The lifespan of any given piece of criticism is a dubious proposition. The possibilities are made particularly odd when the subject of that criticism is the relationship of a community to its own critics. That ended up being the focus of last month’s feature, The Ludorenaissance, a series that probably opened as many questions as it closed. Truth be told, it was part of my goal to provide some slender framework for future discussion, even as I acknowledged that my instigation might well fall flat.
It is gratifying, then, to see “The Reader” still kicking up a little dust. Earlier this week, a handful of independent game developers and writers revived the discussion on Twitter. In particular, they took umbrage with the suggestion that maybe game developers, and particularly those in the indie scene, aren’t all that heavily influenced by game criticism. The gist of their response can be summed up by a comment from game designer and cephalopod enthusiast Rob F:
I couldn’t point to a single piece of crit, lit or media that single handedly changed what or how I write but I can assure you that my work has changed drastically (for the better, I hope) due to crit, lit & other media.
In other words, criticism can have a cumulative effect on the way game developers work, even when no particular work of criticism stands out. I suspect they’re right about that, but the very nature of the sort of influence they’re talking about makes it difficult to build a body of supporting evidence. For the present, the most I’ll say in defense of the methodology in “The Reader” is that, though the approach was more journalistic than scientific, it was, at least, an attempt to build a picture of the developer/critic relationship on the basis of evidence.
If that picture ended up being a bit lopsided, that must be due in part to the size of the sample pool. There is, happily, an easy corrective: more discussion. To that end, I issued an open call for “a letter to the editor or an article explaining another point of view on the subject that we can run on Culture Ramp as rebuttal.” That remains an open invitation. We’d like nothing more than to see the issues raised by The Ludorenaissance series become the topic of a constructive and ongoing discussion. In the meantime, I think we can point to at least one trend in gaming that suggests the influence of criticism on development.
There is probably no genre so stubbornly linked to onscreen depictions of violence as the first-person shooter. In the past, that has made FPS games natural choices as examples any time a culture hawk wanted to lobby a criticism against the handling of violence in the video game industry. Yet, despite being pound-for-pound more consistently focused on killing human opponents, that focus has since shifted away from the FPS genre, and onto individual stand-outs (like Grand Theft Auto) in other genres.
Part of the reason for that may be a shift in the dominant style of FPS games. Early on, the genre was defined by its sci-fi absurdism. Wolfenstein 3D, widely regarded as the game that gave definition to the genre, pitted a lone allied soldier against an army of undead mutant Nazis, headed by a walking tank driven by Adolf Hitler. In the way that it twists historical motifs, the iconography of the game suggests a willful defiance of realism. Cartoonish depictions of the Nazi army have long served as symbols of baseline evil—think: Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Hellboy. Retaining them for an FPS update of Muse Software’s Wolfenstein games (which leaned more heavily on stealth than gunplay as the central mechanic) served the dual purpose of establishing conflict and making the use of brute force less objectionable.
Doom went a step further, jettisoning even the tenuous historical ties of Wolfenstein by pitting the player against a demonic legion from Hell. For years thereafter, the imagery of FPS games tended toward science fiction locales and plots, with high points in the Marathon, Quake, Unreal and Halo franchises.
By that point, Doom had already become the occasion for controversy, particularly in connection with the Columbine shooting. Critical pressure was mounting. The breakthrough came in 1998 with the release of two games that would steer the genre down two often intertwining branches.
One was Half-Life, the sleeper hit that would push sci-fi and horror shooters toward a greater emphasis on narrative and strategy. That emphasis can be seen as an evolution of gameplay elements from Bungie’s Marathon series, and there’s some evidence to suggest that it reflected a trend already mounting in the gaming industry. For example, the release of Metal Gear Solid two months earlier presaged much of Half-Life‘s approach, but MGS favored a third-person perspective. Had the trend adhered to that model, we might now see stealth and story as native to another genre altogether. In suturing those elements to the run-and-gun framework and first-person perspective of the Quake engine (on which producer Valve’s GoldSrc engine is based), Half-Life set the stage for an entire sub-genre of “cinematic” FPS games like BioShock and Dead Space.
The other pivotal game was Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, a reminder of the days when it still seemed pretty reasonable to sell a game franchise on the strength of a writer’s name. Rainbow Six introduced a more tactical approach to the basic mechanics of the FPS, but perhaps more significantly, it rooted gameplay in a recognizably real world. Play centered on missions conducted by a counter-terrorism unit against not demons or mutant Nazis, but an eco-terrorist organization.
Rainbow Six sparked a trend in real-world FPS games. Some echoed the game’s near-future setting, while others, following in the tradition of Battlefield: 1942, mined military history for their iconography. Violent death continued to be the mainstay of the genre, but criticism of that violence never quite hit the highs that it had with Doom.
Why? In the case of games that followed the Half-Life model, part of the reason may be simply that narrative interrupts the earlier, more primal connection between the player and the onscreen violence. During the Golden Age of cinema, movies managed to evade similar criticisms so long as they were able to insert compensating moral values into the story. The growing emphasis on narrative in the FPS genre allowed for such compensating moral values, and the strategic cast given to gameplay allowed the games themselves to shift responsibility for the violence onto players. Thus there were Half-Life‘s scientist characters, on whose protection centered many of the goals set by the plot, and for whose death the player might be penalized. That concern for innocent civilians complicates many of the criticisms that had traditionally been leveled against the genre.
That’s a shaky line to tread, though, and video games have never had a particularly impressive reputation when it comes to story. The model provided by Rainbow Six ends up being more efficient in that regard. It deflects criticism by its mere subject matter, and does so by playing on our cultural and political ambivalence with regard to war. The historical backdrop of Battlefield:1942, for example, provided indirect cover for the game’s mechanics by attaching the basic format of the FPS genre to a struggle with well-established cultural justifications. As a last result, the game can be recommended as a means of spreading historical awareness.
Particularly as concerns over domestic security have risen in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the counter-terrorism emphasis of more modern settings has benefited from the political center’s unwillingness to raise objections that might be seen as an indirect criticism of real-world anti-terrorism objectives. An index of the popularity of that connection may be Valve’s purchase in 2000 of a counter-terrorism themed Half-Life mod called Counter-Strike, effectively converging those two branches of the FPS tree. We are apparently so hesitant to criticize the tactical sub-genre that it takes something like EA’s ill-advised sale of Medal of Honor-branded assault weapons to remind us that these games invite us to play the part of soldiers in a recreation of the real world.
So that the point is not lost, let me reiterate the suggestion that the shifts that began in 1998 happened in part as a reaction to criticisms leveled against the violence of the FPS genre. As with Rob F’s testimony, that reaction probably had no direct antecedent. It isn’t that Valve or Red Storm felt persuaded by a particular article to change their approach to video game depictions of violence. Rather, the whole of the culture was informed by voices decrying the situation, and the game makers responded to the culture.
Because there is so little evidence of a deliberate attempt to address those criticisms, it’s worth asking whether or not those designers have really altered the nature of the genre’s approach to violence. If anything, more of that violence is directed against identifiably human characters than ever before. The real innovation is that much of it occurs in a context that frustrates criticism—or, at the very least, excuses ambivalence.
That makes for a less than ideal relationship between critics and developers. It’s all the more frustrating in that the game community currently has a more motivated and grounded school of journalists than at any other time in its history. What it lacks is a widespread feeling that criticism is something that can improve both games and the culture that surrounds them. Until that’s achieved, the triple-A studios will likely continue to address criticism about the content and imagery of their games with a largely unacknowledged, and perhaps unconscious, policy of avoidance. What part indie developers will play remains to be seen.