You know, I’ve been thinking...
(Warning: real talk imminent.)
It didn’t pan out, of course. As he explained to me in an off-hand conversation, making video games isn’t nearly as fun as playing them. Programming is tedious and unfulfilling. Testing and QA are just as bad, if not worse. Creative vision? Ha! What’s that? Go back to slaving in front of a computer, you worthless code monkey! Granted he had (and still has) a habit of putting the most negative spin possible on things -- he’s the Cynical Avenger to my Eternal Optimist -- but as I understand it, his words ring true in the case of the games industry.
Still, I couldn’t help but admire games, and the industry that crafted them. Hundreds of people coming together in hundreds of companies -- clans, as it were -- to create hundreds of varied titles and hundreds of hours of gameplay destined to make mothers dizzy and resentful…and leave chores undone. I can’t stress enough how much video games mean to me; they’re stories that inspire and amaze, and have been doing so for as long as I can remember. And they’ll keep on doing so long after I’m dead and buried.
At least, that’s what I’d like to believe. But then I get on the internet, load up my favorite gaming sites, and I’m repeatedly bombarded with bad news. Stuff that makes me angry, depressed, confused, and…honestly, just plain tired.
Look, I don’t like talking about -- or even thinking about -- the politics behind the game industry. I’m more concerned about the end product, i.e. the gameplay and story and vision and all that good stuff. I would much rather leave the particulars to bloggers like Grahf (whose blog you should probably be reading instead of mine) and let the actual game do all the talking. But it’s becoming harder and harder for me to divorce the politics with the game itself -- and if you’ve kept an eye on things recently, you may know why.
A question for you, fair reader: given the choice, would you rather spend more money or less money? Yes, that’s right, exactly -- almost immediately, the answer (in most cases) is “spend less money”; it’s not just a matter of hunting for good deals or budgeting; in a modern-day climate, we’re inclined to take money into consideration. So of course, there are game developers willing to blow as much as two hundred million dollars -- and maybe more -- into putting out one product. That’s an unfathomable amount of money; while I assume (or at least hope) it’s the exception rather than the norm, I know there are companies pumping just as much cash into their products and hoping for the best. Sometimes it works. Other times it’s fifty million dollars for naught. And still others, we get things like…
Pretty much everybody who knows about Destructoid is aware of the problems with the industry. The crippling addiction to violence. The homogenization of countless titles. The almost-damning fear of innovation. The idea that single-player games are a relic of the past, and every game needs multiplayer to even be worthy of a gamer’s time. Marketing becoming as big a factor as the games themselves…rather ironic, given how so many other games have been sent to pasture by virtue of not being marketed in the slightest. An onslaught of DLC, with one executive actually starting an E3 conference with “A few years ago, the game you got was the game you bought.” Closures and bankruptcies all across the board. I could go on, and on, and on about the problems of the industry, but that’s been done elsewhere and done better.
Like I said, I’d rather let the games speak for themselves…and they have been for years now. Street Fighter X Tekken’s release was a debacle; it really shows what’s going on in the heads of its creators when, instead of getting helpful hints about how to overcome tough enemies in a single-player mode, Dan pops in to recommend equipping (and likely buying) gems. Final Fantasy has pretty much imploded at this point, thanks in no small part to this retroactively-named “Lightning Saga” and the still-missing Versus 13. People eagerly gave EA and Bioware trouble for a lackluster ending to Mass Effect 3, but it’s hardly the only one worth slamming, and at the very least offered good content prior to its end; the biggest titles are not only struggling to keep their charm, but regularly straddle a thin line. On one side, there are franchises that have reached the hallmark, the third installment in the series, and have every reason to end it there -- and on the other, there’s the financial obligation to pump out an additional game by virtue of an open-ended (or even confusing) ending, obfuscated details, or just plain unanswered plot points…and said franchises are straddling the line with all the grace of a three-legged elephant.
I would gladly point to Capcom and Squeenix as prime examples of “losers”, in that they’re sabotaging some of their biggest properties far more than a game-breaking bug ever could. But you know what? It’s starting to look like at this stage, everybody’s losing. EA’s losing money. Capcom and Squeenix are losing money. THQ’s gone belly-up, and by the sound of things Atari’s not in a very good place either. Hell, even Sony and Nintendo -- Nintendo, of all companies -- are losing. Now, why exactly each company is losing money will vary from one to the next, but when the solution to the problem in the eyes of most developers (and the bigwigs behind them) is to make sure their game sells five million copies by any means necessary, you start to run into problems.
Try to turn your product into something it’s not, and you get Resident Evil 6. Try to pump out a game and assume it’ll be a revelation just because of its name, and you get Final Fantasy 13-2. Try to start fresh by gutting the essence of your beloved franchise and taking the piss out of fans, and you get DmC. Try to kick up your feet and coast on blank checks and a less-than-discerning audience, and you get Halo 4. And those are just the failures I’ve experienced in the past year (and not even a full list); I would personally like to know what was going through EA’s heads when they sanctioned the release of Medal of Honor: Warfighter…and right before the release of a new Call of Duty. That’s like thinking you’ll steal all of the ice cream man’s customers because you’re selling your patented Hairballs on a Stick.
Look, I know I’m sounding particularly negative during this post, but I want to stress that there’s still -- and always will be, I bet -- hope for video games. I’ve seen proof of that myself, both in the past year and years prior. Devil Survivor 2? Great. Ratchet and Clank? Great. Xenoblade Chronicles? Great. We’ve seen wild and crazy releases like Lollipop Chainsaw, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Tekken Tag 2, Skyrim, Far Cry 3, the Mass Effect series in general, Saints Row 3, Bioshock, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, Valkyria Chronicles, the Dead Rising series in general, damn near every title released by Platinum Games, and more. As time passes, games and their creators are destined to evolve. New technology breeds new abilities. New abilities breed new possibilities. And in the end, I think that’s what I want most out of games. Out of fiction in general. Out of me, and what I can do as a would-be writing hero. I want the canvas to be tapped thoroughly and effectively; I want to see those possibilities being realized and taken advantage of by an enlightened group -- be it a single penman or a cadre of programmers and designers.
And therein stands the problem. Video games, by and large, are becoming more limited. And those limits are what could potentially lead to an irrevocable failure.
It’s easy to blame everything on a handful of companies and a handful of games; whether you like the franchise or not, you have to admit Call of Duty takes a LOT of abuse. Some of that is deserved abuse, in the sense that its successes narrow down what games should be, rather than what they can be. Its billion-dollar earnings have left other companies wanting; it’s left developers and publishers alike pining for, and then boasting about, record sales the moment the numbers are all tallied up. It’s a scapegoat, but it’s stigmatic, symptomatic, and maybe worst of all, a standard.
Maybe it’s just human nature to look scornfully upon those in power. The gamers may be the one dictating who gets wealth and who gets power, but ultimately what are we, the lifeblood of the industry, but peasants to be controlled and commanded by kings growing fat and sluggish? In the end, who’s to blame for Call of Duty teaching the industry what gamers want? Who’s the real villain in the grand scheme of things -- those that make the games? Or those that buy in droves? What is a gamer if not an enabler, telling developers to aim for well-treaded ground and let “par” be a substitute for “excellence”?
And what does “excellence” mean for a game these days? What is the standard, if not review scores and professional testimonials? Am I supposed to believe Halo 4 is a heart-moving adventure when its leading man has as much personality as a dented Hummer? Am I supposed to believe DmC is supposed to take storytelling in games to the next level when its most infamous cutscene has our “hero” throwing swears at an enemy straight out of an episode of Futurama with none of the self-awareness and wit? Am I supposed to believe that being a badass, one-man-army killing machine in every other game today is supposed to be me? A hero, or even someone worth having a conversation with?
I know games take a lot of effort to go from an idea to a disk in the hands of gamers. Just setting up a crappy thirty-second clip in Windows Movie Maker is a hassle for me, and I’m just one guy with a laptop. So I’m not about to devalue the efforts of developers and the people within them -- primarily because I know that they’re real people with real jobs on the line, and at this stage in gaming history you aren’t allowed to put out any bombs. So no, I’m not going to say “Everyone working on [insert miserable game X here] needs to be fired!”
What I AM going to say is that too many people have fallen into a rut. The mark has been missed so badly that it’s as if several companies have inadvertently kneecapped Mark Wahlberg and Mark Henry simultaneously. This isn’t a matter of replacing those of the old paradigm with those who uphold something new (although that would certainly help); it’s a matter of those in power realizing that this shit needs to stop. They can have their business. They can have their personnel. They can have their franchises and their plans to extend them for as long as possible. But what they need to do is focus on what’s important. Cut down the chaff. Stop pining after mystical audiences. Make creative, innovative video games with a vision in mind -- stop trying to be like Hollywood, because you’re just going to crash and burn.
But I guess that’s a lesson the industry will learn too late. Comments on posts and forums have been rumbling about a second video game crash, one that’ll bring ruin to the industry and completely shut down this little hobby. There’s an argument to be had that it’s on the way…but others would argue that we’re already in the middle of it. Studio after studio has closed down; development costs are skyrocketing, and the only way to make back that money is by going with big damn triple-A trappings; gamers are getting manhandled and pressured into buying more on top of sixty-dollar releases, and despite that still end up getting treated like unruly sheep in need of a smacking. Cynicism and mistrust have bred throughout every rung of the industry. We call them greedy; they call us entitled. We treat them like tyrants; they treat us like pirates. We treat them like enemies; they treat us like enemies. And amidst all of this, everyone ends up losing something precious -- be it their company, their games’ quality, their creative vision, their loyalty, their faith, or even their ability to be amazed and have fun.
In the end, what can we do? Are we supposed to tolerate this, and limit ourselves to a handful of titles? Are we just supposed to take whatever comes our way, and accept “par” as the new “excellence”? Are we supposed to whine and moan and complain, hoping dearly that our preferences will reach the ears of our lords -- lords who have no reason to listen with their nightly showers of dollar bills?
I know what I’m going to do.
The best part of any creative medium isn’t its ability to give us awe-inspiring heroes and loathsome villains. Those are certainly good qualities to have, but not what I’d consider the best part. The same goes for unpredictable narratives that’ll leave your jaw on the floor with one well-placed plot twist, or themes running throughout that will make you question your worldview for years to come. The same goes for emotional torque, a well-defined framework of one’s fictional universe, a balance between tonal and literary elements, and yes, even the spirit of a work. The “best part” even goes beyond just having good technique -- it’s everyone’s intent to tell a good story, and definitely something that one should aspire towards, of course…but it’s still not the best part.
The best part, in my eyes, is the potential. It’s the fact that, if you make a trip to the bookstore to get a new story, you have hundreds of choices in the space of a child’s arm span, let alone the length of a whole shelf, and let alone an entire section’s worth. There might be similarities, and there’s no guarantee that the quality will be absolutely fantastic, but you have options. You have a wide array of selections. You have just what each writer has: possibilities to pursue and enjoy. Creative mediums are empty canvases, and each work offers its own artistic flourish and tribute. In the end, that might be what’s most important. That might be why video games may still have a ways to go before they become accepted as a truly legitimate medium -- because the moment you start to limit yourself is the moment you start to fail.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m almost certain that the writing world and the particulars therein are full of issues and complications -- the sort of things that would immediately shatter my rosy view of the medium. But the divide between the two is more notable than it’s ever been before. Let me put it this way: all it takes for me to write a chapter of I Hraet You is a laptop, a bit of time, a full stomach (preferably, and with a cup of water nearby afterwards), a mind that’s willing to dream up new scenarios, and some fingers ready to type. That’s it. Write it, post it, and I’m all done. Conversely, it takes teams of hundreds, millions of dollars, thousands of man-hours (in working conditions that can vary from acceptable to damn near indentured service), an onslaught of marketing, testing on focus groups, and the shadowy hands of executives and investors to get games from a concept to a consumer. Now, it’s pretty obvious just which one of these approaches is going to be more successful in the long run -- though again, studio closures are a constant nowadays -- but by now you understand what I’m getting at.
The stakes are too damn high with video games. Too many people to please. Too many obligations that need to be fulfilled. And of course, too much money on the line, putting pressure on everything and everyone involved. I don’t have a good solution to the industry’s woes, both current and upcoming -- and if I did, I’m fairly sure someone would have thought it up already. All I can do is grab the games I like, and avoid the games that I don’t. Even if I’m just one non-buyer or non-player, I know that at the very least I’m staying true to myself. I know that there’ll be games that’ll continue to entertain and excite me, and make me hopeful for the future…just as there will be utter disappointments and disasters running parallel.
Know this, industry -- the industry, the gamers, and even you readers of this little rant. If games aren’t going to explore the endless possibilities available, then I will. Because in many ways, that’s why I’m out to become a writing hero.
So. Let’s see how Metal Gear Rising turns out.