Gaming’s Missing Kane
by Brendan Lee
In 1986, tattooed jack-of-all-everything “Beat” Takeshi directed a game called Takeshi no Chousenjou (Takeshi’s Challenge). It was, from design to execution, utter punishment for any gamer determined enough to attempt the grind. The challenges were thinly-veiled jokes. You’d have to hold down a button for hours, or leave the controller untouched for an hour. You’d have to sing into the controller for an hour . . . or hit a final boss a mind-numbing twenty thousand times.
In 1995-ish, Absolute Entertainment failed to release Penn and Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors, because they went out of business trying to meet Penn Jillette’s daily catering demands. A complete build of the title still thrives in BitTorrent form, largely for the included minigame Desert Bus. The game put you in the driver’s seat of a 45-mph bus from Arizona to Las Vegas — a straight, flat burn though the middle of absolutely nothing. The trip took eight hours . . . in real time. The bus pulled to one side a bit, so it was impossible to just tape down a button and walk away; you just had to sit there, steer occasionally, and wait. And wait. After 8 hours, you received one (1) point, and had the option of turning around and going back. For another 8 hours. And another point.
In 2005, D3 and Sony released Baito Hell 2000 (Work Time Fun, US title). This collection of mindless tasks challenged gamers to . . . well, to play them, I guess, for as long as they could stand to punch the buttons. The player had to separate baby chicks into bins, or chop wood, or not drive over a cliff. Or, most infamously, put the caps on pens at a pen factory: pen after pen after pen after pen after pen after pen.
These experiments could probably be dismissed as jokey one-offs; the farting in the wind from designers either much too close to the game industry or much too far removed. However, they’re spiritually linked; each one screaming a warning at the gamer with wild and scary eyes, spittle foaming at the corners of the mouth. The message is as unwelcome from the games themselves as it was from your parents:
For God’s sake — get out, before it’s too late.
I have played an awful lot of The Idol M@ster, Bandai-Namco’s networked gal-sim title. I even wrote about it, a little. At first it was kind of a lark — one of those chin-scratching attempts to try and understand a little more of Japan’s lonesome and grease-caked underbelly. After a few thousand yen, though, I started to realize a couple things:
1) The Idol M@ster is probably one of the worst games to come out in recent years.
2) I couldn’t stop playing it.
It’s not really that I’d go out with the idea of playing it in mind, exactly; I’d just go out without any firm plans, and I’d wander around Akihabara for a little bit, and sooner or later I’d find myself in front of the machine, grinding away on its pointless minigames in an effort to bring up my gal’s stats a little more. I asked myself: is this fun?
Well, yeah, it was. Kinda. More fun than not playing The Idol M@ster. More fun than sitting in my apartment and drinking rancid hateful bottles of 500-yen Suntory wine by myself, watching the airplane lights pulse on the skyscrapers. After a few weeks with no end in sight, I decided to call it a hobby.
“Heh heh . . . going to play a little Idol M@ster!” I’d announce in the office, to nobody in particular.
“That’s just what I do!” And when they’d look at me with pity or contempt, I’d just sigh, roll my eyes, and flash them a Religious Grin.
You get Religious Grins from some people. They don’t even have to be particularly religious people, really; they just have to know something you don’t, believe in it with every desperate ounce of their hearts, and not feel particularly inclined to discuss the issue. I’ll try to illustrate.
Let’s say, for instance, that you see a man wearing a Sandwich Hat — literally, a hat constructed of old, taped-together sandwiches. It smells bad; crumbly bits and rancid tuna keep falling onto the ground. Birds dive-bomb the Hat at intervals, and the man swats them away, snarling. It’s making him sweat like a mall cop. You decide to approach him and ask about his choice of helmetry — clearly, it’s causing him a considerable amount of discomfort.
“Why,” you ask him, “are you wearing a Sandwich Hat?”
He rolls his eyes a bit, and smiles. “Maybe a better question would be: why aren’t YOU wearing a Sandwich Hat?” Then he gives it to you, full in the face . . . the Religious Grin. It’s a thing rich with peace and self-satisfaction, sent down from the very Zenith of Enlightenment. It is a smile that rejects such questions with ease, because they come from very ridiculous and very flawed premises, buried deep within all that is Wrong.
It’s better to just turn and go at this point. Trying to chirp away at him will only make him angry, and his face will turn purple, and he’ll have to stick another couple ham and cheeses up there before he begins to feel better.
Let’s steer this thing back.
Do you remember when film-noodling porkpie Roger Ebert made his sweeping claim about video games and art, and how they could never, ever be the same thing? I certainly do — I hammered away giddily at some forum or other, MOD PARENT UP-ing TifaLuv777′s poignant WHAT ABOUT REZ!? post. Of course I did! He’s from the land of Old, that Ebert guy, where people scrape their walkers along the sidewalk and scream at teens to stop huffing Windex. Maybe video games haven’t had their Citizen Kane yet — but it’s sure as hell not the medium’s fault. They’ll get there. The demoscene is flourishing! People are doing great things with Game Boy Cameras. Machinima. Chiptunes. Those assholes will see, the whole damn lot of them. Etc.
I’m getting to the point where I can see that, from a certain perspective, he’s right, and it’s highly unlikely that it’ll get better anytime soon. That big, sprawling, perfect game that will make everyone sit up and say Yes . . . ART.
It’s not coming.
It’s easy to pick targets.
1. The Fans
Ultimately, we’re the ones spending the money to prop the beast up, so most of the shit should settle squarely in our laps. I bought Final Fantasy III for the DS recently; I should probably burn for that. I should probably burn for mowing all those lawns as a kid for the sake of Turtles in Time. I should probably burn for Dotstream. I should probably burn . . . well, there wouldn’t be much left to burn, I guess. Pour some gas on it, burn it again.
Because there’s nothing there, really — it’s a constant itching of neural pathways that have no business being itched; a constant worthless massaging of the same old chemical release receptors. Autonomic fellatio. Masturbation. Nothing being accomplished, again and again, sequel after retread after empty nostalgic joke.
But we’re not laughing, because we don’t get it. Video games were one of the great cosmic pranks of our generation, but the chuckle went straight over our heads. Our parents weren’t quite sure about those games — they might be, y’know, addictive, or something — but they made the kids happier than anything else in the world on Christmas morning, and when they were trying to perfect the Triangle Jump they weren’t using a laundry marker on the walls.
And now, having grown up in that odd, weirdly-rendered place . . .
It’s the only one that feels right. There are these — you know, these new games, but they don’t quite have that red-hot old-school feel. It’s gone. Nothing feels crispy/clicky enough; the fully-orchestrated soundtracks have a hollowness that dedicated Super Famicom sound chips never did. The more polygons they added, the less substance there is. Something’s somehow . . . missing.
What’s missing is us, being a kid, wanting games so bad that we saw them flickering behind our eyelids while we slept; a Fruit Roll-Up hanging out of our mouths as we tried to figure out a workable way of playing with the sound down low enough that we wouldn’t get caught playing Boogerman at 4:28 in the morning. We grew — well, maybe not up, but older, certainly. And there’s a fork now, a split, with the future in front and the past in the back.
The past has been completely strip-mined. Emulation, roms, homebrew; everything we so desperately needed at age eight hovers within the most half-hearted grasp. Video games are everywhere; the perceived value drops like a fucking rock. That precious scarcity — that brain defect that kept you playing Bugs Bunny’s Crazy Castle up to the CONGRATULATION screen — has disappeared.
But . . . I mean, it can’t be you, can it? And it can’t be the games. Those games were great!
So you make a few oil paintings of Dig Dug and try to remember.
The future is full of liars. That good thing — that really good thing is just around the corner, another 60 dollars away. And sometimes, you know, it kind of works. You feel it, and there’s kind of that laughter in the back of your head, and you’re that kid in footy pajamas spinning in front of the Christmas tree.
Except . . . except you aren’t, and for every minute of tingles there are hours and hours and hours of oatmeal-gray nothing. But there are those tingles, and they keep you buying, and the buying keeps you in a constant state of semi-disappointment.
So you make a few oil paintings of Dig Dug and try to remember.
The present . . . well, the present’s a mix of the past and the future, and it’s utterly fucking ridiculous. The fans have demanded front-row seats to Aeris’s Neverending Funeral; they’ve got the money, and they sure as hell have the time. So they buy, and they complain, and they complain and they buy.
Sometimes they make a few oil paintings of Dig Dug and try to remember.
2. The Game Companies
Actually, these guys are pretty blameless.
People would riot in the streets if McDonald’s closed.
Can you see the beauty in a Brittney Spears release?
Can you spot the sparkling juicy center in a perfect omnipotent scam?
It does take a certain amount of balls. Big, angry balls full of harmful indifference. You need to be able to stare at someone with unblinking eyes, figure out objectively what will get cash out of them, run it past the legal department, and whistle an angry pirate dirge all the way to the bank. It’s hard to find one single person who will be that unconscionably shitty to someone, so some enterprising individual invented The Corporation to dilute the guilt and jack up the puissance by some breathtaking order of magnitude.
Things have spiraled. Games have to be huge, unwieldy bastards — huge budgets, huger rewards, the lowest possible amounts of focus-tested risk. Sequels and retreads and Madden are the only things safe enough to touch, turning the entire unwashed industry into a gangly cipher predicated on nostalgia and moe and palette swaps. Indies toil into the night, dreaming of the day when a media conglomerate will cut them a check. Gravediggers in Liverpool refuse to bury the dead.
3. The Hardware Companies
Movies are great, because they’ve been in a format that people can deal with for a hundred years . . . people shuffle into a big dark room and sit there for a couple hours. People like shuffling into a big dark room, because their parents taught them how to do it when they were young.
The great thing about it is the whole locked-in nature of the experience; people know what will be in there. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a filthy torture room for showing propaganda films or a 1000-seat stadium theater; it’s still going to be something to sit on and a screen on the wall. Even when they came up with the television — same thing. The only things they were really adding there were quick access to your own snacks and bathroom.
Something that people definitely hate is inane bickering and in-fighting among multinational electronics makers and content companies. People don’t want to bet the farm or the Christmas budget on the next big format war; they don’t want to buy the same movie collections again and again in a wide array of formats. They want to see the kids jump around in front of the Christmas tree a bit, and try to still afford to send them to University at some point it the hazy optimistic future.
Still, you’ve gotta buy something.
The main thrust is that you’ve got a perfect trifecta of hateful co-dependence. The hardware companies breed a constant sense of forward-thinking dissatisfaction with the current generation of technology, which gets dumped gently onto the heads of the Loyal Customer. The Customer stews in it, rolls it around, and turns a green shade of schizophrenic . . . sharply divided between a nostalgia for what gaming was, and a hungry raw desire for what it could be. These disparate pieces are picked up off the floor, given a cursory dusting, and then fed into the Hit Machine. An attempt is made to jostle them into some sort of product. It fails on almost every level. It sells.
And here then, is the sticking point; the reason that gaming as is will never have its Kane:
Those industry jokes I mentioned — Takeshi, Desert Bus — are not fun games. If they were, they’d be entirely above any type of criticism. This has always been the deciding factor; if a game is fun, it’s a good game. If it’s not fun, it’s bad. This, though, is an almost farcically bad way to judge art. Art is as expressive as language itself — more, even. It can disgust people, or inspire awe, or make children think about cats. To limit game design to what people find entertaining is to admit defeat before you code your first INCLUDE statement.
Don’t get bogged in semantics: if you don’t like the phrase “Art,” try “unfettered medium for creative expression”. With a $200 video camera, I can shoot a documentary, or a porno, or a biopic, or a human drama. I can get studio funding for a small-budget indie release, or press for a full-budget prestige film. None of these avenues are open to me in gaming. Ideas that would be easy to pitch in any other medium seem ridiculous when mentioned in a gaming context. For example:
I have an idea for a survival horror game called Bruised. You play a single parent fighting to save her children from an abusive non-custodial father. The game has nothing but bad endings: you can save the girls, but the father commits suicide in front of them. You can save one girl but not the other, dooming one to a life of chaos and abuse. The profits from the game go to support local women’s shelters.
This game would be almost cliche to try and pitch as a book or movie, but what game studio would take it on? Who would play it in numbers large enough to justify the cost? The types of people to pay money for that kind of human drama would never be able to suss the dizzying amount of specialized knowledge and assumptions needed to play modern games; the greater gaming public would never have an interest in shelling out money for what was sure to be a bummer of a time.
So then: new markets, new blood. But how? New inputs aren’t the cure — while Wii Sports certainly showed a lot of people that pretending to bowl could be a fun time, the vertical nature of console releases ties the experience to a single corporate entity, robbing any title of the universality other mediums enjoy. Yes, Rez, yes, Killer7, but innovation isn’t even the cure: innovation is consistently and continually punished. Innovative titles that succeed are recycled and lobotomized; those that fail are considered bad ideas that just don’t work.
So then: the downloadable market. Indie releases, crafted with care and sold by people with scruples. Again, you run up against the same issues; the titles are locked to specific consoles which are in turn controlled by the majors. Try releasing your Super Columbine RPG on Live.
So then: distribute via PC . . . let Rome burn, while the indies code together games that will really challenge the status quo. Again, you’ve got a missing audience. Gamers lusting for the bleeding edge won’t spend more than a few minutes on a cobbled Game Maker title; even non-gamers are familiar enough with the medium to know when things lack a budget. At best, the indie scene is a poetry slam – - there’s an audience of sorts, but it’s just other people waiting to read.
Is there a solution – - something that can save the most promising medium in history? Something that can wrest it out of control of the least common denominator, make things evolve?
I would propose that, yeah, kinda . . . but nobody’s going to like it.
Games, as a medium, need a massive re-branding. Get angel funding. Come up with 5 concepts that have never been done in the history of gaming – - bonus points if you can do it without mentioning the Holocaust. Get non-industry people all over it; screenwriters, novelists, visual artists. Combine them with the talented and frustrated designers who have been dying to show people the explosive potential of games as a medium . . . and then, don’t call them games. Open at a museum, a gallery. Don’t invite the gaming press. No branded controllers. No logos. No sponsorship. Keep it clean; present the experiences as just that: experiences. Show a group of previously uninterested people how accessible and compelling something like this can be. Create the demand.
. . . or, you know, don’t. The amazing thing about gamers is how flexible they can be; games are either an evolving, progressing medium or c’mon, just video games, depending on how the conversation is blowing at a given moment. That persistent insularity is striking; if the video game industry has managed anything at all, it is a sense of community. From the PR flacks who prophesize the upcoming New Electric Jesus, to the stinking marauders that squirt him out just in time for Christmas, to the part-time tart that slides her ass into a vinyl SEGA skirt and glimmers for the cameras, to the sad and lacking wretches missing their children’s birthdays to make sure that the new Ridge Racer has enough lens flares, to the slouching teen level-grinding on his parent’s lawn to ensure enough ready cash to buy What’s Next, to the game journalists blithely retyping press releases on their bare and hairy legs at two o’clock in the morning to the strains of Bowie’s Rebel Rebel, to the countless scraps of lowercase web chatter noting that there are a couple of missteps, but overall a surprisingly competent entry to the series, to the brown-spotted old money men eating thinly-sliced horse in smoke-heavy izakayas laughing and laughing and laughing and pretending to laugh . . .
They’ve all got a place in the Church. They all hang together, pulled together by slight and invisible forces. And yet you’ve got a slim few . . . the children that somehow managed to slip away . . . Takeshi and the others . . .
They shine. Not for the enjoyment they provide, you see, but for the enjoyment they don’t provide. They are the Art that games aren’t. They are selfish objects, wringing a terrible revenge from a subculture that deserves to be punished. When you strip the fun away, you see Gaming for the bony white husk that it is . . . sad masses of cells tapping plastic in the dark, wondering where all the loneliness and depression are coming from.
That’s not just a failure of an industry.
That’s a failure of biology.
–brendan lee is going for a walk