Playing It Safe
For me, fun isn’t the end of the equation.
That sentence is there to address the fact that often gaming critics are brought down a peg for thinking too much about video games. It’s a fair argument, and for most consumers of gaming, I don’t think there’s much else to worry about beyond the fun factor. But serious people spend serious time and resources in a multibillion dollar industry that provides entertainment content for the world. There is nothing wrong with occasionally considering the implications and the shortcomings of an adolescent industry that commands so much time in the neural pathways of the masses.
I appreciate a fun game as much as the next guy, and this year has been positively choked with safe bets and easy playtime. I walk away from 2008 with some nice memories of time spent happily indulging my pastime, but few moments of gaming that challenged me on anything but a functional and mechanical level. I take part of the blame for that, but I share that with a complacent industry stuck playing it safe.
Grudging though I am to admit it, the most challenging gaming phenomenon of the year was the moral dissonance that is Grand Theft Auto IV. Let’s be specific about the definition of challenging that I’m employing here, because this has nothing to do with the difficulty of the game. This is about the ways that games can challenge expectations, norms and mores. When I say GTA IV’s moral complexity was challenging, I’m talking about the compelling simulation of a character that both regrets and revels in the violence he dispatches. As the year has worn on, Nico has become caricaturized by corners that revel in sarcastic deconstruction. Though the execution was imperfect, credit has to go to Rockstar for trying to create a morally complex character in a world that simulated a spiral of inescapable violence despite illusions of freedom.
I can not stress how disappointed I am to place such accolades on this game, but as we run out the clock on the year it is inescapably relevant and daring in development circles where all the salmon swim downstream. I grow tired of being asked to be reasonable about not expecting too much from high profile games. Some developers and publishers constantly reinforce this idea that being creative, innovative and daring with games is a risk not worth taking, and worse they seem to have convinced us that demanding otherwise is completely impractical if not unreasonable.
Were I an investor in these companies, my perspective would be functionally and appropriately different, though I think an equally substantive argument can be made that this kind of spineless approach to the medium is a prescription for mediocrity. But, as a critical analyst, a pundit, a blogger or blowhard I embrace my opportunity and increasingly I think my duty to put whatever pressure I can on the industry to evolve. There is no shame in demanding better.
It’s not that I take any particular or individual exception with games like Fallout 3, Dead Space, Resistance 2 or, yes, even Wrath of the Lich King; obviously they are games I have enjoyed playing. But, they are original recipe KFC in a red bucket, Venti half-caf cappuccinos from Starbucks, TBS reruns of House or virtually anything by Counting Crows; they are good enough to make us comfortable without being individually memorable in the long run. They are the slop in the trough that sustains us somewhere between complaint and inspiration.
Individually I can take no exception with any of those games, except perhaps to say that I will look back and remember I liked these games without really remembering anything about them. I won’t remember enduring characters that bent my expectations, or mechanics that asked me to look at the way I play games any differently. They are old, brown comfortable shoes that have lost their luster but never squeeze wrong at the ankle, and at the end of the day no one remembers anything about them. They are representative of their class, the commonplace game that is designed to be a product rather than an epiphany.
Call it idealistic longing for days gone and never to return, but I grew up in a time when games were daring. Now they are commodities, and worse they are so by choice. I realize that there are people who stand on the fringe and impart underfunded genius, but I don’t feel like it’s satisfactory to cede the common ground to the clinically practical just because we’re all supposed to care about business goals, investors and marketability. We’ve seen triple-A titles be daring and succeed, so I don’t swallow the line that it just can’t be done anymore.
I look at the turmoil surrounding LittleBigPlanet, a game caught between attempting the daring and bending to the will of intellectual property attorneys, and I see the front in this war teetering on both victory and defeat on crucial ground. Here is a game that dares to change notions and reinvent and it is stagnating at the will of litigious pressures, stifling the creativity of what may have been the very heart of the game. The stakes of this fight are not just the individual creations that represent hours of work by players, but perhaps in the long run the very frameworks that allow players to act as a creative force in a game.
As an observer, I can choose to be practical and address the uncertain nature of law in public online spaces, or I can champion gaming that is subversive and unrepentant. In a world where good enough is the new great, where a night out is picking up take out from Sonic, where games, like popular television, music and movies are less reality altering medication than placebo, I’m comfortable eschewing the bounds being reasonable in favor or beating some fists against the brick wall just in case it cracks.