Don’t Listen to Podcasts While Playing Red Dead Redemption

Why do we play games?

I ask myself this question pretty much every time I review a game. Do we play them to waste time? To goof off? To escape from reality? Because games are such a varied medium, the answer must change depending on the game. I play Hot Pursuit or Madden or Geometry Wars now when I need a distraction or to just get out of my head for a little while. Those games are great for that, just like Bad Boys II is great for that.

There are a lot of games like that. Most handheld games work that way because they’re intended to be consumed in small doses. Most online multiplayer games are like that, too. I’ve got two TVs in my living room, and I like to pop in Hot Pursuit or the Sims 3 or something on one TV while a basketball game plays on the other. And that’s OK, because you don’t have to get lost in these games to get the full experience.

But I can’t manage to bring myself to treat so many other games like that, at least not the first time through. There are dozens of games on my shelf you need to really try to absorb or else, well, you’re just not doing it right. Here’s a list of titles/franchises I’m looking at (talking about campaign mode for titles with multiplayer): Alan Wake, Alpha Protocol, Assassin’s Creed, Blood Stone 007, Bioshock, Call of Duty, Dead Space, Enslaved, Fable, Fallout, Far Cry 2, GTA IV, Halo, HAWX, Heavy Rain, Jeanne D’arc, Kane & Lynch, Killzone, LittleBigPlanet, Lost: Via Domus, Mafia, Mass Effect, Max Payne, Nier, The Orange Box, Red Dead Redemption, Resistance, Stranglehold, Tron: Evolution, Uncharted.

Get to the point, Phil!

All this came to the surface of my ugly brain recently when I read a column over at Kotaku written by Stephen Totilo called “The Year I Gained The Courage To Ignore Video Game Music.” You can read it here, but I’ll take you through most of the big points. You have the floor, Totilo.

I used to think badly of some of the people I saw on the New York City subway. They were misusing video games. They didn’t know what I was sure I knew: the proper way to enjoy video games.

These folks would would sit on the bench in the C train, playing a video game on a PlayStation Portable, a DS or iPhone, with no headphones on and the volume turned down to zero.

They might have been having a good time. As far as I was concerned, they might as well have been talking during a movie, texting while watching a TV show or treating the opera as a backdrop to passing gas.

This was an extreme perspective to take, but not for the reasons he thinks. As I discussed above, you can fully experience some games without the sound or without giving it your full attention for more than a few seconds at a time.

Others had an Xbox before I did, and others rejoiced 10 years ago that the Xbox would let its users change their games’ soundtracks. The feature seemed wrong. I was raised on the assumption that gaming music was composed of specific sounds for a specific experience. Do we change the music of the movies we watch? Do we have the hubris to believe we know better than the professionals which song should play at the end of a TV show?

Again, this is an extreme equivocation. The random pop music playing in the background of a snowboarding game or some EA racing title or Madden isn’t crucial to the experience of playing the game, and that’s where most folks would replace the soundtrack. Having such an extreme stance on this seems to have led him to the extreme other side of this issue. Here’s where it all goes wrong:

Horses don’t have stereos, a fact which may have finally given me the courage to turn the volume down in a video game. I enjoyed Red Dead’s score, but I was comfortable with quieting it. I believe that urge came from my 21st-century desire to multi-task. On my iPhone, I was behind in listening to podcasts. I had backlogged the device with audio files about the national news and about video games and about This American Life. In the world of my TV where the West was rendered, a cowboy didn’t need to hear a soundtrack, I reasoned. In the world of my couch on which I sat, game controller in hand, I could have an iPhone playing back something I just needed to hear. Utility trumped the pure appreciation of an artistic work. Efficiency superseded focus.

I played Red Dead Redemption in the spring. By the summer I was playing through entire games on my Wii or PlayStation 3 with backlogged podcasts playing in my ear. I would quiet them during a game’s dialogue scenes. Sometimes I would listen to the game, but lower the volume and reach for my iPhone if I’d failed at a challenge.

This is bad. For a prominent games journalist to say it is doubly bad.

Why do we play games? Is it simply for the act of playing? If so, why are story games popular? The second and best-reviewed games of 2010 were story games: Mass Effect 2, and Red Dead. ME2 doesn’t even have multiplayer, and Red Dead certainly was not well liked because of its online portion. We love those games because of the overall effect of the package they deliver, also known as “the way we like movies and books.” We take into account every aspect of a movie when judging it, even when a part, like an unmemorable score, doesn’t really factor into whether or not we like it. Some might even say a given movie would be better off were that score not present, but no critic would ever suggest it’s OK to evaluate that film without hearing the score.

This thought came up with Microbot. After I wrote my review, I went to Metacritic to see what other folks thought of it. To my surprise, that game was not well received. Folks called it boring and unengaging, a sentiment I couldn’t fathom. But then I remembered something that happened to me when I started playing that game.

Microbot is a twin-stick shooter, which would lead folks familiar with the genre to believe they could treat it like, say, Geometry Wars, one of the great timewasters  all time. I was in that boat too, and so after playing it for about 15 minutes I tried to turn down the volume on that TV and turn up a football game on the other. If you play Microbot like that from the start you won’t realize what you’re missing, but because I had played the first chapter with the sound up, I couldn’t help but turn off the other TV and focus solely on this game.

See, without the score and the wonderfully muted sound effects, Microbot becomes just another twin-stick shooter, and what makes it different is lost on the player. It’s a wildly different experience without the sound, and I would have been remiss to judge it after only playing it on silent.

Back to Red Dead. Sure, there isn’t a lot going on in that game when you’re just galloping from one town to the next, but that’s the point. It’s a quiet game, but the score is excellent, and there are ambient sounds all around you. To shut that out is to distance yourself from the experience of existing in the world of New Austin, and that experience is so much of what makes that game great. If you listen to a podcast and turn down the volume on the game, you aren’t really playing the game.

This isn’t even just about Red Dead or Microbot; it’s about every game I listed above and more. It’s about every time a developer prepares a guided experience for you to fully enjoy.

Look, y’all can do what you want with games as long as you realize this. Whether or not you like a game doesn’t really matter to anyone outside your social circle. But if you care about games, you should know better.

This is even more of a sticking point for me because it’s Stephen Freaking Totilo saying this stuff. What he says to his readers matters, because he’s got a few of them. If he’s really listening to podcasts or the news every time he plays a game, then every value judgment he makes about a game is suspect.

I understand the urge to multi-task while playing games, particularly in this line of work in which it feels like I have no time to ever do anything but play or write about games. I also have crazy ADD which makes it really tough to keep plunging ahead in games sometimes.

But games, and the people who make them, deserve respect, especially from us in the gaming press and the rest of you who call yourselves gamers. If we want games to continue to progress as a medium and gain legitimate respect from the mainstream, wecannot treat our most beloved pastime as anything less than just that.

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2 Comments on Don’t Listen to Podcasts While Playing Red Dead Redemption

Phil Hornshaw

On January 26, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Totally agree with this. Sound design is designed for a reason. If you’re playing a video game for the immersive experience — and not every game is like that, but many surely are — then you need to give it your full attention. If you just want something to occupy a small portion of your brain for a given amount of time, play Angry Birds.

Phil Owen

On January 26, 2011 at 3:58 pm

And, , Phil H and I are both playing Dead Space 2 right now. Can you imagine playing that while listening to podcasts? That’d be pretty lame.