The term, I believe, is “anachronistic.” If the concept is foreign to you, it’s easy enough to understand; one or more things are considered incongruous due to origins from different time periods. Think about if a person was sitting in a Starbucks while wearing a powdered wig. That contrast of a modern day setting of a pop coffeehouse and a men’s fashion accessory of the 18th century is an anachronism because they don’t necessarily line up in regards to what we consider similar time frames.
It is something that can also be applied to things the Giant Bombcast (just Jeff Gertsmann, actually) calls “game-ass games.” These are games that have no qualms with wearing the fact that they exist simply to be an interactive thing and not an additional piece of evidence in the Games are Art debate. They are basically the Fast Five or The Expendables 2 of video games; they exist solely to entertain you. Given a chunk of time, and these games will effortlessly take it away from you. They don’t make you think about morality or stick a flag in your brain where they’ve claimed new land for a long lasting and affecting story. These games are there for you only as long as you want them to be.
Like a rent-a-puppy service.
The anachronism, then, lies within the differences of the application of understanding the player. Gertsmann calls them “B-tier,” saying that “games like this just don’t get made anymore,” which is, of course, not true since he’s talking specifically about Sleeping Dogs, a game that was literally just finished being made, but the core of his point is there: design philosophies have changed.
Games prior to, arguably, the early or mid-2000s were designed to absorb players via challenging and rewarding game mechanics. This was mostly due to the fact that the stigma that stories were for RPGs was kind of hard to shake, that you came to games that operated outside of menus and stats to be nigh mindlessly engaged. They were rote movements but they were just difficult and varied enough to be fun each time. A good premise—a seemingly more apt word to use besides “story”—was just a cherry on top of a fun sundae (fundae?).
Take, for instance, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest. The story is pretty much inscrutable (hell, if I hadn’t read the manual, I never would have known Dixie was Diddy’s girlfriend), but the gameplay kept me coming back for more even 17 years later. Even movie tie-in games like Aladdin and The Lion King were pretty much useless when it came to a story or any semblance of an experience other than precision platforming, and they had stories already!
Games that keep score now are best representative of these sorts of games. It used to be that every game kept score regardless of what you were doing. This made it easy to come back and know you were improving, to keep returning and feel like you were getting more and more out of the same thing. These sorts of games have made somewhat of a comeback as of late, especially since the astronomical success of the inaugural XBLA title Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, but these are not of the ilk I mean to discuss.
Contrasting with modern game design may make it easier to understand what I mean and what Gerstmann means. It almost parallels the utilitarian to user experience-oriented design philosophies of software and web interfaces; games now attempt to facilitate the playing and intake of their content. Remember that part in Mega Man X back in 1993 where you fell into a pit after defeating the big robot bee like five minutes into the game? Instead of sticking you in the pit and having you suss out how to wall jump yourself, you would have today likely had a text box or helpful confederate tell or show you how to stick-jump-stick over and over again to escape the fallen walkway.
I’m not saying one way is worse than the other (well, the text box isn’t all that great) but rather that they are just different philosophies. One has you figuring just about everything out for yourself from controls to complex combination mechanics and the other would rather help you along so you can spend more time being bothered with the meat of the game. One enhances the one-man solution to most old game premises and the other may bring along deeper immersion to the game world (if you have a mentor, why not have him teach you?).
Now a game-ass game means something different. Those pure gameplay and in-depth mechanics games still exists mostly as fighting and indie titles, the former of which has always been complex in its interacting systems while the latter has been an ecosystem of proof-of-concept titles brought to fruition. Game like Frozen Synapse and Achron are pretty much indecipherable without tutorials, but they exist entirely as exhibits of gameplay.
In fact, don’t get into Achron unless you’re also willing to get into headaches. And mild psychosis.
Modern game-ass games are more like the recently released Sleeping Dogs or Dust: An Elysian Tail. They have modern trappings to help you along in playing the games with hints and little contextual tutorials, but they raise no ruckus about, at their core, being there wholly to entertain. The comprehensive experience is there, sure, but they aim to bring you fun through any means they deem necessary.
Ram people into walls over and over again, jump from motorcycle to car and back to motorcycle, and wear an outfit from another Square Enix game in Sleeping Dogs. Have an achievement for a 1,000-hit combo, get health by destroying walls that house chickens named “Mysterious Wall Chicken,” and put Devil May Cry-style combat in a Metroidvania-type game in Dust. Admittedly, they do have good/sufficient stories, but any story is kind of like that onion ring they accidentally gave you with your fries; it’s just a bonus.
I’m not saying all games have to be for all people or for every occasion. That would be incredibly boring. Why would I want to be in a world where everyone has to play and watch and enjoy the same things? I’m instead saying that yes, being a different kind of game is all right. Pulling from old and radically (or even only slightly) different philosophies is totally okay. Making a game-ass game can be just as good in the modern critical eye as more contemporary titles. Just make sure the ass is super gamey.