It’s been at least a century since the notion of canon really applied to most Western art—since, that is, there were any works of literature or visual art that were absolutely indispensable to an understanding of the culture. It’s a medieval and Renaissance notion, really, disrupted by the plurality of perspectives and imperatives that define modernity.
Video games, on the other hand, have developed their own modes of canon-making. One is simple reiteration—every new sequel to a popular game reinforces the necessity of the franchise. Another is multiplatform distribution. Thus the title of an article The Verge ran on Monday:
Wii U misses out on latest ‘Tomb Raider’ title due to unconventional controller
For the original context, see True Gaming‘s interview with Noah Hughes. It might strike our regular readers as a touch ironic, given that site’s role in “For Aggregation Only” which ran the same day, but The Verge article is basically dressed-up aggregation. It was, more to the point, effective aggregation, adding just enough spin to make the story appealing to other game journalism sites, who re-aggregated it widely.
Spin is ultimately what The Verge‘s Kimber Streams contributed to the story, working Hughes’ otherwise complimentary comments about the Wii-U into a suggestion of doom. “While the early days of the Wii U featured a number of high-profile multiplatform games like Assassin’s Creed 3 and Mass Effect 3,” she wrote, “it will be interesting to see whether Crystal Dynamics’ decision to forgo developing Tomb Raider for the system will signal a change in that regard.”
A single game is hardly a trend, and The Verge‘s take would be little more than bald speculation did its popularity not shine a light on the ubiquity of certain expectations within the gaming industry. The implication is that Tomb Raider is an index of the Wii-U’s long-term viability, and the background to that premise is the idea that consoles should be competing for the same basic market by playing host to a shared canon of high-profile games. Each console can have its own exclusives, but they must also be able to play certain titles in common. At the very least, they should make it possible for designers to adopt a platform-agnostic stance so that they can design a game like Tomb Raider for the broadest conceivable audience.
If that seems like putting words in Streams’ mouth, ask yourself when you last read an article claiming that other consoles were “missing out” on a Wii title by not having a nun-chuck-type controller. We don’t see those claims very often because we generally don’t think of Wii or Wii-U as encouraging the sort of games that ought to be available on other consoles, but we haven’t yet adjusted our expectations in the opposite direction. The question insinuated by Streams’ piece boils down to this: How does a console survive without that shared canon of high-profile multiplatform games? And in fairness to Streams and The Verge, that’s not an entirely unreasonable question—in part because many of us do expect certain titles to be available on any current generation platform we happen to have.
So much the worse for us. It’s no coincidence that speculation about the fate of the Wii-U hovers around a seventeen year-old franchise. The more we insist that every platform be capable of playing the same game, the more we constrain developers to dated formulae and genre. And given that the franchise’s latest claim to fame is a controversy over possible depictions of sexual assault, Nintendo may even be better off without it. If it weren’t for the expectation that its console should accommodate multiplatform games, what, precisely, would Nintendo be missing out on with Tomb Raider?
Starting with the Wii, Nintendo has gambled on providing a platform for innovation. By providing for a different set of interactions, they’ve hoped to allow developers to build new types of games. Whether or not you like the Wii systems and the catalog of games they’ve fostered, it’s difficult to fault them for betting that there are worthwhile possibilities beyond those afforded by the traditional control pad. If the final measure of the success of their consoles resided in their ability to play the same sorts of games we’ve been playing since 2006 and before, what would be the point?
Trade-offs are an inherent part of the economics of producing the sort of hardware that allow developers to stretch the medium, but the widespread assumption that Nintendo can’t succeed without the multiplatform canon says more about the culture surrounding video games than it does about the worth of the Wii or Wii-U. Either we suspect our fellow gamers of complacency with regard to the range of possible games we’re willing to play, or we ourselves have become complacent. If the Wii-U flounders for lack of games like Tomb Raider, we’ll know which scenario was the case.