Old Man’s Videogame War
I won’t pretend that Scalzi’s novel – Old Man’s War – is a superclever analogy for life, universe and everything, or that it directly applies to music, videogames, art and who knows what else. But it has, among other things making it a thoroughly enjoyable novel, a rather interesting passage that caught my eye. Let me just quote it here, and then I’ll write some stuff related about it (hurr durr that’s how them journalists do things nygurr?).
“[..] the real issue here may be that the reason we use force [..] is that force is the easiest thing to use. It’s fast, it’s straightforward, and compared to the complexities of diplomacy, it’s simple.” – Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi.
Depending on your background and experiences, that may ring more or less true in itself. But let’s apply this to the gaming industry. I’d argue that it would fit pretty well. In fact, here’s exactly why that excerpt applies to videogames as they are now.
How about force being used as a synonym for aggression and violence? Videogames have oodles of that, in gameplay, cinematics, trailers and more. Very, very few videogames don’t involve some kind of virtual annihilation of representations of arguably living entities (aliens, robots, humans, beasts). In recent years, it’s even accompanied by frankly excessive level of detail in terms of gore, viscerality and frequency (as an example, just look at any of this year’s E3 videogame trailers – the vast majority of them is filled with shoot-outs and aerially-unchallenged blood spurts). No matter if you take the genres of shooters, role-playing games, strategy games, adventure games, they all contain mostly a selection of game mechanics oriented, more or less, around the concept of killing. If not killing, then a different method of eliminating “the enemy”. Taking the comparison further out, to competitive sports games and racing games, they too rely solely on players directly striving to defeat, incapacitate and out-perform their opposition – whether other players or integral game pseudo-ai routines – in a straight-up physical manner (in terms of in-game events, of course – I wouldn’t presume to assume the exact viciousness of games solely based on MS Kinect, PS Move and Wii).
Let’s face it – most videogames these days are driven by aggressively competitive and destructive gameplay elements, especially once we look at the high levels of AAA gaming industry’s offers – though make no mistake, the paradigm of killing/eliminating/defeating as a game mechanical objective is far too deep to be present just there, it’s a common staple of indie and B-grade games as well. And is it any surprise, really? As far as videogames go, making it about killing/destruction is pretty far to the easier side of the spectrum. Considering the alternatives – rich and complex text-driven narrative experiences, or pure score-attack challenges that are in no way destructive nor involve shooting/explosions, well, either of those alternatives is hard to do – both from a design perspective, as planning for that in a way that’s actually immediately enjoyable to play is a royal pain, and from an implementation/creation perspective, as creating the framework and content for guns and 6-10 identi-kit enemy templates is easier than writing thousands of engaging dialogues that alone could carry a whole game, or developing a truly exiting conversation mechanic that can carry a game through 20-30 hours.
That aside, there’s also the factor of entertainment. Hollywood blockbusters and plain reflection upon human instincts makes it fairly obvious – boombastic explosions, deaths, visceral goresplats and non-stop action are all entertaining, because they appeal directly to that ape-derived part of our brains that’s responsive for adrenaline generation and fight/flight responses. Videogames that are based around guns and the shooting thereof, for example, are instantly able to deliver momentous feedback to player performance that is visually impressive (Headshot! Now watch the uberepic close-up of the bullet magically turning the enemy’s head into an explosion of red goo!) and inherently progress-indicative (One more enemy dead! You’re closer to finishing this level and have a better score!). Heck, I won’t deny it – a lot of my favourite games directly involve shooting mechanics. And OBVIOUSLY this is not an implication that videogame killing is even remotely close to the real thing – but the point remains, the more ‘fun’, ‘engaging’ and ‘immediately enjoyable’ games contain the elements of aggression and destruction in spades – and the industry is very aware of the fact, and capitalizes upon it heavily.
So that’s for that quote’s applicability inside videogames. But what about the industry itself? Is force seemingly easier to follow than pre-planning and consideration (a more diplomatic approach)? Um. This is a fair moment to say “well duh”, methinks. I won’t bother speaking about the status of the AAA-gaming industry (suffice to say, it is struggling on the top, badly; one example out of a thousand), nor of the current popularity of supremely low-cost non-publisher-funded “indie” games. I won’t explain much about the rather popular opinion that the gaming industry is creatively and innovatively bankrupt (consider the chart-topping sequels and largely copy-pasted game designs and art styles, as well as lack of respect towards it’s own largest trade show, E3). Now, sure – there are exceptions to every rule and statistic, I admit that. I’m referring to the general trends exhibited by the majority. And here’s what we basically see – major multi-billion companies investing several tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars into single projects that need several million purchasers to even break even, let alone make a significant profit. And those projects themselves, they are unwilling to show much innovation, because that is a risk. Going with sequels, with copied game designs, with familiar artstyles is the name of the game for the most part. Yeah, there is a resurgence of indie games and of a need for innovation, but that’s been generated purely because of the main industry’s routine, and progressively more transparent collision-course, with large project failures costing more and more both fiscally and emotionally (whole developer groups being closed due to a single project failing, and their owners losing millions – e.g. 38 Studios; large publishers starting to sink and pulling down subsidiaries with them, such as THQ).
All in all, over the last few years the industry has been motivated by a singular principle: more of the same, just bigger. More graphical fidelity. More money to develop. Turn everything into a franchise. Use the same ideas. Use the same mechanics. Reach more users. At no point was there a large-scale pause, a cessation of this inflating bubble principle… In other words, there were several years of straightforward brute-force bloating. No real restraint, no consideration, just an almost unguided increase. Why? Because in short term, that seems like the easier, simpler thing to do. There’s no change of any kind necessary – just throw more money, people and time at it to make more money back, and don’t make things any more complicated than that. Let the very few very large publishers dominate the playing field, constantly buying out lesser developer teams and consolidating their influence, increasing their size and relative productive / IP strength.
And there it is… Videogames are all about the concept of the forceful solution being preferred due to it’s immediate simplicity. Both in and out of videogames themselves, the aggressive, straightforward methods are given headway. Just like Scalzi’s novel’s portrayal of primary human interaction with other sentients being that of warfare and conflict, the game industry’s decisions over the last few years have shown a clear lean towards the brute, direct, aggressive choices and elements.
Oh, and one last thing. In “Old Man’s War”, the character whose quote was written above, tried to pursue a diplomatic solution. He was killed instantly. Why? Because, yes, in that universe force was the easiest thing to use. Nobody said that it was the incorrect solution. Can we clearly say that the videogame industry shouldn’t be somewhat brute-force oriented? Can we say that videogames should not use destruction & killing as core concepts?
~X2-Eliah is constantly scared of how awful all the talks about videogame ‘killing’ must look to people not informed about videogames.