The crying game.
Somewhere, I know, there’s a game developer crying himself to sleep every night, his dreams haunted by the melancholy-colored bricks of what might have been.
Everything was looking up for him a year ago when he got assigned to Lumines II, the sequel to the best-selling PSP puzzle game, Lumines. All the critics were saying that Lumines was the best PSP game at launch, wowed by the breathtaking colors, game design, and addictive gameplay. Our game developer was like Michael J. Fox in Secret of My Success—sitting on a fountain of bubbly good fortune.
Oh, the plans he hatched. Maybe he would redesign the entire puzzle mechanic, maybe instead of two-by-two colored blocks, he would use three-by-three. Maybe he would replace the sweeping line that erased squares of like-colored bricks with a trigger-able “Lumines Boom.” Maybe he would add lasers, doing for Lumines
did for Breakout
. Maybe there would be sharks. And sharks with lasers. His head was dizzy with gaming nirvana dreams.
In the very secret moments of his silent reveries he would allow himself a guilty pleasure: maybe his new and improved Lumines would capture the GR crown—an A grade.
He pitched idea after idea to the Board of Important Gentlemen, but one by one they were shot down. No, no lasers. No, no change in the gameplay. What consumers want from Lumines II is Lumines I, the Important Gentlemen said, two-by-two bricks, able to be rotated and of the same color configurations descending onto a board, erased by a sweeping vertical line when they create like-colored squares.
“But that’s the same game!” our flailing game designer cried out. “From the two-toned color palate to the variations of brick styles, it’s exactly the same gameplay!”
Precisely, said the Important Gentlemen of Avaricious Motives, and it was done.
Then the game designer appealed to at least change the music and the backgrounds. Much of the appeal of the first Lumines was its bright and colorful graphics and music—he knew that consumers would be expecting new songs and skins. At first the Important Gentlemen were impressed. “Yes yes,” they said, “new songs absolutely, and new skins.” And for that small concession, the designer was thankful, though pessimistic. What was the meaning of that knowing wink between the Important Gentlemen when he mentioned new songs?
No matter, he had work to do. He went to the songsmiths and graphics designers and before long had a decent, though small, set of new skins and songs. They were pretty and fresh and new, but not enough. Then the Important Gentlemen called, where are those new skins and songs? they asked. He showed them and they wanted more.
“No problem,” he said, “I’ll get back on it.” “Wait,” said the Important Gentlemen, “whatever happened to those old songs and skins?” The designer stared at them in disbelief, and protested, “we can’t put the same songs and skins from the old game in the new game! That’s lazy and everyone will know it!” “Oh, they’re not that smart,” the Important Gentlemen dismissively responded, and the old songs went in with the new ones.
“We’ve also got the songs from the 360 arcade version,” said the Important Gentlemen, and so those went in too. And our game designer mourned.
“Ah, don’t cry, you little wuss,” said the Important Gentlemen, “we’ve got something up our sleeve which we hadn’t told you about. Check this out.” And the designer saw what the Gentlemen wanted and he about barfed.
Between the old ambient techno songs and the fresh new ones, there would be real songs from real bands, featuring their actual music videos.
No no, said the little game designer, this I can’t take. There are hundreds of reasons for not doing this, just the most important of which are these: (1) switching from ambient techno to rock and roll or pop hip-hop destroys the fluidity of the experience; (2) each of the videos will take a second or two to load, stopping the non-stop action of the gameplay; (3) the videos will be disastrously distracting—there will simply be too much crap on the screen at one time.
The game designer yelled and yelled until his voice gave out. The Important Gentlemen smiled and nodded and then called up the record labels and told them it was a go. The game designer watched in horror as his game was saddled with only one thematically appropriate song, from Beck, and many more horrendous tracks, including one from the Black Eyed Peas, whom he loathed. “When hip hop goes to Best Buy,” he muttered.
From then on, it was damage control. Our game designer programmed in a function to create a customizable song list so that he would never again hear the Black Eyed Peas urge him to “pump it.” And he included a neat “sequencer” feature in which precocious players could easily edit one of four songs. It was a pretty cool feature, but it wasn’t a game.
Neither were the less cool new features: the ability to save replay files from the sixty second timed mode and the customization of the HUD marginalia.
Oh cheer up, said the Gentlemen, why don’t you offer new modes? New modes! cried out the game developer, perking up and wagging his tail. Why didn’t you tell me I could invent new modes! Out came the lasers and the sharks again.
“We didn’t mean that,” said the Gentlemen. “We were thinking more about a beginner mode, an intermediate mode, and an advanced mode.” And the game designer put away his big plans and modified the basic game so that it played about the same at any difficulty. “It’s just not fair to our fans,” said the developer.
“Life’s not fair, kid,” said the Gentlemen, and the game was finished and brought to market.
And today, when the game designer is still having dreams of what could have been, and nightmares about what had been—the old songs mixed with the new, the unchanged gameplay, the redundant difficulty modes, the atrocious inclusion of really really bad music videos—he goes to his favorite game website, sees a review of his Lumines II: Revenge of Corporate Mediocrity, and scrolls down to see that, as he had predicted, his game and his dreams had received a . . .