Feature: A poor five years?
In the first of a regular column from Jeremy he ponders whether the last five years have been poor for fiction in video games, or is the question pointless.
There’s maybe two ways you can go when coming up with a topic for a column. The first is to go for an Important Issue; the sort of subject that could be discussed in detail on Radio 4, or at least some parallel universe Radio 4 where John Humphries talks DRM with government ministers before thrashing his co-hosts in the office FIFA tournament.
The other angle is to go for the personal story, regaling the audience with tales of spontaneous reverse-racing in Test Drive Unlimited 2, heroically suicidal bagpipers in Mount and Blade: Napoleonic Wars and mad programmers building nefarious AIs in Minecraft that seek to destroy humanity and reconstruct the physical universe from square blocks (I’ve done two out of three of those).
Now, for this first column of mine I’ve got a potential idea for each category. What to choose?
The Important Issue: ‘Dishonored designer says the last five years have been poor for fiction in games. Discuss.’
The personal story: ‘OMG! Fricking little legionaries just made by Spartans run away! These Romans need to be, like, SO nerfed for Total War: Rome 2! Who’s with me?!’
The Important Issue it is then.
Dishonoured by Dishonored
Viktor Antonov, visual design director at Bethesda owners Zenimax, has recently told Eurogamer that “It’s been a poor, poor five years for fiction in the video game industry”. As the visual brains behind the highly anticipated Dishonored and the creator of City 17 in Half-Life 2, he speaks from a position of some authority on the matter, but naturally the issue is a contentious one.
My immediate reaction to that headline phrase was the easiest reaction possible: ‘nope, you’re wrong.’ Lists of examples to counter Antonov’s claim immediately sprang up in the comments, with everything from Fez to Super Mario Galaxy to Uncharted to Okami cited as examples of just how wrong he was.
I’ve not played any of those titles (PC gamer here, hello), so I’ve got a few of my own to bring up. I think that the Mass Effect trilogy is a milestone in blockbuster choice-driven narrative, that Assassin’s Creed 2 tells a superb story through its urban geography alone and that Day Z is currently showing how accidents of player-driven gameplay can be more engaging than anything planned by a writing team. On a more obscure note I think that Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer is the strongest straight-fantasy narrative since Planescape: Torment and that Crusader Kings 2 plays out wonderful family dramas whilst still being a mightily taxing grand strategy game.
There’s a problem with this sort of argument though: it misses the point. There have undoubtedly been some superb stories told by videogames in the last five years and we can cite individual examples until pigs fly, cows jump over the moon and Steam goes bankrupt. The question of whether these stories are better or worse than what came before, or whether they appear more regularly, is a pointless one to pose. There is no objective measure through which to assess the overall narrative prowess of the entire industry.
Setting the Tone
Instead, what strikes me most about Antonov’s remarks is not the content, but the overall tone. This was an interview, not a sermon; as such, the points made in the conversation were never going to be rigidly consistent. Looking back at what was said, there are so many different points that crop up it’s hard to tie them together: ‘the stagnating creativity of video games’; ‘too many sequels and established IPs’; ‘a lack of variety’. Antonov says that ‘there should be more historical realistic worlds out there’ and that ‘we have a lot of New Yorks, we have a lot of war games’.
This isn’t a focused discussion about the standards of storytelling in games: it’s a loose mulling over of the various problems in the industry that, when artificially lumped together, give the impression that something is deeply wrong. It’s a symptom of a strange malaise, a lack of self-esteem that seems to emerge once hype and post-release euphoria have died down. Antonov is by no means the only person to speak in such a way.
When last year’s Christmas release glut promised Skyrim, Saint’s Row: The Third, Batman: Arkham City and Battlefield 3 to follow on from the brilliance of Portal 2 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, 2011 was repeatedly labelled as one of the greatest years gamers had ever played through. Now? Turns out it was a bit rubbish, nothing but sequels and brown shooters and tiresome clichés.
The individual qualities of each game, the things that got us excited in the first place, recede into the background, with each title being neatly pigeonholed to suit the downbeat mood: sequels, modern shooters, franchise atrophy in action. I get the feeling that the same interviewer who, in agreeing with Antonov, labelled gaming as having ‘a claustrophobic mega war-game crammed environment’ would seek to ridicule such an accusation if it had been made by a film or literary critic.
The Optimistic Pessimist
So why does this pessimistic view continue to be aired? Is it just a fad, now that gaming has become a commercial behemoth, for developers and fans to put on their berets and go all auteur on us? Is it just nostalgia, where through rose-tinted hindsight we remember some mythical age when publishers gave creators free rein and were interested in excellence rather than profits?
There is no concrete reason – the debate is remarkable for its glum tone rather than for any explainable substance. That said, it’d be foolish to dismiss it for those reasons, so I’ll venture an opinion. The tone is glum because this industry is old enough to know what it can do – but young enough to be amazed by what it could still do. It’s old enough to have its own legends and classics that are genuine artistic rather than technical milestones, but young enough to be drawing in wholly new audiences and fighting off attacks from unconverted sceptics. When the prizes on offer are so enticing, so wonderful, it’s not surprising that developers are impatient to overcome even the smallest obstacles and that fans rage at the slightest sideways shuffle instead of the giant leaps forward they crave.
Let’s turn that pessimism on its head: we’re all so glum about video games because they have been, they are and they will be incredible. We just can’t help wanting more of them.