One of the reasons I spend so much time writing independent video game criticism is because of the general lack of integrity amongst the mainstream press and social media. As one backlash over a creative decision made for a particular game finally seems to have died down, another one is stirred up, bringing the expected stubbornness with it. Gamer culture is broken, but the developers aren’t innocent, either. Whenever a new “AAA” game is revealed, we often find ourselves comparing it to something similar due to its general lack of distinctiveness. It’s now easier than ever to know whether we want to play a certain game just from watching its reveal trailer – and can also probably predict what the story will be.
We know we’re in a difficult situation. We have been for a long time. The very term “AAA” originated as a descriptor of highly-budgeted games from a major publisher but has since evolved to become a word for grouping the same generic games as something distinct from the independent games – the ones that are actually creative, therefore worth playing. In other words, the major publishers have – for the most part – become less daring and are taking fewer risks. AAA games don’t have intellectual hooks or emotional cores and have unlikeable protagonists that don’t appeal.
Comparing the current state of affairs with gaming when I was growing up, they’re not special anymore. Everyone’s lists of the greatest games were likely the same because gaming greatness came along less often. Today, there’s an endless stream of content that’s become more accessible to everyone. That means there’s more market competition, which is being targeted toward people who don’t necessarily have the deep appreciation for the medium that we do. As the video game industry expanded and more people started playing video games, they became less niche – in other words, the more abundant something is, the less need there is to appreciate it. This is something that is reflected by the current lack of quality when it comes to the discourse regarding video games. Many of us don’t know – or have simply forgotten – how lucky we are. The way the video game industry has now overtaken the American film and recording industries is something I never could’ve imagined in the early 2000s. The idea that a video game could be “bad” is something that never occured to me back then, and even if I did know subconsciously, my reaction was always to think about the game in more detail and analyse it closely in order to at least discover more about the medium I love in the process.
It was joy. Gaming used to bring joy. The single character who represents the whole video game medium is Mario, a character who embodies joy. Since then, culture has shifted to the default mood being cynicism. Is this just because we’ve grown up and lost our sense of childlike wonder? Is it because most people are ultimately negative forces and project that onto what they consume? In some cases, of course it is. Human beings are imperfect and flawed; life is, fundamentally, a struggle against demons of our own making. It explains the endless social media backlashes, but even for the civilised amongst us, there still seems to be the general feeling of disenchantment about modern gaming in a way that didn’t previously exist. To understand why, you only need to look at how the industry has changed.
Video games are now more highly budgeted than ever before, and that puts more at stake for publishers. When more money has been invested, more needs to be made. So it makes sense that AAA games are becoming increasingly similar to other games in their genre and genres themselves are losing a sense of identity or depth. If publishers have a greater need than ever before to know that there’s an audience for what they make, of course they’re all going to copy each other and pander to the audience. As budgets have inflated, the products they fund have become more required to please more people, and this has made them more generic as a result. The popularity that the video games has attained has backfired on itself and created a situation in which the only solution is to double-down on what style already sells.
To make things worse, the amount of money laid down up-front also requires the corporations behind them to be more directly involved in every way. That’s how financiers become a part of planning stories from the beginning, which are often based around how it can be marketed in the same way as other games in its genre. That’s how we get an increased number of tropes being used.
Except that the primary appeal of video games is in the unlimited variety of what they can be for the player. Yet, for some reason, too many developers no longer understand this. Such lack of understanding has led to the industry now producing games for people it doesn’t understand, who therefore don’t want to play them, marketed for how unique they specifically aren’t. So is it really surprising that those people often feel so much antipathy toward those companies? The producer and consumer have drifted away from each other and the consumer has filled the gap with cynicism.
There is a very simple solution to this, of course. If “indie” has now become a byword for “actually interesting”, then the mainstream publishers should use the money and resources they have to their advantage. What makes indie games so appealing is their sense of identity and uniqueness. They remind us why we began playing video games to begin with. They also prove that doing something unique and creative isn’t just desired but embraced. Indie games disprove the self-fulfilling myth from AAA publishers that only the same, bland style can succeed. Surely, this should show the major developers that any desire they have to invest in a high-budget game that does its own thing and is still given the same marketing push is desired by many and would therefore make a profit. They may do the opposite due to paranoid overanalysis of their unprecedented industry growth, but the ironic thing is, they could grow even bigger if they simply put more love into their games.
It would certainly help the initial impression of their reveal trailers. Continuing down the repeating path they’re currently on of copying everything else has given a lot of us reason to doubt that they even care about what they make. If there’s any animosity on the players’ part, it’s, at least somewhat, because of that. If they really need to sell so many units to survive, the answer isn’t to remake the same game over and over again. The answer is to seal the gap between them and their consumers. Perhaps if they didn’t give their consumers so much reason to resent them, this wouldn’t be as big a problem. So what can they do? Well, the first thing they can do – in this gamer’s opinion, at least – is to start by putting a bit more creativity into their games and to trust that gamers will accept something they’ve not seen before.
Build it and they will come.