Shoot first, ask questions later
Steven Poole on the danger of promising, well, anything
Afriendly man is pointing out things to me on the screen, and then says: “I don’t know why I’m pointing, you can’t see.” The reason I can’t see is because I’m in space, where, of course, you cannot see friendly men pointing at flatscreen monitors in a museum just outside Cambridge on Earth. Naturally, I am so amazed at being in space that I spend more time looking around the cockpit – wow, that planet over there! – than worrying about exactly where the other spacecraft is that is trying to shoot me. And so, in short order, I get blown up. In space.
Needless to say, my belated first experience of an Oculus Rift at the Elite:
Dangerous premiere left me pretty impressed. But much of the talk at the event, as people propped up bars or huddled under fighter jets in the Imperial War Museum’s vast aircraft hangar, was about a class of Elite fans (and backers of the Kickstarter) who had become decidedly, vocally unimpressed after the recent announcement that the game would no longer feature an offline singleplayer mode. You could understand their point of view: they gave money for development on the understanding that the game was to be a certain way, and it wasn’t going to be exactly that way. So they wanted their money back.
From a more disinterested standpoint, this story illustrates the quandaries of crowdfunded development in general. The whole point of development — whether in videogames, TV, or even book publishing — is that the final product is never going to be exactly as described in the initial pitch material. (A book contract, for example, will say that the finished manuscript must fulfil the initial promise to a ‘reasonable’ standard, which leaves a lot of room for change and argument.) In the vast majority of cases, changes during development and production will result in the finished product being much better than what was at first envisaged. Feeling obliged to stick too closely to one’s first ideas, then, is likely to stifle creative instincts. But if future developers, wary of the Elite case, choose instead to make only very vague promises, they are less likely to get funded in the first place. It would be a shame for such a precedent to be set.
All this, as another recent videogame imbroglio shows, is the opposite of the risk of traditional commercial funding, which is that if you don’t conduct your development in public, a botched initial release will generate a tsunami of bad feeling. “Ubisoft apologises for Assassin’s Creed”, read one headline, which initially caused me to wonder whether Ubisoft was belatedly expressing regret for making games that endorsed the creed of an assassin: that it’s all right to murder people. But no, it was just apologising for the bug-ridden mess of a game it sold to the public.
More serious criticisms of the game, however, were being made in a country that, understandably, took it personally: France. Leftist politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon said he was “disgusted by the propaganda” implicit in the game’s attitude to the French Revolution. “This denigration of the great Revolution is a dirty job that instils in the French people yet more self-disgust and belief in national decline.” His comrade in the Left Party, Alexis Corbière, said that Unity represented the Revolution as an “incomprehensible bloodbath, conducted by beasts”.
Other French commentators pointed out, with no little glee, a raft of historical errors in the game. In the part set in 1791, we see the Bastille still standing, even though it had been razed to the ground in 1789. Meanwhile in 1898, Arno can climb the Statue Of Liberty, even though it had already been sent to America 13 years previously. And so on. Quizzed about such anachronisms, the game’s associate producer, Antoine Vimal Du Monteil, pleaded that it wasn’t supposed to be a “history lesson”. The French Revolution was merely a “backdrop” to a story of love and moral dilemmas.
But this response is simply not good enough. A serious historical novel or film would rightly be criticised for such mistakes. Videogames don’t get to be sloppy with the source material if they want to sell themselves on the cultural kudos of factual authenticity, either. Naturally, if
Assassin’s Creed Unity had been Kickstarted on the promise to deliver an authentic recreation of revolutionary Paris, its backers would also now be demanding their money back. At least Elite: Dangerous is avoiding that particular pitfall by being set in the future, and in space.
Games don’t get to be sloppy with the source material if they want to sell themselves on the kudos of factual authenticity