So I mentioned yesterday that my buddy Chad and I had a long conversation on video games and their (thus far) futile attempts to trek the uncanny valley. And I mentioned toward the end of the article that this issue–fully realistic, one-to-one human beings in video games–and all of the things it involves represent the entire gaming industry in microcosm. That not only are the issues that developers are facing in trying to make one-to-one human beings representative of the struggle of big name developers, they’re actually the largest problem the industry has faced thus far. Right now, we have three major/official console developers, according to Wikipedia, that ushered in the seventh generation of video games with the Wii, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3: Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony. And what worries me about this generation is that two thirds of the consoles were created with the design philosophy of “the same as the last one, but with more power”. In other words, the exact same philosophy we see at work in the games themselves: the only improvements we can make are to do the same, but more.
I’m going to appeal to a higher power here–someone whom we can all agree may be completely insane, but is also brilliant at doing what he does. Alan Moore, when he set out to write Watchmen, wanted to write a comic book that was decidedly neither a movie nor a book. See, comics of the time were derided as just being “movies but worse” or “books for non-readers” and Alan Moore wanted to show that comics could be something much, much more than either books or movies if used correctly. This is why almost the entirety of the story is conveyed in 1/9th panels, among other things–because it’s a visual set-up you would never have in a movie. This is why every panel of Watchmen is loaded with details that you’re meant to miss on initial reading–because you’re meant to read Watchmen at a different pace from a novel or movie. Because Watchmen is a comic book. And right now, in the video game industry, we have a bunch of studios focused intently on doing what sold best last time, but more. We have an industry afraid to move, lest its customers abandon them (which they would) and their experiments fail (which they may not).
What the industry needs right now are auteurs and experimenters. We have major developers focusing intently on one thing–the kind of games that require high-definition, photorealistic human beings to be taken seriously–and two or three individual companies looking outside of that box. Outside of that box is a vast wilderness of untapped potential for fun and profit. Let’s consider a for-instance. In 2006, the Wii was laughable. It didn’t have high-definition graphics, it didn’t have the raw power, it didn’t have the core gamer titles it should have. Instead, what it had was useless motion-based controls and Wii Sports, a game that came bundled with the console because it was the only one using the motion controls. And now, five years later, the Wii sits happily atop the XBox 360 and the PlayStation 3 in terms of sales.
This is all because Nintendo, seeing the release of and reaction to the GameCube, decided that for the next generation of their consoles, they’d have to do something no one had seen before. If hardcore gamers had already abandoned their consoles for Sony and Microsoft’s offerings and found their greener pastures, then Nintendo was going to have to find theirs. And find it they did, along with multi-millions of dollars in sales. And this isn’t the only time a developer has found both fun and profit (and sometimes a greater audience) outside of the conventional gaming sphere. The Alan Moore reference back there wasn’t for naught, and some of you readers should see this next example coming. How do you find great success by stripping games down to their unique elements–interactivity and gameplay? You do it by being Team ICO.
Team ICO’s games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, are both hailed by video game fans and critics alike as two of the greatest examples of video games as works of art. They don’t do this by having gigantic swaths of text for the player to read between levels. They don’t do this with in your face writing or angsty posturing. They manipulate the emotions of the player by reducing the games to gameplay and emphasizing the emotional importance of the gameplay. In Ico, you play a young boy trying to get a princess out of a castle. You can tell her to stay put, tell her to walk with you, or grab her hand and run like the wind. And it was decided that the princess wouldn’t speak the language you did during development. And you know why? So they could emphasize how important it was to hold her hand. It’s how you save, it’s how you run and it makes you feel for her as a person instead of a character in a game solely through gameplay. Their second game, Shadow of the Colossus, has been a topic of conversation for a long time for making players feel deep, lasting emotions solely through playing the game instead of through tortured cutscenes.
You know who else took on a unique and different approach to video games and ended up winning for it? Valve. When they developed Half-Life, they eschewed cutscenes in favour of in-engine, in-game storytelling. This move was not only unorthodox then, it’s unorthodox now. People look at Half-Life, see the care and effort it took to tell the story entirely in-game instead of in cutscenes, the effort it takes to integrate the tutorial into the game and into the story and say “Wow! That’s fantastic! Too bad we don’t have the resources or gumption to do that!” Except you do have the resources and gumption. When people say “Hey, let’s make games that explore what it means to be video games and what makes those unique!” they aren’t saying let’s make every game Braid. Hell, Braid sucked for exploring what made video games a viable art form–it’s just a book with really good platform sections in between chapters.
What you’re spending your money on as game developers matters and there are ways to make fun, frenzied and profitable first person shooters that are more innovative and exploratory than the games you’re putting out now. As I was writing this, I said to Dave that we’re spending our money trying to make games like Call of Duty, despite the fact that Call of Duty is the only game like it that sells well. And then he reminded me that even Call of Duty was born out of a sea change in how we program allied AI. That even the first Call of Duty was a stunningly original and innovative title.
So there you have it, game developers. If you want new audiences, if you want to make games that are full of artistic merit and line your pockets with dollar bills, make like Nintendo or Valve. Neither of these companies is going broke any time soon, and they’ve got here by making innovative, experimental decisions in their game development.
And Big Dave? I’m doing an article on the eighth generation of gaming tomorrow. It’s been a big weekend for video games.