Lost Humanity 2: No More Heroes
Robert Florence asks: Where are our video game heroes?
Everything is wonderful and games are fantastic. We are in a video game golden age.
But make no mistake. We are in hell. Where are our heroes?
We have almost no-one to look up to. Have you ever thought about that? We have almost no-one that we would happily hoist up onto our shoulders and march through the streets with, screaming their name at strangers. We love video games, but most of the people who make them are an embarrassment to us. Let's stop being all defensive about it. Our beloved industry is populated by people who can't communicate, and can't inspire. Or aren't being allowed to.
We constantly read articles comparing the games industry to the film industry. "Gaming is so big and we make so much money and we're such a juggernaut! We are so culturally important!" We hold games in the same high regard that we hold movies and books. But film has Spielberg and Hitchcock, and literature has Umberto Eco and Stephen King, and we have Cliffy B and Phil Fish. Those are our big names. B and Fish. A letter and an animal. Those are our heroes.
Film buffs could sit in a pub and talk all night long about their giants. Kubrick, Kurosawa, Keaton, Kitano... and that's just the letter Ks. If we were in that same pub, we'd be struggling after Miyamoto and Kojima.
GAMER 1: Yeah, but there's more than Miyamoto and Kojima. There's Molyneux.
GAMER 2: Mmm. I suppose. He's a nice guy. What was his last great game?
GAMER 1: Um... Dunno. Dungeon Keeper? In 97?
GAMER 2: Mm. What was the name of the guy who made Journey?
GAMER 1: I haven't a clue.
GAMER 2: Mm. Nice crisps, these.
GAMER 1: Thingy is a bit of a hero. Gabe Newell.
GAMER 2: Why?
GAMER 1: Dunno, really. Half-Life. Steam, these days.
GAMER 2: Yeah. Steam. More of a businessman these days, kinda.
GAMER 1: Yeah. He does good summer sales, though. Kinda all businessmen these days, aren't they?
GAMER 2: Or controlled by businessmen. Yeah. Crisp?
GAMER 1: Yeah. Thanks.
GAMER 2: (Silence)
GAMER 1: (Silence)
GAMER 2: Nice crisps.
GAMER 1: Mm-hm.
You know it's true. We're scraping the barrel, and the barrel smells pretty bad.
Look at the way these prominent video game people behave. Look at Phil Fish, a guy who has made one game, lashing out at an entire sector of the industry. Phil Fish can feel comfortable telling Japanese programmer Makoto Goto that "Your games just suck!" because Fish is a prominent figure in the industry. Of course, all a man needs to become a prominent figure in the games industry is a nasty attitude and a quirky hairdo. You don't have to earn that prominence, or fight for it. You just have to decide to enter that boys club circle and claim that role. Some guys on some internet forums will champion you for that, easy. Some of our million games journos will do a feature on you, with Instagrammed photos.
And, you know what? Fair enough. Have fun! But how can we treat a Phil Fish like a hero within our industry? We can't. Do you remember how everyone went off James Cameron after his "I'M THE KING OF THE WORLD!!!" bit at the Oscars? We all thought JC was a bit of a silly billy after that, despite him being the guy who gave us Aliens and Terminator. All Phil Fish has given us is a fun little game that looks a bit like a million other things and plays a bit like Echochrome. He's just a toymaker with a loud mouth. He could have shown class, and modesty, and been a leader. But being an annoying egotist is enough to make yourself matter in the games world.
And hey, the real Phil Fish might not even be anything like this Phil Fish that's been presented to us. This isn't an attack on Phil Fish. It's an attack on the culture that produced him and embraces him. A lot of us are crap who champion crap, and adore those who crap it.
I know that you will have your own heroes. (Hidetaka Miyazaki is one of mine, but I'd probably have to explain who he is to most people, and I'm not sure I can pronounce his name.) And I'm not arguing that your heroes aren't good ones. But in any field there are those major players, those inarguable icons, that have us saying, "Yeah, he's a given..." Where are our givens? There's Miyamoto, yes. He's a given. But we said that! There's Kojima too, a given, obviously! But we SAID that! Who else?
(Let me break in here, to say something about Peter Molyneux. I get the feeling he wants to be a hero. I think he wants to be up there flying the flag, making great things and leading the way. I think he's probably glad to be out of that whole Microsoft mess, where he ended up being some kind of weird cheerleader, like a creepy Xbox Gollum. I've hammered Molyneux in the past, but only because I think he wasted a large chunk of his career on fluff, when there was an industry giant living inside his black turtleneck sweater. I wish him the absolute best.)
The auteur is a rare thing in gaming. Before we can find our heroes within the industry, at the development side of things, we need to feel the influence of those auteurs. We need to be able to identify them by feel. But who do we really feel? Listen, we've already said Miyamoto and Kojima, so shut up about them. Who else do we feel? Who else do we even know? The team who made Mass Effect, and were viciously turned on by their disappointed audience? The twenty thousand people who made Skyrim, despite not knowing how to make a game like Skyrim yet? The dude who made Halo? Who even made Halo? Was it even a dude? It could have been a woman, or a centaur, or a room full of Nazi robots. And listen, why are we even talking about auteurs when talking about video games? It's ridiculous. We must be kidding. You can't have nice things in hell. Let's just face it.
What's worse, some people at the fringes of the games industry think they can fill that hero hole. I'm talking about games journalists, guys who present game videos, people like me, nobodies. The games industry is so lacking in important figures that someone can make an amusing animated gif and feel like they are our Andy Warhol. Someone else can write a tweet about how interesting the purchase of Gaikai is, get retweeted by a Sony bot, and go to bed feeling like Lester Bangs. We've all aimed so low for so long we don't even know where high is.
I want heroes. We need heroes.
We just don't have the kind of environment that can produce any. How can any creators within the games industry possibly hope to become great when surrounded by lowest common denominator crap? All they can really hope to do is get their heads above the muck and hope not to gag on the smell. Let's take Kojima as an example. When I play one of Kojima's wonderful, authored games, my first feeling is always this - how does he get away with it? That's how we view the genuine visionaries - as people who have somehow managed to perform some sleight of hand and push something valuable out there without their paymasters noticing.
And you, dear reader, are as much to blame as anyone. The industry presents itself to you as it thinks you want it.
There is no better example of the contempt the marketing side of the industry has for all of you than Spike's Video Game Awards. It's an annual awards show that isn't a real awards show, yet still somehow manages to be even more disgusting than real awards shows. It's an opportunity for publishers to show you adverts for their latest products while shovelling geek stereotype soup down your throat. In the hell that is the games industry, Spike's awards show is Satan's shop-front. It is where money is king and the worst of us is laid bare. There are no heroes involved in the production or the presentation of such a thing. Only parasites, happy to take the buck, happy to exploit every one of you. Eliminate all involved in this thing from your list of potential heroes. They are the enemy. They are the super-villains.
Any industry that isn't questioned becomes lazy, and takes the easy option. And the easiest thing to do is to pander to your worst elements. Publishers, PR people, even games press websites, they all see that it makes sense to pander to the immature, racist, sexist elements of the audience. That's why Catherine was launched in a strip club. That's why almost every game character is white. That's why Hitman killed all those attractive nuns. It brings the money in. No boats are rocked, no lines are crossed, no questions are posed and no answers are found. Everything stays the same, and no auteur can possibly function. No heroes can be heard above the buzz of the chainsaw or the blast of the millionth shotgun.
If we want heroes, we have to prepare the way for them. It's on us. And I think the work has begun.
Last week, in the comments section of my first column, I saw this, from a reader called Frybird:
"I also hope that you go out of your way to discuss topics that aren't already chewed through everywhere else, like DLC and DRM and TRR (that stands for Tomb Raider Rape)"
Frybird, I speak directly to you now. I am delighted that you are tired of people "chewing through" the Tomb Raider story. It means things are getting better. We must chew, and chew, and chew again through these things. We must chew on them, spit them out, pick them back up and start chewing afresh. The reason why you are so tired of "TRR", as you put it, is that you aren't accustomed to so many chewers chewing over something so ugly at one time. Social networks allow chewers to share chewy stuff with each other, circumventing traditional mainstream chew-dispensers. It's a wonderful thing. It is chewy, and it is change.
That change will allow good people to thrive. We need to fight, and rage, and reject what they throw at us. We need to demand better games, and demand that they are marketed more intelligently. We need to express disgust at PR sexism and boycott any product that insults us. We need to support the Anita Sarkeesians and we need to rail against, god help us, practically everything and everybody else.
We don't need to become heroes ourselves to pave the way for the heroes we want. We have a remarkable easy job - we only need to become decent. Is that really too much to ask?
That was heavy.
Next week, let's take a break from the horror. We'll lighten things up a little, and I'll show you a disturbing video about wonderful indie games sent to me by a dead man called Charles.
The Weekly Mini Review
This week I've been playing Lego Batman 2, and it's fantastic. I want you to imagine what it might be like being Superman in a Lego game. It's likely you've already imagined that at some point, during sex probably. However you've imagined it, it's so much better than that. It's like being some kind of Lego superman. Buy this.