Once upon a time, a spiky-haired protagonist came to The Land of Platforms. He looked at the sprites, and the monsters, and he listened to the cheery bleeping chiptunes, and then he shrugged. All this running very fast, and jumping on things, and collecting big floaty ciphers is all very well, he thought, but isn’t it a bit rubbish? Where’s all the levelling up, and the grinding, and the sidequests, and the ridiculously oversized swords? Where’s all the orphans, and the badly translated plotting, and the FMVs, and the illusion of choice?
Sod this for a laugh, he said (in Japanese), and got into his not-yet-tediously-overly-familiar plot-development device airship, whereupon he bombed The Land of Platforms to buggery with his mighty menu-driven combat animations. Hurrah for the illusion of choice, he said, while behind him a fanfare played over and over and over again.
And then he reproduced like a hillbilly until everyone was absolutely fucking sick of him.
And that might have been the end of it had two other newer arrivals not turned up. One of them was a Space Marine so clichéd that he was an even bigger cliché than the clichés the spiky-haired protagonist had become replaced. The Space Marine had Very Big Guns (tm) and made Americans disproportionately happy. But everyone already knows his story, and how it launched a new platform all of its own.
The other thing that turned up was a very different thing indeed. It was a medieval cart, driven by a selection of slightly po-faced Canadians. At first, they handed out gifts of Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, and lo, the nerds did frolic and laugh in a top-downy kind of way, and with no understanding of the irony of their use of the word ‘party’. And everything appeared to be quite polite and nice, if not exactly exciting. At least, things seemed ok as long as the Space Marine wasn’t spoiling it for everyone by turning everything else into a Space Marine, like some kind of tireless, one-dimensional never-ending homogenising virus.
Then, one day, someone gave the nice but slightly po-faced Canadians an Xbox, and a cloud passed in front of the beautiful, sort-of-brownish-looking renderwared sun. And the Xbox whispered to the nice top-downy Canadians in the hypnotising forked-tongue of Lucas, and filled their head with dreams. And before long, they grew bold enough to open the musty doors on their medieval cart and let out their Big Idea. And the Big Idea jumped on to the top of the cart and unfurled a mighty sort-of-brownish-looking renderwared banner. On one side of the banner read the words Emotional Complexity. And on the other side of the banner was the word Morals.
Because the shadow of the banner with the words Emotional Complexity and Morals on either side grew and grew, like a mushroom cloud made of mediocrity. And the shadow spread over the whole of the land until it was almost impossible to read the tiny little word that had originally been spelled out in platforms, or in gil, or in scoreboards, or even in dead Space Marines. (Although by now, even the Space Marines had been hanging out near the cart and were beginning to take themselves very seriously indeed, too. Christ, one of them started talking about Graphic Novels, the tedious little prick. Another was overheard trying to pronounce the word metaphor.)
And anyone who had any sense whatsoever who read the words Emotional Complexity and Morals trembled, and shed a solitary tear for the death of fun. Because they knew only too well what the words meant. They meant that someone had watched too many films while not understanding the difference between variant forms of visual media. It meant that people who hadn’t quite grasped the difference between sarcasm and humour were going to try and tell a joke.
It meant that all the old, contrived, artificial mechanics that we used to mock would be replaced by just as contrived, artificial new mechanics, but that this time we were supposed to care. Yes, care. Not to care about our reward, whether it be gold or cinematics. Not really to care about defeating a challenge, or getting a new weapon, although that might be possible, too, in some slightly less-satisfying and graphically disappointing way. It meant that we were supposed to care about the awful hackneyed characters and their laughably shallow dilemmas, and that our caring would be symbolised by a bar telling us how much our ciphers liked us. It meant that we were supposed to care about a fantasy world whose only form of innovation was to be even more generic than the tortuously dull world it was based upon. It meant that pressing x was supposed to mean something, man, and don’t you ever forget it. Yeah.
It meant KOTOR, and Jade Empire, and Mass Effect, and Dragon Age, and many, many games that have – with the exception of the slight suggestion of breasts, which is in itself a masterstroke of misunderstanding the definition of the word maturity – not developed even by the most pathetic of increments.
It also meant that, for all their childish longing to put on big emotional trousers and a jacket made of morals, the people forgot the reason they were getting dressed in the first place – to go out and play with their mates. Not to go into counselling, or to forge a virtual relationship, or to choose a face for a meaningless and vapid avatar, or to care about nonsense.
Some people in the sort-of-brownish-looking world were so blinded by Emotional Complexity and Morals that they sneered at their old things, and called them childish. They put the illusion of choice in a box beneath the cart and replaced it with a lack of meaningful challenge. They turned their back on any real fantasy, and instead went on quests so realistic that they had to return to a shop seventeen times in the middle of them to sell off the contents of their backpack. Because reality always means better stories, right?
And, in the name of Emotional Complexity and Morals, they forgot about fun. But most of all they forgot that you didn’t have to be such a pompous pain in the backside about every fucking trivial choice in every miserable, identikit drudge of a game. Especially Dragon Age, which is as joyless and empty a trudge as I've ever bloody 'played' ever, thank you very much for asking.
They forgot that the purpose of games is to play – and while if you care along the way, too, then that’s fine – and they forgot that caring and playing don’t make good bedfellows just because you want them to. You have to build a game to care about, rather than just try and make people care to cover up where the game should be. In fact, nothing’s going to stop me caring as much as being bored of how poor the underlying game is. And when you don’t care it’s difficult to avoid noticing that the games that have come out under this banner are graphically poor, badly-plotted, generic, mechanically-flawed, immensely repetitive, generic again, predictable, and broken in all the same ways that every other game Bioware ever made on a console was. Oh, and like most stories in videogames, did I mention just how generic they are?
Somewhere in Japan, there’s a spiky haired protagonist who remembers when it was all just platforms. If you listen carefully, you might hear him whispering the words ‘illusion of choice’ over and over again. If only there was anybody lighthearted enough left to listen to him...
...then I’d frag the precious fucker with my Space Marine...
Previously: Talking to the Wall (3): Fables
Next: The Lying Game, or how advertising sells games and gamers short.