Apples and Oranges and Morons

Planetary Annihilation lead designer John Mavor, reading a user-submitted question: “How does the scale compare to Supreme Commander?  [Mavor waves his hands as to say “What a stupid question.”]  The scale in Supreme Commander is all screwy.”

Bob Berry: “It’s just apples and oranges.”

Mavor: “It’s apples and oranges.  Um, you definitely can’t directly compare them, like you can’t say “Oh this many meters in our game versus their game”, uh, they’re just different.”

Planetary Annihilation LiveStream Q&A , May 3rd, 2013* (8:15-8:33)

There is a culture of popular game criticism which wants to rank and compare everything, disseminating “top games” lists which are debated into the ground until the next mass-produced, banal ranking of the month comes out of the IGN mills.  We rank genres, systems, graphics, weapons, game series, cats, dogs, whatever.  And every week, a new Top 10 or Top 100 list is polluting the internet with its staggering ignorance.  And yet, in this culture where we do nothing but rank and compare things, we have people running around asserting “apples and oranges”, the idea that you can rank (compare) fighting games against real-time strategy games, but you cannot compare (rank) the systems and design of those games, because they’re too different.  (This is consistent with social media and most discussion on the internet.  People want to discuss their conclusions, they want to provide their “expert” opinion on a topic, but they don’t want to develop the complex thought process for why they believe these things.  Thinking is hard, man.)

So let’s make this brief.  When you claim “apples and oranges”, you are stating that no meaningful or relevant information can be drawn from a comparison.  The subjects of attention are not just at odds, but fundamentally and conceptually different.  Or, at least that’s what you think you’re doing.  The first mistake is that you are asserting authority over the point of discussion.  It’s one thing to say “I don’t know if they can be compared.”  There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know.”  Part of being an expert on a topic is knowing when you are not.  But if you claim “apples and oranges”, you are asserting authority that it cannot be compared.  You are asserting that you have given the topic an expert level of thought and introspection, and made the conclusion that further discussion is impossible.

In other words, “I couldn’t think of an answer, so there isn’t one.”  For this reason, you will never see or hear the reasons why a comparison is “apples and oranges”.  If there is an answer, it is usually to repeat what we already know: “One game is an X, the other is Y”, blah, blah.  (A similar argument is that these comparisons are a matter of “taste”, implying that “taste” cannot be outlined in comprehensive and exhaustive detail.)  But also, by its nature, “apples and oranges” is a defensive statement, because it is a response to the introduction of concepts or a comparison.  So with that in mind…if you bring up “apples and oranges” in the course of video game discussion, this is what you are actually saying: “I don’t have the knowledge or the comprehension of the topic to explain why your argument is bad.  Since your argument may infringe on my worldview, I’ll just say the argument is bullshit, because I said so.  It’s apples and oranges, man.”

Here’s an assertion of authority: You can compare any video game to any other video game.  (Hell, you can compare anything to anything, so long as you have the knowledge and capacity to back those assertions.)  Game criticism is the process of comparing video games and using those comparisons to determine whether select games are “good”, “bad”, “average”, or whatever.  Game criticism is the pursuit of apples and oranges.  And I suppose the Gamespots, the Kotakus, and the IGNs have set such a low standard for game criticism that most readers have failed to grasp this. When you say a game is “good”, you are saying the game is “good, based on what I have played in the past”.  Same for the inverse in game design, same for the average in game design.  For this reason, the best reviews should not exist in a self-contained bubble.  They should read like a tightly focused referendum and history of relevant games, genres, platforms, companies, and game concepts.  That not only requires a skillful and comprehensive understanding of games and genres, but the writing talents to outline those thoughts in plain speak.  Which is why these web sites usually settle for the most obvious and basic comparisons: Call of Duty, Uncharted, The Elder Scrolls, Minecraft, or whatever the flavor of the month is.

The question is not whether a comparison can be made.  The question is whether there is anything to be learned from the comparison.  You can compare Panzer Dragoon to The Secret of Monkey Island.  Why not?  They’re both video games, they’re both interactive, and their goal is to provoke an emotional response from the player, whether that emotional response is pleasure, excitement, fear, or whatever.  There is little sense, reason, or understanding that can currently come from those comparisons.  We haven’t built the more basic comparisons that can provide a foundation for the more complex comparisons.  For all I know, some of these comparisons could become so complex that they may be out of our range of comprehension.  I don’t know.  But I’m not going to insist that I’m god’s gift to video game writing or the internet, and deny everybody else the right to explore those arguments by asserting “apples and oranges”.

For now, comparing narrative-driven adventure games to fast-paced action games isn’t really necessary.  I’ll reserve my thoughts for the comparisons that are currently worth having.  And if you somehow think that a Call of Duty can’t be compared to a Doom, a StarCraft can’t be compared to a Total Annihilation, then you’re just not trying hard enough.  As a point of reference, I am currently working on a comprehensive explanation of why I dislike games in the Defense of the Ancients subgenre.  Since the genre has remained largely unchanged since its modern blueprint was conceptualized from 2003 to 2004, and since I am casting judgment on the genre as a whole, I have to go further than a comparison of DotA 2 or League of Legends or Heroes of Newerth or whatever the new licensed DotA knockoff is.  And when that explanation is finished, I expect that it will draw from discussion and knowledge of fighting games, beat ’em ups, first-person shooters, and real-time strategy games.  And I have full confidence that those comparisons will be relevant and defensible, because I’m capable of making those comparisons, and providing them in a manner which can be clearly understood.

Criticism is not about outlining what you like and dislike.  It’s about outlining the process for how you came to your likes and dislikes.  So if the comparison is a bad comparison, and one which does not contribute to the discussion of the game, genre, or platform, then you should be able to explain why the thought process is poor.  If you can’t do it, give the topic some thought.  If you still can’t do it, rethink your thought process.  That’s all you have to do.  But please, don’t run around asserting that the heart of video game design and criticism is a “personal preference”, or a matter of “taste”, or a comparison of “apples to oranges”.  Because people out there who are giving games a lot of thought, people who know a lot more about games than you do, and they’re just going to laugh at you.