State of the Art
(a critique of the western gaming industry)
by josh hsieh and brandon sheffield
01312003

Part the third: brandon sheffield

 


By and large the reason we feel that games were ‘better in the old days’ is because at that time there was still something ‘new’ about games in general. Every time something distinct came along, we were utterly impressed. We didn’t know games could do that…but then came the genre system. Much like the history of the cinema, videogames have gone through the pre-classical and classical periods. Pre-classical is distinguished by a theory of spectacle. The fact that something was a game was enough to draw people to most titles. During the classical period, we got the idea of genre. This has been terribly difficult for the game industry to escape. Genre makes us feel at home in a new environment. Saying that ‘this game is like XX’ makes a sale. The fact that you can still sell a game based on a license alone, or because you heard it was like Resident Evil proves this. The problem as I see it is that the gaming public at large is not ready to leave their comfort zone. The developers are not the problem.

Treasure, Natsume, Polygon Magic, Taito, Ascii, Hudson, Bandai, Konami (to an extremely limited extent), UGA, Lionhead studios, Grasshopper Manufacture. These companies and a few others are trying to take us into the modernist period. That is to say, to make a response to the classical genre system; to reject it in favor of new directions. To meld genres is not enough, one must transcend them. Many companies claim to have accomplished this, but through experience we know that these games which are ‘unlike anything we’ve ever seen before’ are by and large familiar and ultimately disappointing to those who want more. In origin, insert credit was created as a service for this type of person. The one who is not content to let games play them. Those who expect and desire for this field of entertainment to grow into an art for. But the American public is not ready to come with us yet – the efforts in any forward direction by the above groups are met with luke-warm receptions. Now is truly not the time for radical change. For any movement to achieve large-scale success, it must first be accepted by the masses.

Creativity is not what we want, and here I differ with Josh. We want contained creativity. We want the next step, not a leap. We were not ready for Stretch Panic. Hell, it’s a great game, but none of us were there yet. Whereas before we could simply smash mannequins in a department store, now we want to be able to steal their clothes and wear them. We want to never see the same npc twice in an RPG.

Miyamoto does not create something that has never been done before. He just adds the one thing that makes a game feel fresh. Pikmin is Lemmings with heart and soul. Genre melding is the trend of the hour. This truly is the first step towards a modernism in videogames. Thus the people who will take us all to the next stage are not Treasure et al. They are only a vehicle for those of us who have long been ready to proceed, and who are in fact ready to advance past what has been done even by these forward-thinking developers. What about the rest of us? Those who made Spiderman one of the top grossing games? We should not wish that all companies would make games like Rez, Vibribbon, Ikaruga or Harvest Moon. We should wish that all companies would make games like GTA III, Devil May Cry, Super Mario Sunshine. It is the genre-melders who will advance us into the next phase, serving as a vehicle for the casual and mainstream gamer. Thus we should look to companies like Rockstar, Sega, Nintendo, Capcom, Koei for our answer. Only they can lift us out of the Acclaims, THQs, and Midways of our time.

Thus I must also disagree with Tim’s assessment of MGS2 as the first post-modern game of our time, as games have never had a modernism to begin with. There is no modernism to critique! What it references and defies is not the game, but culture itself. MGS2 is a fine example of the genre melding trend towards modernism that I have descried here. Kojima wants to take us there, but he’s willing to do it with measured steps.

It has often been said by the import community that Japan has better games. The reason we likely feel this way is that Japan has always been faster to develop as a civilization that the US. This stems from their becoming a world power in the shortest time of any first world nation. They are ready to accept a modernism in their videogames, at least far more ready than we westerners. Take the case of Bandai, long the equivalent of Acclaim in Japan. Anime licenses, toy licenses, they merely made games to sell by title alone. In and just before the new millennium, Bandai has branched out into the world of the 2D fighter, the sim game, the RPG with alarming success. They have jumped the gap from mediocre to having something to say not because they wanted to, but because they were falling behind.

This is what must happen, and what is happening as we speak in Europe and America. Europe is not quite, but almost as ready to burst as Japan. They're ready to go there, but cannot yet take us there. America as the monster of the industry has the power to control the speed of the entire process. We will know that the game is ready to graduate to the next plane of existence when Acclaim makes a Spiderman 2010 which marriages the history of the medium with the rhythm game, the fighting game and the RPG. They will have to do this just in order to keep up with the Jones’. But we cannot expect more from them until they are forced to leave their rut. Hell they may never learn. They may stay there, scraping the bottom of the barrel, paying more money for a license than a gameplay engine. All we can do is continue to support those who meld as well as those who try to innovate. And we must hope with all of our might that those who have the power to change things, but continue to stagnate or refine (Square, Enix, Smilebit, Microsoft, SNK) will see the way to change.

It’s not that America and the west have lost our desire to make and appreciate art. We’ve simply grown complacent. But nothing lasts forever, and this classical period shall one day pass. Certainly we can see a work of art and appreciate it, but haven’t learned enough how to enjoy it. And so we see the lack of popularity in a truly excellent and forward-thinking game. This is the gap we must bridge.

Consider how quickly games have evolved as a genre – we reached a classical period in just ten years – cinema took twenty. We’re on the cusp of a modernist revolution, fifteen years ahead of the cinema timeframe. We’ll make it to the next stage, but only if we are ready to discuss games seriously. Suck in our pride and discuss them as a force which guides our youth. Discuss games as art. Teach classes about gaming form and function. We’re on our way, but it’s up to you, those who care to make this happen.

All gamers deserve this, even brandon sheffield.


 

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