Sturgeon’s Law, Taste and RPGMaker

Sturgeon’s Law states that “90% of everything is crud.” If TvTropes is to be believed, there are a number of addendums to the law, such as: “if ever less than 90% of everything is crud than one needs to adjust their standards,” and “90% of people can’t distinguish crud from noncrud.” Almost everything created is a heap of load-bearing garbage to support the glorious minority of culture-forming genius. If you look at the brilliance of high art and find flaws than you aren’t reading it properly, if you see any virtue in the drivel beneath than you don’t have a high enough standard.

The attitudes enforced by these various “Laws” now associated with science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon prop up a status quo where creativity is a quality of the rare genius destined to speak on behalf of a generation and everyone else is just everyone else. The genius is born with an innate gift and duty to observe society, he—by sheer coincidence it is almost always he—produces culture from a vacuum and is rarely understood in his own time by anyone other than the keen publisher that collects the yearly harvest his work yields. Said another way, we are “raised to believe that a select few create and the rest are just fans. Rich white people create and we suck it up.” (Porpentine. “Creation Under Capitalism.” Nightmare Mode. Nov 25 2012.).

90% of everything isn’t crud, it’s just average. Average is, more often than not, good enough with greatness and annoyances peppered throughout. Most work comes with some measure of both genius and crud; arguing where and how each stand out on a case-by-case basis (ie criticism) is a long and laborious process. One worth taking but not one generally valued. The practice enforced by Sturgeon’s law is one of absolutes: a thing is beyond value or it’s worthless. Sturgeon’s “laws” and the attitudes at their root are about controlling taste and credibility to keep it in privileged hands.

Games have their own struggles over who controls “taste.” We know this. Fake geek girls, nerd cred, narratology vs ludology, formalism vs new journalism, casual vs hardcore, piracy, DRM and whatever this week’s issue is are all recurring debates that attempt to reinforce a structure where 90% of games and the people that play them are crud. Only a small number of games are valuable and only a small number of people can arbitrate the difference. Not accidentally, the top ten percent of “valuable” games cost a lot of money and heap of trash games it rests is recognizable from a distance because it’s cheap or free and therefore worthless. I quoted Porpentine earlier because Twine developers and players—perhaps more than anyone—have faced adversity for the accessibility of their material, and accessibility is the natural enemy of the tastemaker.

Developers using less specialized and inexpensive tools like Twine, Game Maker or even Unity are faced with scepticism. Games made with these engines have to prove their authenticity whereas no designed-by-committee, “core” targeting gun-porn has to prove a thing because a thousand fresh grads spend four years perfecting jiggle physics before being laid off.

The benefits of tools designed to be inexpensive and easy to learn should be obvious. But there’s a well-documented culture of tastemakers trying to delegitimize the work of small developers. Indies need to be judged by triple-A standards and they need to be as available and as public as triple A studios with an army of PR staff at their disposal. It isn’t that Indies can’t produce games of the same quality as major publishers or that triple A games don’t produce anything good, it’s just that the industry is judged by the standard of moneyed producers and quality is based on a return of investment. It’s no revelation to say that keeping up with games is impossible without considerable disposable income (Beirne, Stephen. “Poor Community Spirit.” Re/Action. July 12 2013.), so it’s frustrating that there’s such a stubborn elitist culture controlling what gets to be valued and what doesn’t.

When a game made with RPG Maker is available for free there are some default assumptions that come with it; chief among them is that RPG Maker is only capable of producing Final Fantasy fan-fiction. Fan-fiction has its own ongoing struggle with legitimacy—which I’m not at all qualified to discuss—but even outside of fan-games there’s a plethora of brilliant content that never gets a chance because of the elitist culture that dictates taste.

This is where I get to the point of this post: RPG Maker games are among the most original, clever and powerful I have played. So in the spirit of enjoying creativity outside the current “taste” structure I’d like to offer a number of games and developers based in RPG Maker that deserve an audience. Some of these games are under an hour and some are several dozen. Also, while there are a handful of very good RPGMaker available on Steam (To The Moon and Cherry Tree High Comedy Club spring to mind), I’ll only be listing games that are available for free. Each heading is linked to the game’s site where it can be downloaded.

Alter A.L.I.A. Genesis (2007)

A cross between 2D puzzle-platforming and active turn-based JRPG combat. Alter Alia Genesis takes place in a giant slum/prison complex of a polluted dystopia. The story is told through manga-esque panels of images that, while simple, really emphasize the Japanese inspiration of the aesthetic. Think of it as a manga crossover between Running Man and Blade Runner. Developer NeoK returns to this universe in a handful of other efforts in RPGMaker but this is the template for his later work.

Cherry PrInEcess (2013)

The player controls Liberty, a woman who’s magical cherry pies change the gender of whomever is struck in the face with them for one day. In this isometric dungeon crawler the player must fend off giant spiders and carnivorous eating trees in search of townsfolk to gender-swap with their pies. It’s a colourful, short and silly approach. Although it takes a gender binary for granted, it’s a good instance of having fun with gender politics without making fun of them. Cherry PrInEcess was developed in a week for the Lite Cook-Off contest (one of many orchestrated by the RPG Maker community) by a Welsh developer known as Caz.

Exit Fate (2009)

What starts as an apparent homage to JRPGs quickly becomes a beast of its own. Somewhere in the over 30 hour campaign, SCF’s Exit Fate starts subverting the conventions its paying tribute to. Ultimately, Exit Fate is about deciding who has the right to govern and how should they do that. There are some inherent classist issues to bear in those themes (Filipowich, Mark. “The Perspective of Privilege.” The Border House. May 1 2013), but it’s still a compelling political drama. Moreover, the elegant combat design and constant challenge makes it as appealing to first time JRPG players as to long-time fans.

Mainichi (2012)

Mainichi, the Japanese word for every day, is a biographical videogame-villanelle about the author’s daily public experiences. There are no tutorials or visual aids, just learned behaviours that the player must refine to prompt better responses out of strangers. Mainichi is a study in what is normal and what normality internalizes in people. It is the experience of a person’s interactions with subtle, ongoing systems that are learned through constant, oppressive exposure rather than through the conscious instruction we expect from games or from privilege. Brice herself has given a lot of context for Mainichi’s origins at about the time it was released last year (“Postpartum: Mainichi – How Personal Experience Became a Game.” The Border House. Nov 12 2012).

Sunset Over Imdhal (2005)

The player controls Lohn, a 13-year-old boy and the lone survivor of a plague that suddenly swept through the besieged city of Imdahl in this title from developer Teo Mathlein.  After failing to nurse his mother back to health, he encounters the—unknown to him—commander of Imdahl’s invaders, who offers to send him a year back in time to prevent the plague from happening. Once sent back, Lohn, though just a boy, is tasked with finding and killing the plague’s patient zero before the disease spreads. Imdahl is set to Italian composer Antonia Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” with each concerto matching the game’s current season. The pastel aesthetic and SNES-era sprites (many borrowed from Chrono Trigger) strongly contrast the darkness of Lohn’s mission. Most of the gameplay involves tracking down and investigating townspeople, forcing the player to get to know and become attached to the doomed city.

Starless Umbra (ongoing)

Like Exit Fate, Starless Umbra harkens back to the glory days of JRPGs but with a greater emphasis on roaming and exploration. It has its fair share of clichés, but it so faithfully emulates the best features of its source material that it’s hard to fault the game for treading familiar ground. It puts the player in control of a likable cast in a fleshed out world, its themes are extravagant and its narration is flamboyant. While the game is not yet complete, developer Andrew Keturi’s polished demo of the game is available for download. Much of Keturi’s work has been adjusting the game based on advice and criticisms players have had on Starless Umbra’s first few hours. It’s an ambitious but promising project based on refreshing the best conventions of the genre’s heyday.

11 thoughts on “Sturgeon’s Law, Taste and RPGMaker”

  1. Huh. I always took Sturgeon’s Law to say something very unlike what you write– I read it as that 90% of every *type* of thing is crap, no matter how hard people work to draw a line around ‘legitimate’ types of expression. 90% of free-to-play phone games are crap, but so are 90% of “AAA” games and 90% of indie art games– so writing off a genre or medium because you didn’t like your first several encounters with it is just cutting off your nose to spite your face.

    I agree that this perspective doesn’t give enough respect to cultural criticism or to the practice of finding the good or interesting aspects in mediocre media. But I’m kind of astonished to see Sturgeon’s Law called a justification for short-sightedness. It had always, as I said, struck me as an expression of exactly the opposite idea.

    1. A. Mandible actually has it right. It’s often misused and appropriated to talk about how everything is terrible, but Sturgeon coined it to defend Science Fiction — his argument wasn’t that everything is terrible, but that, unlike what some critics of Science Fiction as a genre claimed, Sci-Fi wasn’t unique in the volume or severity of its terribleness — everything has just as much terrible things and things that are just as terrible, but they focus on the negative in Science Fiction because they dislike it as a genre, and focus on the positive in genre and forms of media they approve of.

    2. I had always interpreted it, and seen it interpreted, the same way you did o_O The above article is the first time I’ve seen it interpreted that way in my entire life. 90% of everything is crap; ergo, 90% of casual cell phone games are crap, 10% are brilliant; 90% of AAA “gun-porn” is crap, 10% is brilliant; 90% of indie games made with RPG maker tools are crap, 10% are brilliant. Directly the opposite of how the author here puts it, it is (I think) intended to be one of the most levelling statements about the media we consume, rather than one that encourages elitism – 90% of “high art” is crap; 90% of pop culture is crap – only a small minority of both is brilliant.

    3. To be fair, Sturgeon actually had credo that he called “Sturgeon’s Law” that stated “Nothing is always absolutely so.”That has more to do with critical thinking than with making taste. The Sturgeon’s Law that everybody knows is based on a thing he once said at a convention and everybody else ran with.

      The problem I have with it is that distinguishing between the 90 and the 10 percent comes down to who has more cultural authority in a given moment. The 10% of noncrud becomes perfect, almost sacred, so that it’s beyond discussion. The 90% is absolute, worthless garbage and finding any value in it will prevent you from ever getting a date to the prom.

      The idea that almost all stuff is crap is easy to apply at a broader scale and accessibility often finds its way in the cross-hairs because accessibility allows more people to make more stuff and therefore more crap. I just don’t know why we have to walk into everything assuming that it will probably be absolutely crap unless it’s absolutely perfect. Audiences of the literary canon, of science fiction of videogames and of whatever else should be able to acknowledge the value and criticize the crud in everything on a case-by-case basis without attacking something because there’s a lot of it.

      1. Thanks a lot for the list! Like with Little Big Planet levels, user created content can be difficult to slough through to find the hidden gems. Recommendations are always appreciated. Thanks also to anyone posting recommendations in the comments.

        Regarding Sturgeon’s law, I disagree with the author’s interpretation of the law and tend more towards A. Mandible. I find Sturgeon’s Law is best used on a personal level than cultural.

        If someone starts getting too nostalgic over all the games/music/movies released (say) in the 80s, or if they start saying how crud everything is now, you just have to remind them of Sturgeon’s law: that they are forgetting the 90% crud from the past and only remembering the 10% classic that they like best. It is also why the present music/gaming/movies scene appears to almost always be inferior because you haven’t sieved out the crud yet.

    4. I was going to interject with the same reply as what the author has done above already. The point made in the article remains in tact, that the culture of absolutes is created and maintained by gatekeepers of taste. I think the examples of taking games as an industry and stating that 90% of them are crap and within that 90% are most certainly games made in Twine and RPGMaker, are very accurate. In this analogy, the 10% would be “legitimate” games. The example doesn’t violate Sturgeon’s law and is a good illustration of it.

  2. The only RPGMaker game I’ve played is Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, which I feel deserves a mention as well. :)

    If anything, the stagnation of AAA gaming is showing people that perhaps it’s foolish to dismiss out of hand both indie and player-made game offerings (since less expensive games can afford to be creative or just plain ‘different’ in ways a big-budget title really can’t anymore).

    1. I was going to post the same thing. I loved that game.

      I can’t find the post, but your second point reminds me of one made by Shamus Young, which is that AAA games can’t afford not to be blockbusters because of their absurd budgets and so can’t take risks, but that indie games as they exist today are not the complete solution, because their budgets are too small. A lot of classic games could not have been made on the budgets of modern indies. What is needed is more games with budgets in the range of $1-10 million, (ie, System Shock 2, budget $1.7 million) for which there are few modern examples but which combines relatively high production value with FAR more room to experiment, since you don’t need to sell 6 million copies to break even.

  3. Definitely lots of delegitimization going on regarding RPG Maker and Twine and such tools. It’s somewhat related, and interesting to note, that the IGF recently retired the Technical Excellence category in part because of the wide accessibility of cheap middleware (people are mainly pointing to Unity as the motivating factor).

    Either way, though, I think it’s good to keep in mind the cultural praise that is also heaped by taste-makers onto small games made by small teams on small budgets, like Fez, Braid, World Of Goo, Super Meat Boy, and many others. If only that extended to games built with more middleware too (To The Moon is the only example I can think of that got any kind of recognition on the sites I visit).

    Incidentally, my favorite interpretation of Sturgeon’s Law, which I can’t for the life of me source, is:

    “90% of everything is crud, including 90% of the other 10%, and only 90% of that first 90%.”

    Run a few loops on that and suddenly it’s all relative, which isn’t surprising considering how muddy and malleable a concept “crud” turns out to be.

    Either way, now I want to get back to finishing To The Moon!

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