Don’t get me wrong, games can be emotionally engaging, intellectually stimulating, and poignantly affecting works. If anyone on this site is likely to be seen banging on about the power of interactive narrative and metaphorical gameplay mechanics, it’s going to be me. Believe me, I am all over that stuff. But not every game has to be like that. Games can just be awesome too.
Above: Bayonetta. So fun of atmosphere and clever of gameplay that it does not need to be po-faced
Unlike film or TV, they’re brain-taxing, skill-building, adrenalin-venting, immediate interactive experiences, which engage and excite entirely different parts of the mind on top of (or instead of) doing all the of the narrative stuff. In fact however much games have grown up with their audience and come to stimulate us in cleverer, more eclectic ways as time has gone on, the chances are that it was a simply ‘awesome’ game that attracted most of us to the medium in the first place.
But it seems that the industry increasingly doesn’t feel okay with admitting that,. There’s a self-conscious, illogically apologetic case of back-pedalling going on, as publishers try to portray their products as something ‘more’ than they are, while at the same time not actually changing the products themselves. Because they probably know that those products are good enough, when judged on their own terms.
So instead they awkwardly lie about the experiences they provide, in order to fulfil some abstract notion of ‘worthiness’. Again, that insecure old reverence of cinema comes along to slash the Achilles’ tendon of gaming, a medium pretending to be a proud, utterly valid conqueror of the mainsteam while secretly still cowering in fear of its elders. Video games’ legitimacy-complex forces them to lie about what they are over and over again, until they’re eventually advertising the absolute opposite of what they deliver, when what they deliver is just fine. And that process benefits no-one. It screws over the purchaser, it devalues the product, and it undermines the very sense of validity that it tries to engender.
Above: So where was Journey's horribly laboured two-minutes of an old man crying over a piano?
And the other problem is that it’s never the really ‘worthy’ stuff that gets this treatment. There are plenty of games that really warrant this kind of promotion, but they’re rarely ever the focus of it. By all means give Journey a delicate, underplayed, emotionally affecting promo. Absolutely play up BioShock Infinite’s majestic brutality and socio-political discourse. Hell, give Limbo a two-minute trailer made up of abstract poetry, experimental Polish animation and a soundtrack made by an man smashing up washing machines on an Arts Council grant. Put that thing in the cinema and run it before the new Aranofsky film. But Dead Island? Really?
This whole situation is The Boy Who Cried Wolf While Wearing The Emperor’s New Clothes. The more we pretend that our fun, striking, but ultimately deep-as-a-puddle blockbusters are the gaming world’s equivalent of The Road, the more we lower people’s expectations of what gaming can achieve in regards to serious narrative. We make our industry appear deluded as to what really constitutes a serious artistic work, and we divert attention from the games that really do achieve that status.
And anyway, what the hell is wrong with just saying “This is a slick and exciting zombie killing thrill-ride that will let you punch a giant cave troll in the face”?
When the above behaviour is exactly the main draw of the game, and provides a perfectly tense and brutally good time to boot, there’s nothing wrong with that. Absolutely nothing wrong at all.
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