I’ve learned to love the post-holiday quiet, when the retail insanity subsides and the gaming industry seemingly goes into hibernation. For the first few months of each new year, previews and announcements become few and far between and the torrent of new releases becomes a mere trickle. For avid gamers like myself, it’s a reprieve of sorts, when we can sit back and catch up on neglected games or revisit old favorites without worrying about whether we’ll have time or money for the next big release.
Over the past few months I’ve spent countless hours dabbling in browser-based games, sampling the innumerable indie titles the internet has to offer. I’ve hooked up my dusty PlayStation 2 to revisit Shadow of the Colossus and discover for myself what all the Persona 3 fuss was all about. When major releases like Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 have come along, I’ve thrown myself at them with abandon, wringing every last drop of entertainment from their code without worrying that I may be neglecting other new games. I even made a brief foray back into World of Warcraft.
I’ve also been more content to ignore the news, which seems especially dominated by speculation and rumor in the ramp-up to Spring and Summer press events. The preview content that finds its way onto the internet and newsstands seems far more likely to feature games of questionable importance, many of which won’t be released for a year or more. More often than not I’ve been perfectly content to hit the “mark all posts read” button in my newsfeed browser, knowing that I’m probably not missing anything I won’t read again in the next few months.
I fear that this respite is coming to an end, however, just as it does every year. Though major releases are still scarce, the hype machine is sputtering to life as the industry prepares to inundate gamers with promises of the nirvana it’s prepared to deliver. It won’t be long before terrific games we’ve enjoyed in past months will start to fade into irrelevance as they’re outshined by the promises of what’s to come.
Any activity that relies upon the relentless pace of technology is bound to foster a forward-thinking enthusiast culture, but I can’t help but think that with computer and videogames the situation has become a bit ridiculous. Despite my previous stance as a cautious defender of preview-obsessed fans and media, I’m worried that we’re trampling the accomplishments of the medium underfoot in our race to see what might be around the corner.
A major release typically sees months’ or years’ worth of previews and fan-baiting promotions before culminating in a tumultuous, orgiastic release of reviews, memorialized online at Gamerankings or Metacritic. A vociferous debate over review scores usually follows, in which admirers and haters square off and scream at each other about the relative merits of the title’s more mundane attributes. The debate continues until the next major release hits, the old game is forgotten and the cycle begins anew.
Consider the enthusiast press’ reception of Grand Theft Auto IV. Wade through the game’s print and online reviews, and what you’ll invariably see are a series of obsessive descriptions and evaluations of the game’s most fundamental, mechanical qualities. You’ll hear all about its save points, its new combat and aiming systems, its mission structure, and its driving physics. You’ll find detailed examinations of its graphical attributes, production values and multiplayer modes. You’ll see careful comparisons between both console versions. In other words, what you’ll find is a series of buyers’ guides, designed solely to describe the most banal aspects of the game and guide consumers in their purchasing decisions. As a result, once you’ve actually bought or played GTA IV, the overwhelming majority of the enthusiast press’ coverage is essentially irrelevant.
It’s amazing what this approach to games ignores. In review after review, there’s almost no discussion of GTA IV‘s inconsistent moral tone, for example, or its compelling but unsettling depiction of American urban culture, or its sometimes disconcerting blend of drama and satire, crudeness and sophistication. There’s almost no mention of the dissonance that arises from the clash between its realistic and ridiculous components, and except for obligatory acknowledgments of its controversial material, there’s almost no thought given to the game’s place in the popular culture’s subconscious. Instead, the reviews typically begin and end with whether GTA IV is worth gamers’ time and money.
It’s as if the release and purchase of a game suddenly signals its irrelevance. We buy games, play them and then discard them, ever mindful of upcoming releases. It’s a kind of dysfunctional serial monogamy that prevents us from devoting further time or thought to any one experience as long as there’s another around the corner.
I’m not necessarily blaming the enthusiast press, as their content by necessity reflects gamers’ interests, and the industry can be expected to promote its products. By pandering to gamers’ obsessively forward-thinking approach to their hobby, the media and industry both encourage the phenomenon. The result is an enthusiast culture that, for the most part, suffers from an inability to thoughtfully examine the games its consumes. Serious, thought-provoking discussion and criticism, of the kind that lends insight into the games we play, is confined to a handful of online outlets and blogs or perhaps a few narrow columns of most print magazines.
There are some signs that the situation may be improving, helped along in part by web sites and writers that strive to recognize the depth and importance of the medium. In GTA IV‘s case, the mainstream media seems more inclined to recognize the game as thoughtful, satirical, mature-themed entertainment, rather than condemning it out of hand. There’s reason to believe that the game could provide fodder for thoughtful discussion for years to come. Even the tiresome past debates about new games journalism, the absence of the Lester Bangs of gaming and whether or not games are art all suggest that game criticism is maturing along with its audience.
Despite these positive indications, the enthusiast culture still has a long way to go if it wants games to receive the appreciation they deserve. To get there, we’re going to need to be willing to look backward, instead of forever gazing at the light of the end of the tunnel.