I can’t quite figure out why I continue to comment on Kotaku. I hold pretty much every other commenter there in the highest contempt for their petty squabbles, incessant complaint, and furious nitpicking. And I make no attempt to hide my contempt. And for it I’ve been starred twice, destarred twice, and banned twice. (if you’re wondering, it’s a newish merit system to comments, people who are otherwise completely undeserving can be given a star and the ability to have their comments appear by default on posts, being the representatives of what is supposedly the most “mature” of the group and making Kotaku look good)
I go there for news and to read articles by what is essentially my favorite author, Tim Rogers. I can’t help myself sometimes, I just scroll on past the news and legitimate journalizing to descend into the morass of morons who misread, misunderstood, or misinterpreted the above article, moving me to my misanthropy.
Everyone complains about the same damn thing over and over again. It makes me unbelievably annoyed. Gaming is my hobby, supposedly. I haven’t played a video game in about two weeks, though. I don’t… I’m not all that into it right now. Despite that, it’s still my hobby and I follow news about it. I’ve been doing so for some godawful number of years now. More than ten. It is funny, because I was at a wedding the other day and I got to say “yeah, I haven’t been to a wedding in fifteen years.” It’s kind of neat to be able to say stuff like that. “Yeah, I’ve been gaming off and on for about 16 years now.” To me, and probably a fairly large amount of my generation, that’s about as mundane as saying “yes, I’ve been breathing air for about 20 years.” The thing is, I go to these websites and read these comments and it’s like I’m living five years ago. “Games are too expensive.” “I can’t wait for half-life 3/kingdom hearts 3/the next Zelda.” “The new sonic is going to suck, just as every sonic since a varying marker from sonic 2 to sonic adventure 2.” “Videogame companies are evil because they stifle the awesome creativity of the artists that make games.” “The wii/gamecube/n64 is for babies, real men play the xbox/ps2/360/ps3.”
It’s just the weirdest feeling, one that is almost sort of comforting. It’s like being stuck in a time warp. I don’t know how it’s particularly relevant to the people playing it, but having games like Pokemon fire red or heart gold just feels awkward and confusing, because the original games only came out about 10-15 years ago. The push for remakes just feels strange. The original King Kong came out in 1933. The remake was released in 2005. That’s 72 years of prime vintage time right there. King Kong had more than enough time to be established as a classic and well respected by several generations. The remake was regarded pretty widely as “not bad.” The original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film was released in 1971. The remake was also released in 2005. That’s 34 years, just enough time for it to become relevant to a new generation of youngsters. Reviews are mixed. I liked it stylistically over the first one, it felt more coherent, but the first one seemed more fun and memorable. They’re very different films, despite the basic premise being the same.
Remaking videogames, however, is a much more immediate trend largely fueled by the clamoring of nostalgia driven fans that played the originals and want to see a fancier new version. Ostensibly because it would be cool, but purposefully to attempt to re-create the emotions and ambiance of playing the original. Nostalgia is a powerful tool, used to sell many things. Commercials attempting to invoke a quieter, simpler time are rife on television. It’s the very basis of a major political party’s appeal. So it’s not entirely surprising to see it being used to sell entertainment products. I just find it strange that the range of nostalgia in the gaming community appears to be somewhere in the ballpark of 10 years. That seems remarkably short, given that Reaganites have been begging for a return to a time now almost thirty years ago.
Perhaps nostalgia is not limited by the amount of time passed. Perhaps it can be as simple as a few years down the road, after the person experiencing it is in a place from which they can’t return. Even so, what is nostalgia when the products of it can be experienced anew in its original form? If you miss the original Mario game, just go and purchase one of the many times it’s been re-released in its entirety. Heck, given its age and technical simplicity, you can easily pirate a copy and run it on nearly any technological device available these days with a screen and some sort of input. All it takes is a little time and a willingness to break shaky copyright laws.
But the originals won’t do it. The players don’t feel that same sense of discovery or wonderment. Playing the game on these new devices, they may see the rough edges, or the poor design choices thanks to limited contemporary technology. It just won’t be the same. And so it goes with all nostalgia. Nothing is as interesting as it is when you experience it for the first time. The neural pathways are already created, and plodding through them again becomes mind-numbing chore, instead of delight. So remakes are suggested. Why not create something that is true to the original, but with all the new nuance and flashy technology available today. Thus we can re-experience it and feel some appreciation of a new side to an old game. That’s the concept, anyway. How well it works is up to the player. However, if the 3DS is any indication, we’re going to see quite a few remakes being re-made. Everything will be bigger, better, and flashier. We’re going to be sold the same games we already played, again. Again again, actually, given that the originals are already on the “virtual console,” essentially an in-house version of the emulation technology available on the internet for years, only not nearly as legally shaky because money is passing hands.
A cynical person would point out that a large component of the idea of remaking things is that a game can be produced without much of the effort necessary to conceptualize a new story or system of play, thus being far less expensive than creating new content, but that’s a sort of cynicism that has also been wielded as complaint for some ridiculous amount of time. “Sequel-itis” they call it. “Why hasn’t Nintendo produced any new franchises in so long?” “Who even cares about another God of War/Gears of War/Dawn of War?” and so on. All the same, new stuff comes out and the games industry is largely the same as it’s always been. There are some sure winners, some franchises that rock, lots and lots of crap all over the place all the time, and the occasional weird quirky critical favorite that no one buys. It’s a lot like films these days. Or even books. Or music. They’re incredibly similar in approach, actually. I can’t say that many books have been remade (though a lot have been abridged or edited or made into synopses of their original stories using contemporary language) but songs are covered all the time and movies get remade every so often. It’s probably in a larger sense a result of the commercialization of story-telling, rather than any medium-based trend. But don’t tell that to the fans. Oh no, video games are a higher order of entertainment.
The intense hubris of the video gaming community astonishes me every single time that I am confronted by it. Those heavily invested in games truly do believe their hobby, their passion, to be superior to all others. I suppose this should come as no surprise. I’ve known plenty people who will talk at great length about how print is a vastly superior medium to all others. I’ve mentioned hubris before, mostly to make the point that a certain amount of self-importance is essential for anything to survive. A being or concept that was completely selfless, had no inherent valuation of itself, and had free agency would likely self-terminate for the reasoning that by its very existence it was utilizing additional space and resources that could go to other, more worthy beings. I assume this is how anti-matter feels.
So in a fandom, people will irrationally support their fandom solely for the sake of justifying their activities. “I’m a connoisseur of digital art” they’ll say. “Video games are capable of a wider and deeper depth of emotional expression than any medium before because of their interactivity.” Doesn’t that sound much better than “I purchase entertainment vehicles from corporations who are delighted to produce something that requires so little resources and yet garners them so much raw money?” Despite the expected and understandable response, it’s still a little grating, especially when developers like Peter Molyneux hyping everything they produce to be “the biggest step in interactive storytelling yet.” Interactive storytelling started and has stayed around campfires, dinner tables, play rooms, tiny model houses, any old time when a group of friends got together to play pretend. Modern video games are much more akin to playing a choose-your-own-adventure book by yourself.
Occasionally games are described as being “a conversation between the developer and the player.” This could not be more disingenuous. Let’s start with the technical aspects of such a claim. The vast majority of games are produced as a collaborative effort between a team of people. Though one man may be the lead or the director of the game, it would be ridiculous to claim that every aspect of the game was created by them. Even directors of movies often work with a script written by someone else, a group of actors with their own concept of the characters they are playing, a filmography team with certain equipment and techniques, a special effects studio that has their own style of effects, an audio engineering team with their idea of acoustical performance, so on and so forth. The director may strongly influence all of these, but he cannot control their interpretations of his idea. The exact principle holds for every game produced by a major publisher. It’s preposterous.
Perhaps it refers to independent games made by one person to express something. These games, like many underground films, animation, and music, are noted for their creativity and divergent art styles. They often feature themes that would prove unpopular in a mainstream setting, or themes that are not commonly introduced to videogames. I will use for example the game Loved. It’s an artistic “short story” made by a single person: Alexander Ocias, an Australian artist and web developer who works with primarily digital medium. The game, or story, or however I am to refer to it, presents a fairly simple 2d platformer interposed with vaguely unsettling phrases and commands. The game invites you to choose to either obey or disobey the commands, and the world alters based on your choice. If you follow the commands, the game world becomes more detailed and slopes appear, easing some of the jumps. The world, however, remains ugly and bleak, despite its detail. If you do not obey the commands, portions of the world begin to change colors in blocks, until near the end you find yourself swimming through a relative sea of pixilated color. The dangers of the world remain vague and unfocused, except as blocks of brilliant red. Very deep. The interactivity comes in the ability to choose your fate. The story comes in the form of the unsettling things the voice-over (text-over?) says.
But is it art? Art conveys a message, specifically an emotional message, and the best art is the art where an artist conveys a complex emotion particularly well. J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is well known for capturing the complex cocktail of emotions that adolescence brings. The book conveys the feeling so well that many people cannot simply enjoy the book without a strong opinion of the main character. Either they hate the book because of the main character’s attitude, or they love the book because of his attitude and the emotional resonance it brings. Loved, however does not evoke this same wide-reaching reaction, and does not properly convey its message. Sure the game, if properly invested into, creates a heavy feeling of malaise and unease. Certainly there is some emotional reaction behind the choices one is forced to make and the outcome of those choices, but it is not clear what message is being conveyed. This can most obliquely be demonstrated by the schism of reaction between myself and the people who have commented on the game on Kongregate.com. While their take, or the take of the person whose comment is most promoted, is that the game demonstrates “Doing everything that you're told makes others happy. But then your life lacks color.” my understanding is that this is a game about an abusive relationship. My experience in abusive relationships might be the cause of my interpretation, and the Kongregate commenter’s lack of experience might lead to his misconception, but it may be the other way around, with myself jumping to the most depressing and relevant conclusion while the creator simply wanted to make a statement about freedom.
And there are other interpretations. Even if you follow the voice’s instruction, it intentionally misattributes your gender and age until near the end, when it finally acknowledges your maturity and gender. Perhaps, then, this is a game about growing up. Seriously, who knows? The creator might, but he’s not telling. A good magician never reveals his tricks. But this isn’t art. This is simple perplexation. No message is being transferred but the message interpreted by the player. It is the same as carving a rock into a cube and calling it “sphere” and putting it on display. Maybe you’re making a statement about irony; maybe you’re trying to demonstrate differing perceptions. Or maybe you have no idea what the hell you’re doing and you’re just creating something that seems pretty deep to you, or mimicking other people’s concept of what art should be.
So far, that’s all games have. Mimicry of cinematic techniques, mimicry of literary techniques, even mimicry of musical techniques with sound effects tuned just so to create a pleasing musical palette. So far, no one has quite understood how to use an interactive medium to convey a static message that’s more complex than general righteous anger or sadness for the death of a character or so on. Sometimes games have some legitimate emotional impact that appears to be unintentional, and as such usually isn’t properly explored. Often the impact comes from storylines that truly aren’t interactive in any real sense, as is often the case with Japanese produced role playing games. Axel’s death in Kingdom Hearts 2 only developed further meaning and impact after playing through the prequel (sequel (lousy condensation of play-style into a technically impressive version of the game given the console)) 358/2 Days. But it’s not in any case interactive. No amount of button mashing would have saved him from his fairly lame death. It’s not much better in western role playing games that try to replace coherent story with a large amount of choice and exploration. Fallout 3’s most dramatic event had next to no legitimate impact. Sure you spent some time with your (Liam Neeson) dad at the start and a part of the reason you head out on your journey is to find him, but after all the adventuring to go and save him to have him up and die not a few hours after rescuing him is quite an emotional anticlimax, to say the least.
So games aren’t art, despite what gamers will insist. Even if your definition of art is broad and varied, games are at the least a much commercialized art; like the art of an advertisement or the design of a logo. It lacks the creative expression that legitimate art is so lauded for. Because games are made by companies. They are made by gigantic soulless entities whose sole motive is to make a profit. It’s a commercial enterprise. Many gamers can’t stand this concept. They hear Bobby Kotick telling his stockholders that Activision is interested in making a profit and not just messing around and making “art” and they flip out. Gamers hate Kotick with a passion that political parties spend millions to attempt to inspire in their base. It’s not just Kotick that they hate, either. Nearly every gaming executive who is not directly involved in the creation of games is demonized in one form or another. While I typically applaud anti-corporate sentiments, this sort of base and irrational hatred is something to be lamented as the confused whining of toddlers. All I ask is for a shred of realism concerning the companies and an understanding of the place a gamer holds as a consumer, rather than a “connoisseur” they assume themselves to be.
It’s the repetition that really irks me. The repeated comments, the repeated complaints, the repeated clamor. It’s been the same for so long, I am sick and tired of it. It’s dumb to say, but I feel like I’ve already heard everything there is to hear from the community and since my voice is too controversial, I can’t myself contribute anything new. Perhaps I’m a radical and this is just another way of me being excluded from the mainstream. Perhaps I’m just simply wrong and everything is okay and I should get over it. I’m almost certainly being unreasonable. But damn, who in the hell is being reasonable in this community? Is it really so bad that Sonic games no longer cater to your nostalgic concept of them? Do we really need to hear your feelings about it every single time Sonic is mentioned in the news? Are video games really so important that the most inflammatory comments need to be made concerning which vehicle of profit (sorry, console) is superior? Does anyone ever grow out of it? Am I reading a new generation of people behaving like the last generation? I have no clue. I wish someone would tell me.
In some sense of dramatic cosmic irony, when I began this post, I was a banned commenter, now that I am finished, I find myself with my ability to comment restored. Will I learn anything from my experience? Will I finally accept the futility of standing against the tide of idiocy before me? Not bloody likely. If you liked this post at all, feel free to follow me on Kotaku as “thejakeman” and join me in making trouble and snidely insulting people I don’t like.
After all, I’m a gamer too.
Update: No, I am banned again. Humorously, I was banned the day of being unbanned for commenting on and agreeing with this comment here. Crecente also banned the other people involved. Clearly the claim of advertisement is something of a bugaboo for him, since he went on banning all these other people and starred the one person who defended his terrible article here. This is just ridiculously petty stuff. Damn. and I thought Kotaku was a news website, not a prima donna conglomerate. Oh well. *shrug*