This week on Extra Punctuation, Yahtzee talks about how games as a service (GaaS) is effectively incompatible with art. This episode of Extra Punctuation is sponsored by Bang-On Balls: Chronicles, a 3D co-op adventure platformer available now on Steam!
Extra Punctuation Transcript
As the triple-A industry shambles exhaustedly back into post-release drought action like Sisyphus gearing up for another shove of the boulder, the news leaked of a new Assassin’s Creed game coming next year, Assassin’s Creed Mirage. And if this were a saner world that hadn’t let me down before I might wonder how Ubisoft expects anyone to be hyped for it. What does it even mean that there’s a new Assassin’s Creed coming? The quality level has been a fucking sinewave over the years, generally trending downwards. Even if it’s some explosive spark of new life for the franchise (reference the pirate ship mechanics in Asscreed4), Ubisoft will get overexcited about their success, overplay their hand and snuff the spark out again (reference ship mechanics in multiple subsequent sequels).
Plus the series has almost completely blurred out its own identity. It used to be about a secret order of assassins that grew out of the historical Hashshashin order of medieval Persia and their sworn enemies the Knights Templar with whom they disagree on the importance of free will in the pursuit of peace. What’s it about now? Goodies versus baddies, basically. That’s not a unique identity, that’s just a fundament of storytelling. And it’s not like they lay unique claim to the gameplay style, either. I said before: if they’d called Ghost of Tsushima Assassin’s Creed Samurai I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.
Word is the new one’s gonna take a quote, “back to basics” approach. Which could mean anything. And can’t be trusted anyway, because experience has taught me that anything claimed about a triple A game at any point during development is absolutely not guaranteed to make it to final release. The point is, announcing a new Assassin’s Creed at this point carries as much weight as announcing that you’re making a game. A game, coming 2023. Hope you enjoy it when we add it to the fucking trough. “Back to Basics” does imply an appeal to nostalgia, in which case I might point out to Ubisoft that you can only have nostalgia for something that’s actually gone away for a while. Tell that to fucking Star Wars one of these days. If you can’t stop disgorging spinoffs for five seconds people will never even get the chance to start pining for it again.
Still, there is at least a chance Mirage will be worth your time, which can’t be said for Assassin’s Creed Infinity, the other upcoming Assassin’s Creed venture that’s been announced to be a live service game, speaking of things that never fucking go away. The fact that publishers now freely and shamelessly admit that they’re making live services is one of the many painful things about modern society. I blame myself, really. I kicked up a stink when Diablo 3 had no offline mode and Dead Space 3 started selling crafting resources for micropayments but then they kept doing it and I didn’t have the energy to keep kicking up a stink and now it’s all been completely bloody normalised.
I guess I’m not immune to nostalgia either ‘cos I do miss the old days when most people bought games off of physical shelves that existed and as such they had to be fully functional at launch. There was no day 1 patching and if it didn’t work you just had to eat shit. Publishers get way too fucking relaxed about releasing unfinished garbage these days. It’s probably the worst part of the internet age besides Facebook turning grandma into a Nazi.
The whole concept of “live service,” of a game no longer being a solid, unchanging entity but a floating, continually amended constant presence is something I find disheartening. Probably not objectively worse, but certainly a pain in MY arse. Because when I review a live service game in Zero Punctuation, there’s no guarantee that the game I describe will still exist in a year or so. That’s why I very firmly vowed to never again ZP a game while it’s still in early access. To avoid a repeat of when I did Fortnite shortly before it became the world’s most popular babysitter. It’s also why I tend to avoid criticising a game for being buggy, since that’s another thing that can be fixed in post. Yeah, I saw all you nebbins in the comments on my Saints Row ZP wondering why I didn’t mention the bugginess. Although full disclosure I didn’t mention it in that case because I didn’t run into many bugs myself. And I don’t watch other people’s reviews because I find it can taint my memories of a game and I get grumpy if someone else makes funnier jokes than me. Then there’s No Man’s Sky, which I had to do another review of recently ‘cos it’s changed so much since the initial review. For the better, sure, and good for No Man’s Sky, but I want to review a game, not a point on a line graph.
I don’t want to get on a snobby high horse and say developers should be making sure every game is perfect and complete at the moment of release, because I worry that that contradicts my other feeling that nobody should feel like they have to play every new game the moment it comes out, that’s how they use that nasty old FOMO against us. Fact is, my distaste for live service goes deeper than just being sick of corporate greed and highly specific game reviewer problems. Get your oven gloves ready because here comes the hot take for this video: The concept of games as a service is incompatible with the concept of games as art. And I am pretty invested in games as art. I’ve been banging that drum for decades. I consider myself an artist, and games are the medium I find the most interesting to work with.
A while back Marty and I were talking about Bioshock on Slightly Something Else, and one of things I realised made Bioshock stand out as such a great work of game art is that it’s actually about something. It’s about the failure of objectivism in practice, about how free will is inherently antithetical to utopia. Being about something, having a central theme or philosophical stance, feels so rare in mainstream game releases these days. What, for example, is Fortnite “about?” Nothing. It’s about nothing. It’s a neverending conveyor belt of samey action, like most other live services. There isn’t even a consistent visual theme, your character’s skin can be anything from a hot dog costume to a Darth Vader suit. No stance is taken, no higher themes are explored, no conclusion is drawn. Pretty hard to draw a conclusion when the game never fucking concludes.
Does that preclude it from being art? Well, that’s the debate, isn’t it. Maybe art doesn’t have to be intended to mean something, maybe meaning is entirely up to the viewer. But here’s the other thing. One of the purposes of art is to provide a capsule of human history. As a reference for when future scholars look back at us, down their noses no doubt, but also to hold up a mirror to ourselves. All art says something about the human condition in the time it was made. But it can’t do that if it never stops being made. If it’s constantly being updated then it doesn’t belong to a single moment in time. The Mona Lisa wouldn’t have meant a whole lot to the world of art if my dude had painted over it every year to reflect the current fashions of renaissance Italy, before finally burning it because he couldn’t be bothered to pay the rent on the gallery any more.
Again, the philosophers can debate this to the heavens but in my view, the problem with both live services and franchises never being allowed to fucking die is that art is arguably defined by criticism and analysis and you can’t properly analyze something until it has stopped moving. That’s as true for video games as it is for small excitable dogs at the vet.