“When the conditions of a system give you so little to work with, you have to find your own corners of meaning. Mine wasn’t under the warm wing of a cartoon of Kim Kardashian, or in the wide halls of her oft-empty home […]. It was in a quiet little apartment with no furniture in Downtown LA, in a black hoodie, with a cat.”
“This process is soul-crushingly meaningless, and yet the gradual granting of rewards, even in this squalid midden heap of postmodernist horror, still manages to exert a subtle but inexorable pull that might find the unwary spending actual money to advance the career of their cretinous, bottom-feeding D-lister.”
Is this Kim Kardashian: Hollywood again?
After writing two boring, pseudo-scholarly articles about meaning in videogame controls, I jumped on a fun-looking bandwagon and slagged off Kim Kardashian: Hollywood (2014). I have never been au courant in my gaming discussions — I’m usually 10 or 20 years behind — and I failed to notice that KKH is a new thing people are really talking about. I have since learned second-hand that staid old games writers have been piling on to have a vitriolic dig at the game, and at Kim Kardashian herself while they’re at it. I don’t feel too smart now about claiming that she is branded with hot coins in hell at the end of the game and saying that was “a surprisingly respectable message”. I don’t know who Kardashian is to be honest; for all I know, she’s lovely. In my defence, in the game, she does come across as being a bit uppity.
So to redress the balance, let me try to draw on my waffling about meaning and say something more clever about the game.
In the two quotes at the top, I added emphasis to some claims about meaning. (Please go up and read the bold bits quickly.)
Neither Lana Polansky nor Nick Gillett seemed to think KKH was awfully substantial, but they did somehow manage to find very different levels of meaningfulness. It just so happens that I spent two afternoons last week working out where meaning comes from in player actions, so here I will switch my brain on and show KKH the respect it deserves with a proper analysis.
Player actions in a game can have systemic content — meaning in the terms of the gameplay mechanics — and metaphoric content — meaning in terms of the superficial subject of the game. Using QTEs as a case study, I argued that interaction is engaging when player input is meaningful both in the system and the metaphor, and especially so when the systemic content and metaphoric content align in some revealing way. So how does KKH do?
What is Kim Kardashian: Hollywood anyway?
KKH is happily half-way between a visual novel and an RPG. It’s Sprung-meets-Pokemon with shoes. In the piece I quoted, Nick Gillett characterises the gameplay as “tapping on-screen lozenges”. There are lozenges, and you do tap them, but that is not the game. If the game was just touching things that appear on screen then you would make players slice up fruit or something — I don’t know; I don’t make games. The game really lies in deciding which path your character will take and how they will develop. The action you take as a player is mainly decision-making, with just a little lozenge-tapping on the side. So that’s where we’re going to look for some meaning.
Let’s be analytical!
On the level of gameplay mechanics, the decision-making is mainly about resource management. You have three interrelated resources to spend, and making progress using them is a balancing act. In addition, there are branching paths for you to take in the story, which will open new options while closing off others for good. These mechanics are fun and pretty solid, and have as much strategic depth as is reasonable to expect. Decisions made as a player have systemic content in the game, and as a result they’re engaging — even Gillett acknowledges the “inexorable pull” of the level-up.
To look at it from the other side, the metaphoric content of your actions is also well developed. In fact, the game absolutely shines in this regard. Choosing your outfit has obvious implications for how things look on-screen, of course, and managing resources, as well as unlocking new potential in the gameplay, grants you loads of well-drawn A-list accoutrements in the form, basically, of pretty pictures. So there’s a great dose of metaphoric cachet that dresses up your systemic accomplishments — and it’s a lot of fun.
So player actions have reasonably sophisticated systemic content and quite advanced metaphoric content. On top of that, the two are really well aligned. For instance, choosing your clothes has an immediate impact in the metaphor, but also influences things in the system: NPCs will judge you according to what you wear — sometimes outwardly, but, one suspects, sometimes not. The overarching topic of the game — seeking fame, money, attention, and respect — is also well reflected by this arrangement. There are obvious superficial rewards, but there are trade-offs behind the scenes.
One quietly wretched notion that comes across is that you might very well like dressing nicely and having celebrity friends, but there are pressures — in the form of narrative branches and resource costs — that mean you’d better bloody well dress nicely whether you like it or not. Trying not to let that take the edge off the fun is an interesting challenge, and surprisingly subtle.
So you’re in love with this game now?
Having actually spent some real time with Kim Kardashian: Hollywood — instead of pretending to pretend not to have played it in a silly double bluff as I did last time — I’m sure it’s at least worth this level of discussion. If this is the standard of a paint-by-numbers cash-grab these days then gaming has come a long way. But, there’s one huge caveat.
That caveat, of course, is the in-app purchases. The specific problem KKH has with IAPs is that the great balancing act of resource management that forces you to prioritise and sacrifice as you scrape to the top is completely undone. Either you buy your way to more resources, or the game becomes about waiting. With a little tweaking, Glu could turn time into a fun piece of the puzzle — just another resource to manage. Plenty of games have played with real-time elements successfully. Animal Crossing: Kardashian Folk would actually be pretty brilliant. But as it is, you just get a ton of ads and prompts to hand over cash, and an option to effectively just buy a cheat code. It’s sad to see when there’s so much nice work in the game, and although KKH is not the worst example of freemium mobile gaming, it’s not a good one.
A smaller issue that prickles me is just the subject matter of the game. The reason I took a dig at it last time is that I don’t think the implied values are very nice ones. But the game does get better in that regard as it progresses, and anyway, that’s a can of really long worms, and this is already a long post.
Suffice it to say that I think this is a game of some real substance, but about something unpleasantly vacuous. Now, mixed feelings resolved to my satisfaction, I think I’ll just play the game until it’s not fun any more, like I would any other.
Lessons from Kim Kardashian
So this game benefited from a charitable interpretation, but all games need that much. My dad is immediately bored by anything to do with videogames: I can’t get his attention to stay on Rez long enough for him even to complete a blank stare. I must be doing a lot of charitable interpretation of all the games I like if they’re that dull to outsiders.
So in future, I shouldn’t criticise a game just because it’s susceptible to criticism; I should praise one because it’s susceptible to praise. After all, too many aren’t even that good.