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Against Slop

Beyond the failure market in video games

It’s usually understood that time wasted is art wasted. To edit down to the lean core, that’s often considered in most mediums the mark of quality (or, perhaps more accurately, and sometimes to a fault, professionalism). Historically, that’s been part of the cultural stigma against video games: not only is wasted time a given, it’s an integral part of the experience. Interactivity inverts the responsibility for moving the plot forward from storyteller to audience. A linear, self-propulsive story squanders the medium’s artistic potential. In games, the tension comes from not only the uncertainty about how the plot will resolve but also whether it even can. When the player fails, the story ends without ever having reached a conclusion. The work necessarily has to reset in some manner. Which creates a minor paradox: How can time discarded not also be time wasted? Isn’t this all noise and nonsense for the purpose of keeping a couch potato on the couch so long they sprout roots?

Repetition is usually dramatic poison, and it’s no wonder such failing without finality is erased from representations of gaming in other media. Whether in 1982’s Tron, or the “First Person Shooter” episode of The X-Files, or Gerard Butler’s turn in 2009’s Gamer, the “if you die in the game, you die for real” trope is understandable. Games can be complex, multifaceted cultural objects and are more frequently being covered that way, yet the accusation that games are action for the sake of action with little consequence or meaning is uncomfortably accurate much of the time. The source of the stigma stems from the early arcade days, when games primarily leveraged failure: every loss shook down the player for another quarter to send rattling into the machine. To beat the game and see it in its entirety took a mountain of coins, dedication, and skill—rendering play play, which is to say, largely divorced from narrative or the kinds of emotional experiences other art forms explored.

The pastime became less sport and more medium when home consoles and personal computers allowed games to experiment on a mass scale. Developers had no profit incentive to induce defeat once a cartridge or CD-ROM had been sold. Failure became instead the primary driver of tension within an emerging narrative, allowing story to flourish alongside gameplay from text adventures to action shooters. These stories were, save for those played with perfect skill, littered with loops. With every trap that fatally mangles a player in Tomb Raider, every police chase in Grand Theft Auto that ends in a brick wall instead of an escape, the narrative goes backward, the protagonist character’s story caught in a cyclical purgatory until the player-protagonist achieves a better result.

In the past few years, games have trended toward becoming enormous blobs of content for the sake of content.

The sensation of breaking through those barriers is one of the most cathartic experiences that games offer, built on the interactivity that is so unique to gaming as a medium. Failure builds tension, which is then released with dramatic victory. But the accusation that these discarded loops are irrecuperable wastes of time still rings true, as modern game audiences have become comfortable consuming slop. In the past few years, games have trended toward becoming enormous blobs of content for the sake of content: an open world, a checklist of activities, a crafting system that turns environmental scrap into barely noticeable quality-of-life improvements. Ubisoft’s long-running Far Cry franchise has often been an example of this kind of format, as are survival crafting games like Funcom’s Conan Exiles or Bethesda’s overloaded wasteland sim Fallout 76. Every activity in a Far Cry or its ilk is a template activity that only comes to a finite end after many interminable engagements: a base is conquered, just to have three more highlighted. Failure here is a momentary punishment that can feel indistinguishable from success, as neither produces a sense of meaning or progress. These failure states are little moments of inattention and clumsy gameplay that lead only to repeating the same task better this time. Then when you do play better mechanically, you are rewarded with the privilege of repeating the same task, a tiny bit more interesting this time because the enemies are a little tougher in the next valley over. Within games that play for dozens of hours but are largely defined by mechanical combat loops that can last just seconds, everything can boil down to the present-tense experience so detrimentally that it’s hard to remember what you actually did at the end of those dozens of hours. 

There is no narrative weight to liberating the same base in Far Cry across multiple attempts, no sense of cumulative progression to repeatedly coming at the same open-world content from different angles. There is only a grim resignation to the sunk-cost fallacy that, if you’ve already invested so much time into the damn thing already, you might as well bring it to some kind of resolution. Cranking up difficulty can make those present-tense moments more dramatic or stressful, but in the end it’s just adding more hours to the total playtime by adjusting the threshold for completing a given segment to a stricter standard. The game does not care if you succeed or fail, only that you spend time with it over its competitors.

As the industry creates limbos of success, the failure market itself has also mutated. See mobile gaming, a distorted echo of the coin-operated era, where players are behaviorally channeled to buy things like extra Poké Balls in Pokemon Go or “continue” permissions in Candy Crush and keep playing just a little longer. In 1980, failure cost a cumulative $2.8 billion in quarters; in 2022, the mobile games market made $124 billion by creating artificial barriers and choke points within their game mechanics, either making things more actively difficult or just slowing them down to prompt impulse spending.

In video games like the ubiquitous Fortnite or Blizzard’s recent Diablo 4, major releases often have “seasons” that heavily encourage cyclical spending. Every three months the game adds new content and asks the player to repeat the experience. The player exchanges between seven to twenty-five dollars to gild the stories they’ve already completed with extra objects, materials, and costumes—real money spent only for the privilege of sinking in the requisite time to acquire these virtual items, creating yet another loop of increasingly meaningless time usage. Fortnite came out in 2017. In 2023 the game generated all by itself a total $4.4 billion of income. A sum larger than the GDP of some countries, generated in one year, six years after release, off the impulse not to look like a scrub with no money in front of your friends even if those friends are dressed as Peter Griffin and the Xenomorph from Alien.

“Live service” is used to describe these games that attempt to stay evergreen with seasonal systems and intermittent small content drops. These seasonal titles and mobile cash shops have created feedback loops and cyclical repetitions that, by design, do not resolve. In recent years, however, there has been a counterreaction that tries to integrate these consumerist tendencies in the pursuit of something greater. In 2021, Arkane Studios released Deathloop, a story-driven shooter that functions as a kind of winkingly violent sci-fi riff on 1993’s famous time-loop comedy Groundhog Day. On an isolated island called Blackreef, a time manipulation experiment was meant to create a paradise of inconsequence: twenty-four hours of partying that would reset and begin again. Empty bottles refill, all angry words are forgotten, the injured heal and the dead rise. When protagonist Colt Vahn perishes on his quest to escape this very suffocating infinity, the day is instantly reset, with the rest of the island forgetting the previous loop while Vahn remembers and learns from it.

Because no one else remembers, they do the same things every day—unless Vahn disrupts them. What Vahn does in the morning changes what might happen in the afternoon, and then even further complicates the evening and night as you go along your merry, murderous way in your attempt to escape the loop. Experimentation eventually becomes certainty, failure accumulates into familiarity. Going through so many iterations of the day that by design will never allow Vahn to escape the loop allows him to happen on the one, exact pattern of action that will slay all eight of the primary conspirators and thus break the loop within the same single day by literal trial and error. These consequence-free failures and minor, immediately forgotten successes are far from dramatically empty; the dead-ends are embraced by the game as part of the cumulative whole.

From Death Loop. | Arkane Lyon

What’s so satisfying about Deathloop, especially to a jaded critic and lifelong gamer, is that it articulates a dissonance that’s oddly ubiquitous. You can play any given Call of Duty campaign and get the experience of dying on the battlefield and coming back again and again until you stand triumphant. That’s just action gaming in general! There is always an inherent contradiction between the intended sense that what’s happening is present and real, and the practical reality that you could just keep at it all day and get it eventually because it doesn’t ultimately matter. Deathloop acts as a deliberate meta-commentary on what this experience feels like as a player, extrapolating existential discomforts and violently absurdist slapstick from the fundamental fact that most games continually cut short their dramatic arcs with “bad” outcomes where the protagonist makes an oopsie and gets shot in the head. Instead of an unspoken tangent from the text, these fail states become the text itself.

Deathloop is a story of a man whose inability to escape the infinite, meaningless repetitions of a day of supposedly fun activities is driving him insane with existential misery—a story quite familiar to players trapped by seasonal content on a treadmill of pretend prizes and endless checklists. Blackreef is small, though. If Cole had a whole world at his disposal and not just a remote island full of jackasses, would he have been so desperate to escape? If Deathloop is where everything is forgiven by the time loop, Elden Ring is a story of a stagnant, cursed kingdom called the Lands Between where nothing is forgotten across lifetimes of cyclical, unending death. Nothing is truly final; the dead rise just to die again. In the face of this stagnation the world has devolved into factionalism and war over the scraps of divine power that remain. As Deathloop plays with the tropes of first-person shooters, Elden Ring uses many of the same familiar building blocks of structure and setting that an open-world Live Service title would. Repeating dungeon templates, a large world of strongholds to conquer and quests to complete—the same basic blocks that something like Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is built from. The difference comes from presentation and intention.

Besides its beautiful portrayal of a declining, melancholy world of perpetual autumn, what sets aside Elden Ring is its complexly layered difficulty. Elden Ring is quite eager to kill you, with a million ways to put a player down. But it is not meanly difficult, or insurmountably difficult. Most importantly, it is not difficult as part of a profit-seeking monetization loop. Instead, the failure states that are so often leveraged to extend playtime and coerce spending in most other games are here used as friction to build atmosphere. The constant starting again is exhausting, often stressful, sometimes infuriating. It is never meaningless, however: it confidently contradicts the worries of other mediums and the too-often-true accusations of slop with its deep understanding of how to create drama within any individual moment. Participating in its loops of death and rebirth as a player is to be fully within the Lands Between. Elden Ring presents a once-flourishing kingdom literally consumed by creeping nihilism and reflexive despair, which gives sympathetic resonance to the player’s determined and confident attempts to surmount these challenges. The most powerful or villainous enemies withdraw into themselves and let the world rot, while the weakest literally cower from the player, so exhausted by the idea of another painful death. Not the player, though: they exist in deliberate dramatic contrast to these characters by virtue of their own interactive participation with the world, making them the hero as both part of the text and as a meta-textual frame for the whole story.

By persisting in a world that trends downward, your own failures take on a defiant quality. The failure loop of the game incentivizes the player to loop again. This is where Elden Ring’s difficulty is particularly clever: because a player pays no consequence besides dropping experience points on the ground where they died, there is a hard limit on what the game can take away from them. There is an interactive choice and freedom even within these fail states, as you can abandon them or return again, fighting through all you had before; this in turn creates an incredible carrot-and-stick effect that, should you gamble on reclaiming your hard-won gains, doubles the stakes. While it is repeating the same content on the surface, there is a tangible and meaningful sense of cumulative progress and tactical variation on every death.

Once you’ve spent those points on an upgrade, that’s yours for the rest of the game—a permanent token of your dedication. A player is only ever risking the immediate next step, which adds weight to the fantasy of the gameplay, but not so much actual consequence that failure would crush a player’s spirit to continue. Holding onto your advancements even after dying and coming back makes your arc of progression stand in exciting contrast to the world around you. From a stagnant place, you are rising as something new, something vibrant. By incorporating these meta-textual elements into the mechanical play, there is a sense of individuality and ownership of the experience that more typical open-world check-listing games do not have. When I fail in Far Cry, it feels dramatically evaporative and impersonal. When I fail in Elden Ring, I feel like it’s because I made an active choice to risk something and I come back more engaged and determined than ever.

Elden Ring has no seasons. (There is a New Game Plus Mode, where you can keep most of your mechanical advancement going into the new loop, starting anew in a stronger position against stronger versions of all the game’s enemies; the game is confident enough in its design to let a player completely self-determine their own level of investment in the game that way.) Instead, the game will only have one extra cost: the price of its recently released expansion Shadow of the Erdtree. Instead of a box of prizes to make repeating the same old content tolerable, this is a fully new chapter that adds an artistically contrasting realm to the game world. Where the main game’s aesthetic is a kind of moody twilight, Shadow of the Erdtree pushes things fully into the black of night. It is not simply more for the sake of more, it is more in a way that thoughtfully supplements the existing world and seeks to build it out.

The expansion’s price tag is less about monetizing the players than it is a reflection of the developmental effort involved. Elden Ring was certainly in a position to cash in at any time. The initial release was as successful as any game using more manipulative methods of extracting value. It was so popular that it sold twelve million copies in two weeks, moving on to over twenty million sold within a year of release. By any metric, but particularly by the metric where you multiply twenty million by the sixty-dollar retail price, the game was a massive success for art of any sort in any medium, doing so without relying on in-app purchases, artificial game resource scarcity, or making certain weapons and armor premium-purchase only.

The hunger for better games is not just for more content, endless content; the hunger is for meaning.

For the health of video games as an artistic medium, this needs to be enough. That’s plenty of money. That’s such an enormous goddamn pile of money it even justifies the multimillion-dollar cost of developing modern flagship titles. Perhaps the problem with Elden Ring as an example is that it’s a masterpiece. It captured the imagination of millions. Games as an industry, instead of an artistic medium, don’t want that kind of success for only the games that are worthy of it. The industry needs to make money like that on the games built without subtlety, or craft, or heart. The industry needs to pull a profit off the slop too, and there is nothing they won’t gut or sell out to do it. If the old way was to tax failure, the new way is to dilute success, to treadmill the experience such that it never reaches a destination. Just one more quarter, one more season pass. The best games are those that question their own assumptions, communicating something more than just being the game of it. Many do not, and most cannot: the money is only in the repetitions.

This is just the era we live in, our own stagnant age in the Lands Between. With Disney and its subsidiaries sucking all of the air out of the room to repackage the same concept over and over, Hollywood has reached the stale conclusion that the same story can be told repetitively. The embrace of AI across multiple mediums just intensifies this dilution of what feels meaningful. The worst games have always felt like an uncritical amalgamation of what’s familiar and proven, and AI is a tool designed to manufacture nothing but the obvious and average. Books with no point and nothing to say because they have no lived experience behind them; music that sounds familiar but says nothing because the AI that made it has never experienced emotion; animation that is detailed but stilted and lifeless because all the AI knows how to do is copy the humans who have gotten it right. It is a crushing tidal wave of cheap slop, a response to the hunger for more content that makes content both infinite and empty, starving even as it feeds. The incentive to do something new, or take a risk, or ever definitively say “This experience is over now” is vanishingly small against the profits that come from cyclically remonetizing what is already familiar.

Games that give dramatic weight to every part of the experience feel particularly special, and particularly necessary. The hunger for better games is not just for more content, endless content; the hunger is for meaning. Time discarded within a game is not time wasted if that meaning comes through, if the sense at the end is that something of value was accomplished. When the only meaning is that I used to have twenty dollars and now I don’t, then the medium’s potential is squandered. The image of the dead-eyed, hunched-over gamer letting garish colors and a cacophony of beeps and bloops wash over them is ultimately not a stereotype or an indictment of the players so much as it is a reflection of an industry that, even in its creative prime, struggles to conceive of its audience as capable of more than that.