Those Big Budget Holiday Romances…

With the Christmas Glut fast approaching like a raging herd of mutant buffalo, it’s easy to get exasperated over the concept of there being very few shining gems amongst everything being released. But I don’t mind some of the rough ones. It just makes me appreciate the gems and I still have fun on the way…

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It’s easy to see big-budget games as some kind of metaphor for the industry.

It doesn’t take much to look upon the industry and see an ocean of games which aren’t exactly great. Games which in some cases are sequels to games which were fantastic, but with the addition of millions more dollars seemed to have descended into mediocrity, and sometimes games which are just divisive enough to cause general heartache. I don’t personally believe anyone sets out to make anything less than perfection – yes Mr. Molyneux, I include you in this (just) – but you don’t always hit the mark. I said beforehand that this industry relies a lot on the human element, of doing what someone thinks is the right thing. Which is always subjective and doesn’t always end up being the right thing in context. Games rise and fall, their budgets should be irrelevant to the discussion. A good game should be a good game, whether it cost $120,000 or a hundred million dollars.

But we come back to the debate of money primarily because the extra money these games enjoy also means more advertising; they are the poster-children for the current state of the gaming industry, an indicator of how it is holding up as it were. Not always true, but that is the image they project. And as we come up to the Christmas Rush, where you’ll see more and more games pushed in a market that will by the end of the year be positively groaning with games. Those who can afford television slots, magazine covers and billboards will always be the ones with the most money – as I said in my previous post about advertising, it’s a curious thing but what I didn’t mention there was the industry needs the media as much as the media needs the industry; neither can function without the other. So games that are being pushed via money into the public consciousness will always, inevitably, be the ones which get featured and talked about the most. The media has no real choice but to talk about Call of Duty, or Battlefield or Resident Evil. These games are huge. The reaction is tangible. Therefore we are suckered into talking about them and their position in the market, how they reflect the market and our society in general. As much as some see this as money invading the media, really it’s the media being pushed into it by us, the consumers, who are often suckered into buying the latest instalment of an identifiable brand. We can’t absolve ourselves of our own position in the grand scheme of things, after all.

The thing is, we generally lament these games because they actually turn out to be not that good really. They’re alright, of course. Very few of them are bad and an extraordinary minority will push really, truly awful. But rarely will they inspire, touch and change us. Most of them will last for as long as the holidays in which they choose to push themselves; reflecting the commercialisation of an event which culminates in everything being shoved into the back of a cupboard until we do it all again next year, when they want us to buy everything again new. And we forget we have the old stuff, so yup, we buy the new stuff too. But here’s the shocker of this article – that’s not a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing at all.

You see, it’s easy for bloggers like me and high-brow ponces who profess to be journalists to get into the moral and ethical judgements of gaming, to peel back the layers and get at the sweet, gooey insides of a truly deep, profoundly enjoyable experience. But equally, I must admit it – I’m not above a brainless shooter-fest or two. Not for long, and not all the time. But there’s a time and a place for it. The holidays are generally as good a time as any, when there’s bugger all on television, we’re subjected to the same nauseating Christmas-themed movies of yesteryear we’ve enjoyed every single year for up to three consecutive decades and especially for me as I don’t really have anyone around at Christmas. I don’t have to cook a big meal, and with few people online and most enjoying their social gathering time, I find in that situation a little brainless entertainment can be seriously entertaining. There is nothing inherently WRONG with Call of Duty, or Battlefield. I don’t mind them. But I won’t be playing them for the rest of the year either – we meet, we have fun and enjoy a few days in each others company but at the end of the day to me it’s no more than a holiday romance, and when it is over and better games get shoved through my letterbox or put on Steam we must part ways. We remember the fun. It wasn’t perfect, or deep or meaningful in any way. But it was what it was. A little fun during the holidays.

We can argue the toss all day long about the inherent quality issues inside these games; we can point out that they are in fact mostly shallow self-indulgent pieces of literary and ethical trash that should have no real place in a modern, tolerant society. But you see, I like having them there. We shouldn’t discount their worth just because we don’t agree with them, after all. I don’t particularly like Frankie Boyle and his brand of comedy, but that doesn’t mean I can’t say that Mock the Week has been pretty damn crap since his departure. In a safe topical news panel show, Frankie was always the stick of dynamite with a lit fuse. It was going to explode. You knew it. And that made it exciting along with the safe, familiar format. On his own, you know holding a lit stick of dynamite isn’t going to end well. Frankie Boyle has some pretty extreme comedy leanings and I may not approve of them. But his spot in Mock the Week was not cheap, or tacky. It was the device that held it up for so long. What made it fun to watch. You wanted to see the reaction. You wanted to see the fallout. There’s no fun when something explodes in the safety of its own environment, nor is there fun when you know there’s no explosion imminent. It’s like sticking Worcester Sauce into a burger. On its own, blergh. But there’s something about it that can lift the experience of something else.

I know Black Ops 2 won’t change my mind. But that is sort of the point.

I may have diverted there, but hopefully you’ll get my point; not everything can work on its own. If Call of Duty was released in, say, August when no other games are being released, you’d get the full impact and we’d all be horrified and revolted by it. Of course Call of Duty isn’t that good. This isn’t exactly a newsflash. But – and it’s a big one – in the middle of a packed winter holidays season, there’s something in it that just lifts everything. It kind of makes the better games better, and by token it itself mellows and becomes something more palatable. It has a point. It has a reason for being. And of course Activision know this; that’s why they release it during the Holidays. It’s perfectly serviceable when television and movies are failing to hold the interest; and they hope and are banking on you buying it and any extra content of the moment. For so many gamers, it’s a fling – I’ve noticed many times over when I go to my nearby independent games shop in, say, the first week of February and you know what you’re going to see on the pre-owned shelf. It doesn’t last, but that doesn’t make the experience any less valid. Sometimes a short affair can be just as fulfilling as a long one.

Indie and lower-budget games often get lost in the manic rush of the Christmas period; they can’t often afford the costs of advertising and therefore they will rely somewhat on the curious and those who really hate the usual commercial fare to start spreading the good word in their favour. And they will of course hold up for a lot, lot longer than the latest first-person-shooter. They are built with that in mind in most cases, they weather the storm and when it is all over, and the big plants have withered and died off, they come into bloom themselves. They hold on just long enough to ensure that they do get noticed when everything else has fallen to the sides. That is also good. That’s something to hold onto. We shouldn’t ignore the fact that by the time the Christmas period is over, sales happen. And sales generally means extra goods get sold off cheap. This is often when people will look for bargains, for those games which will last them a little longer. The sort they may not have been able or willing to buy before the holidays began. It’s still a perfectly valid way to get peoples attention, and in this case sometimes they will then continue in bloom for some time after that. People will notice them, talk about them and others will buy, at full price, the games they wouldn’t otherwise have felt a draw to.

It’s all too easy to dismiss the commercialisation of the market as something of a quality vs. quantity issue. But sometimes all you want is a burger. I don’t want to go to a fancy restaurant every night. You’d get bored of it after a while, I won’t play Dark Souls every day or even every week. But I’ll still enjoy an hour or two in World of Warcraft a few days a week, because it’s nice and I like to mix it up. If all I ever played were fantastic games that changed my life, my standards would be so high that it would take NASA a hundred years to get the propulsion necessary to reach me again. But equally, I won’t be happy to play utterly turgid tripe either. It still has to be fun, it still has to be a game. Sometimes you have to though, and the average and okay and alright ones as well. They combine, they culminate together and you get to enjoy a game for what it is first. You don’t look too deep from the outset. If things blossom, then go from there. But you still need those okay and short-lived experiences. They temper you down, they keep you grounded and realistic, knowing that a game still has to first of all entertain. If it does that, then it’s perfectly sound to call it a game and accept it as part of the market.

Will Zombi-U be a gem? Well, could well be. Who knows?

I don’t always want high-class. Sometimes I just want low-brow. And yes, sometimes I WANT to play a truly terrible game. Either through idle curiosity or simply because I personally want to rage at something. When your mood gets a little flat, sometimes it’s nice to have something you can get really angry about. It’s healthier and less complicated then self-harm.

But I accept that everything has its place. And no more so than in the impending march towards the Christmas Glut. If everything was bright and glorious, we wouldn’t be able to see how bright and glorious they were without the shadows, and the surfaces on which they shine and reflect from. You may not like bad games, you may not like average games, you may not like games that get exclusively pushed at this time of year. That’s fine. You don’t have to like anything.

You just need to know everything has its purpose, it’s part to play. Everything happens for a reason. Sure, they’re not going to change your life. It’s just a holiday romance in most cases.

But it’s a little fun on the way from the cradle to the grave. You may as well embrace it, even if it is only “good enough, I suppose…”

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