A recent article in TIME magazine says that Grand Theft Auto V "racked up more than $1 billion in three days, shattering the all-time fastest-selling record—not just for games but for entertainment of any kind in the history of forever." I don't know why, but hearing that really bothers me. Not the statement itself, but the how and why of it.
First off, note that it was the fastest-selling game and not the highest selling. There's a difference: the highest selling games, even if they generally have good initial runs, accumulate more profits more slowly over a longer period of time, and are usually games held in high regard or that stand the test of time, like Super Mario Bros. and Tetris. They're the kind that most people either have already played or will try eventually. But this tends to happen relatively slowly.
For a game to sell fast, people have to want it before it's even out. It has to be anticipated. In this case, so fervently anticipated that we'd all gather around the warm glow of the internet to find out if our favorite song is on its in-game radio. Of all things, the radio! Now that's how you know we care.
The whole thing was rather strange, to be honest. Somehow we'd all been made to wait for this game with bated breath and wallets at the ready, soaking up even the most minuscule detail and, yeah, that's kind of a very "game" thing to do. Game releases are the most powerful sources of hype on the planet, and the game industry is the reigning king of the hype machine. And if you don't believe me, maybe this will change your mind.
It's like this twisted version of Black Friday where everyone knows what they're gonna buy before they show up and nothing is half-off. There aren't any stun guns or trampling, so I guess that's nice. But there you have it. Video games are better at advertising. That's a fact. And it's not just them; some of us seem suspiciously easy to advertise to. Case in point: our collective tech fetish. Especially now.
A new year is on the horizon, and a shiny new console generation has taken full swing. Rows of sleek, shapely, expensive and slightly intimidating black boxes line the shelves, beckoning sultrily to lusty, excited gamers around the globe, promising every nearly-owner, with a eye for class and sophistication, and the, er, resources to make the sale, the time of their lives: an orgasmic symphony of lights, a dreamworld of slightly sharper textures, slightly more facial hair, polygons as far as the eye can see!
Ugh, not this again.
Now look, I like fancy tech, love it in fact, and I'm not attacking the next generation, per se. I get how important it is for a game to look as good as possible. What bothers me is that someone, at some table, in some room, in some office, in some building somewhere in the world, thought that this was going to effect video games on some truly significant, groundbreaking level, by way of pure processing power, and that so many people, maybe not you or me, but so many people seem to behind it, and that now gaming is being called this big wide-reaching pastime for everyone while maybe it's become, for the most part, the World's Biggest Fanclub, and that maybe the way we prioritize technology is either a reflection of that or a root cause of it. Or both.
Is increased photorealism the big deal so many in the industry are making it out to be? (Hint: it's not.) And what does that say about us, the core market for game developers, that we so often buy into it? In response to our tech overlords, who still act like the differences between this generation and the last are something to shout about, who still can't tell the difference between graphics and aesthetics, I ask: What's with all the fuss?
Pictured: A painting. And if you get all "well duh, it's so obvious," then you're missing the point.
Not to make horsepower a dirty word. CGI is a very special thing for us. We may not be able to draw from the hand-drawn precision of hyperrealist paintings, the authenticity of photography, or the long and tedious but equally complex calculations of pre-rendered imagery, but your typical gaming device can easily pump out a serviceable illusion of reality at 60 frames per second, which lays the foundation for a very different, touchable, responsive kind of realism. And that's impressive in its own right.
And we don't even need to be as visually articulate as them, either. We have play. It is our interaction with a virtual world and its inhabitants that, playing off even the most primitive of visual representations, turn a cold plastic disk into a living, breathing lifeform. We're not movies. We don't have to rely on images alone.
And with all that said, just how real does "real" have to be? Is it the end of the world if the pixels on your textures aren't totally invisible or if the surfaces of your world and characters aren't totally waxy smooth?
And besides, it's not always the right choice. Some ideas lend themselves better to it: the painstakingly crafted simulation, the rugged cop drama. Others, not so much: character action games, surrealist games, tributes to ancient artwork, Mario. There are endless possible looks to choose from, especially now that we've reached a sort of comfy place in terms of graphical muscle, and any one of them can make an impact in a game that suits it. You just have to find the right match.
Reality. It's not for everyone.
But along comes next-gen party time, and everybody's gone David Cage. More Polygons = More Emotions? Are you sure? Why do we do this?
Well, for starters, did you know that, once upon a time, Cage's equation would have actually been, if not quite accurate, totally warranted? It's strange, but it's true.
Riddle me this: When is a clamor for polygons most justified? When there are no polygons. And that's the way it had been for the longest time. Although the first recorded game to use filled polygons and a third person camera came from farther back than you might have imagined as I, Robot in 1983, 3-D graphics had only been seen scarcely throughout the early history of video games, and they didn't quite become technically viable until a pivotal transitional period between 1993 and 1996, with games like Doom, Starfox, Donkey Kong Country, Myst, Virtua Fighter, Super Mario 64 and Quake (props for making 3D video cards standard) leading the new guard.
And while we're at it...here, have some history.
Nothing could have been bigger. It's difficult to say if there will ever be anything bigger. But the reason it was so big was that it fundamentally changed what we were capable of presenting within a digital space. And even then, there were kinks that desperately needed to be smoothed out. The generation afterwards took crude, sometimes unrecognizable images and refined them into something that finally registered as a human, a beast, a world. It isn't surprising how many styles blossomed during this period, from the minute detail of Shenmue and Shadow of the Collossus to the cel-shaded playfulness of Okami and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and everything in between. We could do all that now where we genuinely couldn't before.
It's not as if we have to deal with models like these anymore.
But when the next generation came around, people began to notice that for all of the wonderful games that were being loosed on store shelves left and right, the graphical jump wasn't as big as it used to be. As nice as it was, it wasn't as urgent, not as needed. The list of things we actually needed this new technology to get onto our screens was getting smaller and more obscure.
And now we find ourselves on the frontier of a new console generation, with even less on display that needs this admittedly very classy hardware to get it off the drawing board. And of the things that do, none of them seem like the seeds of the same kind of mega-revolution that came with the first set of 3-D consoles and the creatively liberating tuneup they got a few years down the road. As a result, no one thinks it means that much anymore.
No, correction. Many people do, but they shouldn't, because it's not. But they do!
It's just another gaming moment that left an imprint on the community, an idea we now associate with progress even if little progress is being made. And doesn't everyone love progress? And don't AAA developers love that we love progress? Oh yes they do.
The industry's marketing army seems to have taken advantage of this point, treating each relatively minor cosmetic update as if it were the birth of a whole new medium, knowing that we'll eat up every word. In fact, they seem to have taken advantage of all the points, like how we can also look back fondly on a time when huge, long, spaciously mapped "save the whole darn world" epics actually were an ambitious idea through their previously both unheard of and technically impossible scale, in terms of narrative and design. So we were promised that our next epics would be more so. You'll save two worlds! No, three! Entire systems! Galaxies! Universes! Look, we added an "s" at the end of Universe! That's gotta count for something!
And it did count for something, at least until it was both normalized and a technical cinch to make. Not so ambitious now, are we?
And some of these easy marketing points are the fault of our own homogeneity. I've mentioned it before: yesterday's games were fiendishly difficult and nigh-incomprehensible, and tended to attract a specific type of player. In fact, it was the only type of player they could keep, and because only a select set of people were able to get into gaming's club, and graduate into "hardcore gamers," it was easier for marketers to keep track of what we wanted. We essentially became a very large niche. And when we get these things fed back to us, when we as an audience are not challenged, we become kind of conditioned to like these things. It's a positive feedback loop that gets stronger with every cycle. It's audience husbandry. We only end up liking it more.
So fast forward some three decades, and we're swarming the escalators to get our next fix, promised a taste of revolution in a bottle. Did we do something wrong? And do we have the power to, as a whole, demand something new? My, wouldn't that throw them for a loop!
The worst part of all is that it means that Grand Theft Auto V didn't outsell the whole of entertainment on its own merits, great game though it may have been. It broke records because the industry has no class and we're all easy targets. Does this still qualify as an achievement? In any case, at least now I know why it bothers me.
By the way, merry Christmas guys.
You know, my Kinja is here with the rest of my writing if you're interested, and you can zero in on the game-related stuff with the "Radical Helmet Special" tag. I'll return to regular Monday morning posting after Christmas break is over. For now, you can find me here or on Tumblr. I've stopped updating my WordPress blog, but I haven't moved everything from there to my new blog yet, so you might still want to see it.