I had originally intended to save this piece for my upcoming website, Radical-helmet.com, in order to garner pageviews for original content, and because I thought if nobody saw it here that it would a one-time opportunity wasted, but I realize it might not be up for a while, and hey, why not just put it on both? I'll have more ideas by the time the website gets up anyway, but I have to see this one out there as soon as possible.
Also, this is an adaptation (read: copy-paste) of a 13-page long Microsoft Word Document, so if you don't like longreads, you've been warned.
So without further ado, my...essay.
If I were to pull you aside on the street and ask you if a video game could trigger an emotional response, what would you say? For sure, a lot of you would agree; some of you might even bring up a favorite game as an example. But let’s turn back the clock a bit: would you have said the same thing in 2007, with slightly fewer examples to cite, and an ever so slightly less developed gaming culture? What about in 2004? Or 2001? 1998? 1980? Miyamoto did. In a day when games were hardly understood, game designer Shigeru Miyamoto gave them a shot and wound up making what we consider gaming’s first formal narrative: 1981’s Donkey Kong.
Pictured: the game that indirectly eventually led to Gone Home. Funny how things turn out, huh?
While other games of the day were mere high-score contests, built around a simple, static situation with no real sense of plot or even progression, Donkey Kong followed a four-part story detailing a love triangle inspired by King Kong (which earned Nintendo a pretty nasty lawsuit not long after), between Jumpman, the hero and player character, the eponymous villain, Jumpman’s bitter old pet ape now on the loose, and the Lady, Jumpman’s girlfriend and Donkey Kong’s captive. Jumpman chased the big ape up a construction site fraught with hazards nearly to the point of contrivance, and Donkey Kong fought back every way he could, using balls of oil fire, heavy metal springs and his now—famous barrels, with the Lady screaming for help at his side. The climax was staged a whopping hundred meters up (think Alpha Tower, if you can) and ended with Jumpman outwitting the ape, pulling out the bolts that supported him, which proved to be his very literal downfall.
The site was basically this tall.
Gamers of the day had never seen anything like it. It was strange. It was tense. It was exciting. And a lot has happened since then.
Between then and now, we’ve seen everything, all kinds of new techniques and technological breakthroughs. First, it was scrolling. Then, it was non-linear play. And after that, Mode 7 took the stage, 3D graphics flourished, and voice acting went from novelty to standard. We’ve found ourselves immersed in sprawling plots and wide open sandbox worlds, and all the while our games have grown exponentially in size and scope.
And now, 32 years after that, and just over 50 years since the first known video game, we have reached an amazing point in our history. We have reached a point in time where we are capable of making a Golden Game, a landmark work in terms of emotional, thematic and moral sophistication (1) , on par with the greatest masterpieces of the other narrative mediums. And there is no better time for that than now.
If you were to ask a stranger the same question I asked you earlier, there’s a pretty strong chance you’ll get a no. You probably won’t even be taken seriously. Video games aren’t thought of very highly by the public at large, and depending who you ask (Lawyer, neighbor, family, Jack Thompson ), your responses will likely range from “I don’t really care, but they’re just kid’s stuff” to “Video games are a waste of time, go do something more productive” to “They’re stupid” to “They’re harmful to your mind” and finally to “ADAM LANZA WAS A GAMER! THINK ABOUT THE CHILDREN!” Which pretty much sums up the general opinion on games: stupid, childish and, in the worst cases, a danger to society.
Video games are evil, they say, an evil that they chase with all the fury, and all the fanaticism, of a 17th century witch hunt.
It isn’t surprising. Video games are a fairly new medium, and we humans are infamous for paranoia in the face of the new. It certainly doesn’t help that paranoia is such a powerful motivator for capital-A Action. If you don’t understand what you’re dealing with, and I stress that they don’t, you can imagine it to be whatever you want it to be, including something that needs to be stricken down as far as one’s power will permit. So they’ve given us their two cents. And even though they sound ridiculous to us, and even though it hurts to hear these things, they do have their reasons.
It’s really all just bad publicity. To start with, console games, which are what most average people think of when they hear the phrase “video game”, were originally marketed as children’s playthings, and since video games on computers were made by the sort of people who obsess over Dungeons and Dragons and The Hobbit, those were the sort of people who became associated with them. They weren’t a popular bunch. And when you think something’s for kids, you feel almost obliged to remove yourself from it when you grow up, laugh at the geeks who didn’t, and convince yourself that if you ever did lose yourself upon seeing the final boss’ true form revealed to you after what seemed to be the end of a grueling game, it was because you were young and stupid.
Video games eventually did branch out to wider, older audiences, and those of us who played them as children grew up alongside them into passionate adults. But the damage to their reputation had already been done, and they were never able to shake it off. Even though many games are great.
For instance, Super Mario 64 is a great game, a mix of tension, top-notch action, amazing acrobatics, fascinating puzzles, and the indescribable euphoria that comes from the interplay of exploration and discovery. But it’s not at all obvious; it’s all in the design. It’s the kind of thing you have to experience through interaction to understand, since interaction is what it was constructed around. You have to hold the controller in your hands, to interface with it, to literally touch the game to receive some kind of feedback, just as a song must be listened to or a book must be read or a film viewed. Every medium is experienced in a different way. And because video games are driven by player actions past and present, context can be very important. Games are characteristically understated.
Much of the reason, for instance, that the Rainbow Bowser fight at the climax of the game is engaging is because you’re aware of all the times you’ve failed in the past, each failure making you that little bit more desperate to succeed. Maybe you’re down to your last few lives, raising the stakes exponentially with each subsequent blunder. After all, it was hard enough getting this far; Bowser’s lair in the sky is a regular death course, a gauntlet that has to be seen, and felt, to be believed. And on the topic of difficulty, you also experience firsthand just what a fight Bowser can put up, just how close you are to dying at any given moment, and the effort, consideration and conscious thought that you have put into every move you make just to keep yourself alive another split second, no matter how mundane these movements may seem at a glance.
And they do seem mundane, by the way. Which can be confusing, since we often make the mistake of trying to experience a video game the same way we would a film, through sight and sound alone. When my brother saw me playing Super Mario World, a game he was failing at, and which was even harder than its aforementioned successor, he remarked that I “made it look easy,” since all he saw were characters jumping around haphazardly on screen.
Needless to say, it wasn’t easy. The game’s movement requires very precise input, particularly for jumping, and if you don’t press the right direction at exactly the right moment, and hold it until exactly the right moment, you fall into a bottomless pit. But you wouldn’t know it unless we’d somehow merged brains, and you could tell in all detail what I was thinking at any given moment. That isn’t likely to happen anytime in the near future (and I’d hate to have someone reading my more personal thoughts, anyway.) So even though I feel a rush of excitement just looking at a picture of Rainbow Bowser because I know the context, what it feels like to have all 120 stars and have everything riding on this (the stars, like everything else, make sense in that context,) all you have to work with is what you see.
And herein lies the problem.
You see, the easiest way to keep someone away from this game, to shoo anyone away from one of the greatest games of all time, despite all its strengths, is to show them the artwork on the front of the box. You never would’ve guessed it from the artwork on the front of the box.
Allow me to describe what you are seeing, just for emphasis: A bubbly cartoon plumber with wings on his hat and a big fat smile, a pastel-colored outfit, and a ridiculous mustache flying past an equally colorful planet made up of a field of flowers, a grumpy-looking badguy (I use the word “grumpy” purposefully here; he’s sort of an ugly cute), a fantasy castle, and a two-head-high ghost , more like a white balloon with a mock-spooky face drawn on it, cackling hysterically. The logo looks like it was cut out of construction paper with plastic scissors in a preschool arts and crafts class. You can’t really blame someone for being skeptical.
Disclaimer: Now guys, this is one of my favorite games in the entire world. I certainly don’t hate it, or even its box art. I’m just trying to get a point across. Are we all good? Okay. Moving on.
But when you don’t get to see the game for what it really is, you miss the bigger picture. Most people’s perception of the entire medium is based on the shallow box art, and even shallower marketing overall, that they did get to see, mostly for a select few blockbuster games with big-budget marketing campaigns. And when all you have to go on is the Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball commercial and The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, resistance isn’t just the first choice; it’s the smart one. How could they know they know what to expect, after all?
The two videos included for informative purposes.
But let’s imagine for a moment that a game appeared that:
- A. Was smart.
- B. Didn’t look stupid.
That would be good. It might make some people reconsider it, despite the initial healthy skepticism we can all expect. They could try it. And they could like it. It could be the game we could present to the raging masses as a shining and penultimate example of video games are capable of, a validating opus, the mythical “Citizen Kane of Games.” Which brings us back to where I started: if the proper circumstances were in order, we could make this game right now. But there must be some mistake, of course; the medium obviously has a lot of growing up to do before we can make something like that, right? Some of the people making the games, maybe, but video games themselves are ready to go. I suppose I should tell you how; it’s a logical process.
First of all, it has been pretty well established that a game’s mechanics can be used to convey some sort of theme or meaning. Although the relationship between a game’s mechanics and the player is unique to this medium, in the end game mechanics are just a set of tropes used to establish an internal consistency that a computer can work with, so that it doesn’t have to make everything up by itself (which is impossible, in case you couldn’t guess.) Put simply, video games are made up of tropes and conventions, which all mediums use to communicate ideas with their audience. And all mediums have those that are specific to their form, like cinematography and editing in film, or the use of ellipsis for dramatic effect in comics and literature. Video games, being interactive, bring with them a whole set of new and unusual quirks and traits, and they’ve got a lot of potential if you can get a handle on them.
Quite a few of them did, Like Braid, whose time travel mechanics became the centerpiece of a tragic and ironic tale of a boy who could change everything but his own fate, and found himself to be the reason why. It’s not easy to say what Braid is about; its actual plot and backstory, as interesting as they may be, is only the first layer of the game, the rest of which were hidden under an ambiguity that challenged the mind. Its seemingly obtuse symbolism is applicable to everything from intellectual insight to the atomic bomb, and it created an experience that grew organically as you explored the game world, with meaning dawning on the player only after looking at it from different angles, from forwards and backwards in time, leaving itself open to interpretation just like any good painting.
What mattered here was that you were able to interface with the world from close up, from within. When presented with a symbol such as time, you didn’t just take it in; you could explore it as if studying a statue from all sides. Time was a thing you could interact with, something that could interact with you and in doing so guide your thoughts. It was something you could open up and take apart and it was from what you found inside that its depths were understood and meaning came, much like one could open up a pocket watch to understand its inner workings. Braid’s was a world of dynamic symbols, and through their use the player bestowed meaning upon them. It was the ultimate interactive art exhibit. Admittedly, we are only beginning to understand what Braid is about, that is, what the author actually intended it to mean (although we all, as I said, have our own interpretations.) But there is something about that kind of boggling complexity that is beautiful in and of itself.
Then there’s thatgamecompany’s Journey, a non-violent game centered instead on co-operation, and random, anonymous acts of kindness as each player helped another player make the game’s titular journey through a barren desert to a distant snowcapped peak. Although one player could join another player’s game via an online connection, there were no usernames, no statistics or even online chat. Any incentive to compete with, harm or one-up the next player had been carefully filtered from the game’s rules, and because everyone was anonymous, not just internet anonymous but truly, unrecognizably, unidentifiably anonymous, without even a voice to give away one’s gender or ethnicity, there were no prejudices to cloud one’s judgment, allowing for people of all stripes to put away their pretentions and help each other out for the sake of sheer goodwill and empathy.
But the only reason this worked so well is because the game’s production was incredibly focused; Journey’s designer, Jenova Chen, knew exactly what kind of experience he wanted to deliver from the beginning, and concentrated on weaving the theme of co-operation into every choice he made. In other words, and this is very important, it is an example of a game with a developed thematic element, although it has predictably seen little recognition outside of the hardcore gaming demographic.
Even fairly old, familiar mechanics can be given a whole new meaning if you use them in the right context. For example, in The Stanley Parable, the only noteworthy thing you can do is to choose between a set of doors you’ll take to your destination. There are branching pathways and binary choices and that’s it, but in the context of the game’s story, in which the narrator tries to influence which path you take, and in which you play a character that apparently never had to think for himself and was quite complacent with the fact, you’re tempted to rebel, even if it seems unsafe at the time, and whether or not you do changes the direction the story takes, and gives you something look back on in the end.
As a matter of fact, all three of those could count, since all of them fall back old tropes to tell their tale. They also happen to fit into well-established genres; Braid and Journey are both platformers, no matter how unorthodox they may be, and The Stanley Parable is effectively a first-person shooter without a gun. All of these old genres are chock-full of unexplored mechanics and ideas stocked over half a century and I could spend a lifetime trying to bring each and every one to its full potential.
And while I’m at it, it’s oftentimes been said that the classic genres have run their course, and maybe that’s true, if we keep doing them the same way we’ve been doing them. But we don’t have to. There are plenty of hidden depths to the old genres, and they still have a lot to give if we know how to use them. That means we don’t have to wait for the next big idea, for that perfect new mechanic that’ll make the one-in-a-million game; it may have been right under your nose the whole time, waiting to be recognized. Point is, no excuses.
The accumulation of these mechanics, and the slow march of videogame storytelling to its current state, can be traced over, and split into, three distinct eras of development.
The Early Era
The first era began in 1962 and featured Spacewar! , the earliest known example of a video game running on computer hardware with a video display, the unofficial definition of a video game as we understand it*. And it wasn’t the only big innovation of its day; many of the traits we instinctively consider to be game-like, like scores, objectives, action and the like were brought into being in this early phase, which culminated in 1985 with Miyamoto’s medium-defining classic, Super Mario Bros. Complete with timers, extra lives, a general disregard for common logic in its characters and backdrops, and Koji Kondo’s blippy, peppy 8-bit score, Super Mario Bros. was every game for the last 23 years rolled into one, epitomizing the casual, enthusiastic and, in a single word, fun atmosphere that defined its period and, for better or for worse, defined gaming as a whole.
*Note: This game is currently in the public domain. So, for informative purposes, I have included a link to a flawlessly emulated version of the game here. It isn’t much by today’s standards, but it’s also an important piece of gaming history, which makes it worth at least a quick look.
You see, since we defined gaming during this time, we’ve also silently agreed to use this era as a standard by which to test all games thereafter. Is it like the games we played back then? Is it exactly like them, bludgeoning and violence intact? If not, then it’s probably not a game at all. It’s something else. Or not. It’s okay to come up with a usable definition of what a video game is, but if you choose to draw that definition from a era in gaming history that ended 27 years ago, don’t be surprised if it turns out to be a little bit outdated. There will be complications. But that’s an argument for another day.
The Zelda Era
The next of these eras upped the ante. While the Early Era developed the founding mechanics of gaming, the following era developed much everything else, and was marked by a sense of ambition to push further on what games could accomplish, symbolized by the game that helped crack the shell of the Early Era wide open: Miyamoto’s 1986 blockbuster The Legend of Zelda.
The Legend of Zelda (1986)
While in other games you shot first, didn’t ask questions later, and moved squarely from left to right, in Zelda you went every which way and figured out the details for yourself. It’s an idea that was normalized so fast that it’s easy to forget what a jump this was for gamers of the day. You explored the world, you discovered things, and although there was plenty of action to be had, you’d get nowhere without the necessary brain power to solve the mysteries of the dungeons and countryside, of which you needed a fair amount. And the reason this was important was that it drew attention to the other side of a video game, away from high scores and time limits and toward more of an experience, toward ideas like the "miniature garden that [they] can put inside their drawer", as Zelda itself was described.
This was the "miniature garden" in question.
This sense of experience grew stronger with advancements in video game storytelling. Later that same year, Dragon Quest was released in Japan (it would be three years before the game was released in the US as Dragon Warrior). This new game, an adaptation of the RPG genre little known in the East, placed an even greater emphasis on storytelling, non-linear play, and the emotional investment of the player. For instance, in order to make the player character more relatable, designer Yuji Horii took advantage of the genre’s already established conventions; the protagonist grew more skilled with experience just like the player did, weaving a coming-of-age subtext into the game’s plot, which was fairly ambitious for its time, pulling interesting tricks like making you the choose at the climax whether to abandon your morals and join the villain, although said story would be simplistic by today’s standards.
In the years that followed, game developers continued to move forward. Stories became more complex, non-linear play was made typical, and games became more emotionally stimulating as a whole.
All kinds of new ideas were developed, including but not limited to:
- World Maps
- Time Travel
- Finishing Moves
- Advanced Graphics Processors
- Active Battle Modes
- 100% Completion
- New Game Plus
- Stealth-based Gameplay
- Levels that could be attempted in any order
- An RPG where you don’t have to hurt anyone
- Open-ended Narratives
- Complex Interactions with Non-Playable Characters
- Character Arcs Running in Parallel
- Environmental Storytelling
- A game where you raise a child
- Players mourning the death of a fictional human being.
The advancement in video game quality can be best summed up by comparing the original Legend of Zelda with the game that represented the pinnacle of their efforts 12 years later, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Innovative, meticulously designed, gripping, touching, fascinating, visually and aurally arresting, it was not the game everyone had been making so much as the game everyone had been trying to make. And by the time the game had been released in November of 1998, a very interesting thing had happened.
The Prime Era
Video games are computer software, so when you’re trying to make a game-changing game, technology will eventually come into the equation. And for a long time the tech behind the games have been a limiting factor for creative ideas, one that game designers have historically had to work around. When you’re reading up on game history, two words you’re bound to hear frequently are “technical limitations”, as in “X was impossible due to technical/graphical/hardware limitations/memory constraints.” (Disclaimer: you’ll hear those words even today, though to a lesser extent.) When the year is 1986 and your characters only face one direction, tugging at the player’s heart strings becomes a chore, as well as a hit-or-miss situation.
For instance, this was what The Legend of Zelda was trying to represent. I can see it...sort of. No.
Fortunately, we don’t really have to worry about that anymore. And by that I mean we really don’t have to worry about that anymore. For those of you that think that current video technology and game design aren’t yet good enough to tell compelling stories, consider this: We’d met the minimum requirements by the end of 1998. The year beforehand had been a pivotal one, and Ocarina of Time was what closed the period during which classics like Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VII, and lastly, Valve’s Half-Life were released, and if their reception and legacy are anything to go by, they marked a turning point in the extent to which we were able to engage our audiences. It was then that we were finally able to get some idea of the bigger picture, and all the pieces were in place.
And that’s only considering you want your game to be 3D. It doesn’t have to be; 2D games had the necessary standard of quality by 1995, by which time, EarthBound, Super Metroid, Final Fantasy VI, and the legendary Chrono Trigger, revered as the greatest RPG of all time, had been recently released. We were already doing amazing things, even if no one else cared. This makes today‘s whiz-bang technology a sort of overkill. A good sort, though; the more power we can muster, the better. As it is, the Golden Game I’ve been referring to during the course of my argument could very well have been made fourteen years ago, or even seventeen, had the circumstances been right. Once again, no excuses.
But from this statement comes an inevitable question: If we could’ve made that special game that whole long time ago, why didn’t we? Remember that I included the qualifying phrase “had the circumstances been right”. As you can probably guess, they’d been far from it.
First of all, I have to stress that we are not talking about just designing a game with a good story. We’ve done that. Multiple times, actually. Any one of the games I mentioned earlier, regarding the Prime Era, would easily qualify. No, what we’re trying to do is make a game with a good story that someone outside of the hardcore gaming community will actually bother to play.
This is the hard part; you have to do a little mental rewiring to put yourself in the shoes of the one on the outside looking in. Perhaps some of you have heard of Lucy Kellaway? For those of you who haven’t, at an award competition at a major video game festival, the GameCity Prize, a panel of judges was chosen unlike the norm. The individuals chosen all had little to no familiarity with video games, and were asked to pass judgment on some of the year’s best games. Kellaway was one of the judges, and her assessment of the titles in question was a real eye opener. She couldn’t barely handle Super Mario 3D Land, called Mass Effect 3 “boring sci-fi tosh”, her understanding of the mechanically intricate and structurally elaborate platformer Fez was disappointingly shallow, extending only as far as she could appreciate bright colors and wacky geometry. The one game that she did like was Journey, the most divorced of the three from anything we might call gamehood, eschewing the traditional sense of structured gameplay for vivid art design, breathtaking scenery and the titular journey.
God bless you, Lucy Kellaway. You’ve taught us all a very valuable lesson.
This is what happens when we assume everybody else will like what we like; Kellaway had every reason to be critical. If you understand, we can’t just make anything we think is interesting and ship it in; there are a lot of things we’ve gotten used to, both as individuals gaming away from childhood on or as a community over decades of evolving culture, that at the best don’t snap immediately with our friends on the outside, and at the very worst are completely incomprehensible. I can’t bear to play Perfect Dark in front of my sister because while I grew up understanding that first-person-shooters (at least the ones the ones I used to play) were more of an exercise in dexterity, spatial perception and critical thinking than they were about the thrill of the kill, she wasn’t even aware that this inner dimension, that this side of the experience even exists. And the results are awkward.
There are three things that the big game has to be if people are going to give it the time of day. The Golden Game must be:
- 1. Accessible: This means that when you make the game, you make it in such a way that normal people will see it and can get their hands on it. Here’s where the marketing department comes in; there are a lot of smart games that don’t get their due publicity, and when they don’t, games like Black Ops and Angry Birds show up to fill in the void. This is what makes a bad impression: fixating only on one type of game.
On the off chance the game does get some marketing, you have to promote it as something that new players can wrap their heads around, something that appeals to them. You want to know how to get this wrong? Look at the difference between the TV ad the Defiance series and the Defiance game: One of them gives the impression that this is human drama (as human as alien immigrants get, anyway), something to get your brain up and running. The other one looks like a brown, dubsteppy Halo on Earth. Again, pretty awkward around the family. Not a good sign.
And on another note, being on the console or the platform these people are most likely to use, regardless of relative power (as I mentioned, we’re pretty much set in that department,) doesn’t hurt your chances. In fact, it’s practically vital when you think about who uses the Wii and who uses the Xbox 360. After all, it’s not like they’re going to complain. They chide us for doing that.
- 2. Approachable: This comes down to details of the game itself, how you play it, its subject matter, and how you interact with it in general. Easy to learn controls and mechanics are a must here (although that’s easier said than done) as is a user-friendly user interface. But it also means making a setting and a premise that people in general will care about, one that is plausible and relatable. Now, say that one with me: plausible and relatable. This is probably the one we get wrong the most. Want to know how many games at the 2012 DICE Awards had a plausible premise or a plausible setting? NONE.It would probably also help to try something a little bit further from the realm of fantasy and science fiction. There’s nothing wrong with either of them, and they’re each as valid a genre as any other, but the medium is saturated as it is, and it wouldn’t hurt to add some variety to the landscape. The best bet is to aim for something relevant, and I mean really relevant, like same-sex marriage, or immigration, or the uncertainty of lasting employment in a nationwide recession. It’s a bit of a jump from what we’re used to seeing, I’m sure, but that’s the idea; it’ll be a jump for them, too.
- 3. Intelligent: The Golden Game would have to be intelligent, inwardly and outwardly so. And there is a difference. Inward intelligence is intelligence in terms of mechanics. It means games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Team Fortress 2 and Pac-Man, the kind that are tightly designed and well thought out. You know what I’m talking about because you’ve played that kind of game many times before. Outward intelligence, on the other hand, is intelligence in terms of the game’s framed narrative. And while the latter is a must, the former is just as important; since gameplay and “story” are two sides of the same coin, it follows that failing on one side of the experience would bring the other side down as well (case in point: Metroid: Other M, whose fairly solid action gameplay wasn’t enough to save its hideously tangled and contradictory bird’s nest of a conspiracy plot, or its even more problematic rendition of series protagonist Samus Aran. It was, to put it gently, unpopular.) Ludic designs that are elegant, only as complex as they need to be and simple because they don’t need to be complex, are still okay, as long as they get the job done. But bad ones aren’t. Want to make that genius game where all you do is walk? As long as you’re sure you can keep the player’s attention, go for it. Just don’t make it bad. Other than that, anything goes, as long as you can make it worth the player’s while intellectually.
A case for elegant intelligence: Gone Home
Now, with all that in place, we shouldn’t expect the erudite, the intellectuals, and other otherwise nice people to pick this game up and proclaim it as a bona fide piece of art to the masses. We couldn’t even realistically expect them to pick it up at all. But it doesn’t matter in the end, since there’s another way to go about it. Best case scenario is that we get the attention of average, everyday people, less susceptible or obstinate folks, perhaps the kind that play Candy Crush Saga every now and then between shifts. With any luck, talk of the game’s merits will trickle up to the smarter and more influential, eventually forcing them into a position where their criticism no longer holds any weight. Because as much as they’ve irked us over the years, it’s not really their call.
At the end of the end of the day, it’s not their fault that video games are stigmatized. It’s the fault of virtually everyone else. From our suspicious parents to our misguided activists, it’s nearly impossible to find someone who’s not at fault here. Young age, middle age, old age, doctors, farmers, commoners all.
Blame the news if you want. The media has an unfortunate tendency to regurgitate so-called “common knowledge” and poorly researched stereotypes from time to time, the kinds of things people claim to know but learned from someone just as misinformed as them as part of a long, ongoing chain of misconception. And nobody wants to research these things for whatever reason, chiefly a groundless belief in their own convictions, so we wind up in that rare situation where not even the people you can trust to cover the war in Syria can be trusted to accurately cover something as self-explanatory as a Mario game. But how anyone figure that one out for themselves with some kind of personal experience?
That’s a non-question, by the way. They couldn’t. That’s why we have to show them.
There’s another thought you might have by this point: that this is a terrible approach to making games acceptable. How is one game supposed to make that much of an impact, no matter how good it is? Ideally, we’d reach a point where there are all kinds of interesting and subversive games out there, yes? Well, yes, however a game like this would go a ways toward making people less untrusting when a sea change like that comes around. It would help to soften the blow, so to speak. What I’m trying to describe is a sort of gateway drug to gaming, an experience that newcomers could walk out of confident that they might be able to find another game out there just as fascinating as their first. And maybe that’s when they’ll start to notice the rest of us.
Realistically, it doesn’t even have to be one game, and a much better strategy would be to overwhelm consumers with gateway-drug games. Even so, you should keep reading. The line of thinking, musings and guidelines I’ve described thus far are just as applicable to one strategy as they are to the other.
And now comes the biggest question of all: If you claim to know exactly how a game like this will play out, why hasn’t it already been made? That, like I’ve said before, all comes down to circumstances. You see, they only things between us and the Golden Game are the two groups of equally handicapped people, with whom the responsibility lies.
First we have the army of indie game developers, with their hearts on their sleeves and their souls yet unsold. They have no, boundaries, no fears, and...no budget. Without the resources to make anything more than a fairly small-scale game, getting to the masses becomes a bundle and promotion becomes a hurdle. Sure, a few lucky designers have hit it big with mainstream consumers, but that’s only because kids and adolescents tended to make up their major demographics, outside of established gamers. It’s a little bit tougher to get yourself out there when your work is the kind some would call an “art game”, rather than the sorts of game parents buy their children or dudebros buy their bro-bros.
On the other hand, we have the elephantine triple-A studios. They have the money, the connections and the people to deliver a classic on the scale of War and Peace, but I don’t really have to say why they aren’t a good choice for this sort of undertaking. For the uninformed, they’re soulless, plain and simple. And any director under the eye of such a studio who tried to take a different approach would very quickly find herself out of a job.
The solution to this problem, then, becomes obvious: the reinforcement and liberation of our brightest designers. Before you can make a Citizen Kane, you need an Orson Welles, someone with a great idea and a license to make that idea a reality. And slowly, we’re getting there. It isn’t very obvious at first glance, but the conversation on games has been changing as we’ve moved through time from Space Invaders to Mirror’s Edge. Suddenly it’s not okay anymore if a game has a lousy story or if it reduces its leading ladies to an anatomically incorrect ball of come-hither stares and jiggle physics, like in the oft-criticized brawler Dragon’s Crown.
At some point, this stopped being okay. Go figure.
And with that, the games are changing bit by bit, too; about a decade ago, I can assure you that a game as atypical as the first-person shooter deconstruction Spec Ops: The Line would never have seen the light of day. And they’ve only got farther to go, so long as they think they’re giving us what we want. All we need now is to show these developers our support, to vote with our wallets and tell them that this is a good idea and you should keep doing that.
As for our league of high-minded indiepersons, we’ve got the power to give them a little push. Funds have already been established, like the Extra Credits Indie Fund, that are seeing to it that these promising designers have the tools and resources they need to focus their creativity into something worthwhile, free from the constraints that would normally accompany an ailing budget. With any luck there’ll be more of these in the future, and luck aside we can encourage this kind of setup with our steadfast support. It’ll be the best service we can do them, though if the tides eventually change and developers open up a bit, some of those indie devs could find their way to the top of the food chain. In either case, the goal is to get designers into the position to make the games they want to make, instead of the games business sense says they have to make. Once we can get that done, it’s only a matter of time.
We now have a goal. It’s no small goal; it’s the toughest we’ve ever had. It’s only recently that it could even be conceived of, and only now that we’re close enough to plan it out in minute detail. I call the designers then to arms, to endeavor toward this change, and I hope that the vision of this new goal will give you an ideal to strive toward. With that I end my statement, and leave you to create. The Golden Game waits for you on the horizon. Chase it.
On a final note, if you liked this article, you can find my other "Radical Helmet Special" posts by following the corresponding tag at the top of this page. They're also very interesting.
Thank you humbly for reading.