When a 35 year old is in nappies, there are one or two questions to ask. (Like, “Would the big boy like his milky-wilky?”, before the spanking begins.) It’s usually a sign. So why does the 35 year-old video gaming still feel like it’s in its infancy?
We’ve been using the excuse that the medium is so young for as long as I’ve been in this business, and since my career couldn’t be considered youthful any more, gaming sure doesn’t count either. Certainly, the first few films might have been people falling over, but 35 years in and they were making All Quiet On The Western Front. We’re making Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare. So why is that? Does it matter? Is this how games are supposed to be? And who am I to be making such rash generalisations?
Well, I’m a gamer who loves playing games, and I’m a writer who loves writing about games, and there’s something I’m increasingly self-conscious about. It’s the sense of desperation with which we cling to the faintest glimmer of maturity in our game content. Just look at the Mass Effect series. I’ve still got an article perculating in me about how it was the first game to give me a genuine sense of a relationship, with my self-generated-ish arc between Shepard and Garrus. But good heavens, in an industry now as large as the film business, I have one stinking example of that? In 2012 it stood out to me? How is it that I’m not brewing a feature about how disappointing the ME romances were, in light of the complexity with which other narrative-led games approach the matter?
For goodness sake, even Jennifer Aniston movies have more to say about love than all of gaming put together, and what Jennifer Aniston movies have to say about love is, “Durrrrrrrr.” Where is our commentary? Where is our criticism? Where is our subversion? Where is the game that questions governments, challenges society, hell, asks a bloody question? Let alone issues. Good heavens, imagine a game that dealt with issues!
Of course, right now there are many angrily thumping at their monitor, scrawling hate mail to me with their own faeces, for asking games to be those things. And here’s a thought – perhaps, at least to some extent, they’re right. Look at where games began. Games. Ask a writer like the esteemed Stuart Campbell and he’ll angrily (and swearily) point out to you that a game is exactly that: something you play with. Not something that tells you a story. The arcade cabinets of the 70s and 80s didn’t entice you insert coin because you wanted to know whether the priest would recover from his crisis of faith, or if the girl would learn the truth about the balloon’s meaning. You did it to carry on winning. Sure, there are a dozen other articles to be written about whether progression counts as a narrative experience, but even that sentence is enough to cause the Campbells out there to pump red steam from their angry ears. You don’t play Scrabble to spell out a story (but wouldn’t that be brilliant?!), and Kerplunk’s denouement is written from the start. Why should a video game be any different?
Well, because they’re more than that, right? No matter how much it may annoy sweetie-loving Scots, games, however poor the nomenclature, have become more broad. And just as films have the variety to show us John Cena kicking over a building, games can tell us intricate stories about characters and their lives. They’re just, well, awful at it.
Of course there is an excellent, deserved place for your big budget action games. They should exist just as much as big budget action movies should exist. I’m arguing for more, for as well as. I want those, and then I want these, too.
I can list games where I’ve genuinely cared about the characters, and their fates. Beyond Good & Evil, Deus Ex, The Longest Journey, To The Moon, all feature characters whose motivations and destinies meant something to me. And many more. But I still think we’re compromising when we embrace these as our examples of the most meaningful tales, the deepest characters. When we say, “Look, look at this, aren’t we doing brilliantly!” No, we’re not. They’re great games, and I love them, but we can reach far further.
Then there comes the other argument against me: in games, you’re the player. This is never directly analogous with film, and in fact the constant comparison with this strikingly different medium is somewhere between obtuse and lazy. From choosing where to look, to opting to go left instead of right, no matter how illusionary, games possess the possibility for us to tell our own stories, even if it’s along the same set-piece-laden corridor as everyone else. In my playing of the game, I struggled here, died there, and breezed through that tough challenge. You did otherwise. But we all watched the same film, and none of us were challenged in ensuring it continued to its end. That direct, visceral contact is unique, and perhaps it’s enough merit that means games are achieving what they’re intended to achieve. Perhaps games aren’t any more infantile than a set of fridge magnet words in the hands of a poet.
Oh, but they are, aren’t they? If they were mature, or perhaps more so, if it were perceived that the audience were en-mass mature, it wouldn’t seem so impossible and uncommercial for a game to have a gay protagonist. It wouldn’t seem the madness of a maverick loon to have a game that ends in the empty suicide of its main character. We wouldn’t consider a game an indie-art-obscurity for tackling issues of loss, or mental illness, or childhood.
Before the angries do what they do best, I am not, ever, arguing that all games should be like this. I understand and embrace the significant role games play in people’s lives as a source of distraction-entertainment, and I enjoy shooting cans off walls as much as anyone else. I don’t always want that fun to be interrupted by the woes of the anonymous grunt holding the guns up for me, and can get frustrated by needless cutscenes interrupting the experience. Sometimes I want a platformer to just be Dustforce, not bothering me with a motivation for why I’m sweeping up leaves. Sometimes I just want to smash fences in Burnout Paradise, and would pay an extra tenner for a version where DJ Atomic was vapourised into his titular state.
But I also want other games to grow the hell up. This baby food we’ve been eating for the last three decades tastes great – it’s sweet and delicious, and can be eaten through a straw. But dammit, I want to chew. I want a game that’s too difficult for me to understand. I want a game where academics argue over the meaning. I want a game which makes me reconsider a previously well-engrained opinion. I want games to be a medium that merits the mainstream coverage we constantly claim they deserve.
Am I calling games immature? Yes. Am I calling gamers immature for enjoying them? No. Not at all. Nor am I calling those who make games immature. But I think we need to take stock when we find ourselves acclaiming an enormously enjoyable series like Mass Effect as our flagship narrative, and then inevitably cite the twelve-year-old Deus Ex. The youth excuse is over now. Video games are roughly as old as I am, and while I fully intend to continue to be ludicrously immature for the rest of my life, I also find room for greater depths, meaningful experience, tragedy and love, joy and envy.
I want there to continue to be Call Of Duty games. But I also want there to be gaming’s All Quiet On The Western Front. It’s our 1935, and it’s about time it happened.