I'm too old for this sh*t. I never thought I'd say it, but the video game industry is practically forcing me to. The Explosions and Evisceration Expo (also known as E3) was the last straw for this old killer who's had his fill of wet work. Don't get me wrong, I love video games; my mind thinks primarily in terms of how to turn things into video games; I've had more LANs in my lifetime than I can count; I've steadfastly written about video games for over three years with a readership smaller than the number of pizza slices I can eat, and I don't regret a day of it. But as I age and take on more responsibilities and passions, I find it incredibly hard to justify being a video game enthusiast.
Let's start this rant with E3, since that's what really made me question what the hell I've been doing with my time. When did our beloved industry become the equivalent of modern day horror movies (read: more interested in gratuitous violence than anything of substance)? Of all the millions of brain dead virtual mooks I've gunned down in my day, I remember...none of them? Shooting dudes isn't a particularly interesting, let alone relatable activity for me these days. But wait! Stabbing dudes in the face is the new hotness. Surely you can find some form of deep stimulation in this cutting edge (oh, I went there) gameplay mechanic!
I'll concede that in general, the games about stabbing people tend to be more open-ended than the mindless Shooters that may as well play themselves (looking at you Splinter Cell: Blacklist), but are we really content as an industry to pretend that Shooters are going to spearhead the movement to cultural significance and artistic sophistication? Is there truly no creative mind out there capable of thinking outside of the genres we've used for the past twenty years? Obviously there are, but the publishers won't back them, so their only option is to make indie games that will never appeal to the mainstream because they look like they could have been made twenty years ago. And until some unforeseen technological leap makes AAA game development about 100 times cheaper than it is now, the situation is only going to get worse. Don't believe me? Let?s look at just how original the most promising new IPs shown at E3 are.
Beyond: Two Souls: Heavy Rain, but with big actors and more violence! Sure, it's not too far removed from a genre-blazer, but the problem is that its predecessor blazed all the way out of the realm of video games and into that of film. David Cage and Quantic Dream have no understanding of what sets video games apart from other mediums and while appreciated simply for being different, his approach to game design is not the future we should be pursuing.
Dishonored: It's BioShock meets Deus Ex! Granted, that's a pretty awesome combination, but how fresh is this game really going to feel? Its primary hook seems to be the ability to stab lots of people through the throat, and the tagline "Revenge solves everything" doesn't inspire much confidence in a narrative that would give meaning to all of that stabbing...you know, kind of like what the games it draws from do.
The Last of Us: Let's combine Uncharted and post-apocalypse game X! Kudos to Naughty Dog for utilizing the ole ultra-violence toward a thematic end (at least I really hope that's the idea), but with Uncharted?s on-rails formula, is this really going to offer a unique meditation on violence and survival that I couldn't find in another medium? Because when video games stray from their fundamental strengths and use the language of foreign mediums, they are never any where close to as proficient in that language.
Watch Dogs: Okay, GTA parallels aside, this is one new IP that actually feels new. Even with its shootouts and super-hacker protagonist, it feels more grounded in reality and relatable than anything else shown at E3 because of its examination of the digital age and the invisible world where we spend most of our time these days.
Now as a gamer, I actually am excited about all of the above titles. But as someone who also reads books, watches films, and listens to music, I can only muster a disappointed sigh for a beloved pastime that only manages to absorb and engage me on the same level as other mediums maybe once a year (if it's an especially good year). For every game that actually makes me think, there are probably a hundred movies. The fact is that the vast majority of games today play to adolescent male power fantasies that are nauseating to most people. Maybe if the average human being spent his or her day doing nothing but murdering people then the "choice" and "freedom" of games that offer so many different ways to do it would seem meaningful, but as it is, dead is dead to us healthy folk.
I'm not saying here that I want all games to be about puppies and lollipops (although...); life and death stakes are what has made literature and drama so compelling for as long as humans have written such fictional stories down. But genre conventions and settings have trained us to equate life and death stakes with minor inconveniences like having to stop for gas. As an example, I'm currently grinding through The Witcher 2. Over 25 hours in, and I'm not even done with Act II (of five). I spend a lot of time stabbing things and leveling up so I'm better at stabbing things. The characters around me all tell long drawn-out stories (it's like they don't understand how regular conversations work) about how important my stabbing escapades are. I reckon that when I stab enough people and monsters, the game will end and I'll forget why anybody needed to be stabbed in the first place.
Now, The Witcher 2 is supposedly an example of mature story-telling in our medium. To that, I say, "What?" Does adding completely unnecessary t*ts and lots of swearing make something mature to us? Or maybe it's because the story's political? Maybe at a certain point in the game it won't feel like I'm just going from place to place because people need to be stabbed there and the conclusion will leave me deeply pondering the morality of regicide. But wait...we don't have kings anymore. And even if assassinating a president affected commoners' lives in a way remotely close to the assassination of a king (it wouldn't), politicians have moved onto more sophisticated social methods of destroying their enemies. Fantasy settings, and to a large degree Sci-Fi settings (it's funny how Sci-Fi settings are so relevant and groundbreaking in literature, but mostly space-marine orgies in games) are fairytale worlds for children. They have almost nothing to offer a 21st century adult besides mindless escape, yet they are the dominant settings in video games.
And I think that the ridiculous amount of time RPGs (and Shooters if you count multiplayer) feel like they have to take up speaks to the childish escape they're offering. Most busy adults get upset when a movie runs past two and a half hours (not necessarily a good thing, but it illustrates my point); we're all very busy people with very little free time. The healthy among us like to spend a fair chunk of that free time socializing in the sorts of places where a controller in your hands wouldn't serve much purpose besides a conversation piece. So why are developers padding out games to last 40, 60, 100, or more hours? Countless studies have told us time and time again that the average age of a gamer is somewhere in the early thirties, so why won't developers believe that and stop treating us like we have 180 vacation days a year? I want to remember the beginning of a game by time I finish it for crying out loud.
I could go on and on, but the point is that adults don't need an escape or time-waster. There are other, more effective means to those ends. What we need are video games that offer some kind of emotional or intellectual stimulation. We need something that we can talk to other human beings about without them slowly backing away after we gloat over how awesome it was when we tore some guy's head off with our bare hands. And I'm just not seeing that in video games today. In fact, I see the preposterous cost of video game development leading to a homogenized market of linear violence-coasters that will cease to exist entirely once multiplayer and single player experiences start selling separately and the type of people who only want an escape migrate to the sport of cyber-murder to satisfy their needs. Without an artistic initiative from publishers or a technological leap that makes AAA game development affordable for small teams, single-player gaming has as much of a future as comic books.
So am I done gaming? No. Like I said, I love games. And there are still innovative and engaging games out there, even if you have to look. And that's where I'm coming to a crossroads: do I go on devoting my time to keeping up with the industry's latest and (not) greatest, maintaining my personal training to one day become a game journalist? Or do I realize that it doesn't matter if me, GameSpot, 1UP, or anyone else posts another trailer for Resident Evil 6 because the people who are going to buy it are going to buy it regardless of what critics say?
I don't know if "critic" is really the right word for most professionals writing about video games today, because to be honest, they aren't very critical. We regurgitate press releases and trailers with no thought as to what's best for the industry. Some people will say that it's a game journalist/critic's job to inform the readership of anything and everything, but I'm convinced that JoyStiq could run stories on Black Ops 2 for a month straight and it wouldn't affect sales because the people who are going to buy it have made up their minds and the new adopters aren't the types to browse enthusiast gaming sites. Critics should start getting critical, filtering their reporting through the lens of what direction they'd like to see the industry head (because publishers certainly aren't looking out for the medium's future). From now on, I'm only reporting on the unknown games that break the mold and deserve to be recognized for it. I might only muster up one post a week, but it will be a meaningful, positive post. And I'm sick of this mindset that games are to be forgotten six months after release. How are we to ever build a canon when we refer to games in the past tense like they lose all meaning after one playthrough? I want to stir discussions on the classics.
I want to get enthused about video games again, and I think the only way to do that is to step back and realize that less is more. I think that I'll be doing a greater service to myself and the industry as a whole by looking to the past, the fringes, and the overlooked. Following every new release is no way to feed my passion for the medium of video games, because most new releases are just copying each other. It takes time to see which games truly pushed the medium forward. And the ones that do can rarely be seen from a mile away plastered on billboards. Rant over.