One of these things is not like the other…
It’s sometimes hilarious to see someone justify their angry stance on Nintendo.
By this I of course mean the tired old trope of, “Nintendo games are bright and colourful and for kids!” – which is only partially true, of course, but that doesn’t matter. They are very quick to gloss over the whole notion that actual full completion of something like Super Mario Galaxy is actually very hard, even for an experienced gamer. They are eager to avoid discussions on the tactical depth and complexity of the Pokémon series that sees both kids and adults crunching numbers and reading detailed strategies, encouraging numeracy and literacy across the board. And they are more than happy to avoid any indication that Nintendo has the likes of Metroid, Zelda and Eternal Darkness in its back catalogue, games which one can argue aren’t explicitly aimed at children.
But this isn’t the case I want to make, it’s just the framework. It’s when you ask them what they deem as “Mature Games”, they will wheel out Call of Duty, Gears of War, Dishonored and Grand Theft Auto.
Now, I don’t want to be seen on a downer on any of these games. But if you were to ask me, none of them are really that mature. All of them are loud, shouty, sweary, bloody and silly affairs that provide adult-related spills, but to me, only the cheapest of thrills. I enjoyed Dishonored – I really did, but it wasn’t that complicated, and it didn’t last that long. The OTT nature of the Grand Theft Auto series sometimes baffles me, because it’s a side show rather than the main attraction, and Call of Duty is fun but shallow. I promise I will say nothing about Gears of War. Trust me, you don’t want me to go there. Ahem. My point here is that for most people, mature games are 18+, over-the-top, violent bloodsplosionfests full of conflict with little to no story or meaning getting in the way of that conflict.
But you know something? I’d say that’s not very mature at all.
What do I define as mature? How about the narrative serenity of something like Okami. A story all about darkness, conflict and the consequences of our actions. Sure, it’s done in an oriental artwork style and yes, it’s quite colourful as a result of that. But to dismiss it based solely upon its looks is to overlook a complex tale, full of strange people with a myriad of deep personal flaws, a reflection on the very nature of the human condition. The descendent of an ancient hero who is a fat, lazy alcoholic living the life on his genetic connections. A prophet who is so vain and conceited that he makes Paris Hilton look laidback and dressed down. A companion whose inability to control his short temper and eagerness to offend and belittle everyone he comes across creates nothing but problems for our silent wolf protagonist. Good people, but all have flaws, all have issues. Set on the backdrop of a world on the brink of destruction, the selfish nature of the humans involved and their inability to be grateful for the small mercies they have, it’s a complex and intelligent tale. One that I couldn’t see Grand Theft Auto V making, for example.
Or we could bring up Shadow of the Colossus, the simplicity of the gameplay driving the tale, with little extra garnish. A game focused on life and death, on grief and the desire to give and/or do anything to save the ones we love, no matter the cost and with a blatant disregard for the consequences of those actions. We may have to discuss the haunting melancholy of things like Limbo, deeply affecting and deceptively simple but completely charming nonetheless. Or the sombre tale of Bastion, the end of the world and the selfish actions of one person clinging to a grudge long since past its use-by date. We could talk for hours about the aged wine of genres in which The Legend of Grimrock inhabits, or the hundred-hour odyssey that comes from the dark menace of something like Dark Souls.
I find it quite concerning that when many talk about mature gaming, they come up with anything that is adult-rated only, as if an age rating is the only means of judging the maturity of the concept. And much as I stated last week, when I was discussing the notion of testing games like Fuse on twelve-year-olds, it seems to be an ingrained issue right from our youth that we should strive to be adults, that we have to bear our burdens as quickly as possible so others do not have to. The notion of an innocent childhood hasn’t been the case in my lifetime, from the age of about ten the push and the need to be a grown-up was almost overwhelming. In my case, it was the ability to escape my family, but in other cases it is simply to fit in and to contribute to society in some way.
From a young age, we are fascinated by the things adults can do. I remember sneaking into an 18-rated film once, watching from the back corner. I remember the game where I stayed up until 2am to watch some abysmal gory horror movie, remote clenched in hand in a game of chicken with my grandparents, ready to turn off at the faintest sound of them stirring and catching me, whilst also wanting to not stop too early or without cause so I could continue watching.
I also remember the urge to conform; the need to be like others. The right haircut (in my time, that was the Undercut. Thank heavens that’s no longer fashionable, I looked like a right twat with it!), the need to have the right brand, the right logo, the right trainers. To do what others in my peer group were doing – trying to lose their virginity, smoking and drinking, stealing and doing various illegal substances. None of this is a modern phenomenon – this was as true in my teenage years as it is today. The problem with being a child today is that from the age of about eight or nine, you are expected to be growing up. You are expected to mature, rapidly in some cases, and the only measure we have to grasp onto in this are those numbers, those big red labels that denote that they are for adults only. It doesn’t matter how dangerous they are, how horrible they are or how expensive they are. In the drive to drag ourselves out of immaturity and into the adult world, the gateways we aim for are those clearly marked for us.
Of course, we forget that most 18-rated movies and games aren’t really that mature. Oh sure, there is a lot of blood, a lot of gore and sometimes bare boobs and bums. But is that really mature?
I am in my 30’s. The problem with most of this, from a maturity angle, is that it’s legal. I’ve directed myself through the age-restricted gateways and now I look back and think, “Seriously? That’s IT?” Also, the mystery of much of these things is sort of gone. You quickly realise things like gambling usually involve losing money, often more than you have. You learn that getting so drunk that you wake up in a strange bed next to someone who resembles a severed horses head is not the brightest of things to do. You try smoking, realise that it makes you smell and likely can give you cancer, and you think, “I’ve got enough health issues without adding lung cancer onto that list, thanks…”. And as for porn, there’s only so much mystery left to deal with when you have a friend working in that space teling you about the various nasty things people watch (and the pathological hygiene standards involved in the industry!)…
I won’t say I’ve seen it all, that would be silly, but I’ve burned through much of the thrills and spills of what society constitutes as milestones for my growth into an adult, and approaching two decades on from the first thrilling realisation I was no longer considered a child and suddenly all this magical stuff was legal I am hit with the realisation that… they’re legal. There’s no excitement in them being naughty now. There’s no thrill in sneaking into a movie, because… I can legally watch the movie anyway! I could choose, like many, to smoke and drink until I vomit and then do so some more (which I did for a while and learned that actually, it’s not that much fun to make yourself violently sick…), I can do whatever the hell I want behind closed doors and no-one is going to stop me. The danger, the thrill, the sheer urge to do it because society tells me I can’t has been dead now for some years in my mind. People still chasing these things are chasing a youthful ideal of the nature of adulthood, and it’s a desperate thing that seems more and more to lead to botox, plastic surgery and the fight to stay an eighteen-year-old for as long as is humanly possible, if not slightly longer with the aid of some lasers and silicone.
Watching CSI: Vegas for years has also made me wince far less at the gore. We forget that we see worse violence and nastier topics in television today, with soap operas tackling everything from underage pregnancy and rape to infidelity and stealing babies and of course, mass murder. Any topic that video games tackle that seems to be breaking a taboo has likely already been tackled by someone in another medium, who have made a commercialised mint from the controversy surrounding their work.
So yes. When it comes to games I may somewhat half agree that the likes of Super Mario Land is bright and cheery and generally family-friendly. But I’ll also remind people that give me a few days and I will find them a stage in a Mario game that will make them swear so much that the air would turn physically blue from the cursive language. Give the likes of Okami a whirl and be sucked into a place where no-one is perfect, and it doesn’t matter because they are human beings and we all have flaws. Try out something like Metroid Prime, and feel the rug pulled from underneath you as you tumble down that rabbit hole into a whole new world, one of combat but also one of extreme beauty, a place that needs protecting as well as cleansing.
And just because we’re adults, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still be allowed to enjoy Sonic, or Mario, or Pokémon or any range of brightly-coloured games like Bastion or Viva Piñata. We have been conditioned over our lifetime to think that such things are only the exclusive domain of children, but in reality it’s what we enjoy in the 18+ bracket, our Resident Evil games and our Zombi-U’s and our GTA’s – that they want, and more than that, they seem to be where the majority of the market testing is aimed at too. There’s too much reactionary sensationalism over anything that is seemed to be aimed at a younger audience in the gaming landscape, and yet also too much reactionary sensationalism over the adult-aimed games which seem to be widely enjoyed by a younger audience without much in the way of problems. There’s no ideal middle ground, there’s no sense of a societal level playing field between the media constantly painting games as “for kids”, whilst condemning kids who play games “aimed at adults”. We haven’t yet managed to adjust the bar in some ways to accommodate the notion that it’s a wide-ranging hobby enjoyed by everyone be they eight or eighty. The market is still a bit fresh and the ability to sensationalise and drum up the controversy is still too easy, meaning that sure, the press will go, “Look! A new Sonic game!”. The moment an adult says it looks good, “What is wrong with you, you sick perv! That’s aimed at KIDS!”
People grow up, and in the modern era, they grow up so ridiculously fast that in some ways, the only time we get to appreciate the kind of pure gameplay enjoyment of something like Super Mario Galaxy is when we are adults, and we can sit back and relax and go, “You know what? This is actually really nice!”. More and more, children are playing age-restricted games and parents simply don’t care because they’re obviously the ones buying the games. The average age of a gamer is in their mid-thirties now. With children scrambling for the adult games, it’s nice to play something bright and breezy at times as an adult. It makes a change from sweary violence.
I still enjoy watching Roadrunner cartoons. I grew up on those, and they still entertain me. I have shown them to my niece. She’s six now. She’s the apple of my eye and I will always be her doting, over-protective uncle (and lord help any man who ever hurt her, because I will find a way to set them on fire WITH MY MIND!). But guess what? She’s already thinking about her weight. She wants to bare her belly in a cropped top because “all the other girls do”. She’s asked some awkward questions already about violence and sex because the other kids have been taking about it. She also asked me about the meaning of the four-letter “C”-Word. The mystery and magic of childhood at that age is already slipping through her fingers, and I find that incredibly sad. Is it weird then that I want to sit down and watch marathon sessions of Roadrunner with her, and show her the simple joys I had when I was younger – Mario, Zelda, Sonic, Looney Tunes? Is it strange I want to protect her from the over-sensualisation of the female form that already seems to have its nasty, evil little fingers firmly embedded in her brain? Is it wrong that I want to warn her of all the bad things, the horrible effects of alcohol and smoking and drugs and sleeping around before she even gets around to doing any of it, to ruin the mystery for her so completely and utterly in every conceivable detail that when the occasion and the pressure does arise she will be conditioned to turn away from it?
We need to readjust our view, because the world is not always the clear view we see it as. I will soon have a new nephew or niece brought into this world, I am thrilled and excited (and my savings are quaking in terror as I’m probably going to send some of it helping them out with the usual initial struggle of nappies, formula if they need it, the constant need for new clothes as they grow so quickly…) but I also fear for the world they will grow up in as much as my brother and sister-in-law will do. If they can’t see a grown-up they spend a lot of time around enjoying something like Mario, or embracing the twee and bright and breezy and fun, what message do we send them? If we give the impression that grown-ups play games full of swearing, smoking, booze and blood – they will want to emulate that. Because it’s the only thing to strive for in a world that is forcing them into an adult mindset earlier and earlier in their lives.
And yes, we gamers largely pushed for the HD Era. Do you remember the biggest selling point of HDTV’s? Do you remember how they were marketed? How they were sold to us, the big distinction that set them apart from the old CRT Televisions? No?
I’ll tell you; they were marketed on colour. More colour. Brighter colour. Clearer colour. Better colour.
It seems mad then that the one thing we pushed for in the HDTV era is the one thing so many are so eager to casually toss aside. I will continue, for my younger relations, to emanate an oasis of calm in a crazy world (not very hard now considering the medication I am on coupled with the inability to run around stressing myself out but still…). And yes, I will play any sodding game that I want to thanks very much for asking, be it BioShock Infinite or a new My Little Pony.
After all, only real men watch My Little Pony… right?