readers by trying to compartmentalise them, thus further advancing the division he claims to want to bridge.

Worse yet, it’s clear that he doesn’t seem to understand the status quo within the gaming community, nor is he in touch with its evolution. And by denouncing that which he does not fully understand, or see, as ‘idiotic’, he loses the argument by default.

This resonates with another instance of this gaming journalist’s unnecessary zeal for contention.

John Walker, who, it just so happens, is also senior editor at the aforementioned RockPaperShotgun as well as the author of the above article, tweeted in October: “Anyone who ever uses the word “gameplay” needs to seriously consider their life choices.” The assertion sparked an expansive tirade of responses from confused game aficionados, outraged fans, fellow critics, and casual consumers.

tweet

Walker’s reasoning was directed at the term “gameplay” supposedly reducing the immersion for the player, which led the editor to start this media campaign for the term to be replaced with neutral and ambiguous words such as ‘interaction’ or ‘experience’.

Apart from this reeking of PC elitism to me, it is, above all, a divisive move. Whether it was posted for the sheer controversy it was bound to unleash, or to generally get a discussion going within the community remains unclear.

Above all, however, the tweet and the outlook behind it are problematic for me because they carry censorship. And if Walker, along with millions of others who have diligently been trying to elevate the status of games to be ranked alongside other more conventional forms of art, knows anything about the concept of art itself, he should know that its first rule is refusing, even challenging, censorship.

By providing any sort of limitations or ‘rules’ for gameplay, he is inherently reducing its accessibility for the masses and promoting some sort of underlying hierarchy, which is seemingly what he sets out to defeat.

More broadly, however, as touched on above, the ethereal and fragile nature of gameplay, the complex intractability between player and interface,  is so understudied and so intuitive, that to unequivocally set some sort of universal ‘canons’ seems at best far-fetched, and at worst pretentious.

Walker also occasionally publishes articles denoting his rules of ‘Do’s and Don’t’s for Gaming‘, which, I understand, could potentially be used by developers as feedback and guidance. However, once again, the dismissive, flippant and frankly contentious language used in the pieces leaves a scent of anything but productive feedback.

Phrases such as, “I don’t care what kind of game it is, there is no game that isn’t dramatically improved by a double-jump”, are not only bold statements, but also give off a whiff of passive aggressiveness and an overt dismissal of the multitudes of new genres which, in fact, would not benefit from a double-jump.

Off the top of my head – any first-person story-driven title: can you picture yourself as Henry in Firewatch or Chloe in Life is Strange, double-jumping towards the watch tower or around Blackwell?

These are semantics, and they are not important. What is important, is that John Walker, and numerous other gaming journalists or editors, have a significant following, and RockPaperShotgun is a generally reputable website; which makes it all the more dangerous for them to use their platform to voice such generalised, crudely-worded, constricting arguments when dealing with such a multifaceted and ever-evolving industry and community.

And indeed, there is no other industry resembling it, which is the other key reason why it is not possible to use any established precedents to develop some sort of uniform ‘rules of gaming’. The Polygon article referred to above concludes with the following argument in favour of skippability: “You can skip right to the end of any episode of Game of Thrones if you’re watching on HBO’s app, and no one will stop you. Your enjoyment will be decreased, but I’m not sure anyone would argue that the value of the show itself is diminished because you have that option.”

This analogy is wrong for several reasons, the key one being that video games are not passive endeavours, and are hinged on progression; that is, overcoming an obstacle/completing a challenge in order to get the satisfaction of the reward.

I won’t delve too deep into the psychology of this interaction lest I, too, start sounding pretentious, but suffice it to say that if you lack any sense of pride of accomplishment at the end of a game, if none of your faculties have been challenged (be that attention, creativity, reflexes, memory, or any similar ‘conscious’ processes), then the chances are that the game will leave no imprint in your mind.

That is not to say that I am unequivocally against the skip button, or in favour of games being frustrating. What I am trying to say, is that:

a) Analogies should not be used in the context of this unique medium

b) Universal rules can not apply to such a fluid industry unless one wants to demean it from an art-form into a corporate consumerist agenda, and

c) That you should always – always – do your research before investing in a game.

By attempting to coerce developers into producing games that are tailored specifically to your expectations, you are limiting the market and the endless possibilities of gameplay evolution. ‘Don’t’s’ in general tend to do that. I suggest that, instead, you seek out games that are already out there which will work for you, as there are thousands of niche games on the market.

And to keep those indie games flourishing and not stifle the immense creative process of game development, we as consumers need to not sink into the easy pit-falls of ‘shoulds’ and boxed categories.

Instead, keep the dialogue going, and retain an open mind. There is, of course, a level of toxicity present in the gaming community which comes with the isolation and anonymity of the internet blended with competitiveness. So, try not to contribute to that immaturity by demanding tailored and rigid output – instead, embrace the bold, the difficult, the weird and the unprecedented, and adapt yourself to the story you are entering.

So, what does Cuphead contribute to this debate? Very little. It could have been any other challenging title in its place. The community needed an outlet to vent and discuss the issues of ableism, segregation, and the dregs of prejudice.

Crucially, however, it brought to light the vital topic of double standards and the divisive consequences of poor gaming journalism – which, let us remember, is not a profession – and the humility and responsiveness its practitioners should be exercising in the place of societal judgement, uncompromising demands, and clichéd slurs.

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