We all have that one friend who continually defends “popcorn movies” like Michael Bay’s Transformers, saying they’re just, “mindless fun that shouldn’t be seen as anything more.” This is an important viewpoint that more people need to consider.
Granted, in my case, this same friend also considers Pacific Rim to be massively overrated, so, you know, grain of salt and all that.
For those unfamiliar with the term, “popcorn movies” refer to films where the audience is fully aware that what they’re about to see isn’t exactly high art. They just go to the theater, buy a big bucket of popcorn, and sit back to relax and enjoy the action, safe in the knowledge that their intellectual muscles will not be strained on this day.
In a way, this same idea can be applied to video games; it’s a category I like to call “popcorn games.”
Why? Because they’re similar to popcorn movies, and naming things is hard.
Popcorn games are those titles (usually in the action genre) where the entire experience is rather short, gameplay is front and center, and you know you’re not getting a Breaking Bad-level narrative. Some people see games like Gears of War and scoff at their lack of “substance,” but really, games like this are pretty important.
Think of it like making dinner for yourself, sometimes you’ll boil up a pot of macaroni & cheese rather than cook a full meal simply because you just want something quick, but still delicious. Much in the same vein, popcorn games allow us to sit back and enjoy the spectacle of it all, without having to think about anything too much; they are purely sweet indulgence, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Now, I’m not calling this viewpoint absolute or infallible–some of these games, it can be argued, essentially offer nothing. I don’t want to name any names, but for every Bulletstorm or Just Cause 2, there’s always going to be an Aliens: Colonial Marines or Rambo.
Getting back to our current king of the popcorn movies, Transformers, I personally didn’t like the films very much. The action is always good, but anything resembling a plot or building characters just comes off awkward, almost as if Michael Bay can’t decide if he wants the films to be serious or not. This, not surprisingly, is the same problem that tends to plague popcorn games.
I’m not saying a game needs to decide between having a story or focusing on gameplay, all I ask for is a little consistency.
Gears of War, for instance, seems to take itself very seriously, especially from 2 onward. You’ve got these over-the-top, adrenaline pumping battle sequences where enemies explode and get chainsawed in half, but then the game shoehorns in a subplot about a dead wife, and suddenly you have no idea how you’re supposed to feel.
Meanwhile, you have a game like Bulletstorm where, while there is a bit of drama, it isn’t going to weight you down. Everything from the battles, to the cutscenes, to the voice acting is turned up to 11–consistently balanced across the board. Kick a guy in the crotch so hard he flies into a cactus that’s on fire? Sure, let’s follow that up with a cutscene featuring the main character laughing at his angry cyborg partner for falling in “plant poop”.
As you can see, a good popcorn game still requires loads of effort, not just in order to create a cohesive experience, but game developers–unlike movie directors–also have to worry about how the game plays. Truly fun gameplay doesn’t just happen; it’s never a fluke.
People love to bash on the Call of Duty franchise year after year, citing its supposed lack of creativity/effort and the repetitive formula; yet, the amount of changes made between each Call of Duty entry is essentially on par with the Pokemon series. That considered, people still go crazy every time a new Pokemon is released.
The same goes for nearly every new Nintendo first-party title for the last decade-and-a-half, and the hypocrisy is staggering.
You could have a new Call of Duty that offers several new multiplayer modes, highly improved graphics, and re-worked gameplay to allow for different methods of traversal, and the majority gamers would gobble it up. Meanwhile however, the vocal minority will continue to lament how this somehow means the industry is stagnating. Then you get a new Pokemon or Super Mario with a few tacked-on features, but no change in graphics or gameplay whatsoever, and these same folks are completely silent.
That’s not to say I don’t love Pokemon or Super Mario–the games are typically excellent. I’m simply trying to point out how much more forgiving people tend to be when it comes to franchises with more seniority, so to speak.
The unfortunate reality is that sometimes, thanks to nostalgia and the prevalence of internet reviews, we tend to let ourselves be blinded to what might just be a mindlessly fun title. In the end, what’s really important is this: some of your favorite games can be popcorn games, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I will always enjoy a good BioWare or CD PROJEKT RED game, but sometimes, you just feel like taking down glowing dinosaurs with an explosive sniper rifle.
Not every game can be the next BioShock, and not every game needs to be.