A bad year for dreams

2009 Was another triumphant year for the Wii and DS. Nintendo has successfully introduced the general public to playing games on computer hardware. But this is far from a triumph for the medium of videogames.

Refusing to grow up keeps you small
Source: VGChartz

People like playing games

Nintendo didn’t do much. But they were smart about it. Rather than trying to start a revolution with a brand new medium, they had a good look at the way people play today and made digital versions of those activities. They basically made it possible for people to play the kinds of games they were already enjoying, on their television sets.

Some may celebrate this as the breakthrough of videogames into the mainstream. I don’t. I hope this is just a temporary setback in the evolution of the medium. I’m not a big fan of huge corporations, but I do share, to some extent, the dreams that Sony and Microsoft have about the interactive medium. With them, I see videogames as the great new art form of the new century. Videogames as the cinema, television and pop music of the young millennium.

It’s not about getting as many people as possible to play games (they were already playing games, have been doing that since the dawn of time, there’s nothing new here). It’s about giving our times, our cultures a medium that we can find ourselves in, that we can express ourselves in. A medium that can help us understand our world, and that can help define it. Just as literature and cinema have done in the past.

Nintendo does not share this dream. They never have. Mario and Zelda and Pokemon are nothing like Scarlett O’Hara, Jean-Luc Picard or Romeo and Juliet. Nintendo makes games. It’s what they do. And they’re successful at it.

But the dream of Sony and Microsoft reaches a lot further. They want to be part of your life style, part of your culture, embedded in your society. They want the experiences you have on their systems to be meaningful and dramatic. They’re not selling fun. They’re selling mystery and wonder, spectacle and discovery, experiences you have never had before.

And they failed. Massively. So much so that they are hurrying to try and pick some crumbs left behind by Nintendo by quickly introducing some motion sensing hardware to their systems. The irony of the cats following the mouse would be amusing if it weren’t so sad.

The failure of the nerds

Nintendo got one thing right. It’s an extremely obvious thing. But Sony and Microsoft continuously fail at recognizing it. Nintendo realized that the mainstream audience does not consist of nerds -in fact, one could argue that that is the very definition of a mainstream audience. As soon as they did, they were instantly successful.

There’s a lesson to be learned here. The “hardcore industry” has always insisted that games were great just as they were, that it was just a matter of time before the masses would start playing them. They were basically expecting that everyone would become a nerd. Obviously this did not happen. And it never will. If only because language doesn’t allow it. Nerd and mainstream are polar opposites.

The games themselves were not the problem. Any expert will point out that there is not a lot of difference between Tic Tac Toe and Gears of War, or between Super Mario and Devil May Cry. But Nintendo -finally- realized that people don’t play games for the pretty characters or the great stories but for the systems of interaction that they allow us to engage in. And those systems are far better served by simple graphics and sounds than by elaborate theatrical displays.

The games that Sony and Microsoft have been promoting were basically the digital equivalent of chess sets with pieces made to look like characters from Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Only 1337 H4x0rz would actually believe they were attacking the Death Star while playing a match with such a set. Most people simply prefer to play a straight-up game with traditional pieces.

Games and… something else?

So now we’re at a crossroads. Do we give up the dream of a new medium for a new century and follow Nintendo’s example of simply giving people what they expect? Or do we strive for greatness and realize the potential of this marvellous new technology?

Nintendo has made one thing clear: people want to play games. But only if the games are simple and straightforward. They don’t want pretty pictures on their games or sweeping stories. They just want to have fun. However, the same people who are having fun with the Wii, also enjoy a visit to the cinema. They also love reading books. Their eyes fill with tears when listening to their favourite pop tune. And they’re hooked on several television shows. These people are not insensitive to narrative, emotion or meaning. They just don’t want to mix those experiences with playing games.

So the solution seems clear. If we want to realize the dream, if we want to give the new century the medium it deserves, the medium it needs, the medium it is sorely lacking, we need to stop wasting this technology on games!

It’s a difficult step to take. Because we love our games. We love battling our giant demons and riding our fire breathing dragons. We love planning our global wars and feeling the rush of victory against improbable odds. But let’s face it: we’re nerds. And only nerds like this kind of stuff. In the clear light of day, a sober eye quickly recognizes these videogames as the superb kitsch they are. Such videogames appeal exclusively to an educated elite and/or marginal ghetto.

This doesn’t mean that it is impossible to create interactive entertainment for people outside of the core niche. People still love their stories, and they still need fiction to help them deal with reality. And people also love to interact with their machines. That has ceased to be a geek exclusive a long time ago -if it ever was one. We just need to work a bit harder.

Instead of simply skinning ancient game routines with high tech spectacle, we need to sit down and have a good look at our medium-to-be and understand what is so uniquely interesting about it. Instead of trying to use new technology to do old tricks, we need to figure out what it is exactly that we find so fascinating about playing on a computer. And translate this to new audiences. This is not an easy thing to do, and it will take a lot of trial and error. But the rewards are great and the accomplishment will completely overshadow any of Nintendo’s current successes.

Down or up?

Will Sony and Microsoft realize this any time soon? I doubt it. The fight seems to have moved from the living room to the play room, from the media store to the toy store. And they will battle it out right there, on the brightly coloured carpet, in between the Barbie dolls and plastic machine guns, while the rest of the world is aching for a new medium, a medium that can deal with the complexities of today’s society, a fiction that can help us cope with our confusing realities.

I feel we have a responsibility here. A duty, even. We have a choice. We can continue to make geek kitsch for the niche audience of hardcore gamers. We can follow Nintendo and make simple games with pixels and code instead of cardboard and plastic. Or we can do something important, something meaningful, something that actually makes a difference.

Let’s end with a long picture:
Sources: VGChartz, Worldmapper, Wikipedia

38 thoughts on “A bad year for dreams”

  1. “Nintendo does not share this dream. They never have.”

    I’d take issue at the never have, at the very least. Not so much in terms of their in-house development but certainly in things they’ve published and championed, specifically the MOTHER series (the first thing that comes to mind when “emotionally affecting” and “video game” are put together in a paragraph; the NES original was the Final Fantasy VII of its day) and perhaps Electroplankton and the like more recently, in different way. There’s also something of the coupling-up of games and TV dramas or mystery novels in their consoles becoming the home for CING and Grasshopper Manufacture’s games (though the latter are not published by them). That said, there were parts of Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker in the Legend of Zelda series that I found extremely affecting and promising. But, as always in that franchise, I resented the lonely, abstract dungeons that one had to slog through to get to the next part.

    More than anything, though, I’m wary – not completely in objection to, given that the the absolute opposite isn’t particularly appealing either, but certainly wary – of how many “big” PlayStation and Xbox titles and CING’s games, from what I’ve played of them, look to film and written fiction – and particularly the more popular forms of feature films and novels, rather than poems for example – as the paradigm of what computer games should be like. It’s hopefully never going to go as far as the “interactive movies” of the ’90s (solve an abstract puzzle shoe-horned into the story to see the next part of it in glorious sub-TV resolution!); for all that one can complain about the industry it seems to have learnt its lesson from that. But now a significant part of it seems to be wandering around, knowing not to stray too far in that direction but unsure of where else to go, inhibited on all sides by experience of something that goes too far in any not selling enough.

  2. I believe the central difference between games and other media is narrative. It’s somewhat difficult for a movie (that isn’t made purely for entertainment), and pretty much impossible for a book to captivate an audience without a probing narrative that plays with the emotions and digs at the sublime. However, a game can thrive with virtually no story (as repeatedly proved by Nintendo) because games are seen as purely driven by entertainment. Story can play a roll, but only if it lends to the entertainment value of the product.

    So rarely are games used as a medium to tell a story, look at strange/obscure emotions, or create any insightful response from the player. This is what I would like to see more of; games that are driven by narrative, where you don’t play on simply for the next battle, achievement, or to become more powerful, but because you are genuinely intrigued and immersed in the world and its characters

    I am wondering if you have taken a look at Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (which, ironically, is a Wii game). It is one of the few recent games that follows this path. It’s less of a game and more of an interactive book-like experience. The sole point is exploration and discovery, not gameplay. The final climax moved me to tears. It’s a very different experience that really reminded me of TOT and your mission.

  3. While I think I understand what drove Michaël to write this text, I still see Microsoft (and the North-American mainstream videogame vending machine in general) as the party inflicting the most damage to the medium and to the industry – and, therefore, the strongest force preventing videogames from maturing beyond that which was already achieved in the last few decades. I can do very well with Super Mario Galaxy, Hotel Dusk and Wario Ware; it’s Gears of War, Halo and WarCraft I’ve got a problem with.

  4. I would agree that Super Mario etc are the superior accomplishments as games, but I can’t help but feel that some of the people who work on Gears of War have ambitions that lie outside of games. Mario is a perfect game. But I’m not interested in games. I’m interested in the places where Gears of War is imperfect. Mario is a success. And therefore nothing will grow out of it. It is the end result of decades, if not centuries, of game design. Gears of War feels like a failure, a failure to accomplish something different. And then I start imaging “what if they had succeeded”? Gears of War makes me dream. Mario gives me nightmares. Maybe I’m a sucker for ambition.

  5. @ Michaël

    Gears of War is a simple videogame, albeit the hi-tech bells and whistles. It is based on a gameplay system that provides rewards and punishments; even if their creators are attempting to import the language of cinema into the game using hollywood blockbuster dialogues and non-interactive cutscenes. If you undress it of all the heavy gear, hostile planet setting and Janusz Kaminski-like cinematography, Gears of War is a Mario game where you are given a weapon.

    And that which makes Gears of War an experience different from Mario is, in the end, something I’m sure I would never want to endorse myself. Those are the ambitions that I believe will destroy the medium and prevent it from maturing, as proposed by gun-loving hicks who have not quite made up their minds whether they want to design an expensive 3D version of Contra or to make their own digital sci-fi film where you can take cover and shoot aliens.

  6. I don’t think a medium will grow out of games. As mentioned in the post, I agree that Gears of War and Mario are essentially the same game. But, as opposed to you, I am interested in the socalled bells and whistles. I don’t believe the purpose of Gears of War was to glorify military violence. I think that’s a more or less accidental result of a) applying game logic to a story and b) the current limitations of the technology and the know-how. Cliffy B. once said something like he wanted people to be able to touch the virtual world, but that at the moment the easiest way to do that was through shooting at it. I would encourage video game designers to stop settling for this compromise and look further.

    Games are not what is interesting and new about computer games. It’s the computer that is interesting and new. It is thinkable for the game equivalent of Das Boot to grow out of Gears of War. It is unthinkable for Citizen Kane to grow out of Mario. Mario is the end of an evolution. Gears of War could be the start.
    (though I don’t have high hopes that it actually will be; at this point it’s more likely that the real evolution of the medium will happen outside of the blockbuster industry)

  7. I don’t think Sony & Microsoft are any more interested in expressive interactive experiences than Nintendo. All three are massive companies predominantly interested in profiting from cynical business strategies: Nintendo has targeted a market that prefers “simple graphics and sounds”, while Microsoft & Sony have made safe moves by developing systems that are little different from those of previous ‘generations’, save the greater technological specifications & multimedia capabilities.

    With the internet having widened the possible means of distribution, it is now possible for smaller developers to make downloadable games for XBox360, PS3 or Wii. Idealism & groundbreaking art can only come from the independent cultural producers, not the corporations that have facilitated new means of distribution – for their own benefit.

  8. I’m not justifying Sony and Microsoft’s methods. And I tend to agree that any ground breaking will probably happen in the independent scene first (even though there is virtually no proof for that: the so-called independent developers are often every bit as conservative as their industry colleagues).

    My point was not that Sony and Microsoft should be making art instead of games. My point was that they are stupid if they continue down the same path and that they are also stupid if they follow Nintendo’s lead. Stupid in terms of commercial success! There’s an enormous potential audience out there and none of of these supposedly super-commercial companies are doing anything to access it.

    A smart strategy might be for Sony or Microsoft to support ground breaking independent development as research that could then be applied to larger projects. But currently they only support independent games that they can make a quick buck on. Despite of their (former?) desire for videogames to become a medium, they continuously settle for videogames being just games.

  9. The Citizen Kane of games. That’s one cliché I’d forgotten about! 😉

    What I meant earlier with bells and whistles was the level of technological evolution: top quality 3D graphics, actors doing the voice work; online game; etc. Gears of War is one of the less original game experiences I’ve ever visited since it doesn’t even provide any substantial innovation regarding its own game genre.

    As for the use of bullets it does speak volumes about the mind of Cliffy B. He should do a little more research before assuming that the only way available to interact with virtual worlds is by shooting at objects – which is an utter lie. But what can you expect from the poster boy of the Doom generation? Those kids formed their own visions of the medium when they were high on adrenaline playing Quake and Duke Nukem.

    I’m rather curious as to what do you think Gears has that Mario doesn’t? Because it has a film-like narrative? The fact that it has different references? Or perhaps because its true video game nature is hidden under empty layers of something else; whereas Mario’s true nature as an archetypal video game is always visible? 😉

  10. I personally think many commercial games are already very similar to Citizen Kane. But that’s just because I don’t think very highly of that movie, I guess. I just used the cliché to make a point. And to illustrate that this is not about artistic success, but about commercial success.

    But, more to the point, indeed, is your question about what Gears of Wars does that Mario does not. As all good questions, it doesn’t have a simple answer. But it’s a good thing to think about.

    I must admit that I have played many more minutes of Mario than of Gears of War. So my actual experience is limited. Which makes me representative of all those non-console owning households. :)

    I find Gears of War much more interesting aesthetically than any Mario game. I also like the campy over-the-top characters (which appeal to my latent homosexual side 😉 ). But the major thing that I find appealing is that Gears of War puts an entire world in front of you, a world that you could go and live in for a while.

    Enjoying these elements, however, is where the trouble starts. Mainly because the game always gets in the way! You can’t properly look at the effects, because someone is shooting at you, you can’t have fun with the characters because they only get to express themselves in non-interactive scenes and you can’t explore the world because most of it is inaccessible and the rest is blocked off by puzzles or other obstacles.

    I guess what it boils down to is that I like the smoke and mirrors that Gears of Wars plays with. The “true nature” that Mario displays is fine when you want to play a game. But I seldom do. I wish they could rip the game out of Gears of War and just let us play with what remains.

  11. If you substitute “video games” with “telepresence,” this conversation makes much more sense to me. I remember reading Eduardo Kac’s essays on art & telepresence in school many years ago, and thinking that video games would provide the bridge to meaningful virtual spaces for gallery participants Some of those writings are twenty years old now, but his ideas of telematic places have been realized to an extent: look at the success of World of Warcraft. The rewards system in that game contributes greatly to it’s popularity, but it is a massive place where people go just to explore (be it socially, through quests, or in a literal sense of travel). Purpose of discovery is one of those primal driving factors in humans. I think it carries over to other trends as well: every time a friend gets a Wii, I see them spending most of their time in the Mii Channel. “Oh, that nose! It looks just like you!” They are thrilled to make an avatar, even if it’s use is limited. They are looking for a foreign space to occupy.

  12. I’m glad you give the example of the Mii. Because it is indeed about much more than simply exploring virtual spaces. It’s about interacting with a computer and a computer interacting with you. Games are too rigid and narrow to explore all of the potential for interaction that the computer offers.

    I believe it is such interactive experiences that can give us the medium that our society needs so badly. Literature, painting, photography and cinema have become inadequate to communicate about our complex lives. We need a medium that is less rigid and more playful. That allows for exploration on many different levels.

    The technology that videogames use has the potential to become this medium. But we have to let go of the game format. That too is inadequate.

  13. If the medium wants to expand and be accepted as an art form, it needs to expand in all directions, not just in the direction of art. Nintendo has succeeded in expanding games as entertainment and made it mainstream and globally accepted. You don’t have to be a nerd to play games today.

    That expansion is necessary, although not a direct expansion in the direction of art.

  14. Chainsawkitten, I beg to differ. Everybody was already playing games long before the Wii and the DS. Long before the computer, even! All Nintendo did was make it acceptable for the mainstream to play games on a computer-based console. It is ironic that nobody had succeeded in doing this before. But the reason for this was probably the other manufacturers’ insistence that videogames were nerdy.

    This post has nothing to do with the medium being accepted as an art form. It’s about creating a new medium for a new century. Videogames could become for the 21st century what cinema has been for the 20th. Part if the content of this medium is high art but certainly not all of it.

    I completely agree that the medium needs to be expanded in many directions. That is the only way for it to become mainstream. There is no single mass audience. The success of cinema and pop music has shown that diversity is key.

  15. Generally I agree with you. On a lot. But this time I am going to have to disagree. I’ll maybe grant you that Sony has more “artistic” games than Nintendo, but Microsoft? No way. Games like Halo, Gears of War, Call of Duty…I don’t quite see them as being made to tell a story. A see them as being made so that we can shoot lots of things without getting in trouble. I’m probably biased, since I have had little ( though I have had some) experience with those games, and FPS is generally not my thing. But honestly, I’m not sure how you can say something like Legend of Zelda has no value besides entertainment. There were times when playing Twilight Princess, just roaming the countryside, I’d be completely at peace. I don’t get that in a lot of games. Legend of Zelda has always been part story and part game; that’s why I really love it.

    You say that Mario has reached the end of its evolution. That what it is now is what it’s always going to be. I disagree. You don’t know that, you can’t know that. Mario, despite what one might think, has had adventures that have depth to them. They are not numerous, but they exist. I will say Paper Mario: Thousand Year Door is an example of that. There was a story there, and it was story that I enjoyed and really got into.

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding you, and I don’t get what you’re quite talking about. I don’t know.

  16. While I agree with most of the post, there is a very important point in which, I think, we completely disagree. You criticize gaming as being nerdy: the action figure chess analogy is bloody great. But what is it you are suggesting? Reading the name Microsoft made me think of project Natal (I’m not sure if that’s what you were thinking about), and made me remember some things you had wrote about immersive 3D environments, and suddenly it all fell into place.

    As you said, gaming in nerdy. But it is less nerdy than immersive 3D environments. You talk about mature literature and cinema but, when a film or book aims for complete immersion, you can be pretty sure it’s anything but mature. Immersion is not suspension of disbelief, is not identification: is an attempt to obliterate the real world while you are inside the fictional one.

    And realtime 3D has the potential to be more immersive than anything else. In that context, gaming actually works as a distancing device: it looks like the real world, but I’m playing a set of artificial rules. So, paradoxically, gaming would have an artistic justification.

    And complete immersion, “being a part of your lifestyle”, is precisely what Microsoft intends with project Natal. Just look at that Milo boy that Peter Molyneux is working on. It has the potential to be the most disgusting thing ever to come out of a computer.

    I’m not sure if I’m really connecting with your line of thought, but I hope you find it interesting. Happy new year everyone!

  17. I guess I understand what Michaël is trying to say and agree with it to some extent. The best possible Mario game could never represent that which he expects from this medium. Mario is the pinnacle of a specific (and very widely accepted) game design philosophy.

    For instance: when I played SM Galaxy I was drawn to a game that warmed my heart; still I had no doubt in my mind that its greatest quality was the fact it evoked memories of past Mario experiences. It’s brilliant, no doubt, but it’s not the road I wish to travel on right now. Not just because it’s a game but because it offers me nothing but a renewed sight of something I’ve visited many times throughout my life.

    The same could apply to Zelda. I can’t say I’m very satisfied with the way Nintendo opted to handle the series this last decade, especially after showing how it could mutate into something different with Majora’s Mask and Windwaker episodes.

    While I stand by my original claim that I don’t see Nintendo products as harmful to this industry, I’m very disappointed with their lack of audacity of late. Which is why Nintendo lovers always end up preaching the same old passages: Super Metroid, Zelda 64, Fire Emblem, Mother, Mario Bros. 3, Advance Wars and so forth. I can’t remember the last time Nintendo studios produced an original and truly emblematic title.

  18. Early cinema sounded and (to a certain extent dramatically) even looked like the novels of the day. No surprise that those early movies were cinematic versions of existing books, like our current video games (and not just the tie-ins) are based on cinematic concepts of storytelling. It hasn’t happened yet, but video games will eventually define their own genre independent of any other medium today and that independence is what will make it unique. The freedom to make your own story is what video games offer that movies and books cannot.

  19. My point was not that Nintendo is harmful. My point is that Sony and Microsoft are weak. And if they follow Nintendo (e.g. by adding motion sensing systems to their hardware), they will fail. In terms of commercial success because the market for games has been saturated (as opposed to the market for meaning). And in terms of creative/social success because they will have given up on the dream they once had. A dream that I share -to some extent.

    I have no doubt that somebody else will realize this dream some day. But it might take centuries if capitalism continues and a major company does not support it. Providing of course that the world (or its power sources) last that long. Which seems unlikely.

  20. @ Enigma : I didn’t mean to say that Mario reached the end of its own evolution. I meant that Mario was the end, the pinnacle, of centuries of game design. It is the perfect game.
    As a result, there’s not much point in making games anymore.

  21. @ DavidM : Obviously immersiveness for the sake of immersiveness is shallow. Immersion should be a means, not an end. I find Velasquez’ Meniñas or Beethoven’s Mondschein Sonata incredibly immersive. That doesn’t make them bad works of art! Ditto for videogames: we need to use the enormous immersive potential that they are capable of to our advantage.

    That being said, this post being about commercial success, the shallow application of videogames’ immersive potential definitely has its place as well. And I’m looking forward to experiencing virtual world without the obstacles and annoyances that they put in these days for the sake of gameplay. I want the interaction to support the immersion, not to break it. I’m jaleous of people who enjoy FPS games because I think, if you’re good at them and you don’t object to playing a soldier, they are very immersive experiences. But I believe that videogame technology offers the potential to create such immersive experiences around all sorts of themes and topics. In many different directions.

    Hero/shooter narratives are very compatible with game structures. To address other types of content, we need to leave behind those game structures and explore the interactive potential of computers.

  22. I agree with Anomalous that we should be patient. While we all sense that videogames have a much greater potential than cinema, and we should try and develop their unique qualities, it is good to look at other art forms for inspiration.

    Cinema has its technological base and widespread distribution in common with games. So it’s normal that we borrow from it. But as interactivity becomes more and more commonplace, I think we’re starting to realizing how little videogames, as a creative format, have in common with cinema. And, indeed, much like cinema grew away from theater, so will games grow away from cinema.

    I just wish we would all work a bit harder to make this happen a bit faster!…
    (so much for my patience… 😉 )

  23. I would nuance the point made about the majority of our games being for fun play or the geeks only. There is a real barrier of entry for non-gamer (using a pad or mouse/keybord, learning game mechanics) but more and more games are about interesting and diverse subject matters even if you are not into science-fiction / fantasy / war / driving (which will make you miss the stories told by Bioware and countless others).

    For example, previous games like Civilization (building one), Ico (escaping a buccolic castle alone with another prisoner), Mirror’s edge (running through a cleansed city), Beyond good or evil (being a journalist in charge of an orphanage uncovering a conspiracy), Flower (being the wind) or yet to come like Alan Wake (being a author in a isolated and strange village) and Heavy rain (several personal drama entangled in a detective story).

  24. The way that you clarified the semantics of your argument is interesting: “Despite of their (former?) desire for videogames to become a medium, they continuously settle for videogames being just games.” I think that the term ‘videogames’ presents a semantic problem, in that it has come to encompass something more than the scope of ‘mere’ games (like the problem some people have with so-called ‘comic books’, which are frequently not comic – hence the move by many towards the term ‘graphic novels’ for book-length works). I was arguing with a friend about the new “Director’s Cut” of the first Broken Sword game, in which the few instances where it was possible to arrive at a ‘Game Over’ screen have been omitted; his argument was that games are not games if there is no potential to fail/lose. My argument was that Broken Sword is not a videogame. He thought this was a failure of marketing, and asked for an alternative: my response was the common term for a work of that genre, ‘graphic adventure’. What do we call interactive cultural artifacts, that are similar in many ways to videogames, and often with a great narrativity?

    I also find interactive worlds (the ‘narrative architecture’, perhaps) of videogames often more interesting than the simple games they frame. (“Gears of War puts an entire world in front of you, a world that you could go and live in for a while… [but] the game always gets in the way!“) The size and comprehensive detail of the worlds in the Grand Theft Auto games make them potentially beguiling experiences, but the fact that the gamer’s opportunities to interact with the world are limited to nihilistic gun-play is depressing. One of my favourite games of all time, Shenmue (and its sequel), is beautiful because one can engage with the game-world with great freedom whilst leaving off the narrative progression for a while. There is an organic rhythm to the synthetic reproduction of passing time, and there is not merely an exquisitely rendered environment but a sense of cultural history and community. It is the sort of interactive experience that is given enough space from the inevitable game-aspects to be freely engaged with.

    I don’t agree that pre-existing media “have become inadequate to communicate about our complex lives“, because their austerity (in comparison to videogames) is a valuable counterpoint to our fragmented identities. However, I do agree that we still crave “a medium that is less rigid and more playful“, as it is the closest analogue to our current notions of existence that we have in all the reproducible media – and also, anything that expands our means of communication is vital.

  25. Good point. Older media like cinema and painting have matured so much that they are indeed often still capable of dealing with contemporary issues in a more meaningful way than an immature medium with a more suitable technology can. But recent popular artistic films like Synecdoche, New York and Memento and The Tulse Luper Suitcases and Inland Empire, painfully demonstrate the limitations of cinema when it comes to commenting on the complexity and fragmentation of contemporary society. They can’t seem to stop cinema from becoming part of the problem rather than a path to a solution. A problem we can only deal adequately with through an interactive, generative and non-linear medium like videogames, however awkward the name might be.

  26. This is a great post. Wish I’d been able to see it sooner! As it is, my thoughts below are a bit scattered, but I tried to glue them together as best I could. Posting something here automatically implies a higher standard.

    I feel that the way out (or the way into games growing into a new medium) is an abandonment of any preconceptions we might have as to what games are, or what they should be. Rather than adhering to sets of rules we’ve acquired over the past few decades or creating in order to reach some abstract ideal of what games should/could/would be, I want artists who have something to express to look at the technology we have and think, “This is interesting. What could I do with this?”

    All kinds of things could stem from that. Some would create open environments to interact with. Some would create strong narratives driven forward by only slight interaction. Some would make games, and tack a story onto that. A lot of things are possible, and we’ll know we’ve gotten there when we no longer debate the possibilities or potentials of games. I think there’s room for everyone’s vision in this medium, but at the moment our cultural framework is skewed toward certain kinds of games and the expectations that follow from that. Not simply bucking, but ignoring, convention is good, right now.

    I mostly agree about the folly of Sony and Microsoft, and the reasons for Nintendo’s success, and while I agree with dieubussy that the content of Gears of War etc. are toxic to growth, and the games themselves offer more a perversion of story in service of typical game mechanics than a glimmer of hope to me, I can understand why you’d see potential there, Michael. I once felt the same way about older Japanese RPGs–they had stories! Characters with names and personalities! Things to say! Seeing that still mostly unrealized potential is largely what keeps me interested in games now, and I feel that it’s often the pressure to conform to a traditional game-like structure that breaks a hopeful project.

    There’s a lot that could be done with games; anything we can do with other mediums, and perhaps a little more. I don’t have much hope that we’ll do a whole lot with that, but the possibilities are tantalizing and there are enough interesting little things here and there to hold my attention. But video games are fragile–dependent on technologies that often become obsolete quickly, and on infrastructures that won’t be there forever. They may just be a blip on the radar, as far as wider history is concerned, which makes me feel both an urgency in helping them mature as soon as possible and a relief that we can just play around with these things, if we want to.

    Of course, I think the big question raised by this post is, How do we facilitate that kind of artistic growth within capitalism? As Graph #2 alludes, there’s huge, wholly untapped potential for games even purely in financial terms. Does it remain untapped because games are too abstract for a wider audience? Would that gap be bridged if games had more meaningful things to say and valuable experiences to offer?

    It’s a brain snack, anyway.

  27. I don’t really believe that Sony or Microsoft will do the sensible thing. I think they will stick to their guns and continue to make “gamez 4 gamerz”. Since they own the distribution channels, this means that it will continue to be extremely difficult to find funding for the production of meaningful interactive entertainment. And at this point, that funding is quite necessary because, basically, the technology is primitive and inaccessible. A problem that can only be solved by throwing buckets of money at it.

    This medium will only really take off when it becomes more accessible to creative people. That means more powerful and cheaper. It is true that the games industry, even in its current state, still contributes to the evolution of the technology. The hardware continue to get faster, the software continues to get smarter and even the interfaces are improving. But we’re still a long ways off from artists having a real choice between a canvas or a game as their medium.

    We could just wait. Wait for the technology to evolve. But the risk is of course that it evolves wrong if the idea of making something other than games with it is completely forgotten. And that games work themselves into a comic strip like ghetto from which they can never escape, no matter how hard we try to call them “graphic novels”.

    So the only real solution, as far as I can see, is to think small. To get things done for low budgets. And develop business strategies that don’t rely on high sales figures. Ironically, such semi-underground activity is a far cry from the enormous commercial potential of the medium. But what can we do if huge capitalist corporations don’t want to make more money anymore?

  28. Reading this made me a little sad and silent inside:

    Now I’m no gamer but I do have a high appreciation for the graphics and artistic work that goes into creating these worlds in which one move characters around in.

    I did have a go at playing Blueberry Garden by Erik Svedäng of Sweden and loving the graphics did not help me at all in playing the computer game, having it shown on a large screen did very little for my ego too.

    (bolds by me)

    An illustration of the opportunities wasted by the games industry. Tip of an iceberg…

  29. @Michaël’s last post: Once my mother saw me playing Fable. She took the controller and tried to explore the world. She got bored very quick because there was no interaction she would be interested in. But those obervations and your quote indicate that the audience for your vision of interactive experiences is similiar to Nintendo’s “new” audience. I always thought it was strange that indie developers target their meaningfull experiences at experienced gamers, at nerds. Those products should be targeted at people who do not have much experience with videogames.

    Reading your blog post and comments I instantly had to think of Endless Ocean, a game(?) from Nintendo. So maybe you are a little bit harsh? 😉

    Another great game that goes into this direction is EA’s Skate. While it can be played as a traditional game it has also a strong emphasis on just interacting with the environment and free-roaming. The most fun aspect is to discover the city and where to make sepctacular tricks. There is a whole online community with people that shoot, edit and exchange skating videos that are based on the game.

  30. Of course I’m harsh. But still, Endless Ocean is an exception. There’s no other game like it on the Wii.
    And it’s not that great.

    “I always thought it was strange that indie developers target their meaningfull experiences at experienced gamers, at nerds. Those products should be targeted at people who do not have much experience with videogames.”

    Well, indie developers are probably the nerdiest of them all! :) But there’s also a practical problem: it’s fairly easy to reach a decent sized audience within the gamer niche. It’s very hard (read: expensive) to find an audience outside of it. Ironically, only very conservative companies like Nintendo and Electronic Arts can afford to reach outside the niche.

  31. One thing I was very surprised by was that there is not mention of PC games vs console games. Console games and the developers who focus on them have done some degree of harm to the PC game industry in terms of actual game concept and content. The PC gaming landscape of the past few years has been plagued by ‘ports’ of console games to the PC platform. Finally it seems that developers are learning from this and delaying (by several weeks or more) the release of the PC version. This gives them time to make a more earnest attempt to adapt a title to the more capable, more flexible platform. Yet that does little to correct the concepts themselves which have had to scale back to fit the consoles’ limitations and to better suit the interests of a more ‘mainstream’ gaming community.

    I can understand the frustration when you look at where things are going, but I don’t really see a conflict except to the extent that the console gaming industry does have a generally negative impact on the PC game industry (they are deeply linked).

    PC games traditionally deal in relative sophistication, both in concept and execution: simulation, Strategy (RTS), vivid role-playing games, community mods, and so on. Right alongside the most recent releases, I still play PC games which are five or six years old simply because they have matured so well since their developers ended support. There is so much passion in the PC community that they can’t help but put staggering amounts of their own time and effort into creating mods which are free for others to download and use. I have purchased games long after release simply because of the mods which exist for those titles. This is unique to PC gaming.

    The control scheme, hardware, and attitudes of PC gaming in my estimation make it the most ripe for independent developers. I have always been one to appreciate the many levels and definitions of art present in PC games, and far more for the *potential* for art within the medium. There is so much possibility and I think the most likely audience to appreciate burgeoning creativity is the PC audience.

  32. I love the PC (and Mac) as a platform. If only because it’s the only high end platform that many non-gamers own. As such, it’s the only platform that can give us access to the enormous group of non-gamers. I’d even call for a sort of emancipation of PC-based entertainment.

    But at the moment, in raw sales figures (as far as these are known), PC sales are negligible (with the exception perhaps of MMOs and FPSs).

  33. “PC sales are negligible”

    Yes, I certainly realize it’s a niche within a niche. I wish there was some way to increase the volume of sales based on the merits within the PC niche rather than dilute the PC niche with more “sellable” products (which is what’s happening due to the success of the console platform). It’s hard to convince more of the population that being an even bigger nerd is desirable.

    I think art overall has to contend with something similar, though there are exceptions. So I guess you need to find the exception if volume is the goal, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you do based on your work so far. Perhaps it will fall into your lap at some point, so to speak, whether from internal epiphanies, natural evolution of your efforts, or externally from evolution of the market itself. You’re in a position to act or respond accordingly (well, assuming you have resources to keep moving forward). I hope so.

    More and more there is support for educational games, but also there are more and more studies heralding the benefits of computer games in general. So that will make things easier as time goes on, but it also means the market will flood as the market becomes more viable (just look at the amount of money big developers are spending now compared to ten years ago…and compare both of those figures to movies now and then). It’s hard to know in the long run whether this will make more room for independent developers or stifle them. I think in terms of percentages it will stifle, but in terms of actual volume it will help.

  34. I hope the technology will get cheaper, more powerful and, above all, easier to use. If and when that happens, truly creative people will finally be able to use the medium for expression through the medium (and not just as a tool to support expression in other media). If such a thing ever happens, it’s likely that it will happen on the PC first.

  35. Here’s one (not entirely serious) thought: isn’t this a bit like a Star Wars against Star Trek discussion? You might notice that latter gets away much better than the former. 😉

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