Let me clear this up first; I’m not angry or upset or concerned about the scenes from Detroit: Become Human or The Last of Us: Part 2.
As I said in my last blog post – context is important, and sometimes that can be lost in the marketing and promotion drives for a video game. Without the right context or narrative build-up, what should be an important or moving or even devastating event can only be judged on the footage proffered to us; in effect, the developers have full context whilst we – the gamers, bloggers and at times even the gaming press – have no context. At its most simple, they know why this is important or effecting. Right now, we do not. All we see is a violent lynching that goes awry, or the multiple branches of heinous child abuse and what could happen with different choices. In their proper place, these situations might be important or even character-defining, but we have no relationship with these games yet and so we have to judge based on often superficial means and methods – the graphics, the lighting, the voice acting, the animation and so on.
I’m all for games growing up – for the record, I am absolutely of the opinion that video games should be able to tackle the same issues and problems and themes as movies and books – they are, ultimately, stories. Even though video games are an interactive medium, most of us are still engaging in what are – in essence – stories. Video games, especially in the current guise, have made enormous leaps and bounds in the last twenty-one years, and perhaps even longer than that (Clock Tower wasn’t exactly a nice game back on the SNES!). Now designers and developers can make photo-realistic models that can be manipulated in any way they want. And yes, sometimes, that’s going to involve situations that make us uncomfortable.
But it must be pointed out that whilst games and their themes are maturing – as is the audience – we are still ultimately sharing our gaming landscape with others, particularly children. And I don’t really want to get into a Helen Lovejoy moment here, but what purpose does a child abuse scene serve being shown at a Paris event at five in the afternoon, alongside bright and breezy content like Concrete Genie, or LocoRoco 2, or OnRush?
I think this is the core of the issue; in most other mediums, there are rules and guidelines and even restrictions governing content and how it can be showcased. Certain trailers and things cannot be shown before a predetermined watershed, for example, so youngsters don’t accidentally stumble on them in the middle of an episode of Teen Titans Go (I have a niece, she loves the show). The Sony Paris Showcase was not bound by restrictions and on the whole, there were no PEGI or ESRB warnings before teasers and trailers meaning that it was pot-luck. You take your chances. And the result from the Paris Showcase has been… well… mixed in response. EuroGamer had a pretty confrontational “Q&A” with David Cage (who perhaps is now relying too much on “emotions” – maybe, possibly, cheating a little going for shock value?), and others have been slamming the teaser for The Last of Us: Part 2 as tonally cringey at best and warped, twisted and vulgar at worst.
Personally, I get the reason why they cut these scenes as they were; controversy is never a bad thing. In business, no attention is bad attention for the most part. I’m not bothered by their content – as I said, I’m sure they’ll make sense when put in their correct in-game context (if they don’t… well… then the games aren’t very good games then are they?). And they were pretty potent – tackling themes that suggest a confidence that developers haven’t had before (though whether that is justified or not is up for debate).
But there’s never been a bigger divide in this market. Right now, Sony and Microsoft are getting hammered by Nintendo – to the point Sony announced it won’t release PS4 sales figures any more (surely it’s not that bad Sony!). Super Mario Odyssey sold two million copies in three days. Breath of the Wild has shifted almost five million copies. UbiSoft’s biggest profits so far this year supposedly comes from that Mario + Rabbids crossover, and there are lots of successful games right now which are a little more on the joyful, colourful and “fun” side of things. Right now, the market is kind of in on bright and breezy video games. And as a result, there are lots of youngsters finally coming in and joining the gamer ranks – only took twenty damned years to recreate the N64 Kid moment, Nintendo. Well done.
With an influx of younger kids comes a responsibility that the games industry… well, hasn’t had for a while. Particularly in how they sell games. The Switch – yes, it’s Nintendo’s fault, yawn, so droll – has pretty radically changed the tone this year. Dark and dreary seems to be out, whilst fun and open and full of colour and life and possibility seems to be in. Interests and trends change. That’s the nature of business. And that’s not just because a new generation of youngsters are getting in on games consoles in a big way, but also because the Switch and its portability does also raise its own ethical and moral quandaries. Like, can I really play DOOM in an A&E waiting area, or GTA5, or heck – games with swearing and mature themes? What games can I really play where?
In essence, we’re in a position where the questions are being asked.
And no, we’re not always going to like the answers. I don’t buy David Cage’s argument that we wouldn’t ask this of movie directors (I remember lots of awkward questions over Django Unchained, for example), but I equally can’t agree with too much pearl-clutching either (sorry EG). We’re not always going to agree with a scene, particularly out of context. We don’t agree on loot crates and microtransactions and stuff – I have hope we’ll all universally reach a consensus there sooner or later – and we are not going to like asking ourselves if we’re doing enough to minimise the exposure of this realistic and actually quite dark material to a younger audience that is starting to take root in the market (which, sorry my fellow gamers, is essential if this industry has any future – we’re getting older, they do need to find new customers some day…).
Video games are becoming – slowly but surely – the de facto entertainment force in the world (the current scandal-ridden facade of Hollywood and low summer box-office takings have been especially brutal on the movie scene). That should be amazing. More people and more audiences means more diversity and more breadth of content – funny how that works
(must not mention GamerGate must not mention GamerGate).
But it also means way, way more attention. More focus. More analysis. More serious critical standards. And the primary vanguard of this will be led by a succession of Helen Lovejoy-types with just a dash of that old Jack Thompson ego. The first thing they’ll do – in an era where children are more firmly engaged in actual video games again – is ask “are you thinking of the children?” Putting a very uncomfortable situation which involved child abuse, domestic violence and potential infanticide after a colourful racing title, stunt-planes and a new Spiderman game might suggest that currently, perhaps maybe we’re not.
That’s not to say that they shouldn’t make those games however. Detroit: Become Human looks like a pretty amazing choose-your-own-adventure style game (and easily the most interesting thing David Cage has done in years). The Last of Us 2… sure, I’m down for more Joel and Ellie, particularly in the wake of that ending. I’m sure Days Gone will have its moments too, as will God of War (again, it has a kid in it so by nature, there’ll be moments…). But these are grown-up games. And perhaps maybe, just maybe, the industry might need to start working out that adult games cannot – or should not – be in the vicinity of more child-friendly content. It’s not just jarring for the adults, it actively invites criticism into our industry and our hobby.
But let me finish on flipping this around a bit to show what I mean.
Let’s say at E3 2018, Nintendo kicks off with Pokémon Switch. It’s bright, cheerful with its repertoire of cute and interesting little fuzzy critters all rendered in full 3D now and we all go “Aww…”. Right. Then imagine that… say… a Red Dead game follows it, with a scene with a house being robbed, and a man begging to be spared… when a masked figure pulls out a gun and shoots the man at point-blank range in the forehead, execution-style, followed by a “Red Dead” logo and/or subtitle.
… do you honestly think Nintendo wouldn’t be crucified by every corner of the press for that?
We should of course want challenging games – both in difficulty and narrative. They’re getting better (even if the industry needs a lesson in context). But yeah, we might have to consider if, with the rise of graphics as they are and the subject matter some games are shifting towards, we can really have all of these games sitting within the same 45-60 minute showcase.
It’s like having a new SAW trailer play before a new Disney Pixar movie.
… though that said, I’d love to be sitting behind the parent who has to explain that to their kid… that makes me a bad person, doesn’t it?