Postcards From The Clipping Plane
Conveniently ignoring the serious side of videogame development
James Leach contemplates sending Scrappy Doo to war
Nothing in popular culture ages as fast as games. They date with greater rapidity
than Russell Brand
As Maximus out of Gladiator once said, “Brothers, what we do in life… echoes in eternity.” This is true of people doing boring stuff like science and war and medicine, but it’s also of true of the real pioneers: the heroes who make videogames.
Nothing in popular culture ages as fast as games. They date with greater rapidity than Russell Brand. Of course, most of this is down to the advance of technology. Games are, after all, not just games, but showcases of computing prowess. What this means is that we can watch a movie from the ’ 70s and while we’re likely to be shocked (or inspired) by the fashions, we’re quickly going to be able to overlook the poor-quality film stock and lack of decent lighting. We’re also going to be able to relate to the story. Stories are, after all, timeless. And there are only seven variations of them, as every writer knows. For the record, these are: Star Wars, Avatar, Saw I, Saw II, Saw III, Saw IV and Frozen.
Games are, or were, written by gamers, though. When Aliens came out in 1986, every game in development at the time was influenced by it. I recall, although my memory might not be perfect, that even Super Mario
Bros 2 featured the little plumber in a mechanical loader suit burning the faces off Goombas. And during the early ’90s, when everyone in the UK loved and quoted Harry Enfield, his Television Programme and his Chums, there were, for shame, games in which dialogue like, “You don’t wanna do it like that!” featured. Indeed, Tarantino not only changed the movie world, he also changed gaming, because we watched the movies, absorbed the new style and allowed it to leach out into the games we were making.
Nowadays these things stand not as weathered monuments anchored to the living bedrock of the age in which they were crafted, but – at best – as homages to the Big Thing of the day. Far into the future, historians will gain a rare insight into our world, not just by seeing what was popular, but what was so popular it migrated across entire entertainment media. At worst, we’ll just look like a bunch of idiots slavishly copying our new favourite thing onto a computer the next day.
Big games take a little longer to write nowadays, which is a good way of preventing them simply borrowing the day’s water-cooler subject. Also, with more people working on them, there are more checks to stop this. All of which means that there aren’t a load of games on the brink of release that feature hilarious references to the “Such happy!” Doge meme. Or Grumpy Cat, or that ginger kid. Shiver.
I think I hate the insertion of time-coded chunks of out-of-game reality into products for many reasons. Obviously, it looks amateur. It looks needy. It also drops the player out of the world. A great many games are still set in very different realities. Sci-fi, fantasy, abstract planes – all sorts of places. A pop reference in those realms is like the Curiosity rover seeing a discarded burger wrapper on Mars.
There’s conceivably one place references could survive, though: modern combat games. All the gung-ho banter of the COD: Modern
Warfare- type game is the natural home for chat about the outside world. Of course, by the time real memes, movies and tunes are mentioned, they’ll be old hat, so the way to do it is to use things so in-the-past and classic that a few extra years won’t make a difference. Films work up to Pulp Fiction. Music, but stop at Oasis. But, nope, you can’t use any online memes and net-based stuff. It’s all too soon.
And yet it’s increasingly my belief that you might in fact be able to reference absolutely anything in a modern combat game. First, there are things blowing up everywhere, and that puts a bit of chat about what’s on TV into some sort of context. Second, as players, we’re all aware that the army is full of tough people who sometimes seek to contextualise the world in which they live (a world where there are things blowing up everywhere, remember). They do this using things they all know: popular culture. And the biggest reason you could get away with this in a modern warfare game is that for quite a while now they have been featuring brutal and graphic depictions of Middle Eastern conflict. And no one’s batted an eyelid. Just think about that. Games featuring the inhabitants of the manifold countries east of the Mediterranean battling for control against the armies of the west. All that violence going down in-game and there hasn’t been one news story, let alone anyone getting shouty about it. No, I reckon you could even reference Scrappy Doo in glowing terms in a modern combat game and nobody would think twice.