I'm partially responsible, I guess.
Looking back, I can see that now. The mainstream video games industry is in a narrative rut, with worn science fiction and fantasy cliches and insular tropes. As a writer and gamer, I should challenge these things, but sometimes, out of habit or exhaustion, they are allowed to sneak past.
This week I wrote a feature about Destiny, the forthcoming space opera from Bungie. I had fun with the short hands-on demo, and enjoyed the game's complex interlocking upgrade systems, but I brushed aside its, let's say, "familiar" plot of alien forces vying over the fate of mankind. Then I read Patricia Hernandez on Kotaku, taking the game to task for its achingly conservative sci-fi set-up, and I realised I just let all of that fade into the background because, well, science fiction games are… science fiction games. Man making a desperate stand against overwhelming alien forces; a fresh attempt to rebuild a galactic empire.
I recognise that there are many gamers who absolutely buy into each title's individual interpretations of science fiction and fantasy lore. There are plenty of gamers who can tell you why the universe in Dragon's Age is very different from the one in Dark Souls, or Fable, or Runescape. There are myriad narrative sub-genres separating Mass Effect from Killzone, and Gears of War from Vanquish. Fans have developed an esoteric language of skill trees, buffs and area-of-effect weaponry to delineate between titles and styles and functions.
In the Middle Earth of it all
But then, the traditional RPG is still rooted in the staid, sexless world of Tolkien; the sci-fi blaster still hankers after the epic imperialist space wars imagined by Heinlein and E E Smith. As I mentioned in my feature on developers and books, the tastes and influences of the western industry are homogenised into a few sacred texts. And beside them the cinematic overlords of Star Wars, Blade Runner and Aliens.
At GDC last year, the game designer Chris Hecker took to the stage during the event's popular Developer's Rant sessions and delivered the following wordless talk:
His message couldn't have clearer: when developers say "taking design in entirely new directions", they often really mean "we have a new type of dragon"; when they say, "this is a game with complex moral choices", they mean "this is a game where you have to choose whether you do the good thing or the bad thing … but you'll lose points if you do the bad thing."
I spend a lot of time telling people of my age that games have changed. Then I sort of have to admit that a lot of them haven't. The same long swords and orcs and elves and Joseph Campbell-inspired mythic quests; the same assault rifles and shotguns; the same hulking space monsters and armour-plated hetero-heroes; the same lazy representations – or non-representations – of women. I'm not sure I can face playing another game with a twentysomething lead character sporting tattoos, a buzz cut and a bad attitude. I certainly couldn't face Infamous: Second Son.
It's sort of the fault of gamers, like me, who don't go for this sort of thing yet don't do enough to question it all. But then in our defence, it's like cinema in a way. When we go to a Hollywood blockbuster, we know what we will get, and we make an unspoken pact with the director: just don't bore me. I don't mind the cruddy dialogue, the creaking attitudes toward sex, race and gender, the laughable depiction of other cultures … just don't bore me. Sometimes I think we make that same pact with game developers.
Just don't bore me.
Hernandez is bored with what Destiny represents. I'm not there yet, but I read her article several times and saw in it a glimpse of an attitude perhaps every game writer should have – not one of weary resignation, but of creeping intolerance. In a lot of ways, things need to change.
The Kane gang
A few years ago people started asking, where is the Citizen Kane of games? They meant, where is the game that really challenges the status quo, that modernises it, that explodes old-assumptions about what the medium can do. The question became so common it's now a joke. But it's a joke with an edge. Because although there are plenty of candidates, what the question is really asking about games and art and respect, is a long way from what is happening.
What can happen? What small steps forward can be made? Well, take Game of Thrones. George R R Martin is only one of a number of authors who have sought to re-think the fantasy genre, but he is the most high profile, so a good place to start. While Tolkien based Middle Earth on a range of folkloric and religious texts, Martin wanted to analyse human nature at the extremes of unchecked power. His work is said to be grounded in history, in the violent and perverse world of the Plantagenet and Tudor courts, in the intricate struggles for authority, land and sex that shaped medieval life. In Game of Thrones, there are no heroes battering evil orcs; just men and women scrabbling for power and murdering those unfortunate enough to get in their way.
There are other exciting voices in this genre. The likes of Nnedi Okorafor and Mark Lawrence, or the more leftfield Paul Cornell and Nicola Griffith. As for sci-fi, we can look to Iain M Banks and the culture novels, or to the socio-political dread of Philip K Dick, or to JG Ballard's apocalypticpsychedelia, or the gender wars envisioned by Ursula K Le Guin or Margaret Atwood. I have no doubt at all that designers are reading these books and many more besides, but their influence isn't making it into game stories – and if they are, they are muted to such a degree that all resonance is lost.
Signs of life
I don't care about the end of mankind, or the dragon on the hill surrounded by gold. I just don't. I'm older now, and so are many other gamers; I haven't read Tolkien for years. I never want to again. But I love games that tell singular stories with enough room for the ambiguities of adulthood. There were signs of all this in Last of Us, of course, in the seams of the flawed Bioshock: Infinite, in the darkness enveloping Dishonored. Back further we can trace the tendrils of narrative possibility in Deus Ex; the complex mecha-human relationship twisting through Portal. And from the indie sector, the paranoia of Ether-One, the technicolourarmageddon of Bastion. There is true terror too: just look at Dead Space, Alien: Isolation and the Witcher series. Terror and darkness and loneliness – all of them can be beautifully explored in the form of demons and extraterrestrials without having to invoke the death of the human race, or the might of million-strong armies fighting thousand-year wars.
I really want to play Destiny more, it is a vast and intricate undertaking; Bungie are passionate and clever people – and I still do like shooting stuff. But if I'm really honest, I know I've had enough of saving mankind; I've had enough of space monsters and muscular men doing what they have to do, you know, because humanity.
The problem with the epic fantasy and science-fiction narratives in many mainstream games is that, almost by definition, they pan out too far from the pain and pleasure of individual life. "We want to wrestle with the big themes," say developers, but mankind versus aliens isn't a big theme. Here are some big themes. A violent parent versus a cowering child; a woman terrified by her aggressive husband, a boy falling in love with another boy, or anyone falling in love with anything, anywhere in time. All of us face obstacles greater than picking up a hyper shotgun and blasting a Level 12 Shock Trooper in the face – and most of them can be thrillingly explored through the lens of SF and fantasy. There are amazing personal and emotional stories to be told in these genres.
This is something else about Game of Thrones. It has been brought to the screen in a golden era of television. The life would have been crushed out of it as a movie, or even as a movie trilogy, but as a television series, there is time and space for intrigue and interplay. Mainstream games perhaps need to stop looking at film and start studying Dexter, Breaking Bad, Fringe, The Shield or Fargo. They need to give gamers the chance to grow into an intimate story experience and really inhabit it. (Game critic Jed Pressgrove pointed me toward this great feature about what games can learn from television on US blog SevenCut.)
I'm not saying all games should be soap operas or human dramas (and there is always going to be a market for, and developers of, pure escapist entertainment – don't fret about that), just that to truly push things, blockbusting mainstream games need to be infused with day-to-day humanity – and that they need to be about real, relatable struggles. Or, OK, they need to represent all of us; not just those of us who aspire to have buzz cuts and tattoos and rocket launchers. Some of us don't even want to be good.
I have nothing against humanity, but enough already. As Anthony Burch, writer of Borderlands 2, recently tweeted: "If the operative theme of your work is 'good v evil' or 'light v dark' what the fuck are you doing?"
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