Last week I came across this editorial about GTA 5. About halfway through, the author, Tom Bissell, made a point that sent me reeling: "I review books too...No reader has ever told me he hopes I get cancer in response to a negative book review, which I've had happen with games. I've never met a literary critic who distrusts publishers as much as game critics distrust game developers. I've never met a smart reader who sneers at books as reflexively as many smart gamers reflexively sneer at games. Many people involved in this medium hate so much of it and one another."
Gosh it was painful to read. I felt reprimanded. I mean, I can remember explicitly when I’ve acted exactly how he writes about. We’ve all done it: reflexively scoffed at a game just because it’s popular, or a different franchise than you’re used to, or it's liked by someone you consider to have a lower opinion than yours. But most importantly, it brought up a paradox. I don’t know why I hadn’t realized it before, but with the recent release of Beyond: Two Souls (and subsequently the Internet's vitriolic response), an ugly trend in the video game industry was laid out for me. We as gamers hate stagnation and formulaic games; but, ironically, we have no tolerance for the wholly innovative failures we encounter along the way.
Think of it this way: When a new Madden or Call of Duty game comes up, what is the loudest voice you hear? Typically, it's one of derision. "Another COD! Didn't they just do this last year? It's a reskin! What's new? What a cash in! Of course it's another shooter!" Hell, we've got just an article recounting such hate for Black Ops 2. The consistent theme here is that me, you, and every other outspoken voice on the Internet wants something new, something innovative, something that isn't just a brown-infused World War II shooter.
But then we get just such an innovative experience in Beyond: Two Souls, and we call it a “fever dream.” The game experiments with many creative risks, and instead of acknowledging what it’s trying to accomplish, we prey on David Cage because he is an eccentric and easy target. We don’t bother putting in the time to try to see what his work is doing and appreciate the positives. A good parent will celebrate their child’s victories and turn their mistakes into a learning moment. Why can’t we emulate that?
And let’s be real here: In many ways, Beyond fails. Absolutely. Nothing in art is perfect. As I wrote in The Beyond: Two Souls review, there was a baseline of solid storytelling that was just not present. As I was playing Beyond, I was frustrated at the lack of connection between the characters in the game. Except for one pair: Jodie and the small side character of Stan the homeless man. Did I know why? No clue. I don’t have enough professional experience to know if it was the actors’ chemistry, the direction they were given before the scene take, or the specific writing that went into it.
But while I may not know, I'm sure as hell David Cage and his development team have a better idea than me. So instead of angrily calling the entire narrative trash, I say, “Hey, I really felt something with these two characters, it’d be cool in the future to use whatever was done here with the rest of the cast.” By dogpiling onto Cage and Quantic Dream, all we’re really doing is making these artists feel shitty. Is that really the most constructive way to repay them for pouring their souls into a creative endeavor?
So yes, it fails. But my god in other ways it's completely ground-breaking. Years ago we got the proof of concept Kara. It was Quantic Dream dipping their toes in the water and saying, “Does this work? Hmmm…it seems to work...brb, trying something with this.” And with Ms. Ellen Page really carrying the role of Jodie, perhaps film and games will start sharing more than just terminology. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Chris Pratt becoming Nathan Drake? Now we have an example of that working! All of those different paths each scene can go down? Stunning, something that could only be done in video games, perhaps established writers will take note now and want to hop onto a video game in the future.
Irrespective of it's success and failure, this is what innovation looks. Georgeous or ugly, its definition has never included, “Getting it right.” I mean hell, our medium is only 30-years-old. So we all have to understand that game developers and artists and journalists and consumers are all trying to find their footing and understand where our trajectory leads. It’s all about iteration, and still no one has it right. I mean, oral storytelling has had a few thousand years head start on us and stand-up comedians still have shitty sets. What’s important is the process, not the destination. Beyond is just a branch on the tree.
We don’t want our video game companies to be terrified of experimenting, thinking one wrong step could sink them and the hundreds of people who work there. We are a small, young, impassioned industry. And unlike, say, the Hollywood film industry or book-publishing industry, we've seen that developers really do listen to what people say about their work. Because they’re learning too. You have the ability to actually give productive feedback that will make it to the ears of people who actually create something. Don't squander that opportunity. This is an iterative process and everyone must be involved. Pick up the game, play it, give feedback. It’s up to us to move the industry forward.
You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic,ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well,that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.