I find myself in an odd place these days. No, not Indiana, although that is fairly weird.
No, I find myself in the position of someone who used to love video games, and eventually got to a point where they don’t excite him much any more. So he begins to wonder if he really still likes video games or if he’s just clinging to something far after it ceased being interesting in the hopes that by sheer force of will he can make it interesting again.
This has been gnawing at me since at least the last E3, and probably before. I watched the Microsoft and the Sony keynote presentations and felt… nothing much (Nintendo didn’t even have a keynote at E3 this year, and that should have been a giant, throbbing clue to me).
And why not?
That’s tougher to answer, and while I stuck it in my head to percolate over the next several months, I began to realize that E3 as a whole hasn’t really featured much that I found interesting in several years. The show no longer gets me excited. Not only that, but games that get the most press at the event don’t even register as a blip on my radar. Video games media (such as it is) can’t possibly cover everything, I get that (but when they update 30 or more times per day, I kind of wonder how they don’t), so they logically have to pick and choose what they think that their readership will be interested in. Again, I get that. You have to give your audience what they want so they keep coming back and generating those sweet, sweet page views (and ad revenue).
But what a lot of these sites were covering (both during E3 and the rest of the year) stopped being interesting to me. As a result (partially because of the games they cover, but also partly due to the attitudes of most bloggers, er, games journalists, which we’ll delve into in a later article), I stopped visiting practically every video-game website I used to spend hours upon hours going to, and withdrew almost completely from just about every game community I was even peripherally involved in, even this very site, the site that I had put together on a whim between classes while I was slogging through college. The site that was originally set up to document my love of video games started to languish. I started to unconsciously become convinced that video games as a whole had largely passed me by. They moved on into the future while I was stuck in the past lamenting how things were so much better during the Nintendo 64/Playstation/Dreamcast days.
Why did I think things were better then? Was it because they actually were better or was I remembering things through my own personal fog (note – “Ew.”) and focusing on the good while ignoring the bad?
I have been chewing on this conundrum for a long time, and it’s been incredibly frustrating that I just couldn’t put a finger on it.
So I just kind of let those feelings continue to fester in the back of my mind, always doubting that I truly still enjoyed video games, forcing myself to play the occasional game that everyone told me was great, but I couldn’t get into. even though I picked up the odd title here or there, and moved on with my life. I’d built a wall of old-school games and whatever nostalgia I had left to insulate me from the World of Videogames ™ at large. It was comfortable in there, and I could take a peek outside once in a while to see if the industry was still chugging along without me. It was. I no longer had a finger on the pulse of what was going on from day to day (or from hour to hour), so I could see everything from a kind-of detached viewpoint, mutter to myself that, “Yep, still don’t like it”, and move back into my hidey-hole.
And I reflected.
I reflected on what got me here. Why I liked video games in the first place. One of my earliest video game memories is playing Super Pac-Man in some local dive, which would have been around 30 years ago (yikes). I loved it. Nothing about the game was based in anything resembling reality (except maybe the food items), and I was able to briefly live vicariously through a character to do something completely impossible in a surreal world. That’s huge. For the price of a quarter I gained the ability to enter the imagination of someone else and do things that either couldn’t happen in real life, or that would get me killed if I tried. And I loved it all. Practically every video game I played offered something unique, and I wanted to keep going to the next game to see what else there was to see, hear, or experience.
Recently, while I was waxing nostalgic, I rediscovered the blog of John Kricfalusi (autoplay sound warning), and began re-reading through the archives. It might sound like a weird thing for a guy like me to do that since a lot of his posts are geared toward cartoon art and design and I’m not much of an artist. But I like old cartoons, and cartoons have a lot in common with video games – besides, it’s fun to take a peek behind the curtain to see how things get made, it’s why I occasionally watch a woodworking show even though I can barely build a shelf. Even though most of John’s posts aren’t really directed to non-cartoonists like me, there’s a lot to be gained from reading about the subject from a guy who clearly loves the medium and wants anyone involved in the process of making cartoons to be better. One post in particular had a passage that really stood out for me:
Why do bland characters exist in the first place?
What is the purpose of characters with no distinctive traits?
I have a theory that I don’t totally believe. Most animated features want to outspend the competition. The films are built on special effects, spectacle, details, crowds and a showing off of how much money they can burn. With that kind of story maybe strong characters would distract the audience from the impressive flying money.
Maybe the film makers think you need a central character with no distinctive traits so that you can piggy back him through the movie and experience the expensive special effects, wobbly cameras and spectacle through him.
You project your personality onto the blank slate and go on a roller coaster ride.
I personally think that is a rotten excuse to have a bland character and to tell you the truth I doubt that’s what the makers of these pictures have in mind.
Why are there blands then if it’s not on purpose? Because the cartoon makers don’t actually think about what they are doing or why. They just do it by rote. I doubt they even realize these characters are bland. They just have watched so many Disney, Bluth and Pixar movies growing up, that they automatically absorb the stock formulas and repeat them robotically when they get their chance to make a film.
If we replace ‘film’ or ‘cartoon’ with ‘video game’ and ‘Disney, Bluth, and Pixar’ with companies like Blizzard, Valve, and Bungie, then we can start extrapolating an interesting conclusion: most video games no longer offer a unique experience. They just take what’s worked before, stitch together bits of plot or characters with traits that have been successful before, changing up a few details just enough that it’s superficially different (so we can increment the sequel counter), and shove it to market. It’s like a lot of games get made by starting with a checklist of things all games need to have and going through the motions to add them.
Once that happens you have a game that is technically sound, but doesn’t actually have any life in it. Take this scene from Gears of War 2, for example. It’s like someone went down the checklist of ‘things to go into an action game’ and made sure they ticked all the boxes:
- Loose cannon character runs in and saves the day
- Everything is brown
And the characters? For all the realism they were supposedly going for, the characters look like marionettes. Nothing weighs anything (take a look at the first creature Cole flips over his head, the gun doesn’t even slow down when it gets several hundred pounds on it, and everyone waves those guns around like they’re made of cardboard instead of metal). None of them react to the situation or even each other in a way that I would expect them to. They sound like they just read their lines off a script one at a time in separate rooms and the only direction they got was ‘bland disinterest’. Cole goes from being up on a balcony overlooking the other characters and using a speaking voice (‘In the flesh, baby’), then he breaks through a wall and yells, then he drops down to almost a whisper. Marcus is completely monotone and moves like someone spent a lot of money on motion-capture and wanted to make sure that they got their money’s worth (check out how he starts waggling his head around and shifting his weight back and forth when he says ‘Roger, Control’).
It’s a combination of the Uncanny Valley, game making by rote, and good ol’ sloppiness.
Once I made these realizations, and really started to think about what I was seeing (and reviling), the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place, and it all crystallized:
I still love video games, so long as they bring something unique and fun to the table (which is why I’m intrigued by the growing Indie developer scene). What I don’t like is a game made from stitched-together tropes developed by rote based on what worked before, but changing one or two details (okay, you guys, we’re going to make a game where you run around and shoot people, but this time, instead of people, they’re giant bugs, and it’s in space, on a planet that looks like Earth, but isn’t). Games that are a copy (sorry, ‘inspired by’) of a copy of a copy that become so far removed from what inspired them in the first place that they’re parodies of themselves and they don’t even realize it. Games who have stories that are nothing but an elaborate setup for whatever Cool Thing(tm) to happen at the end. Games that are made purely to drive profits.
That’s what I can’t stand.
I can hardly believe that so many people who claim to like video games accept the current state of some of the games the Machine puts out to be good or even great, when they’re clearly mediocre. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with mediocre games, or even liking them, but pretending that they’re great does the industry as a whole a huge disservice.
We can do better.