Grabbing the unlikely "sleeping giant" of gaming audiences
Now museum, now you don't.
Roughly a year ago I found myself in a 'games as art' conversation - a conversation I know is tired, but one I hadn't heard of in earnest for a few years. But the person doing the talking wasn't wearing a beret or holding a painter's palette or anything like that. He was a very down to earth man called Simon Meek, making a game called Beckett, and what he said made a deep impression on me.
His game is weird and abstract, a surreal noir investigation closer to a museum piece than game - and which must have turned heads, for it's going on display at the V&A Museum in Dundee. It's a relatively swift story of an anti-hero on the heels of a young man suffering from something called The Soft Paranoia, a mental illness that warps reality and, therefore, the game. Characters can be brooches or slices of meat - everything is open to interpretation in Beckett.
Technically, if you want a blunt description of it all, it's a point-and-click adventure presented in a top-down, relatively flat way, made up of photographs, artwork, illustration, photography, film and print, and a bespoke audio "palette" to go with it. Meek likened it to an independent European cinema piece compared to a Hollywood blockbuster.
It is a barefaced attempt at a game being art, in other words. It is a statement piece.
"I'm not under any illusions," Meek told me at EGX Rezzed last year, "I don't think this is going to be a multi-million bestseller, but things like this are important." He has confidence a pocket of the PC audience will be open to Beckett, like they were with The 39 Steps, his studio's previous game. "It mightn't be for everybody," he added, "but hopefully you come out of this feeling it was really solid use of two hours."
It's that short punch of cerebral engagement he feels could ignite a "sleeping giant" of a demographic I hadn't considered before - a returning audience, lost and now found.
"One of the things the industry is facing at the moment is as people hit their 30s and they have children and you become time-poor, you need to feel like you're spending that time wisely," he said. "We get this whole lapsed gamer thing going, because if games aren't growing with that original player, who can find time to play an 80-hour game?
"There's a lot of games - and this isn't a criticism of games - that are really good time-wasting mechanisms, and that's why people love them. You can get an adrenaline rush and get into it but actually I just start to think, 'There are all these things I want to do,' and you've got all this amazing stuff on Netflix - all these things competing for your time. We need new forms of content delivering to that audience who actually will start to feel disenfranchised.
"We saw it happen in the early '90s when the console generation came along and you had this massive wave of the original PC gamer that bought the ZX81 and the Atari ST and they were getting all these experiences like the Hobbit text adventure, Myst - games were very much more experiential back then - and then they became more about adrenaline. And actually we did lose all of those people.
"People in the '80s playing who were playing are probably now in their 50s and 60s, and what's quite interesting is that although you become time poor in your 30s and 40s, generally in your 60s your kids start leaving home and you actually become time rich again, so actually the sleeping giant of the broadening of the games audience are those people who have got the bug they're just not being delivered the content.
"That's the statement we're making," he closed. "Whether someone who is spending their time playing Call of Duty will feel at home in this, I don't know, but I'd love it if they played it and did."
Beckett will be released by Kiss Publishing on 27th February on Steam.