We all know there’s more to video games than guns and shooting, but it doesn't always feel that way
We all know there’s more to video games than guns and shooting, but it doesn't always feel that way
Gaming’s focus on big-budget first-person shooters has parallels with Hollywood's obsession with superheroes or publishing’s with young adult fiction – though there’s often a lot more going on beneath the biggest blockbusters, they're the product of a risk-averse mindset that's common to all flavors of mass entertainment that makes anything out of the ordinary difficult to get off the ground. Star Wars, Harry Potter, and even the Beatles all struggled initially to find a sponsor.
Risk brings the biggest rewards. Across the board – in gaming, music, TV, film and publishing – it's original or innovative ideas that produce the biggest successes, so while games have mined some genres to exhaustion (it’s hard to imagine a driving game ever stirring up as much enthusiasm as Ridge Racer or the original Gran Turismo did back in the day) others have been almost completely ignored – or merely poked at.
Here’s four neglected genres we’d love to see the marquee game studios take a bigger swing at.
The Political Drama
2016 was a watershed for politics on both sides of the Atlantic. It was the year when the decision to do away with expert opinion and replace it with vague optimism proved a surprising vote winner. In the US, half-baked ideas – like getting rid of Obamacare and replacing it with "something better" – immediately became vanguard policies. Meanwhile, over in the UK, Brexit supporters were finding it's surprisingly easy to take your country back if no one else had actually stolen it in the first place.
Given how much is wrong with the world, who wouldn’t want a chance to take the reins of power and put everything right?
Surprising, then, that political games – particularly those that take you into the corridors of power – are thin on the ground. The indie game Democracy enjoyed a new iteration last year, but it is more of a satire on government than a simulation of it. This War of Mine, with its unusual premise of civilians trying to survive in a besieged city, is literally an exercise in crisis management as players take responsibility for the economic, social and welfare needs of their beleaguered citizens. However, as in Papers Please and Orwell – where, respectively, players take on the role of immigration officers and state surveillance operatives in fictional dictatorships – the emphasis is on managing a dystopia, rather than trying to build a utopia. Whatever our own political persuasion, we can but hope that the real leaders of the free world are shooting for the latter.
There’s far more to running one of the world’s leading democracies than platitudes, micromanagement and spreadsheets. Changing lives by delivering big ideas could be exciting, and involves building relationships through dialog, doing deals and, above all, convincing the electorate that whatever is happening, you are the best person for the job.
Complex economic and social modelling software is now widely available so developers would hardly be starting from scratch. Such a game could actually prove to be socially useful. For example, people could discover for themselves just how easy (Donald Trump and Nigel Farage) or difficult (The Rest) it really is to reduce immigration and international free trade, whilst maintaining enough construction workers, doctors, teachers and consumers to ensure the future wellbeing of your citizens and their economy. The fail state would be an actual failed state.
Mainstream games have occasionally fumbled with buttons and zippers to explore sex. Almost uniformly, these have been a joke: like a means without an end (see God of War, Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball). However, as unedifying as GTA III’s carpark congress with a hooker may have been, for a long time it was pretty much as close as you’d get to any actual in-game romance.
Designers have occasionally taken the rose between their teeth. The Sims: Hot Date was an authentic simulation of real-world dating (as imagined by an adolescent with a sheltered upbringing). At the other end of the spectrum, but no more realistic, is The Witcher series' Geralt of Rivia wining and dining a selection of pneumatic sorceresses in the hope of eventually bedding them. Uncharted 4 goes further and attempts to answer a bigger question: namely, how do couples brought together in extreme adversity cope when they get back to normal life?
For me, those scenes in the apartment with Nate and Elena were some of the most tense in the entire game for all the wrong reasons: there’s more chemistry happening on the surface of Ceres than there was in that loft. This was a relationship that felt about as natural as polystyrene, with almost every utterance the set up for yet another zinger. Keeping up the comedy must have been more draining than climbing a Mayan temple.
Clearly there’s plenty of scope for improvement. Romcoms were once a box office banker, and the TV show Friends – literally the romcom to end all romcoms – wasn't shy about its zinger-setups either but you could argue (and some have) that it had a profound influence on the lifestyles of its viewers and every comedy show that followed. At a time when proportionately more and more young people moved away from home, hanging out with friends in coffee shops replaced spending time at home with Mom and Dad.
Surely games could reinvigorate the format? With the explosion in online dating, the timely emergence of VR presents the perfect starting point for an interactive reboot.
The One Where Joey Straps On An Oculus Headset and Haptic Tetrasuit, anyone?
The Police Procedural
There have been very few attempts to produce a genuine police procedural game. The fact that Rockstar’s LA Noire – the most recent, big budget title in the category – was released way back in 2011 gives a sense of the challenges involved.
Crime has provided the inspiration for some of the greatest movies, books and TV shows of all time. Gaming’s contribution is certainly up there with the best of them thanks to the GTA series, but unlike linear media forms, its exploration of exuberant criminality is almost entirely one-sided: the allegedly more mundane aspect of being a cop has rarely been featured.
There is an argument that police procedurals are simply too formulaic. That would certainly have been true 10 years ago whatever the medium, but the subsequent success of The Wire and The Killing or Stieg Larsson’s complex Millennium trilogy has redefined how procedurals can work on page and screen. Bathos has been replaced with pathos, so rather than ensuring that Miss Marple or Columbo clear things up tritely in 45 minutes, procedurals now immerse viewers and readers in the details of a single case across an entire series or several volumes.
In that company, LA Noire, regardless of its 1940s setting and impressive production design, felt dated at the time of its release. In narrative style it owed more to Fifties perp-of-the-week series Dragnet than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its reliance on being able to tell whether the suspect is lying was fundamentally flawed. In reality, this is a next-to-impossible task even for those whose job is interrogation. Real world policing involves exploring various lines of inquiry to gather evidence and build a case.
LA Noire’s shortcomings provided some of the inspiration for Sam Barlow’s 2015 indie hit Her Story. Essentially an interactive movie, Her Story captures the investigative ambiguity typical of modern procedurals as players sift through an archive of police interviews with witnesses and suspects, piecing together different strands of evidence to build a true picture of events.
Batman and The Witcher series have also incorporated procedural elements – both Batman’s detective mode and Geralt’s witcher senses work in similar ways, allowing the character to investigate incident scenes and uncover hidden evidence by highlighting objects of interest. Just as in Her Story, these features help to push the narrative forwards.
It’s not too difficult to see how these elements could be combined into a compelling format. Perhaps initial evidence gathering could develop various lines of inquiry that would culminate in a manhunt. An example of how such a finale might work is provided by CBS’s forthcoming reality-meets-game-show series Hunted – a remake of a hugely popular UK series of the same name – with many video game trappings.
In the original show, a team of desk-bound hunters replicated the omnipresent technological resources of the state to capture 14 escapees – most usefully the CCTV network, phone and computer hacking and access to banking and credit card activity of not only the escapees but also family and friends. The escapees had to choose whether to hide in plain sight and blend in with the urban crowd or rough it in the sticks. The hunters were also aided by more traditional resources such as dogs, mobile ground units and helicopters, but most usefully of all by members of the public who it seemed would have cheerfully turned in their own mothers in return for a few dollars.
Some games have flirted with idea of what it means to be human. With its titular nod to Friedrich Nietzsche, the Deus Ex series allows players to experience a transhumanist future populated by cybernetically augmented ubermensch, while the games of David Cage and Team Ico have clearly been inspired by existentialism, featuring desperate, powerless protagonists in a worlds that are essentially meaningless (albeit, in the latter case very beautiful). So far, however, as Cage himself will admit, we are merely scratching the surface in terms of games that examine the inner self.
Vernor Vinge, the computer scientist and sci-fi writer, originally developed the technological singularity hypothesis to define a point when artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence. He argues that such an event would lead to runaway technological growth, the results of which would be "as incomprehensible to us today as opera is to flatworms." If nothing else, Vinge’s prediction certainly provides designers with plenty to go at.
Some of the implications for gaming have been explored: just not within video games themselves. The protagonist in Greg Egan’s 1994 book Permutation City is an self-aware avatar, a computer copy of a real person, living out a depressing existence in a virtual city populated by rudimentary bots. The book poses the question: what is the difference between a real human and a perfect digital simulation of a human?
It’s a theme that's continually fascinating, so surely it’s time for games to take a view and engage in a bit of navel gazing? Braid – indie developer Jonathan Blow's epic letter to lost love disguised as a time-bending platform game – is one of the most memorable things I’ve played, largely because it’s one of the few that seemed to have a sense of itself. Back in 1982, we were being told that the amazing thing about Melbourne House's The Hobbit game on the ZXSpectrum home computer was that "the characters appear to live." I still don’t really know what that meant, but it sounds as exciting now as it did at the time. Using much the same theme, last year’s hit TV series Westworld stole a march and explored what it might be like to be an artificially intelligent video game character (probably).
We could push things further. Augmented and virtual reality would make it possible to imagine what might happen following the singularity. Human lifespans could conceivably extend into the thousands or tens of thousands of years. Concepts we take for granted, such as beginnings and endings, would cease to have any meaning. Players would encounter characters and creatures whose abilities, motives and behavior are utterly unfathomable. If you're having trouble visualizing that one, just imagine being trapped in a looping cutscene from Metal Gear 4.
Equally conceivable in theory are lifespans in the millions of years. What impact would have on the human mind? At that scale, the future of the Universe itself would be as pressing an issue as climate change is today.
Your mission is to prevent known space’s descent into entropy. You have only all of creation and six billion years to achieve this.
(Okay, maybe that one's pushing it).
Steve McKevitt is a UK cultural critic, science writer and the author of Everything Now. He spent many years as the communications lead for the storied UK game studio, Gremlin Interactive.