Gaming has gone from being influenced by film and television to being the medium that influences cinema and TV. It’s reached a point where terms like ‘level up’ are used in everyday language, even by non-gamers. Ads for everything from pro sports leagues to military recruitment are aimed directly at gamers, and series like Grand Theft Auto are as influential now as Star Wars or Lord Of The Rings were 20 years ago (in truth, GTA dwarfs them and every other IP out there).
The problem with that level of mainstream success and public acceptance is that now, instead of a popular niche dominated primarily by artisans, we have the biggest revenue stream in entertainment. As such, it’s subject to the influence of everyone from clueless shareholders to toneless cancel culture critics, who aren’t nuanced enough to be consuming adult content yet. Much like music in the 2010’s, gaming seems to be shifting back towards childishness to an extent. Most of the new and upcoming offerings on the PS store seem to be squarely aimed at the under 18 market, and away from the adult concepts and dark themes that dominated the more influential works of the late 2000’s, and most of the last decade.
This ebb and flow is normal, to an extent. All forms of art go through phases of darkness and colour, fron gritty realism to fantastic escapism, as one era sheds the excesses or austerirties of the one before. Such is the nature of life itself. But it seems gaming has hit a point of critical mass, with an emphasis on keeping players in a game as long as possible with post-launch support and repetitive engagement loops. I for one would rather see more new games, and less DLC.
Don’t get me wrong, games having years worth of additional content and tech support is awesome! There are games that were unplayable at launch that are brilliant now (hi Cyberpunk), and others, like the original Dying Light, which saw remarkable involvement from both creator and community, with a heartwarming level of passion for an aging title that wasn’t a huge deal at launch.
The issue, however, is a lack of much needed sequels and promising new IPs. I haven’t seen this few interesting new and upcoming games for a long time, perhaps a decade or more. Most new AAA properties seem to be either bland fantasy RPGs, hero shooters or superhero action adventures, and the indie market is flooded with cheap cash grabs and mindless, cutesy filler. Any game (no matter how stupid) can get made now, just like anyone can make music or be a makeup artist, and that’s a big double edged sword.
We’ve been through phases like this before though. At one point, most shooters were dry military affairs aimed at hoo-rah douchebros, and good RPGs that weren’t either medieval or space based were almost non-existent. It wasn’t until the maturity point of the PS3/Xbox 360 generation that we moved out of all that, and into a more inclusive approach. The generation that followed was remarkably diverse and creative, albeit at the expense of peak open world bloat.
This console generation is in it’s infancy, so it’s too early to define it, but I’m not seeing a lot of interesting new concepts. There are exceptions, like the upcoming Russian FPS Atomic Heart, which looks like the bastard lovechild of Bioshock and Prey, raised on a steady diet of Soviet retrofuturism. Even that still feels like a mashup, but time will tell.
Beyond that, it’s mostly reboots, remakes or remasters, and shit aimed at people who like screaming over headsets more than proper storytelling and world building. Whereas gaming as a medium really grew up through games like The Last Of Us and Deus Ex, it now seems to be heading in a more youthful direction, for better or worse, maybe both.
I’m not against games aimed at kids, and I certainly don’t look down at likes of Fortnite or Minecraft, as those players have certain skillsets that are much sharper than mine. I marvel at their creative solutions to problems, which is a big part of what gaming is all about. I just fear that the medium is slowing down a bit developmentally. It’s not just because of the more youthful content – an obsession with the past is partly to blame.
Do we really need another Final Fantasy or Resident Evil remake? Does The Last Of Us, only nine years old, need a second remaster in six years (let alone a full price one)? Have things really progressed enough to justify it, technically speaking? Or would the resources be better applied to creating sequels, story DLC or most importantly, fresh IPs that advance gaming as a whole?
The last console generation brought us the mad brilliance of Control, the fearless imagination of Horizon Zero Dawn, and the life replacing immersion of Red Dead Redemption 2. It could be the money talking, but I’m not seeing the same creativity five years later. If anything, streaming TV seems to be more about the newer, bolder concepts, and gaming has gotten far too comfortable.
I liken this to a period in the early to mid 2000’s, where retro garage rock dominated the airwaves, or at least it did where I grew up. If you were an alternative type who didn’t love The White Stripes or The Strokes, you were on the outs. Your metal, goth or grunge preferences were mocked by ignorant first wave hipster douchebags, snide subcultural tourists who thought synthesizers and samplers were dead. 20 years on, we know better, and most of those fake fans jumped on the next trend, or sold out to top 40. Thus, that whole movement had almost no lasting impact, exposed as the cash grab that it was.
For many, this was the last time rock was relevant. Had these so-called artists and their fake poseur fans adopted a more forward thinking approach, and not blatant plagiarism under the false guise of paying homage, rock may still be relevant in the general public consciousness. The point is, an obsession with the past held rock back, much as the reboot craze did for cinema, allowing gaming to overtake it in terms of cultural dominance and relevance. Inspiration is not born of derivation or reiteration. It’s about taking old ideas, and forming new ones out of them. It’s capturing magic, not painting by numbers.
I fear this is where gaming is right now. The Saints Row reboot looks like a slightly less stupid version of the same awful trash, and the rest of the preorders I’m looking at as I write are either other reboots, or annualized franchises like Call Of Duty or 2K sports. Even some of the budget indie titles are such blatant cash grabs, they might as well be called ‘Scam: The Game for Idiots’.
People bitch about the Ubisoft open world formula, but for all my gripes with it, at least they are regularly making new games instead of coasting on remasters, remakes or reboots – we may as well call them regurgitations, and stop paying so bloody much for them! At least Ubi aren’t releasing the same game every year with a reskin, like Call Of Duty. If anything, for their many, many faults, their track record over the last few years has been pretty stellar: The Division 2, Watch Dogs: Legion and Far Cry 6 were all excellent, even as the refinements of existing concepts.
What we really need is Rockstar Games to become the industry leaders in more than just single IP revenue again. In the 2000’s, their games like Bully and Manhunt advanced the gaming medium culturally and technically, and their studios put put interesting new games almost annually. Now they trade on the success of the GTA V juggernaut, and release a couple games a decade. Granted, these new games wipe the floor with their open world competition, but I’d rather have a new GTA or some story DLC than more GTA Online content, and for once, I’m fairly confident I’m in the majority saying that. To hell with the money, seven billion is plenty.
Look, I’m not declaring the artistic death of gaming here. I’ve seen worse periods, ones which are viewed with rose tinted glasses by many in retrospect. Often, what is a poor era in one medium is a great one in others, and the last decade has seen more variety and quality in gaming than any other – as a gamer since the 80’s, I don’t say that lightly. I never expected that kind of momentum to continue forever, and the pandemic didn’t help.
Gaming’s success was always going to come at such cost, like other formats before it. The issue with wealth is that it breeds comfort, and it seems like some industry leaders are resting on their laurels a bit. I can understand it to a point, given how tough of an industry gaming is. But it’s about time to move the conversation forward again, and challenge the status quo. It will probably take GTA 6 for that, but I hope someone else steps up first.