AAA Games and The Quest for Legitimacy

I finally got around to reading Jason Schreier’s big exposé about the development of Anthem that was published on Kotaku last week. It’s got everything we’ve come to expect from these big Schreier pieces at this point, especially the ones that come out of EA studios. There’s a lot to take away from it about Frostbite, decision making by upper-management, the relationship between the two BioWare studios, and, of course, crunch culture, the big issue that’s at the heart of almost every horrible game development story (and most of the good ones too). There are reasonable takeaways and productive conversations that people can have about all of those things, but, man, there was one frankly benign quote towards the beginning of the article that made me sit there and shake my head. It brought to the forefront frustrations that I’ve had for years, and I just had to get them down on paper somewhere.

Here’s the quote:

“In late 2012 and 2013, while finishing up the Mass Effect trilogy, BioWare director Casey Hudson and a small team of longtime Mass Effect developers started work on a project that they hoped would be the Bob Dylan of video games, meaning something that would be referenced by video game fans for years to come.”

What a great and horrible summation of AAA gaming’s absolutely pathetic quest for legitimacy.

Before I start, I want to make some concessions. This is not about the fact that the original codename for Anthem was Dylan. Given that the codenames for the two versions of Dragon Age 4 have been Joplin and Morrison, I’m going to assume that BioWare just likes to choose musicians as their codenames. After all, codenames are sort of supposed to be innocuous and meaningless. I also want to say that the quote above is completely Schreier’s. I assume that he is referencing things that were said to him by actual BioWare developers, but none of them are explicitly referenced as having said that or anything like it.

But none of that particularly matters, because this isn’t a blog post about Anthem. I haven’t played Anthem and once it was clear that it would be a Destiny-like, I never really cared that much about Anthem. It’s just not my genre. But that quote is so ridiculous. “A project they hoped would be the Bob Dylan of video games, meaning something that would be referenced by video game fans for years to come”. Is that what it means to be the Bob Dylan of a thing? It means to be referenced decades later as something that was great? There’s no consideration for why Bob Dylan is considered to be great; they just like the fact that he is. If this quote actually represents the creative direction of Anthem and the ambition of the game was simply to make something that people at large would consider to be important, then it was guaranteed from the start that the game wouldn’t ever actually be important. And the reference to Dylan just comes off as this lame attempt to look towards other, more legitimate artforms in order to legitimize videogames. And that is nothing new.

Hell, the quote itself is almost word-for-word the thing Michael Thomsen said about Metroid Prime on ABC News ten years ago:

“Like Citizen Kane you can return to Metroid Prime again and again”.

That piece was mocked and criticized at the time, but Thomsen at least had some comparisons to make between the two works. I can’t think of any way that Anthem in any stage of its development was anything like the works of Bob Dylan.

Both of these examples show facile comparisons being made between canonically great works of art and modern videogames in an attempt to make the latter more legitimate. But even without quotes like this, the way that AAA games strive for legitimacy by trying to imitate other mediums is obvious.

Take for example God of War, which I think is one of the worst offenders in this regard. God of War does all the things that most Sony first party games do these days: a story told primarily through cutscenes driven by emotional relationships with gameplay framed by a tight, over-the-shoulder camera focusing on impactful and very violent combat. It’s not the worst formula in the world—although some games deliver on it better than others—but it is one that is very clearly trying to make games that can be taken seriously. The emphasis is put on production values because those can impress at first glance. The story is focused on personal relationships and the combat is weighty in order to make things seem more grounded and real. The problem with God of War is that things aren’t always grounded and real. The story is often bad when it tries to be those things and at other times it’s just a big dumb action game (which isn’t a bad thing, just something it’s trying so hard not to be). Yet the game adopts the aesthetics of things that are grounded and real, thus giving it the facade of legitimacy.

A big selling point for God of War was the fact that the game never has any camera cuts. If the camera wants to show something new, it will move to show it. From the way I’m talking about cuts and cameras, it’s clear that this is a technique taken from film, which is fine; games should learn things and steal from other mediums. But they should do so with intent. God of War doesn’t feel like it’s taking from film for any greater effect. The single long take doesn’t really add much. The director of cinematography, Dori Arazi has talked about how the single shot was meant to make the player feel closer to Kratos, but there are many times in God of War where I felt more distance was needed. The long take occasionally works to effect in God of War, but as Austin Walker has written, the game could have benefited from cuts. Cuts have cinematic purposes. They aren’t simply a crutch filmmakers use because long takes are hard. The cynical take I have is that whoever decided to use the long take knows that films are often lauded for using them and wanted God of War to garner that same praise. Nobody gets awards for saying “We used editing”. Everybody does that. The long take made God of War look special and more like the movies than other games. The fact that it was used so heavily as a marking tool makes me even more cynical about it’s use in the game.

And while this isn’t in relation to other mediums, I also want to talk about God of War as an example of a game starring a detestable father or father-figure and dealing with the relationship they have to their child: “bad dad games”, colloquially. The dadification of games is well-documented, and there are a lot of cultural factors that play into it. One of those factors is that some of these games, most notably The Last of Us, got a lot of praise when they came out. The Last of Us was lauded as a story-telling achievement that transcended games. It’s got legitimacy. And I like The Last of Us, so that’s not a dig. It’s just that when one game has legitimacy, it is natural for other developers to take superficial elements from it in order to get that legitimacy they so desire.

And this quest for legitimacy is just so…tiring. I’m not the first person to make this observation and I won’t be the last, but AAA games often want to be taken seriously as an art form without understanding why it is that we take art seriously in the first place. People take art seriously because of its ability to make them genuinely feel things or to say things about the world. That’s very broad, but that’s because art takes so many different forms. It’s not just the gritty stuff that’s legitimate. Some films exist solely to make people laugh, and yet people still spend time engaging with them seriously, deconstructing comedic techniques to show just how it is that the filmmaker invokes a laugh or looking at what it is that people find funny. People do this for games too. They do it all the time. There are a ton of great critics and great designers who take all genres of games as seriously as they deserve to be taken. This blog post is mainly just about the AAA publishing space, the place where all the money goes. This is where companies want the gravitas of art because it helps them sell but actively shy away from overtly saying anything because that might hurt sales. And that’s not the only place they’re looking for legitimacy. Just look at E-Sports. Everything from the name to the constant flaunting of prize pools is a desperate plea by companies telling the world to take them as seriously as real sports.

But it’s all artificial. When a game’s primary goal is being taken seriously, then people will judge it on how well it convinces us that it should be taken seriously. What else is there to judge it on? After all, there’s nothing that’s worth taking serious. Well, there is, but it might just not be the type of seriousness that the company was hoping for. When a company puts out one of these games they want it to be uncritically lauded as meaningful without people digging into what it actually means. They definitely don’t want people analyzing the thematic, narrative, and mechanical content and perhaps even *gasp* criticizing it. They want the game to simply be remembered for existing, which is the least artistically legitimate thing imaginable.

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