Making Games Better, Punching Where it Matters

“It’s the same character again, except with less power, and getting older and looking even more pathetic. When you’re a young, up and coming gangster okay, you can relate to that. But now you’re an old guy trying to be a young, up and coming gangster. That’s a little sad….If you have the opportunity to move your medium forward, why not tackle issues people haven’t tackled before? You know, real meaningful satire. Real satire punches upward, real satire skewers the people in power. It doesn’t make jokes out of beating up women because that’s just what lazy boys do…Why not examine yourself instead of telling the same jokes?”

Leigh Alexander, speaking on this week’s episode of  Sup Holmes, addressed a couple of curious and pervasive phenomena in the contemporary video game landscape. Both Alexander and the host of the show, Jonathan Holmes, lamented the bizarre state of affairs which has millions of consumers viciously  defending the dubious actions of huge media corporations. They also questioned the notion that people want “better” games, whatever they may be, suggesting that people are often happy with more of the same and technical advances take priority over artistic/aesthetic/moral/social concerns.

I’d suggest that this complacency to accept familiar products is related to the vehement defence of large video game companies. I believe that the apparent lack of self reflexivity in game development when it comes to issues outside of technical accomplishment is one of the reasons for creative stagnation and problematic content in recent releases.

I can only assume that the desire to attach oneself completely to an industry power is a hangover from the days when playing games was considered a niche pursuit.  I could certainly see myself singing the praises of a game developer if I believed them to be the only people in the world who cared as deeply for their product as I did. Defending the few developers at DMA Design who had to fight their hardest just to get the first Grand Theft Auto madethough still somewhat suspect, feels far more justifiable than clamouring to the defence of the ten-studio strong Rockstar Games in 2013.

Especially when this defence manifests itself as personal attacks on reviewers like Carolyn Petit at Gamespot who had the sheer audacity to criticise Grand Theft Auto 5‘s misogynist tendencies in an otherwise positive review. I’d expect (“hope” feels far too depressing a word in this situation) that the majority of those who felt compelled to hurl insults at Petit were teenagers and upset children yet to achieve a level of maturity suitable for reading intelligent criticism. Yet people of this age group never knew the industry when it was “punching upwards” and those that are old enough to have known a time when playing games felt like something to hide have been cognisant to the past eight, post-Wii, years when everyone and their grandmother began dabbling in different kinds of interactive experiences.

This would suggest that the myth (and in today’s world it is a myth) that video games are still the underdog of the entertainment industry is being perpetuated by someone, or something, else. There are a curious few industry personalities, like Mike Krahulik, who have needlessly trudged this misunderstanding into 2013.  I won’t get into the “dickwolves” incident here, it’s been written about by many people already in ways more coherent and meaningful than I could hope to achieve, but it shows that the mentality of “the bullied fighting back” still holds weight in major circles of the gaming industry. As Rich Stevens so eloquently summed it up; “It’s like [Krahulik] never got the point of growing up having been bullied as a kid. You’re supposed to get older and not repeat it”. You’re certainly not supposed to grow up, achieve a position of significant power, and mindlessly circulate false ideas of victimisation at the expense of rape survivors.

The massive media backlash Krahulik received after his comments went public shows that the general understanding held by game players and critics/writers is that his actions were not okay and that the raucous applause he received at the time was hopefully limited to the devout fans who occupied the auditorium.

GTA-5

If Krahulik does represent only a minority of video game players, why do so many people continue to jump to the defence of media monoliths like Grand Theft Auto 5? Is there something embedded in the games we play that promotes this kind of thinking? The inherently symbiotic relationship between art and its viewer/reader/player in which meaning is created only when the two interact is perhaps more pronounced in games than other media; this inherently unique and personal experience might lead some to take offence when others criticise a game they hold dear. Yet the lack of self reflexivity Stevens levelled against Krahulik is surprisingly apparent in those aspects of video game development which occupy positions secondary to technical polish.

Still rooted in a kind of technological determinism not seen in other media since CinemaScope in the 1950s, Alexander suggests that the path walked by video game innovation is one mostly concerned with “amping up”. Technical prowess takes centre stage over moral/social/political/artistic accomplishment. This is a rather essentialist statement, but this is the appreciation culture that leads to Grand Theft Auto 5 being heralded by almost all reviewers as a technologically astounding, beautiful and historically important construction – only one whose writing, characters, and attempts at satire fail on almost all accounts (9/10). We’re looking at the Birth of a Nation of video games; a marvel of technical accomplishment whose shiny surfaces keep our eyes from turning to the problematic socio-political content held within.

It would be impossible to pin down what “better” means in regards to video games. Such a subjective term will mean different things to different people and I’m sure many would argue that a problematic but ambitious product like Grand Theft Auto 5 is “better” than a socially conscientious but utterly dull game.

Though I think there is something that can be objectively said about making games by companies like Rockstar “better”; companies which have a significant history and levels of expertise. One of the reasons GTA5 feels so flat is because, drawing on Alexander’s lamentation I opened with, it takes no time to examine itself. As Krahulik doesn’t “get the point of growing up having been bullied as a kid”, Rockstar don’t “get the point” of being industry leaders, sitting atop their billion dollar throne without thoughtfully looking back on their time as industry upstarts. I’m not asking for an overtly reflexive and contemplative GTA, but its school of satire would hold more water if its developers sat back and thought about where they stood in today’s world, where their history of rebellion has taken them, rather than churning out the same empty punches they dealt at the turn of the century.

I can’t imagine anyone playing GTA5 without feeling the distinct displeasure that, at some point during their time in Los Santos, the smug creators of the game were punching them in the face.

Yet there are examples of recent of games which pay attention to the past and strive to translate the youthful ambitions of their developers into content more appropriate for today. Take The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s apocalyptic tear-jerker which strikes me  as one of the more noteworthy games of the past few years specifically because it tries to be “better” than its predecessors in ways more meaningful and self reflexive than simply technical accomplishment. The backwards-facing philosophy of The Last of Us is palpable in the extreme. Every button pressed feels like an apologetic shovel of dirt on the grave of Nathan Drake. The weight placed on every murder, every death, plays like an interactive apology for the influx of widowed households that line the paths Drake walked on his quests for treasure. Every acquaintance of Joel, diverse in their ages, genders, sexualities and races feel like personified apologies for the Resi-5-like ethnic cleansing of Drake’s globe trotting  endeavours. Every one of your violent actions is conducted under the understanding, terrified, and always watching eyes of Ellie.

2504205-the-last-of-us-joel-ellie

 

“Apology” is perhaps too strong a word here. Naughty Dog obviously still holds the Uncharted franchise dear, as do I, but there is an obvious consideration of the accusations some have levelled against the franchise as potentially problematic. Naughty Dog is a company which has had a similar generationally-defined career as Rockstar, but every iteration appears self aware and knowledgeable of the company’s own history.

Much more than this, however, is that The Last of Us excels in its own right. Certain elements might make the game “better” and show that its creators are aware of potential misgivings in their previous games, but the games succeeds on its own terms. It is technically proficient in the extreme, it has characters whose realisation is more believable and affecting than I can think of in another game, it has a wonderful score and a singular combat system which sits perfectly with the tightly controlled narrative context of the player’s actions. Nathan Drake still breathes in The Last of Us. He survives through the accomplished gun-play, the stunning environments, and Naughty Dog’s trademark cutscenes. He is the technical accomplishment behind The Last of Us, antecedent to the game’s unique strengths.

Rockstar are famous for not acknowledging the existence of other games and the merits contending franchises might hold. Grand Theft Auto 5 shows that Rockstar have now forgotten what made their own games so compelling. GTA5′s sun soaked setting and prototypical protagonists ensure it is a game full of nods to previous games in the franchise, but these are nothing but vacuous signifiers. Meaningless signposts that point to a time when all this was relevant.

The Last of Us does not efface Uncharted, nor should it. You’d be hard pressed to find an action game as fun or as polished as Uncharted 2. But Naughty Dog’s latest outing reveals the sense of maturity and self-reflexivity behind the decision making process that led to its creation; an honesty that is sorely lacking from Grand Theft Auto 5 and many other recent releases. The Last of Us punches hard and anyone who has played it, even just the prologue, will tell you that its punches hurt; but they do so in the most refreshing and remarkable of ways.

If the majority (and again, this is perhaps too sweeping a statement) of AAA games have barely changed outside of technical advances over the last 15 to 20 years, still circulating false ideologies of rebellion, of “punching upwards”, is it any wonder that legions of adoring fans act in similar ways?  We can do (and have done) “better”. We can write stories, create characters and worlds, appropriate for the 2013 which sees video games as the most popular form of entertainment in the world, and we can do this in ways that respect the 20 years that brought us here. We can continue punching but do so where it matters, where it is still, and always will be, needed.

3 thoughts on “Making Games Better, Punching Where it Matters

  1. Pingback: Game of the Year of Luigi | The Vibrant Popular

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