The videogame industry has its boundaries. Sadly, one of those seems to be a creative one too. But there are ways out of it.
Bored of games, bored of “action and experiences”, bored of the same monotonous crap the games industry shovels out on an average month. It’s a repulsive and dangerous path to take, culturally and artistically, to play it safe in an evolving expressive form. Evolving as in measuring up to societal standards and deciphering where games fit in the larger context. Can games be more? Sure. Do games want to be more? Do developers want to examine and reflect on existing cultural values or is it a medium meant purely to entertain?
Quality TV speaks a message. A correction necessary of correcting. House of Cards spotlights America’s corrupt political system. Homeland somewhat euphorically details the divisive and complicated global spy world. And even Girls, meant comically, tells an all-too-relatable story of four women trying to survive post-college. Film has done this since the “motion picture” was first invented. Books have been wheeling out political and social convictions for centuries. Where do games fall?
The Russians are bad guys. Strength, health, magic power. Faster cars win races. Respawns. Impermanent death. These are familiar tropes that most gaming fanatics would recognize. They’re also institutionalized in game design, and of which nearly every title ever produced implores or leans on closely. It’s not the fault of the industry — every creative medium has fallback mechanisms — but in games, these mechanisms are so pervasive and overused that their usage loses gumption.
In other words, infinite lives is boring. There’s no sense of skill, tactic or careful reasoning because all options can be attempted. Russia may be a hostile and politically deficient country, but it doesn’t always want to wage war. Health bars are nice, sure, but humans don’t have an internal clock advertising our expiring point. The brief history of gaming hasn’t yet explored what life is like outside these entrappings.
The first step would be to break rank. Leave the comfy confines of traditional game design and explore what’s possible. Fiddle with tools and break the stereotype that studios need to work within a framework. A game like Gone Home is one example. Players follow an invisible character through her sister’s journey of love and self-discovery, never meeting anyone else, never shooting anyone else, and the ending spurs emotion in ways most games could only dream of. Subtlety, not a forte of this industry, created an atmosphere of interest.
After more examples smash through the fold, studios would feel the confidence to act. Publishers would not resort to the tried-and-true military orgasm brouhahas that are Call of Duty and Battlefield. They would reside faith in indies like the Fullbright Company if the profit guarantee was there. But most of the industry is weary. Some games aren’t profitable or barely break even, following two or three years in development. And therein lies the central problem, preventing the industry expanding creatively: Games, as of right now, don’t make enough. Not every game rakes in a billion like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty. Most indie games are lucky to make half of their Kickstarter request.
But the publishers don’t have the built-up confidence. In no way could an indie approach a publisher about working on a project unless it has a long and successful history of solid titles. And publishers, gambling on most projects as it is, can’t afford the added gamble. Even if it may lead to a jackpot. Sadly, it’s an economic issue. That doesn’t mean Electronic Arts and crew are completely absolved of blame, though. It would make business sense, because if a gamble doesn’t pay off, the publisher can learn from the mistake. If it does, a new Popcap could potentially be born.
It presents a greater issue if the industry wants to mature: The fact that games are bound by profit. Games were always limited by the technology available, but that has changed. Game producers qualify a concept the same as Hollywood these days: The more explosive, the more badass, the more visually astounding a concept is, the more money it makes. Which is mostly true, but then again not every game is a first-person shooter.
The games industry may have its own unique form of creativity. One not so free like in books and not as expressive as music. The power of a game is visual; showing and not telling. But games haven’t figured that out either. I wonder if they ever will.
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