Going Off the Deep End: Has Gaming Grown Up?

We talk about innovation in a number of ways in the game industry, some of which are very far off in the grand scheme of things: erudite discussions of game play, biomechanics, tailoring an experience to each individual. We have the less esoteric, more realistic discussions of what can be done with games now, and that sort of 'innovation,' I think, is really more a discussion of games 'growing up' and heading into more mature territory. Perhaps some of these debates are being cast in the wrong terms, or at least, there are multiple avenues of discussion to be explored.

What defines 'maturity'? I think the entertainment industry is somewhat hampered by defining works that include sex or violence or rough language as having 'mature themes': clearly there is an age component ('Should 10 year olds be watching this stuff?'), but it's overly simplistic at best. In my media collections, I have works I consider thematically "mature" in the ratings game sort of way, and the works that are mature in a different way. The ones that play with preconceived notions of the way things are or should be; the ones that deconstruct the traditional, reconstitute it as something new; most importantly, the ones that can be read on a number of levels.

The wonderful thing about the last bit is it tends to be sophisticated and subtle; if you'd like to ignore the historical context, or the barbed, oblique criticism of something it won't lessen your enjoyment of the work on other levels. The first time I read A Dictionary of Maqiao, one of the few novels on the plight of sent down youth during the Cultural Revolution I have managed to stomach, much less enjoy, I realised at the end the author was effectively attacking a century of literary criticism in China. The next time I read it, I came in with a fresh perspective and a whole new take on little bits and pieces of the novel. Heavy stuff, but the average person without any grounding in academic works on the subject could read and enjoy the book.

We sometimes toss games off the "deep" deep end: the trumped up moral dilemma of Bioshock and the ensuing months (and months and months) of discussion, added to excitement over Ayn Rand and Objectivism, was - in the end - overblown, and we quietly put it to bed. Leigh Alexander said something to the effect that we get so excited when a game seems to be trying that we go overboard. Sometimes designers toss their games off the deep end: much as I love Xenosaga, barring the atrocious second installment, by the third game I was left going 'Oh, come on' when yet another heavy-handed Biblical reference popped up. Sure, I was left wondering if Nietzsche's introduction and reception in late 19th century Japan was similar to the one in China, but was that really the point? Yes, there were some good strands of classic themes — questioning belief systems, organized religion, technology — but it got lost amongst Issachar this and Wagner that. Someone on the team clearly knew their Isrealites and classic Germanic operas, at least superficially (shame they weren't a Strauss fan, we could've had a ship called 'the Fledermaus'), but to what end?

The question is: do they need to try so hard? Certainly, the subtle layers and multiple readings I favour in my 'mature' media don't just happen. On the other hand, one of the things that distinguishes most of those works for me is what pleasurable experiences they can be for a range of people. I generally pride myself on having a more or less accessible collection of 'serious media,' and I wish I could put more games in that category. You can have your cake and eat it, too. Why do we find it so hard to strike that perfect balance in games? I'm not suggesting that there aren't games that don't offer rich themes and subtle nuance, but the trend seems to be swinging towards over the top and in your face.

I spent a few weeks padding my way through Jonathan Blow's Braid - it's clever, it's interesting, it's different. On a purely superficial level, the game is a return to simpler times: the plot resembles a fairytale (complete with be-braided princess, though I don't recall storybook heroes wearing suits and ties), the graphics have this lovely dreamlike quality that I associate with high-quality children's books, the game play is something that we're all familiar with (on the surface, that is) - the classic platformer.

Still, after a few hours with the game, my mind was already shuffling off into philosophical territory, seeing parallels with readings I've done on the nature of time and the complication of memory. And I can't say I ever thought I'd come across a game that made me go 'Gee, I wonder what Michel Serres would have to say about all of this'; while being in a much more easily digested package, Braid asks us to rethink time in games and time and memory more general, at least a little. It tweaks game mechanics a bit, rewrites some rules of the platformer genre, and in the process, achieves much more than might have seemed possible from a casual glance at it.

For a storybook setting, it's pretty damn grown up in some respects. I suspect many will write off Braid as nothing more than a rehash of classic platformers, dismiss the ending as a trite twist, criticize it for not being as 'revolutionary' as it probably should be, given the press it's gotten. I tend to think the most influential of works don't set out to be so: they become influential over time. Set out to overturn the cart and create something trailblazing and new, and 95% of the time you're going to fall short of the goal. Still, for a short little game, it can be enjoyed on several levels. It's trying hard, maybe too hard in some cases, and it deserves credit for that; it also deserves credit for functioning on several levels.

I really don't think it would take much to push a little harder and make more games that function on deeper levels that don't overwhelm players with their 'deepness.' I so wanted to love Eternal Sonata, and I wound up being very disappointed because I saw lost opportunities left and right. It would have been possible, I think, to weave aspects of Chopin's life into the main story without resorting to inserting "educational" snips that were reminiscent of low-budget elementary school videos. There were glimmers of what could have been every so often in the game, and that made me all the more unhappy the designers didn't push just a little further.
One of my academic areas of interest is the film scene in Republican China; we have article after article and book after book that dissect films for their political and social significance. My current research is on Hollywood film advertising in 1930s China, and by default I've been exposed to advertising campaigns for domestic films, the ones that scholars have read, re-read, and dissected for their 'deep meaning.' What many of these deep readings ignore is the sheer economic realities of the film industry: directors may have wanted to 'say something' or urge people to action, but companies wanted to make money. It is the benefit of hindsight that allows us to carefully examine and critique these films on an academic level while ignoring the economic realities of the film industry.

What in the hell does Republican era Chinese film advertising have to do with games? Well, when it comes down to it, the film industry (like the game industry) is concerned about making money at the top levels — the goal is not to change society, but to bring in the money. Even films that are seen today as being deep and insightful were sold on the principles of colour, sound, and excitement (violence, mystery, sex or whatever), or simply having a big name attached to the project. Sound familiar? People like Blow rail against the current structure of the industry (not without basis) and the focus on cash, but other industries have somehow managed to produce works that stand the test of time as great works while working within the constraints of having to make money — often while working under conditions that simply aren't an issue in the gaming industry (or modern film industry, for that matter).
The excuse that the game industry is 'young' doesn't cut it — people always point to the film industry, as if it was a wasteland of vapid entertainment and no thoughtful criticism prior to the 1940s, which is demonstrably false. The earliest extant Chinese film is a 1922 comedy à la Charlie Chaplin called Romance of the Fruit Peddler, and even 19 year old undergraduates in the year 2008 are entertained by it. On the flip side, it does — and did — say something about the unpleasant realities of Shanghai society in the '20s (all this in 20 minutes, with no colour, sound, or cameras that could zoom or even move without being physically hefted. Amazing!). Likewise, Chaplin's iconic character of 'The Tramp' made his first appearance twenty years after the first-ever public screening of a film and was entertaining while offering a reasonably serious social critique (and Chaplin was a serious commercial success). Criticism and thoughtful debate were likewise going on much earlier than we care to admit. If people want to use the film industry timeline as an excuse for why we're not further along, then they better start explaining why the money-quality-depth conundrum was not insurmountable for film makers in the teens, '20s, and '30s (even in locales that were lagging behind Hollywood and Europe from a technological and economic perspective!) — yet is cause for much wailing and gnashing of teeth among gaming circles.
What makes money? What's the guaranteed cash cow? It's the Final Fantasys, the Halos, the 'great stories' of gaming. Really, I'm A-OK with tradition. I think it's pretty cool that the Shuihu zhuan continues to be reinvented, and that includes forms like the Suikoden series; you can't get much more 'traditional' than one of the Four Great Classical Novels. I don't think a renovation of games (or at least some of them) needs to take some radical form; I'm not even convinced a radical form is the best way to making inroads to really changing things. I like our "great stories," the great classic games. There's something to be said for the comfortable, the familiar, the tried and true. There's a reason I go back to my favourite books, my favourite movies, my favourite games. I go back because something about them made me love them, and switching on a console or cracking open a book takes me back to a familiar, much loved space. Making classics - making them well - is nothing to be dismissed, nor is going out on a limb and trying something new, no matter how minor it seems. One of my favourite descriptions (from The God of Small Things) of those 'great stories' applies as well to my favourite games as it does to my favourite books (not surprising, perhaps, given that the great stories tend to pop up in all media):

The Great Stories are the ones that you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don't deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don't surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover's skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don't. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won't. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn't. And yet you want to know again. 
That is their mystery and their magic.

I don't think we're ever in danger of losing the "great games" and their ilk, if for no other reason than they are generally successful and profitable. Square has made a very profitable business, and an excellent reputation, out of precisely that kind of conservative, evolutionary design that produces great games. There's plenty of crap out there that turns into a popular success, but there are plenty of games that have much to recommend them that also have commercial success. I think those great games - the familiar and well loved - are the best places to play with tradition, but the most dangerous places to start: you risk alienating a core audience. Braid is successful in many ways because it starts off on immediately recognisable and understandable territory, but I think it will wind up suffering for that, too.

The fact we have "great stories" — great games, great genres, great tropes — is what makes me think it wouldn't take much to bump stories up a notch. We already have a kind of Maqiao equivalent in games — just as Han Shaogong makes a 'tip of the hat' to those in the know and offers a little something extra for readers who have the background, plenty of games tip their hat to fans of particular games or genres (I can't count the number of times some insignificant detail of a game resonates strongly with memories of other games played, usually leading to a good bit of delight on my part). And usually, that tipping of the hat is subtle enough that players who don't understand the reference won't be hampered by lack of background or interest. I'm not a gigantic Final Fantasy VII fan, but I was really delighted with Crisis Core: stepping back into a familiar world, with familiar characters, and seeing a different take on familiar situations was a pleasant experience. The whole game is an ode to things that came before, but — while I doubt many people who have picked up Crisis Core are totally clueless to FFVII — it was eminently accessible. Would the uninitiated miss a lot of the little moments? Of course. Could they play the game and enjoy it? I think so.

Is it really a huge leap from that sort of careful crafting and structuring to pushing beyond the borders of games to offer a little something extra for those who want it — without detracting from the enjoyment of people who simply want plain old entertainment?

I hope some games never change - I'd hate to see the death of my favourite game mechanics or play styles or even plot points. But I'd also like to see more richness without the pretensions: we shouldn't have to desperately cling to any bit of hope in a game and trump it up. I'm sure the pendulum will sort itself out eventually and we'll find a happy medium between pure entertainment and the overbearing Xenosagas of the world. A game doesn't have to be full of belabored Gnostic or Objectivist overtones to be 'smart' or 'deep,' and aiming for 'smart' or 'deep' doesn't have to mean an end product that isn't any fun. Throwing games off the deep end does us — and them — a disservice, but so does ignoring the subtle potential for just a little bit more.

"Spring breeze in Yangliu" (1975), from Stefan Landsberger's Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages; Eugène Delacroix, George Sand (1838); Redskin ad, Xinwen bao (27 Sept. 1929); Laogong zhi aiqing (1922)


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