So Heavy Rain creator David Cage has been rattling on about the state of
creativity in video games again. He seems to think that the abundance of identikit FPS means that gaming is in danger. I find my palm meeting my face at painfully high
speed, with an almost sexual level of attraction. My face now stings. But even
more resounding than the painful reverberation of flesh upon increasingly-pink flesh is the unmistakeable sound of a man missing the point by a good 180 degrees. Because the fact is that games are creatively healthier than they have
ever been, and you have no-one to blame but yourself if you can't see
Rather than witnessing a medium in creative
stagnation, it strikes me that what Cage is doing here is the equivalent of
eating at McDonald’s every day and then complaining that all food is terrible
and worldwide obesity is inevitable. Or to put it another way, using the more
culturally ingrained example of a better-established medium, a person who
frequents the cinema weekly but only watches the big shiny Hollywood
blockbusters has no right to say that film is dying just because he hasn’t seen
anything decent lately.
Games are fine. They provide more ideas, experiences,
intellectual and emotional content, and good old clever interactive stimulation
than ever before in a more broadly eclectic array of styles, scales, genres and
tones than at any other point in their history. There’s limitless developer freedom and vast potential for getting any kind of game into the
hands of an audience who will appreciate it. The fact is that if you can’t find
anything worthwhile to play, then it’s your own damn fault for not looking hard
I get that there are problems. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m
not saying that every publisher in the world is bursting at the seams with a
shimmering rainbow of benevolent creative ideas. I’m not saying that this year’s
big E3 press conferences were exactly a bounty of eclectic innovation. They
weren’t. They were a quagmire of indistinct perma-killing. Going off their
evidence alone, every big triple-A franchise now looks and plays the same.
Every game is an identikit gore cocktail, made up of the same bits of Gears of
War, Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted. Choosing between them is like trying to
make a qualitative judgment over different brands of bottled water.
But you know what? They’re triple-A franchises at big E3
press conferences. What the hell did we expect? In other news, McDonald’s is
currently specialising in greasy meat and fried potato.
Budget spent and creative risk taken are usually inversely
proportional. That’s the way it works in games. That’s the way it works in any
medium. The higher the profit required, the more people a publisher will want
to appeal to, and the safer the product will be. That’s why 90% of TV is
vacuous crap for undemanding idiots. That’s why big budget films are little
more than talking explosions with toy and TV licenses attached. And that’s why
all the big budget game franchises are homogenising, desperate as they are to
tick off all the same gameplay elements, presentation features and QTE stabbing
options that their rivals have. And as a result they are losing their USPs, and
have to fight even harder to stand out. Which they do by adding even more
explosions and QTE stabbings.
But you know what? That doesn’t matter. Mainstream media
culture has always worked that way. And it always will. And it doesn’t matter.
Because a little to the left of the noise you always find the real stuff. For
every Disney, there’s a Pixar, a Ralph Bakshi or an Adult Swim. For every Michael Bay there are hundreds of thousands of
real film-makers making real, creative, meaningful films on a whole variety of
budgets. And games work the same way. And with the internet being a thing that
exists now (seriously, check it out, it’s right in front of you) there’s
absolutely no reason to limit what you consume to what you’re spoon-fed by the
guys with the big marketing budgets and the giant fear of failure. It's the nature of mainstream entertainment in any medium to provide flashy, easily-digestable popcorn content, and it's naive to assume that it won't. But shiny mainstream entertainment is only ever the tip of any media industry.
David Cage doesn’t seem to get this though. He says that "in most video games story's not very important" He says that he wants games to be expressive. He says that TV and film are expressive, but that in the games industry “we
just shoot and jump”. He says "It's great that you can shoot at monsters", but that games should offer "something deeper and interactive" too. Frankly he seems to misguidedly patronise the entire medium he supposedly cares about.
He seems to ignore or be completely unaware of the real
state of games as a medium, being so focused on the Call of Duties of the world
(in order to draw direct comparison to the “deeper” work he does) as to discount the vast array of important
work being made easily available by the world’s developers every day. He
seems to live in a world where the affecting ambient narrative of Dear Esther
doesn’t exist. Where Jonathan Blow never turned an existential musing on regret and alienation
into one of the biggest games on Xbox Live Arcade. In which a black and white abstract nightmare didn't become one of the platformer hits of the year on a console long deemed "the shooter-machine".
It also seems to be a world in which the publisher of Skyrim
isn’t working with indies to put out one of the most intelligent, free-form and mechanically exciting first-person adventures of the year. In which a bleak,
totally emergent, take-it-any-way-you-want, purely human-driven survival sim
has not become one of the break-out hits of 2012 without even being a 'real'
game. In which a Bioshock 2 designer has not, in fact, quite happily quit the big
budget studio system to make a non-combat first-person mystery game set in real-world suburbia. In which an FPS RPG cannot and never will be set entirely
within a three-day period in one single WWI trench for its entire run-time. In
which a first-person puzzler cannot be set in a world made of living synths,
nor also act as a real-world synth and musical composition training device itself. In which Snake cannot become a whole new deep, sensory experience, and isn't one of the most exciting downloadable games on the Xbox 360. In which this and this cannot possibly exist as viable commercial products. Above: "But all we do is jump and shoot!" (Trailer from Ice Pick Lodge's The Void)
For whatever reason, be it ignorance or deliberate
non-acknowledgement, Cage seems to boil the entire medium he works in - and
supposedly cares about the artistic health of - down to the most mainstream
releases on the big consoles. If I was being utterly, dreadfully, shamelessly
cynical I’d put forth the thesis that the best way to make one’s own work look
more innovative than it actually is would be to ignore genuine innovation and
only compare oneself only to works aimed at the lowest common denominator. But
I’m certainly not cynical. Oh no.
But the fact remains that Cage’s lament is an unnecessary
and utterly unfounded one. And it seems to come from the kind of uninformed
standpoint that can only lead to self-fulfilling prophecies if used as
evidence of creative stagnation. You keep looking at things you don’t like and
ignore all the things you do like, you’re going to end up sad.
Don’t be sad like David Cage. Find the kind of games you do
like and be happy.
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