Videogames, at their stupidest, are all about ‘roided up bros shootin’ aliens.
And last year was a year when we saw plenty of the gaming world at its most stupid, where an extremely vocal minority of “gamers” responded to criticism that many videogames are sexist through profane, aggressive, life-threatening sexism.
The ensuing discussion often dived into how samey games are, filled with their gravel-voiced brown-haired dudes, bland stubbled faces jutting out from their armor. And for many games, the critics were absolutely right.
But lately, the exceptions are boundless. It’s one of the biggest reasons for optimism about the industry. The unique, the innovative, the downright weird is everywhere.
In many senses, games face a similar split as movie industry: Big franchise blockbusters centered on a very limited number of premises lumber through the marketplace, dominating headlines and box office receipts. But at their feet, crowds of small, strange and ambitious works on the level of Boyhood and Snowpiercer scurry about.
In the shadows of the Grand Theft Autos, Far Crys, and various Calls of Duty, the variation and creativity in the videogame world is boundless. So yes, this year I played plenty of games where you shoot enemies, take over bases, assassinate guards, and blah the blah blah blah.
But I also played Gone Home, which is entirely about exploring an empty house after returning from Europe, rifling through your family’s rooms to find out about your dad’s writers block, your mom’s marital frustrations, and your sister’s lesbianism.
I played Papers, Please, where I double-checked entry paperwork for visitors to a fictional Eastern bloc dictatorship. I played winter survival simulator The Long Dark, a game with no aliens or enemy soldiers, but with biting cold, brutal blizzards, and howling wolves, where finding a sewing kit could mean the difference between life and death. On a whim, I even briefly played a game called Long Live the Queen, a strange anime game where if you don’t upgrade your decorating ability fast enough you will probably be murdered.
And then there’s Goat Simulator, where gameplay consists of jumping around and sticking your goat tongue out, goat-style. At one time, it would have been nearly impossible for developers to widely distribute games like these and get paid for it. Not today.
Simultaneously, you have two economic realities: Making a video game blockbuster is so expensive that making something that isn’t a sequel, reboot or spinoff is the sort of reckless risk than can destroy an entire studio. (Especially if that studio is run by a baseball player.)
But making a weird little passion project with a few of your friends? That’s easier than ever. Steam, a digital download service from a Bellevue-based company called Valve, sells thousands of games, including the latest Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. Vast numbers of those games are tiny projects from small indie developer crews, who now have a platform to sell games where, say, you’re nightwatchman at an off-brand Chuck E. Cheese’s, fending off animatronic monsters from your security console.
We’re still in the uneasy pioneer days of crowdfunding tools like Patreon and Kickstarter, but they promise even more games with strange premises or innovative gameplay. You no longer have to pitch publishers on your crazy idea. You just have to pitch the people who would be willing to pay to play it. Thanks to the “long tail” of the modern age, it’s easier than ever to find that niche.
It’s meant resurrections of previous dead genres (like point and click adventures and turn-based tactical strategy) and previously obscure genres like tower defense, where you build towers to fend off increasingly dangerous waves of enemies, have blown up into sensations with dozens of clever innovations. Similarly, there’s been an outpouring of “roguelikes,” highly-randomized games where, once your hero is dead, he’s dead. No reloading. You have to start from the beginning (though maybe with some coins, items or skills preserved) and play until you die again.
And then we have remixes and mashups of established genres in unique ways. Last night, I just started playing Dungeon of the Endless, which is a game that’s kind of like — well, I’m not sure how to describe it briefly.
It’s a sci-fi game about fighting aliens while exploring a facility on an alien planet. Doesn’t sound too innovative, right? Except you don’t micro-manage each unit directly, you just decide which rooms they go into and when they use their powers. Each time you open a door, a turn passes and a new wave of aliens attacks. And so you’re building resource generators and turrets to defend yourself and a power crystal. (If the crystal takes too much damage, the lights go out and your turrets start working.) But to finish the level, a team member has to lug that crystal all the way across the map to the exit while alien hordes are pouring out of the darkness.
You can see echoes of tower defense and roguelikes. It calls to mind aspects of League of Legends and Binding of Isaac and even Sim City. But in combining all these ingredients, and adding its own little flairs, Dungeon of the Endless invents what feels like a new genre.
These new innovations have a broad range in difficulty. On one hand you have the slew of easy “launch” games you can play from your browser, where you toss some poor sap – like a turtle, a sheep, a bison or a hamburger – across the land, and watch it bounce haplessly across the landscape. On the other hand, there are games where the controls are made intentionally obtuse and difficult, like in a game where, seriously, you are an octopus trying to pass as a human father. (It’s hard out there for an Octodad.)
Even hoary premises find new life by changing up the way the game is played. Consider the Walking Dead games from Telltale. Yes, the videogame world is already beset with a horde of zombie shooters. But the Walking Dead game, far superior to the TV show, isn’t about shooting zombies. It’s about talking with your fellow survivors, making tough choices, considering how you’d respond verbally to dire circumstances. When Walking Dead asks you what you want to say to a little girl while giving her a haircut, and it feels more important than any climactic boss battle.
Even new genres that seem pretty stupid are innovative in their own way: Farmville-style Click-Build-Wait style games dominate mobile gaming, while flash game sites like Kongregate have become rife with “idle” games, that have even less actual gameplay. (Literally, you wait until you accrue enough points to upgrade something, upgrade it to accrue points faster, and then wait to upgrade the next thing. That’s all.)
So, yes, games could still stand to be more original in their stories. (If I play one more game where heroes fall prey to “corruption” and suddenly turn evil, I will grow horns and start breathing fire.) Yes, many games could use a bit more diversity in making their protagonist someone other than Griff Strongjaw, Shooter of Bullets.
But when it comes to wild innovation in the gameplay itself — the gamey part of games — video games have never been more interesting.