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GDC 2013: A Worrisome, Hopeful Contradiction

The Real Next Generation

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RPS’s own wayward ronin word master Cara Ellison, during a post-convention victory dinner, put it best: “GDC is where we first hear about all the stuff everyone will be talking about next year.” Maybe it’s a trend-setter, or maybe it’s just a megaphone for gentle tickles of trends that are already in motion, but the point remains: GDC tends to be pretty indicative of where we’re at. People often view E3 in that light, but the fact is, it’s a dinosaur wreathed in fireworks, frilly undergarments, and little else. E3 is a projection. GDC has evolved into its opposite: introspection. We look inward, and then we discuss. And this year – thanks to things like the renewed prominence of PC gaming, a focus on indies, and the #1ReasonToBe talk – I came away quite optimistic. That warm feeling does not, however, come without some rather glaring caveats. Same-y looking “next-gen” games. The IGDA’s insulting use of scantily clad dancers. A worrisome gulf between triple-A and indie. For each positive, there was an ugly negative.

This year’s GDC in one word? Contradiction.

EA’s mid-GDC Battlefield 4 reveal event was really, really, really weird.

John and I stormed the San Francisco Metreon’s carpet-walled corridors, making snarky remarks about the excessive display for what, in actuality, amounted to a glorified gameplay trailer in a movie theater. Army men who looked like they were made of more plastic than tiny green army toys shot and shouted, and – Total Eclipse of the Heart gag aside – it all felt like business as usual. Then EA herded our thrumming crowd of journos off to an extravagant after-party, lights dimmed to the point of seduction – a cherry atop a slab of substance-lacking cake atop a sundae we didn’t really want in the first place. It all felt completely bizarre, like we’d stepped out of GDC proper and into a time machine.

It was, in other words, a triple-A game reveal. Thing is, earlier that day, I’d sat in on two separate talks about games that argued for more self-reflection in this exact genre. Other panels, meanwhile, discussed the merits of using novel game mechanics to tell more personal, specific stories or simply to make everyone’s brains implode. And don’t even get me started on how strange it felt to later that week attend Lost Levels – an outdoor picnic/un-conference focused on new ideas and inclusiveness – not even a block away from Battlefield 4’s old haunt. On one side: ruthlessly targeted status quo maintenance. On the other: eccentric idealists whose dreams were far too big for their wallets. If you follow the gaming industry, this probably isn’t particularly revelatory to you, but seeing these tidal waves crash into each other and – in some cases – publicly drown each other out was utterly striking.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not arguing that wily indies are inherently superior to entrenched triple-A behemoths or anything like that. What I witnessed at GDC, however, was an industry characterized by borders. You’re either bombastically brainless entertainment or more modest, smaller-scale expression. Overlap is worrisomely rare, and its results are mixed.

But there is hope. It’s just that, like many forms of change, gaming’s ideological shift is proving extremely slow-moving, for many reasons. For instance, I asked Warren Spector point-blank, and he said large-scale development rarely leaves him with the time (or the will, for that matter) to play other games. And while he acknowledged that it’s a huge problem, he wasn’t able to conjure up a solution. Meanwhile, Spec Ops: The Line writer Walt Williams chalked it up to the bottom line. His game and others like it – whether due to slow-building narrative focus, mechanics, or some mixture of factors – simply haven’t sold well. Publishers, then, are often hesitant to greenlight more.

However, one of Witcher 3’s principle gameplay designers told me that, in the past couple of years, he’s turned to smaller games as his primary source of inspiration. Also, both Spector and Williams answered my questions while mobbed by chatty indies and students, exchanging various wisdoms, brewing up a brain storm that hummed electricity. Meanwhile, plenty of former triple-A devs gone indie – for example, the BioShock-tempered Fullbright Company and their brilliantly contemplative Gone Home – were in attendance, displaying comfortable confidence in their newly carved out middle ground. And of course, let’s not forget the elephant in the room: the (sadly console-only) Journey, which married small game experimentation with big budget production values to be met with critical acclaim, strong sales, and every award ever conceived – including the first annual “No But Seriously We’re Not Going To Give This One To Journey But Oh No We’re Doing It Anyway Hmmm Welp We Gave It Our Best Shot I Guess” award.

Where to from here, though? Well, I’m a-okay with gaming’s maddest hatters keeping largely to themselves, but I do think there’s room for something that lets creators break outside their normal boxes. Spec Ops’ Williams suggested a system more akin to Hollywood (which, admittedly, isn’t the healthiest industry itself these days), with box office dynamos still having leeway to cleanse their palettes on pet projects between major hits – sometimes via specialized studio divisions like Fox Searchlight. And it’s not hard to see (once again, only in console-land at the moment, unfortunately) something like Sony’s indie outreach program evolving to take on that role. The once-closed-off living room lord this year put the likes of Hotline Miami and Lone Survivor on a pedestal, which makes sense given that the PlayStation 4 is just a PC having a sleek, sexy identity crisis.

But there’s also the other side of gaming’s new equation: not the what or the who, but who it’s all for. Once again, GDC held a colossal mirror up to the industry and reflected progress, however slow. On one hand, big steps back only served to emphasize massive (though still very much in-progress) steps forward, with the Independent Game Developers Association getting swiftly reprimanded for alienating women via scantily clad dancing girls, stilt walkers, and stage performers. Meanwhile, panels like the brilliant #1ReasonToBe – which saw luminaries like Brenda Romero, Robin Hunicke, and RPS chum Leigh Alexander give one of the most important, impassioned talks of the entire show – and similarly themed panels from BioWare and Microsoft drew both cheers and tears.

It was, frankly, amazing to simply exist in that environment. After the #1Reason talk, hordes of people – men and women alike – rushed the stage to express gratitude. This wasn’t some targeted strike on all that longtime, exceedingly white/male gamers hold dear. It was a community no longer feeling excluded. Suffocating loneliness finally giving way to a little fresh air. Smiles, hugs, laughter. There was still plenty of hate (I got some for merely tweeting about the event; I can’t even imagine what fucking horrific nonsense the panelists had to deal with), but it felt like a hard-fought win. One battle in a long, nauseatingly drawn-out war, certainly, but that’s sometimes all it takes to turn a tide.

And while we could (and should, honestly, very soon) delve more deeply into the lack of similarly high-profile visibility for racial, queer, and other painfully marginalized issues, the big contradiction on this front involved blame and responsibility. Whose fault was the IGDA party debacle, which – to put things in perspective – saw a self-described advocacy group put this industry’s absolute worst foot forward, causing multiple talents including Brenda Romero and board of directors member Darius Kazemi to resign? Well, to hear the IGDA tell it, San-Francisco-based developer and partial party host Yetizen was entirely to blame. Yetizen, meanwhile, contends that the IGDA’s flubbing facts and it – for its part – hired “avid gamers, who happened to be models, to discuss gaming with the invited guests.” Uh-huh. Also, Brenda Romero’s apparently eeeeeeeeeeeeeevil and out to get them or something. I don’t even know anymore.

Here, let me solve the great mystery for you: both party-hosting parties screwed up. Everyone was wrong. Shock. That never happens all the damn time in the case of nearly every mistake made ever. But hastily hurling the buck into someone else’s hands – at the absolute best – makes you look like a complete coward and, at worst, stops the learning process dead in its tracks. Case in point: Yetizen has made the exact same incredibly dumb choice multiple years in a row. Despite this, the IGDA for some reason decided to get involved with them.

Gaming companies: accept responsibility, learn, and for the love of god or whomever else, don’t do this.

And yet, even in light of all sorts of back steps, side steps, and face-palm-worthy face-plants, I do think this year’s GDC represented forward motion. We still have all kinds of mountains to tear down, but we’re making real, tangible progress both in terms of what we create and who feels like they’re welcome at the table when we consume it. The real takeaway here? Now is not the time for pats on the back. The gaming industry has momentum. So let’s keep pushing. It’s a shame that GDC only brings this many brilliant people into the same building once per year, but eh, walls are overrated. So let’s bust them down year ’round.

How’s that for destructible cover, EA?

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Nathan Grayson

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