Fix the Fixation

Aaaieee! On a beautiful day, a horrible situation occurs. The sunrays passing through the leaves cast a fragmented real-time shadow of The Hero. There’s a real-time reflection of his sword that dances around the screen, occasionally blinding you! There’s a grasshopper with its own shadow in The Hero’s long hair – isn’t that exciting? Oh, and I think The Evil Wizard said something before flying away with The Hero’s girlfriend. But who cares? Didn’t you see the wizard’s robe? So realistic!

The whole graphics vs. gameplay discussion requires little introduction. Game creators are fixated on improving graphics rather than, well, anything else. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that there are developers out there trying to push the graphical envelope. When this fixation takes over collectively, however, games as an entertainment and art form are not being taken to their full potential. Is that necessarily a bad thing?

I work in theater as a martial artist, dancer and actor. In a discussion with some colleagues, someone suggested that Capoeira (a young Brazilian martial art) was an offshoot of break-dancing. This is ridiculous, as Capoeira, although young for a martial art, originated around 1780. I’ll admit it’s indisputable that break-dance and Capoeira share fundamental movements – this is where inspiration struck.

In martial arts, teachers can become so focused on rehearsing moves that students failed to learn to react to unpredictable opponents. The problem is, everybody who didn’t follow the exact same lesson plan is an unpredictable opponent. Both creators and consumers get fixated on an illusion of substance.

This fixation is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be an opportunity. What happens when explosions can’t get bigger in an action movie; when games look so real that the world starts looking fake? Innovation withers. At that point, consumers are forced to chew and re-chew the same material. Some would say if consumers were bored, they wouldn’t keep consuming, but that’s a mistake. When no one offers any alternatives, consumers have no choice.

Very few consumers realize they find action movies boring. Actually, they are fixated on believing they really love action movies. They just believe that they don’t enjoy movies as much as they used to. If only consumers could answer the questions, “What would you buy?” and, “What do you want me to make?” Very few people possess that kind of self-knowledge.

In fact, uncovering this knowledge is what makes an entertainer what he is. It’s an entertainer’s job to play up to what people love. When you tell a stand-up comedian his entire audience is getting bored of new action movies, it’s a goldmine of material to him. An industry’s fixation is his opportunity. In the gaming world, when you know everybody is sick of developers focusing entirely on graphics, it’s very easy to poke fun via your own visuals and be successful. That’s why a game like Katamari Damacy was such a cult hit. It wasn’t beautifully realistic; it wasn’t cardboard cut-out cute. It said, “We can make bad look good,” and everyone loved the joke.

There is a history of parodies destroying popular fixations. Knight errantry stories were killed dead in their tracks when Don Quixote hit the world. After Isaac Asimov‘s robot stories and his “laws of robotics,” the killer robot premise became unconvincing.

Where are these examples in computer gaming history? The high production costs of games and their relatively short history doesn’t make it easy to shatter molds. The Sims should have broken open the non-competitive game market. It’s one of the greatest successes in gaming history. How did other developers respond? Playboy: The Mansion and The Singles. It’s no wonder that EA has been able to churn out so many expansions for The Sims: There is no competition in that area at all!

Given the fastness of gaming’s potential universe, we’ve only just begun to flex our creative muscles. It will be a very long time indeed before we have done everything with this medium, despite the fact that every few years, a technological “end all, be all” comes and goes. An artistic fixation on innovation will always shatter passing notions.

Taco Schenkhuizen is a freelance writer for [I]The Escapist[/i].

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