Make (AAA) Video Games Great Again

Being a business-minded person (ironically majoring in English), it hurts to me to see the state of AAA titles, or titles that have major (designer) studios and massive budgets behind them. I’m not going to try to make this a nostalgic, grass is greener type of post, but there has been an undeniable decay in quality titles. I attribute this to a variety of factors, the foremost being the push of financial interests overwhelming any sense of artistry for designers and storytellers. Many famous studios since the seventh generation of consoles (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii) have become “sell-outs” pumping out sequel, after sequel each year, releasing incomplete, glitchy games and selling them for $60 a pop. Why, you might ask, do they have the audacity to release half-baked titles? Because the seventh generation of consoles introduced the ability to PATCH games. Patching means they essentially offer online updates that you download straight to your console. In its best use, it fixes gamebreaking bugs that play testers missed, at worst it allows developers to meet their deadlines on products and just update it later.

From a studio standpoint, tension has grown between “hey, we’ve got this $100 million dollar game brand that’s super valuable, lets leverage that and sell it again, slightly different, for the full price!” and “hey, lets create something new and original, and see where it goes!” The operative term for this phenomena is risk.

Risk has always been an important facet of success in game development, people conceptualize all kinds of unique, wacky ideas, and generally if their team was behind them, they would get to work. Now, most big conglomerate video game companies have acquired these studios and have essentially told them to take far less risk, and to design titles that encourage the customers to spend even more cash on downloadable content. My favorite example of taking a unique idea and injecting old fashioned corporate greed is Evolve. Evolve took a unique concept, one player plays as a massive powerful monster trying to evolve (lol) and destroy the planet or kill the hunters. 4 other players pick hunters, categorized by roles, in order to combat the titanic beasts. Sounds interesting right? Check out this cool screenshot:Image result for evolve

It’s a AAA title that had a lot of unique promise to it. But then, on day 1 (yes, ONE, UNO, EINS) of its release, it launched with approximately $136 in buyable, downloadable content for players in the form of new characters and monsters…

Developers all started out in the same place, getting into game development either out of the interest in the challenge, or true love of creating stories and entertaining the masses. As soon as the sixth generation of consoles, that is, the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube era, each platform had incredible AAA products come out, these games were complete because they had to be, you couldn’t issue software updates to any game-breaking glitches. Releases had multi-year gaps between them, meaningful space to respect their current offerings, and to properly develop their newest titles. Now, we have this:COD.jpg

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You really gotta ask yourself: what’s going on?


We Don’t Appreciate Art

“What emotions does it evoke?” asks every high-school English teacher of a painting upon reaching the “art section” of that year. “What does it make you feel? What was the intention of the artist?”

If the purpose of art is to convey an emotion and or an experience, then video games along with books, movies, sculptures, architecture, and paintings, should be considered art. When playing Assassin’s Creed II, I experienced the intended emotions; the excitement when racing across the roofs of Florence or the sadness when Ezio and his family are betrayed.

But art is more than just the communication of emotions. Art has countless purposes—communication, symbolism, expression, entertainment, and many, many more. With this broad purpose, how can video games not be art?

Consider again Assassin’s Creed II. The setting alone is art. If someone were to paint a beautiful scene of Renaissance Italy it would be accepted as art. Then why when entire cities are rebuilt in Assassin’s Creed II is it not considered art?

I think the crux of the issue is that once again video games get a bad rap. But this time, its not about those who play video games, but those who makes video games. I believe that when the general public sees a video game they do not understand the sheer amount of work that went into making that game. They fail to recognize that every detail they see, down to the tiniest crack in a stone wall, was placed on purpose, for them, the gamer. That huge game maps took just as much time if not more as creating a model representation. That great musical scores were written for their gaming experience (Hans Zimmer writing music for Modern Warfare 2 comes to mind.)

If many of the game aspects were taken out of context, and shown individually, I believe people would easily consider them art. But once there is intense interactivity and it becomes a “game” people automatically lose sight of the art. They see games as simple and mindless. All games are certainly not art. Most aren’t art. But as technology advances and more money is being spent of video games, I believe more video games will cross into the realm of art the same way movies did. People just need to understand that not all video games are a waste of time, and then they will begin to see the art in them.


Walking a Mile in a Gamer’s Shoes

In high school, I frequently bemoaned what I perceived to be the lack of suitable guys in my grade. My mom, thinking I was simply being too picky, always tried to reason with me: “Anna, you’re telling me there’s not a single boy you’re interested in?” she would ask dubiously.

“No, Mom!” I protested. “I mean, come on—all they ever do is play video games!”

Video games. I would spit out this word contemptuously, as though playing video games was a vile, perverse hobby and the mere fact that the boys in my grade took interest in such a hobby provided sufficient grounds to banish them into the category of “weird” or “not cool.” But let’s face it—the label “gamer” doesn’t exactly carry the most flattering connotations in our culture. Most often, it conjures an image of an overweight, unemployed and un-groomed male, his face ghostly pale from never surfacing from the recesses of his parent’s darkened basement, muttering curses left and right as he frantically jostles a video game control.

Flash forward to my freshman year of college. I find myself in a first-year writing seminar entitled “Worlds of Wordcraft,” and suddenly, irrevocably, I’m eating, sleeping, and dreaming video games. For the first time in ages, I am dabbling in the world of video games again. I say “dabble,” because I haven’t yet found myself so engrossed in the act of gaming as to render a noticeable effect on my everyday life. It’s not that I didn’t find LOTRO interesting or engrossing. Rather, I just don’t think I’ve been endowed with the skills necessary of a true “gamer”—I’m always fumbling over the controls, bewilderingly trying to figure out where in the name of Gandalf I’m supposed to be going, or panicking when faced with the prospect of attack. The sad fact of the matter is: I don’t got game.

However, as a result of my (rather pathetic) gaming endeavors, I have emerged from this semester with a more nuanced appreciation for the art (yes, I said “art”) of video games. What I used to view as an immature, contemptible hobby that enabled future serial killers to blow things up to their hearts’ content, I now see as the product of careful design decisions and attention to detail, as a seamless integration of art, literature, music, and technology. LOTRO, for example, juxtaposes brilliantly-crafted graphics with an engaging narrative to breathe life into Tolkien’s vision of Middle Earth. Now that I’m finally able to step back and admire these small yet crucial details with more of a discriminating eye, it’s hard for me to go back to viewing video games as a childish activity devoid of redeeming qualities. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here: don’t expect me to suddenly turn into a video game zealot. On any given day, when seeking a diversion from the daily grind, I’d much rather prefer to go on a run or read a book than play LOTRO. But I have arrived at a deeper understanding of something I used to rashly dismiss as frivolous and meaningless.

Once again, the old adage proves true: “Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes.” Well, this semester I’ve walked a mile in the shoes of a gamer, and after having done so, I can now see that I was perhaps…a bit harsh on my video-game playing peers in high school. Ok, so they opted to play Fifa rather than attend the sophomore-year Homecoming dance? Eh, more power to them. Everyone knows high school dances aren’t that great, anyway.

–Anna Dickens