The gaming industry has always been a prime target for a few good therapy sessions, and it only takes one look at the case history to see why that is. Born in the ’50s, gaming was abandoned at an early age by its abusive father, the scientist, leaving it to its misfit mother, the geek. At school it was bullied relentlessly by bigger industries, like music and film, the ones who already had chest hair and who would brag in the lunchroom about their public acceptance.
In response, gaming became a recluse. It stayed in its bedroom most nights, and like every sulking teenager it hung posters of its idols on the walls. A ferociously bearded Richard Garriott. A godlike silhouette of Will Wright. A revealing portrait of Peter Molyneux wearing only a coy smile. Lying in bed at night, gaming would whisper to itself that one day – one day – it would be revered by all.
You were most likely there. After all, you think those great men of gaming are genii as much as the next gamer, and that poster of Peter Molyneux really was quite flattering. And what’s wrong with having someone to look up to? You deserve it, after all of those long years of bedroom shame, sweaty stereotypes and pop culture’s fierce mocking. Our heroes were going to cure to all of that. Someone to stand tall, to rally the troops and raise the profile of the nobler side of the art. They had to. And to help these heroes ascend, the journalists came forth.
The media weren’t the only ones to promote these heroes, but nothing says “gaming legend” like a double-page spread and a glossy front cover. People that had once been merely considered interesting were suddenly catapulted onto spotlit columns, asked for pearls of wisdom and revered as kings. Electronic Arts famously began a crusade to make “rock stars” of their developers, and the legends began to inscribe themselves on the big, neon-lit slate of gaming history.
Let’s begin our story back in your fictional past. Welcome to 1990 – Super Mario Bros. 3 is your life. It aesthetically pleasing and plays like a dream, and it’s come to be physical manifestation of everything games can represent. Shigeru Miyamoto is no longer an unknown designer to you – he’s an artist, a creator – and his latest work is what makes you read the credits at the end of a game.
We’re going forward a little. It’s 1993 and you’re knee deep in the dead. Doom found its way onto your PC, and you’re in a hushed awe at what you’re seeing. This man, John Carmack, is going to transform videogames. The new technology astounds you as much as the core gameplay; something that’s so visceral and exciting that you want more and more. Combining fresh technology with fresh ideas and designs, Carmack is one of your gods. In less than a decade, he’ll be named one of Time‘s 10 most digitally influential, but right now all that matters is the mythic image he projects. He looks like a king among gamers. He represents the community in a very direct way.
Move forward a few months, and it’s 1994. You’re playing Bullfrog‘s Theme Park, a hugely anticipated game from the genius Peter Molyneux, whom you recently saw on the videogame TV show Bad Influence. Molyneux has created three huge hits in four years – Populous and Syndicate were just as engaging as Theme Park – and the man can do no wrong. Not only that, he’s passing on his knowledge to new blood: He’s taken on as his apprentice chess prodigy and all-around genius Demis Hassabis. Hassabis, whose bio describes him as “a computer games designer, AI programmer, neuroscientist and world-class games player,” is a hero-in-waiting, and one of the first signs of a second generation of gaming luminaries, an exciting gaming renaissance on the horizon. Secretly, sitting among your thick manuals and floppy disks, you hope to be a part of the revolution yourself.
But skip forward through the rose-tinted barrier of the 3-D console revolution, and you won’t find a mature, respectable industry, all clean-shaven and smiling with a long-term girlfriend. Staring back at you, instead, is a rebellious mess, at times striving for acceptance from the media, but lashing out angrily on the occasions when it fails. It’s an industry broken and addicted to its own self-image. Hero worship has destroyed gaming.
Hassabis broke from Molyneux in 1998. The resulting development house, Elixir Studios, announced their coup d’etat simulator Republic, promising a detailed and reactive world in which you could rise from revolutionary to ruler in whichever way you wanted. People believed in Elixir; not just gamers, mind you, but people. Hassabis made BBC TV with a combination of his child-prodigy life story and claims of gaming magic. The public was captivated for a short while, and then Republic hit the shelves. It ended up a shallow mishmash of political minigames and was ignored, deservedly or not, by gamer and journalist alike.
Flash forward a few months: You’re a slightly older gamer now, slightly wiser, and you’re reading a Doom 3 preview. You’re so excited it hurts. The graphics engine hints at an impossibly pretty future for gaming, but what makes you sit up and pay attention the most is the presence of one name, and one name alone: John Carmack. Even those who weren’t old enough to have painstakingly downloaded the original Doom themselves have read the blog posts, seen the historical accounts and heard the campfire stories told in hushed voices. Pioneering men, simpler times. Tears fill your eyes as you pre-order over the internet.
Later, Doom 3 comes out. It’s painfully average.
Not only that, you have to re-mortgage your house in order to afford a computer that runs it. The mediocrity mocks you; it laughs at the faith you had in the grandfather of the first-person shooter. Your legs tremble a little and you curl up in a corner, sobbing. Maybe you were wrong. Maybe gaming isn’t worth it, all the money, all the false promises . Just as you’re ready to end it all, you hear a slap on the doormat. Your magazine subscription has arrived. There’s a new interview with Sid Meier in it, and suddenly everything is OK again.
But it’s not OK, is it? It’s a never-ending cycle; the addict that won’t quit, the celebrity-obsessive that convinces himself that he’s interested in “the human angle.” It’s a drug that’s beginning to flood through gaming, and if you think you’re not hooked, you’re in denial. Flash forward again. You’re watching coverage of GDC, and Kim Swift is talking. Swift is now a goddess, a bastion of independent innovation in the industry ever since you played her hugely influential and critically acclaimed Portal only a few months back. But as you watch her talk about not much at all, the slow realization dawns on you that she’s just one in a long line of false idols. Where is the rest of her team? Where are the Valve employees? Why is she preaching about experience when she’s only released one game?
Dejected and disillusioned, you stagger through the wastes of the internet to The Escapist. But even Zero Punctuation can’t make you smile any more, and when you come across news of Will Wright’s Spore, your bottom lip begins to quiver as you consider for the first time that he’s just a madman who believes his own bullshit. A single tear rolls down your cheek. It all dawns on you: The Man owns the whole system. You were being told who to worship, who to revere. No matter where you turn, there’s another golden cow to honor. And so you come here, to me. You made the right decision. Let’s sit you down here on the couch; that’s it.
Now. Tell me about your father.
Michael Cook is going sane in a crazy world