Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Soulless Corruption

This essay on Sega and Team Andromeda's Saturn classic Panzer Dragoon perfectly captures one of my greatest criticisms of the video game industry: the corruption of the gaming "press." I happen to know this from first-hand experience, as a freelance reviewer for Gamepro and a couple other prozines whose names I forget. This corruption, this mindless servitude to a soulless, corporate machine, is the very cancer that is killing video games:

One of the greatest paradoxes of the gaming world is its obsession with the new, and 'up to date'.

From a commercial perspective, this makes complete sense: game companies primarily benefit from sales of their latest wares, so this 'new is good' message is incessantly pushed, not just through relentless advertising and sequels, but also by the industry's dedicated press, who to this day remain in the most part completely corrupt. Brown envelopes are a core element of a game magazine's budget, usually hiding under the moniker of 'advertising'.

Creatively speaking, this approach has doomed the art of game-making. The market is now swamped with utterly disposable products, while one of the most important traits of a game - its durability - is seldom addressed.

Back in the early 1990s, the videogame fanzines were the underground alternative to the corrupt "prozines," who only served at the behest of their advertisers in the industry. They were perfectly fine with this arrangement, since, hey, we're gettin' paid to play video games! For such a low price they sold themselves out. And we zine editors were the arch-enemy. I still hold out hope that the internet would inspire a similar rebel spirit, but that doesn't seem to have happened. If anything, the corporatist grip of the game industry is even tighter today. Magazines and websites are little more than fanboys - tools of marketing.

And always, the endless rush for greater horsepower and more features and additional features that nobody asked for. Why does the Xbox 360 exist? It exists so Microsoft can achieve their ancient dream of a set-top box that as a convergence of digital media in the living room. Why does the Playstation 3 exist? Because Sony wanted to push the Blu-Ray format, and now 3D television. This has nothing to do with videogames, and to our surprise, the general public has rejected these overpriced, overpowered dinosaurs.

There's no reason why Playstation 2 couldn't continue to thrive. Heck, there's no reason Sega Dreamcast had to die; but the game industry demanded otherwise, and that was that. And they have slowly stripped the soul out of video games, turning everything into empty product, a Virtual Hollywood. Yuck. To hell with all of 'em. And to hell with the prozines for being such willing puppets.

This is why I hold out such hope for Nintendo, despite all the ways they don't seem to get it. Sometimes I think they lucked out with the Wii. They tapped into a vast audience that is hungry for traditional video games, and I don't think they really understood the impact they would have. Wii Sports just swept over us like a storm, like a fad that just won't die. Here we are in the year 2010, and Sony has just released their own Wii Sports knockoff. Imagine that. Of course, the Sony and Microsoft clones are just that, clones. It's more like something conjured by the marketing department after focus-group testing. The technology may be competent, but the inspiration, the quality, is nonexistant.

Nintendo is now the standard-bearer for Arcade Games, whether they like it or not. Their "superstar" designers certainly don't like it; they'd rather play "movie director" like the rest of this stupid industry. But the market has spoken, and the public has voted with their wallets. Look to the Wii Series. Look to Super Mario DS and Super Mario 5 on the Wii. Look to Pokemon Black & White. Those games are selling like gangbusters for a reason. See what's not selling? Disposable industry "product." Nintendo would be mad fools to follow the industry's march into oblivion.

It was never chisled into stone that the videogame would last forever, maintaining an endless high. It may finally fall out of favor and disappear, just as pinball machines have disappeared, just as vinyl records have disappeared. The Era of the Video Game may one day be seen as a cultural curiosity, a period stretching from the mid-Seventies to the turn of the century. The question is who, if anyone, will be able to arrest the seemingly permanent decline of this industry. The path of the industry is the path to extinction.


Anonymous said...

Wow......I hope you know that "video games" do not have to only be "games." You talk about a "Virtual Hollywood" like it is a bad thing. Do yourself a favor and read Hamlet on the Holodeck by Janet Murray, one of the premier media studies enthusiasts. If you look at board games and video games in general the rules are basically the same and have been for quite a while. The difference with "Virtual Hollywood" games is that they are becoming more and more like the holodeck, which is the ultimate destination of where many wish "games" to go and the holodeck is not based on rules...rather it is based on creating an alternate reality that interacts with us in real time.

In general, what I am saying here is that yes...video games as strictly a "game" may be in decline...but video games include much more than just games with rule systems. I would actually argue that the more we move away from games and toward "Virtual Hollywood," (what I would refer to an experience as opposed to a game), the closer we get to creating a real life holodeck. We are still a long way off...but we are making baby steps.

If you read blogs from some of the most influential academic media theorists it is clear that this is the holy grail for what many hope games will turn into. I completely understand your viewpoint about ...but I think it is only fair to respect that games are much broader than just gameplay nowadays and I do not think that should be hindered.

As far as your article is concerned, I completely agree there is corruption...but I would not completely attribute that to pre-maturely killing off the Dreamcast and PS2. Could they have supported them for longer? Yes. Did companies want to push out a new system for more money? Hell Yes. Did the new systems bring us closer to lifelike graphics and push the boundaries of believability in games? Yes.

Once again, I hear ya. Games are changing and I sympathize with you...but the industry is far far and away past the path of extinction. They are the future...but perhaps that is a future you just do not want to be a part of.

Oh, I should also mention...your examples about vinyl records and pinball machines does not really work as they represent one part of a medium form. Since music is still sold the medium is still in-tact, not extinct. Pinball machines and arcades may be gone (both are thriving in Japan I might add) but they are now represented on the iphone (pinball games are one of the highest selling games on the iphone and ipad). Just food for thought.

ItchyScratchyUrr said...

Its mostly the fact that i'm broke all the time that i learned not to bother keeping up with the super new of games. Ive been buying second hand for years now, and I can say its lead me to finding some never die classics I may never have got into, so the thought of seeing old games disapear and become hard to come by is always scary for me (good luck finding ps1 games anywhere- though they emulate well on pc, not near as good as the real thing).

ps2 and gamecube had it bang on for graphical quality- once you could model your characters with fingers and toes and the magic of normal maps- the only way up was resolution. It seemed such a waste of processing power, not to mention storage memory to pull this of but it was an enevidable move forward- as was the last several increments of console evolution, to see images more vividly realised- the very thing we all wished for at one point or other.

The thought of a multimedia console is not so devious- ps3 gave us blu-ray with a powerful games console, when the standalone players were similar priced, microsoft succesfully pulls of its multimedia console- in the form of a decenct laptop with a good graphics card, so screw 360!.

I hate to see consoles die, having learned what happens to the games afterwards, but there have been crap games coming out in for years, and its more of the same now- just with better graphis. Those certain gems we favour most are what concern us in the passing of time- will there still be console to play them on, can I emulate them? as far as the lastest and greatest is concerned, maybe a little time will make them less ominous- I myself don't care anymore, I'm so tied out of being overwhelmed by the numbers of these things to bother keeping up- even with their present slow output.

As for the WII, I see adverts of grannies saying how WII-fit keeps them healthy and news bulletins of schools employing DS's in class because it 'tricks small children into learning' and I want to puke! nintendo's popularity as a mass market culture is, to me feeling like an anti-trend to the youth of the game community- its medical white colors are starting to sicken me (I want to see purple cubes back again!).

I think if you look at the way television has gone, with its gazillion channels and 24/7 braodcasting- you can't help but feel dizzy at it all, and the only recourse is to stay away from it for releif. So you may be right about this becoming a fad- but it most likely and is part of an all encompasing realtime simulations techknology that is being implemented for the use of military, crash-testing, live entertainment and medical research and continues to feed back and forth towards that ever dreamed of virtual world we all once hoped to see.

As far as corruption is concerned I don't see it- the money that goes into the games these days is insane and you can't be tricked into to buying something thats not your cup of tea. Consoles like the caanoo are very much in the spirit of preserving old classics and letting people outside the mainstreem produce there own games. The games industry started as a tabboo for some adults or a kids only playground that had to go through years of rise or fall to get where it is- for me the idea of its non mass, 'just for you' appealability may have been why it appealed at all as a kid, so an elusive step away industy like homebru/retro/opensource may be the answer to those inclined to piss and maon about the state of the established mainstream- its more personally focused, and if take the time to learn how, you could make you own inovative contributions (game editor is a good start), witch frankly is every gamers dream at some point.