Postcards stcards From The e Clipping Plane
James Leach ach on why gaming tropes andnd clichés will endure
October saw the UK inflation rate rise to 1.3 per cent. Yes, I’m aware that this is the worst sentence in history with which to start a page about videogames. In fact, it’s the worst sentence in history to start anything you’d like people to read. But one of the big factors cited as causing this is the pre-Christmas sales figures of games.
We’re told time and time again what an important industry we work in, and yet we’re still surprised when there’s evidence for this. And for a minute, we all stop thinking about what we should be doing and wonder about the sheer difference we’re making to people’s lives. Not in a meaningful way, but simply because we’re all playing something now. And if we’re not, we know everyone else is.
Big games are events now. When something massive gets launched, it makes the news. It goes to show that this stuff is serious and needs to be taken seriously. Sometimes, though, I get the feeling that it isn’t. People in hoodies queue for days to buy an eagerly anticipated game, and we know that when they get it home, they’ll coo over the art, the physics and spine-tingling, reactionary music. But a year ago, when it was being created, we were deciding how many FedEx-style delivery missions we could get away with; whether the dependable second-in-command NPC dies a third of the way in, or two-thirds; and how to weigh the exchange rates for gems and armour according to how far the player has to go to sell or buy them.
Do we stick to the same formulas with these things because people want or expect them? Or do they expect them because that’s what they always get? Or do we do it simply because that’s what we always do?
The movie industry. Yes, I’m going to go there. Filmmakers don’t mind in the slightest when their products are described as romcoms, or zombie movies. The public get it, and if they’re fans of the genre, they know what they can expect. There just has to be a few twists and some new stuff somewhere, and everyone’s happy. Games are the same,
Nobody’s going to create a game so different it’s like discovering a new colour or musical note
surely? Running between a car and a bank while shooting people in the face is the same as running between a parked spaceship and a teleporter while shooting people facially. Shall we play cops and robbers today, or cowboys and indigenous Americans?
Surely all the truly different stuff is, as it always has been, coming from little indies and crazy breakaway teams? You’d think. But even in those usually mobile-based markets, the same familiar things appear. You race around collecting things and avoiding bad guys. You build towers along a path to fire at streams of marching enemies. You race against time to squeeze through tighter and tighter gaps. It’s all the same underneath, so it really is style and presentation that make all the difference.
There have been defined genres ever since there has been more than one game, and within those games there have been clichés or memes or tropes. And it doesn’t mean lazy thinking on behalf of the developers. It’s simply a way of providing things players know and love in a new and, ideally, exciting way. Take tower defence as an example: for some reason I love these games and will play as many different variations of them as I can. Underneath, they are the very definition of ‘all the same’ but, hey, this one has arrow towers which set the enemies on fire. I’ve never seen precisely that before, and I love it. Ooh, this tower sends the foe back to the start. I have seen that before, but this time the robots/ trolls/members of U2 lose hit points as it happens. I love it too! It’s just so novel!
So what have we learned? Perhaps we live in an age where no one’s doing vastly different and innovative stuff. Perhaps the industry is settling down and simply producing better, neater versions of things we all know and love. It might be a hardware thing – with greater processing power comes greater creativity. No, that’s not the case. We could make anything we wanted to right now. If we did, we’d do it better and more slickly in a few years, but unlike the movie revolutions – colour, sound, CGI and so on – nothing, not even VR, will change the fundamental nature of the games we’re making. Things will just get bigger, more real and more immersive. Of course, people will experiment, but nobody’s going to create a game so different it’s like discovering a new colour or musical note. That’s my cheerful prediction for the future and my regular reader knows I’m never wrong.
Right, I’m off to spend a few happy hours playing a wide variety of dissimilar games in which I have to collect gems to trade for slightly more protective armour.