"There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come."
- Victor Hugo, Histoire d'un Crime
To state the obvious: The game industry is hit-driven. You've heard the statistics: Fewer than one in seven games actually turns a profit. But what, exactly, makes a hit? Investors regard the blockbuster game phenomenon with a sort of mystical awe, and part of its very definition seems to be invested in its unpredictability.
Every genre has one, and most have a few. In first-person shooters, we recall the Doom and Quake franchises. The crown jewel in this line, Deus Ex, even if it didn't pass the crate test, poised itself at the perfect apex of timing and execution, earning itself a permanent place in the pantheon of gaming history. But the well-rendered System Shock is frequently recognized as its direct predecessor - and, by some, even as a better game. The two can be qualitatively compared to some extent, but it is a raw fact that, for their time periods (which could account for differences in construction), the games were light years apart in terms of commercial success.
This phenomenon is hardly restricted to one industry. Some of my fellow children of the '80s may recall a made-for-TV movie that had all the makings of greatness: The Worst Witch, which, among other things, starred Tim Curry as a flying Dumbledore-like Grand Wizard in a flowing cape. Truly, what more can one ask of cinema? Look it up; this movie was Harry Potter 20 years too early.
Many fantasy fans could also tell you that, despite his only recent blockbuster publicity, George R. R. Martin was at his best with A Game of Thrones, first printed nearly 10 years ago. But these are the good examples. Novels had the good fortune, at least in bygone times, to be backed by publishers that would support a fictional world through its fruition, waiting, as with Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, for that moment when the franchise's solid quality would catch the wave of public popularity. In games, we more frequently note the counterexamples: games that, despite superb execution and solid marketing, failed to hook the public's heart in their infancy.
The most recent example of these, Beyond Good and Evil, has been the subject of much discussion throughout the gaming world. Critics loved it; a core group of players worshipped it. There was no marketing failure: Ubisoft flooded all the standard channels with Jade's lovely mug. So what in the hell happened?
It is, unfortunately, painfully simple: Beyond Good and Evil was the right game at the wrong time.
Bubbles from the Murk
Carl Jung, in his work on analytical psychology, defined what he initially called the "collective unconscious" as basic psychological constructs - including symbols - shared universally between human beings. Ask a series of your average Joes about what a "tree" means to them and you will generally get a consistent answer, because we all, on a certain level, share basic experience. This basic experience influences creativity, both on an individual level and a social one; J. R. R. Tolkien called this "leaf-mould of the mind."
Douglas E. Winter, in his introduction to Prime Evil, further extends the application of this phenomenon. Winter, who works in horror, asserts that horror is not a genre but an emotion, and as such, the images that influence that emotion shift with the generations. Prior to the sexual revolution, vampires flooded our fear-consciousness, but shortly after, they vanished from the media scene until their recent resurgence, also paralleling a constriction of sexual liberty following the "free love" of the '70s and the rising specter of AIDS. Fiction, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, reflected anti-communist hysteria in the 1950s. In a backlash against the rise of suburbia and conformist dystopia in the U.S., the '70s saw the rise of the zombie; the '80s saw what Winters termed a "soulless insanity" in subjects such as Thomas Harris's Red Dragon. In the wake of a surge in conservativism, zombies are back again, and their reappearance in the collective media scene certainly bears interpretation. The things that we fear - as well as the things that we idolize (pirates, anyone?) - tell a compelling story about what lurks beneath our daily thought.