So I went to this year’s Eurogamer Expo. It’s the biggest games show in the UK, with many of the most eagerly-anticipated games available to play on the show floor – games like Dishonored, Halo 4, DMC, Metal Gear Solid Rising: Revengeance (which, in the face of stiff competition, comfortably took the prize for most gnawingly stupid name of the show). I managed to get a press pass for the Thursday and Friday, and was looking forward to playing some of the bigger games, a lot of the smaller games, and attending some talks by industry veterans. I hoped I’d be able to draw some conclusions about the current trends in the videogame industry. I only really came to one conclusion, though: videogames are lazy as all hell.
I saw (and played) a handful of games that made me glad I decided to attend the expo, but these moments of quiet, happy surprise were startlingly rare. The smaller booths were filled with interesting games – Prison Architect, The Cave, Dream, and so on, but almost any time I saw huge posters, bright lights, and long lines, they surrounded something disappointing.
First, let’s get this disclaimer out of the way: The expo was absolutely packed, and there were some colossal lines on show. Many game sat behind a two + hour wait. So when it came to most of the big heavyweights I only watched, and didn’t play myself. Judging a game after watching someone else play it is like judging a film after reading the screenplay, so don’t take the following as anything like authoritative judgement on any individual game discussed.
I played some games. Company of Heroes 2 was doing its best to emulate the groundbreaking Men of War, but managed to differentiate itself by not being as good. Borderlands 2 was just a case of shooting robots while the game slowly jerks you off with a show of good numbers going up, bad numbers going down, and colour-coded loot erupting from the corpses of your enemies.
I watched people play other games – Halo 4, Metal Gear Solid Rising, DMC, and more. And apologies if this seems like the ranting of an old, old man, but they all just made me feel very tired. I watched a man play DMC, hitting demons with a scythe, shooting demons with a gun, and generally falling prey to fiddly platforming sections. Metal Gear Rising made a hell of a fuss of allowing people to use a sword to dismember enemies at whatever angles they choose. Halo 4 was guns all the way down. And at all times Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 announced its presence to the building with a near-eschatological showing of noise and violence.
People harp on a lot about ‘innovation’ in games, and while I’m not sure that word really has any solid meaning, I can tell you for certain what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean shinier graphics. It doesn’t mean the ability to slow time down and choose between making lacerations at either acute or obtuse angles. But every year big-budget games that recycle the same ideas over and over again, only with a usable crossbow added to one instalment and a usable tomahawk to the next, are propped up and given a standing ovation. I’m sure I’ll like more than a few of these games if and when I eventually play them, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t have these games, or even that we should be ashamed of them. I’m just saying we shouldn’t be so bloody proud of them, because regardless of how fun they turn out to be they’re still ultimately lazy.
And I know this laziness comes about in part because it costs a lot of money to make videogames, and a good way to ensure you get your money back is to play things safe. But it’s still laziness, and we can do so much better. And we are doing so much better. People are putting out countless unique, challenging, fascinating games all over the world. And not just small companies and solo developers with low overheads, but big, sometimes giant development studios. Look at Arkane’s Dishonored (which was one of the only inventive games receiving the million-dollar marketing treatment) . Look at From Software’s Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. Hell, people forget about this all the time, but look at Valve – they didn’t become the gaming monolith they are by being lazy and playing it safe. There’s no reason you can’t appeal to a big market, maybe even the mass market, and also do interesting things.
I don’t want the industry to be dismantled and replaced by indie teams. I don’t want all big games to be in-depth, non-violent explorations of human relationships (but, you know, one or two of them definitely wouldn’t hurt). I just hope that one day all the noise and the excitement will be directed towards the games that are actually doing the interesting things. The next Dishonoured, the next Demon’s or Dark Souls. The next The Witcher 2, The Walking Dead, and Spec Ops: The Line, and more.
These games should be the ones with millions of dollars of marketing behind them. They should be the mouthpieces of the industry and the medium. I realise that’s probably never going to happen, because the industry giants are adverse to risk. But the fact is that risk can bring great rewards, and I’m convinced that risky, intelligent games are the only things that are going to expand the market. We’re probably never going to convince the millions of people with no interest in gaming that they should play the next Call of Duty. But Spec Ops: The Line – a conflicted, uncomfortable exploration of violence and violent games? The Walking Dead – the story of a morally complex murderer taking care of a small child at the end of the world? These are things you can sell to non-gamers. And that’s a big, big market well worth capturing.
This isn’t strictly related, but I feel I have to comment on the ‘booth babes’ scattered around the show floor. Eurogamer have addressed this, and to their credit they’ve promised to issue a flat-out ‘no booth babe’ policy for next year’s show, but Christ. Christ.
Frankly, I think some of criticisms of the use of booth babes in game conventions are really bloody patronising to the women involved, and my issue is not so much with the ‘exploitation’ of these women (they’re adults who are capable of making their own decisions, and it doesn’t help the argument when you say ‘Oh, those poor girls, having to stand around all day in uncomfortable high heels, probably because they need the money’). My issue is with the fact that here we are as an industry, and this is still something that people do to promote their games.
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