A Gamer’s Perspective — Bureaucracy Is Killing Character In Games
Every now and then during one of my writing sessions I’ll finish off a paragraph, sentence or practically any train of thought which my mind was on, lean back in my chair (not too far, though – with the back rest being as shot as it is there is far too real a chance of me going ass over tits before I even realise it) and have myself a think. Not just any think, though. In fact, the term ‘think’ is woefully inadequate in describing the sort of depths and lengths to which this wandering of the mind goes; ‘muse’ is probably far more apt. Most of the time all these musings really do is show up uninvited on the doorstep of my consciousness, crash on my couch, eat all the pizza and slash my overall productivity in half, effectively tripling the amount of time it takes me to complete a column. I let it fly, though, because every now and then they bring a completely mind-blowing epiphany (or ‘sudden realisation of great truth’, as that chick from The Simpsons’ Movie put it) along with them. Some of the more notable epiphanies include insight into how the sweet and savoury combination of peanut butter and syrup on a sandwich works so damn well, comprehension of the profound political satire found in Pussy, Money, Weed by Li’l Wayne and, most importantly, the realisation that there are an awful lot of games out there.
Granted, that last one may initially seem significantly less profound and somewhat more self-evident than the other two but we love it all the same for it shall provide the basis for the subject matter of my column for today.
“But Duncan! Didn’t we already know that there are a lot of games out there and furthermore, how could that ever be column-worthy? It couldn’t really be anything but a good thing, and a column where you just told us how much you like that there are lots of games in the world would be quite a cop-out, don’t you think?”
My thoughts exactly, dear reader – that’s why I scrapped the first draft of this column. More relevantly, I’m not too sure I would be too hasty in jumping to the conclusion that more games immediately equals more awesome. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not by any means complaining that I as a gamer have my entertainment needs for the next ten years more than met. As with most things, though, the boom of the games industry in the last few years is a multifaceted issue and simplifying it to the level of objectively good or bad simply doesn’t do it justice. Unfortunately, neither my time nor your attention span allow me to fully unpack such an issue in this column so we’ll have to focus on something slightly more specific. How the ‘gaming boom’ has affected the character of games, for example.
Before this column gets unbearably vague, let’s narrow down exactly what I mean when I talk about the ‘character’ of a game. We aren’t talking about your Gordon Freemans, Zeldas or Marios here. We’re talking about an aspect of the nature of a game which gives it its individualism. Certain quirks or qualities which are particularly evident in a certain game which set it apart from the rest. The way I’m using the term here, the character of a game could be synonymous with the style of writing in an article. In the same way that an article with an engaging style can transform the arduous process of communicating an idea into an enjoyable experience, the character of a game can add new levels of depth and immersion to what would otherwise be a simple hack and slash adventure title.
Another parallel which can be drawn between style and character is that the presence of both is the product of the creator’s interest in their creation. Just as one gets a sense for when a writer has truly enjoyed writing a particular article, one senses too when a development team has truly poured all of their passion and energy into a game, making it not just for the sake of receiving a paycheck but because they truly want the world to see their game, and because they are devoted to making it a product entirely their own as much as a product of quality.
Character is probably the factor which makes a game most memorable and enjoyable for me. Sure, playing a relatively compelling or well-executed game can be fun and rewarding, but when I’m playing a game where the character is bordering on tangible it almost feels as if I’m sharing in something of the passion which the developers put into the game. I can feel how much they want their game to be enjoyed, and because of those I enjoy it all the more.
While reading this, you probably have a game or three coming to mind. Games which touched you and continue to stay with you long after the credits rolled – everyone sees something slightly different when they play a game, so the games will be different for everyone. The most pertinent examples of what I’m describing would, for me, be Borderlands and Fallout 3. Sure, both had their flaws and their areas of weakness but Gearbox and Bethesda put something special, something of themselves into those games and it is because of this that they resonated with me all the more.
Simply put, my concern is that the ‘gaming boom’ is significantly reducing how often we see a game with true ‘character’ released. As the games market has become more competitive and increasingly ruled by bureaucracy, we have seen the focus shift from simply producing a product of quality which the consumer can enjoy to simply meeting deadlines and having the damn thing finished so that it gets on the market in time for the sheep to lap it up.
Developers have started producing games to keep the fat cats from hanging them instead of out of a genuine passion for making a game. Sequels are created because a sequel is the best marketing decision and not because the developers can’t sleep at night knowing the fans don’t know how Soap’s story ends yet. The resultant bureaucracy of the ‘gaming boom’ has succeeded in sucking the soul out of game development in far too many cases, and it is because of this that we are seeing fewer and fewer games with true ‘character’ being released.
Ironically enough, though, character is probably something the games industry needs more than ever at the moment. With the markets as saturated as they are, games of a certain genre are becoming less and less distinguishable from their competition in that genre. To get that extra edge over their competitors, games these days need an ‘X Factor’. Most try to set themselves apart by emphasising a particular aspect of their game – the extremely realistic fire in Far Cry 2 or the emphasis on choice and the player’s impact on the story in the Mass Effect series, for example. I would argue that to truly set your game apart, you need more than simple gimmicks or ammunition for marketing campaigns; your game needs a soul.
We’ve already discussed that one can innately sense the passion which goes into the creation of a game, and appreciate the resultant character found in such a game. Zeal is contagious, and if the developers put a big enough dose into their games then both the reviewers and the consumers are going to lap it up and come crawling back for more, as is evident from the responses to the games still released today which do have ‘character’.
So, those of you with connections in the gaming industry: tell your buddies to throw their deadlines and checklists out of the window, give Bobby Kotick the Falcon Punch he deserves and bring the fun back into game development, so that we can reap the rewards.