Earlier this week I celebrated my twenty-fifth birthday and, while I don’t want to get too shmlatzy about the whole ordeal, the day was marked by that same arbitrariness/ceremony/ennui that all birthdays come with after puberty. I’m an adult. I have been for a few years now. But now it’s starting to hit home a little more. Now, it seems, there’s more onus to act like a grown up. Other people won’t give me a pass for poor behaviour anymore under the impression that I’ve still got a few years to figure things out.
And to awkwardly segue into my thoughts on video games. On my birthday, as I tried not to worry about how many calories were in that gelato or whether I could really afford a night out when I still need to schedule a dentist, optometrist and vet appointment in the near future, I felt a weird connection with how developers in the last few years have been trying to “act more adult.”
Video games can’t really claim to be a new thing anymore. It’s been a long time since gaming has been a hobby for awkward shut-ins. Everybody plays games now for a number of different reasons. Not everybody wants to think of them as art, but enough people do think of them as at least culturally significant. Games matter. They’re grown up and some of the things that, not too long ago they could get away with regularly, they really have no excuse for any more. Everyone that designs, publishes, markets and plays games knows that they’re important. In recent years the gaming culture has really made an effort to show it.
Overall, I like that games are approaching more “grown up” material. I like that developers aren’t afraid to try to make their audience think and feel more complicated, worldly and mature things. In the last five years game have shown more potential, growth and popularity than any other period in the medium’s history. Games are trying to be more intelligent and artistic; some are even succeeding. But in the attempt games are starting to lose the sense of fun that used to come with them.
Which brings me to Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Now there’s a fun game (Filipowich, Mark. “Remembering Fun: A Look Back at Prince of Persia : Sands of Time.” PopMatters. Sep 11 2012) The prince is a spoiled, self-righteous brat, but he still manages to be likeable. The female lead is dignified, competent and human (which should not be so unique for women characters in a medium). The villain is properly despicable with just a touch of justifiability to make him deeper. The plot is straightforward and obvious, but it’s the personal story of the Prince and his co-adventurer Farah that makes the it exceptional. It’s lighthearted, but deep and it never forgets how much fun it is to play.
Fast forward to the game’s sequel, Warrior Within, and the Prince has turned into a brooding, lone-wolf action star. He explores a dull and impersonal castle fighting off nameless women in bondage gear. It represents the transition into what games too-often fall into now. Ubisoft made Warrior Within as edgy and gritty as possible, hoping that the audience will mistake it for deep and mature. The real shame is that it could have worked: after the events of Sands of Time, it’s completely plausible that the Prince turn into a jaded and bitter version of himself; but the player never sees this transformation, Ubisoft just slapped some black leather on him and made him scowl. Rather than explore the personal transformation of a memorable character (which would have actually been a more grown up story), the developers just made their hero swear and put more blood and tits into their game.
Again, this isn’t to say that a more severe tone is bad, it’s just that it can’t be used as a shortcut to appear mature and that the more this shortcut is relied on, the father away developers seem to get from succeeding at a lighter and funner design philosophy.
Many games from the sixth generation–like Sands of Time–kept an element of whimsy to them. Final Fantasy X, Mario Sunshine, Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, Sonic Heroes, Halo, Knights of the Old Republic, and even God of War to an extent were all designed to overawe. Environments were vibrant and impressionist, worlds were larger than life, open and diverse. It didn’t always work, but the attempt was to keep the sense of wonder while telling a story and creating a world.
The best of those games didn’t sacrifice the colour, levity, wonderment, the fun of playing through a game to go to darker or deeper places. They didn’t look like Hollywood crime dramas, they looked like video games. They were starting to show more sophisticated artistry, but there was no apparent pressure to adopt a more grim aesthetic. There wasn’t the same pressure to appear grown up as there is now. By making everything heavier and darker to feign maturity, games are giving up the imagination and phantasmagoria that defined the medium.
Games are grown up, they have been for a while now; even if sometimes they’re trying a little too hard to act like it. They’re moving deeper into unexplored territory and it’s an exciting time to be involved in games. But it would be a real disappointment if games forgot where they came from just to eat at the grown-up table.
Further reading: Brough, Michael. “Maturity.” Mighty Vision. Nov 22 2012.
Davis, Grayson. “Video Games are Stupid.” Beeps & Boops. Aug 31 2012.
Mustrapa, Gus. “Gamers, You Ruined Zelda.” Joystick Division. Jun 18 2010