This is it. End of the road. For those that stuck with it, I thank you; for those that didn’t, I don’t blame you. For all of us, though, it’s been one hell of a ride.
Let’s do this thing.
Reason Four: Gaming Can Be About Games, Again
When I was still a bright-eyed, optimistic young chap, I used to get the official Nintendo magazine every month and read that shit cover to cover. I waited six months for the release of Yoshi’s Story and played it enough times to convince myself that I didn’t completely waste my time and that hope wasn’t a barren wasteland of broken dreams.
I’m not entirely sure where I was going with that, but the point is that there was a time when I used to get genuinely hyped for the release of new games. More recently, the only thing I get truly excited for is seeing what’s going to go wrong first, and for a long time I assumed that was just the result of my growing jaded with age.
Then I discovered Steam.
In December, I acquired a comfortably specced laptop for less than an Xbone would have cost me. Since then, I have picked up over 25 games on Steam, and I have spent less than £50. Try and do that on a console. Any console. I fucking defy you to try. Even removing the price issue, because I’m aware it’s not the same bone of contention for everyone that it is for me, I did discover the strangest phenomenon while gaming on Steam…I started having fun. I didn’t realise just how bored I was with gaming and the interminable, linear cover-based corridor shootouts and set-piece explosions I’d resigned myself to until I started using Steam and suddenly it was like I was five years old again; letting the timer run out on Starlight Zone just so I could listen to the music one more time.
Suddenly, instead of a procession of ruggedly handsome, predicatably flawed caucasian skinheads with troubled pasts and ‘fuck you”s to spare, I could be a lumberjack who fights werewolves, or a samurai cat person, or a flatulent midget knight, or Ryan Gosling from the movie Drive. I used to think that it was variety if the generic protagonist I was piloting down a corridor happened to also be a ghost, but after taking the role of a teenage girl just dossing about her house in a thunderstorm and getting genuinely more engaged in the endeavour than any of the countless alien wars I’ve fought in, I realised what variety actually is.
It isn’t just who you’re controlling, but what you’re doing with them, and for the longest time I’d convinced myself that ‘shoot everything until dead’ was the only acceptable answer.
Don’t misunderstand, though, I am fully aware that there are drawbacks to this freedom. The ability for literally anyone to self-publish a game means that there is a lot of shit that gets through that otherwise wouldn’t have with more stringent quality controls —Newgrounds, alone, is testament to that— but, you know what? If that’s the price I have to pay, then I am fine with that. I’d rather pan a river of mediocrity to find the odd gold nugget than just live in a sewer where I see the same shit every single day.
The beauty of living in the age that we do is that it is almost impossible for developers to pull the same cloak and dagger bullshit they got away with when print media, store employees and word of mouth was all we had to inform our purchasing decisions. Nowadays, the only way a mainstream developer can slip that shit past us is if they flat-out lie about it, and even then the only people to get hurt are that race of peculiar mutants who still buy into the pre-order business model.
For the rest of us, it took less than an hour for the story of Aliens: Colonial Marines to spread like wildfire over the internet about what a heaping pile of shit the game was and, as a result, thousands of people who would have bought it if they hadn’t known better saved themselves forty bucks.
It’s the same reason that a game like Ride to Hell: Retribution can become a community-wide joke, whereas there was a time, not so long ago, when releasing games like that was standard practice for companies whose entire business strategy comprised scamming people who didn’t know any better. Really, in this day and age, you have nobody to blame but yourself when you end up buying a shitty game because there are an innumerable number of sources where you can gleam largely unbiased feedback.
That doesn’t necessarily mean your honest opinion will be welcome, mind you.
Even though it may require a bit more research than you’re used to, in the end the result will be your becoming a more informed buyer and, if you can’t be bothered with that, then you can always just stop playing games. Try to remember that that is always an option, by the way; there will always be other people to take your place.
So, as I was saying, while using Steam does mean having to dodge the occasional shit sandwich, meanwhile the most I have to look forward to on consoles is a procession of procedural, paint-by-numbers, pop-up shooting galleries; not including the games that are just straight-up sequels, (seriously, I thumbed through a release catalogue in GAME, the other day, and I can only recall two games that weren’t direct sequels or mash-ups, like the upcoming and utterly bewildering Professor Layton Versus Phoenix Wright game.)
Meanwhile, every time I think I’ve seen it all, on the PC side of things, a game will pop up where you play as a sheriff who is also a werewolf, or a lonely woman who kills herself and travels to Hell only to be told she has to go back and kill other people if she wants to die.
This stuff would never get a full-price console release, because it almost certainly wouldn’t sell as well as the procession of shooty sweary fuckers that pollute the landscape. And there is nothing wrong with those shooty sweary fuckers, in moderation, (I still hold The Darkness II in high esteem as one of my top ten games of all time,) but the entire point of a creative medium is supposed to be variety. The world of video games should be limited only by a developers imagination, not budgets and marketing figures, but instead publishers and a disinterested buying public have placed shackles on this creativity by only allowing the creation of something that looks like the last big thing.
The world of PC gaming has opened up a world of possibilities for me, and, cliched as it sounds, my only problem now is having too much choice: I literally don’t know where to start. I know I’ve been wanking off Steam a lot in this article but that’s only because so far I’ve got so much on my plate with all the games I got in the sale that I haven’t even had a chance to check out GoG or anything else. For the first time in over ten years, I am legitimately excited about the future of games.
And the best part? None of this will go away if the mainstream industry crashes.
This is the point many people fail to grasp about a video game crash, and why it could never happen the way it did in the 80’s. When the Atari flopped it was pretty much the major shareholder in terms of gaming demographics. I won’t repeat myself, but you can read my other article to see why this is no longer the case.
If publishers like EA closed their doors, tomorrow, all it would do is free up a huge number of creative people to work on whatever they wanted. Would the money be as good? Maybe not, but success stories like Super Meat Boy –a game that was made by two people and has sold more than two million copies (a number you might recognise as almost double the number of copies that the multi-million-dollar-budget Devil May Cry sold)– make it abundantly clear that it can happen if you are genuinely passionate about what you’re doing.
Obviously, it’s a bit of a dick move to hope for the unemployment of thousands of people, but what I’ve been trying to put across in these articles is that what I’m speaking about isn’t a hypothetical situation: I’m not saying ‘oh wouldn’t it be great if you all lost your jobs,’ I’m saying that, like it or not, the way the industry is going is in no way sustainable. Studios are constantly shutting down or reporting losses, almost all new releases are failing to meet sales targets because they are based on impossible moon figures, and the people pulling the strings and holding all the power are acting like there isn’t a problem. It is not a question of if there will be a crash but simply when, and how best to prepare for it.
It’s easy to just ride the wave while the getting is still good, but eventually that wave is going to come crashing down to earth, and I’m merely suggesting that it may be in the best interests of more talented developers who are in it for the games and not solely the money to start considering a move toward more independent ventures.
Moreover, a big shake-up like this would send a message to the triple-A industry about how toxic their presence has become, and that their corporate strategy of stamping out originality and forcing all games to march in a dull, predictable line is a vile and acidic process; actively rotting away the foundations of the community that they’ve so consistently been leeching off of for the past twenty-odd years.
Any big transition is a frightening and uncertain time, and the collapse of the mainstream gaming industry as we know it would send shockwaves through the community that would be felt for years to come, no doubt about it, but –ham-fisted analogy incoming– even though World War II was one of the biggest, most bloody battles in human history, wasn’t it worth it just to remove some evil from the world?
So, yeah, what I’m basically saying is that EA is Hitler.
[Disclaimer: I am fully aware that some of the games I championed in this article have had console releases, and I believe one was even funded by Microsoft, but given how awkward and restrictive console digital marketplaces remain, I kind of think my point still stands.]