You know what I found most gratifying from the response to my top fives last week, is that it was polarizing. An awful lot of people seemed to think that nothing was more important than running to the comments to tell everyone how much they don’t care about this Undertale thing everyone else seems to be wanking over. Well done to all of those people for having such firm independence of spirit.
I like that there is debate. I like there to be contention and perhaps a little controversy, because if there’s one thing that the entertainment industry has too much of these days, it’s safety. Constant floods of nice, safe, unchallenging material for us all to gorge ourselves upon. There is altogether too much wallowing in the comfort zone and far too many major entertainment corporations encouraging people to stay there.
This was the attitude behind the addition of the top 5 most mediocre games list in last week’s video, because mediocre really is the opposite side of the coin to both good AND bad. The good games took risks that paid off, the bad games took risks and died on their arses, but the bland games took no risks at all. So while none of them are awful to play, exactly, they are worse than the bad games just because they’re impossible to get excited about. They seem content to fill exactly the same space left behind by their previous installment (with the exception of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture), rather than try to carve out new spaces for themselves.
Personally, I can never be content to remain in a comfort zone forever, because I’ve been spoiled too many times. Spec Ops: The Line, Driver: San Francisco, Dark Souls (eventually), and Undertale itself. Stuff that I wouldn’t have sought out were I not professionally obliged, and which left me feeling renewed on a unique, almost spiritual level. True, it’s far more often that I’m left unimpressed, but the benefit from those precious few times of being excited and electrified by something entirely new is great enough to make it worth any risk.
I know that being professionally obliged is my privilege in this case. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to try every game that comes out, and when finances are limited, most people would understandably not want to bet their money, when the choice is between staying in the comfort zone or taking a risk that could go either way. Perhaps finances are the root of the whole issue; top-range triple-A stuff is now almost universally bland and risk-averse because their budgets are so extravagant that they must appeal as broadly as possible. But is that an explanation, or an excuse?
Towards the end of last year I started taking time out to go to the cinema more often. I thought perhaps it was time to watch some new films and broaden the cultural horizons a bit. The first one I saw was Spectre, which I found rather extraordinary. It seemed like they’d managed to build an entire James Bond film out of references to previous ones. And I had to wonder, doesn’t the film want to introduce any ideas of its own? If only so that next year’s James Bond film can reference them?
The other film I went to see was Star Wars: The Force Awakens, inevitably. I’m sure it will surprise no-one to hear that I’m one of those insufferable spoilsports who need to point out that the plot is identical to that of A New Hope. What annoys me about blockbuster films these days is that they seem to be driven chiefly on showing the audience things that they recognize, without challenging them at all; just dropping familiar characters into prefab plots strung together from set pieces. And as long as the general quality stays a notch above atrocious then it’ll make the money back.
Yeah, Force Awakens wasn’t as awful as the prequels, it was perfectly adequate, but my point is that ‘adequate’ is worse than bad. I still firmly believe that the prequels are part of the reason Star Wars still has such a high profile; because they created strong feeling. Strong negative feeling, yes, but enough to drive the conversation and retroactively make the original trilogy look effin’ legendary by comparison. If the remaining films don’t hurry up and make a mark of their own that doesn’t need the original trilogy as a crutch, then Star Wars risks becoming forgettable, and that’s a worse fate than a thousand Lucas-helmed CG-fests.
Now, at around this point there’s always someone (usually me) who points out that ’twas ever thus. Business-driven entertainment has always been risk-averse and heavy on sequels and remakes, we only remember past times fondly because we conveniently forget about the chaff that went nowhere, there are still plenty of original films if you know where to look. I do, however, think that we live in a new age of overblown hype, and when I see each new Disney and Marvel film practically wallpapering the internet for months if not years prior to release, as commenters pointlessly debate the faithfulness of the new costumes, that’s when the depression sets in.
You want to know why Undertale is my game of the year? No, it’s not because I want to be part of some hipster indie game clique. It’s because it was a new experience that touched and energized me in ways no other game did last year, that I was still thinking about for months afterwards. Maybe you played it and didn’t have the same experience, and that’s fine. Everything’s subjective.
The people I can’t stand are the ones who preemptively dismiss it largely because its fans can be a bit weird, or because they regard it as ‘hipster bait’, whatever the hell that means. I’m almost certain these are the same kinds of people who will call me a pretentious neckbeard for not agreeing that The Force Awakens is the motion picture event of our generation. Who stay in their comfort zone throwing out phrases like ‘guilty pleasure’ and ‘turn your brain off’ but never seem to want to turn the thing back on and take a risk.
All these popular franchises, your Halos and your Tomb Raiders and your Star Wars, there was a time when they weren’t part of the comfort zone. There was something about the time we were first introduced to the franchise that made us want to stay there. Well, unfortunately, that first, energizing experience that bought our loyalty will never happen again within the same franchise. No matter how much the installments improve, no matter how much a seventh sequel boasts of ‘recapturing’ the original, there can only ever be one moment of discovery. How many did we miss today?