When I get on my usual moan about the state of attempts at game histories or canons and how this progresses into the narrative that’s formed in game exhibitions, it’s usually that they’re often mostly or entirely married to the consumer history of games, by which I mean, what’s included are the things that were sold by successful companies and commercially popular, and that’s considered enough of a picture of “how it was.” Even successful PC titles and properties occasionally get left out because it’s so much easier to trace a lineage of home consoles with a sprinkle of arcade machines at the start to get the really old folks into it too. The PC is a much messier platform, the presumption that you’ll use it for things other than playing DOOM is a given, while consoles usually have warranty restrictions on doing anything other than using it to run licensed copies of games.
This messiness of personal computers, internet games, bootlegs and piracy, homebrew and so on really complicates the neat branching history consoles and legacy IP offers so of course it’s a lot easier to exhibit/consume. (It’s also not uncommon for history and art institutions in general to want to canonize these sorts of temptingly straightforward narratives tied up neatly with an idea of unidirectional progress, for a whole variety of reasons) Legacy IP is especially powerful, and only getting moreso, I think. Look at Super Mario Odyssey. Would a game about a guy with NES sprite proportions but intricately rendered hair and irises walking around in a realistically scaled New York (excuse me, Donk) City not be totally laughed off of Steam Greenlight? But you can make this game only if it’s a Mario game. Mario is the one with his hand on the dial that controls the acceleration of absurd videogame logic… Or maybe that’s Waluigi’s canonical role. Nintendo please confirm.
Videogames are actually incredibly weird and taming them by slotting the acceptable examples into a history of the most popular and most profitable forces them into a kind of marketing logic (this is what sells, it is what is “fun” it is “good design” it is “successful” so don’t ask too many questions about what’s under Toad’s hat… if it is a hat), a sensibility the form as a whole doesn’t really have. In the pursuit of the mythologized “flow” state as the pinnacle of design, we’re really just looking for the key formulas, a hypothetical exact model that generates peak interest somehow. We usually locate this at the level of code or structure, below the visual or narrative information, to the point where we’re not too concerned about the formulas that take over that part. Maybe all protagonists’ names really should be consonant-vowel-double consonant- Y format, and this is what we’re missing.
(Is “flow” even real? It always seems to call back to an idea of childhood arcade superplay as ideal gaming experience forever just short of recaptured that I don’t think many people actually reached in the first place. And yet this presumed shared nostalgia is inbuilt into design curricula.)
What videogames actually are is getting away from us, or maybe we’ve only just noticed that it’s not really where we think it is. While everyone my age was kind of shocked by the meteoric rise of the Five Nights At Freddy’s franchise, (and I should have seen it coming, having written about Ao Oni) people younger than us took to it like fish to water, and the production of fangames by this age group (from freddy-likes to games which situate the characters in other situations, like dating sims or RPGs) is prodigious. We’re the old ones now.
Anyways if non-industry production is mentioned at all from this perspective a consumer history of games tends to assert that “indie” originated sometime from ehhh 2006–2010 which was a certain turning point, sure. There was a significant consolidation of forces: A)the internet and personal computers had reached a tipping point of universality, B) game making tools were available to individuals in a more prominent way in part due to C) the popularity of sites like Newgrounds where People Like You with just a pirated copy of Flash and an internet connection could make something everyone would think is totally rad and hilarious, because you can just post it online now instead of having to… I dunno, mail cassette tapes around, which in the 21st century became suddenly less glamorous. Shortly after that enough men were making games that either were enough of a callback to existing games or about very serious heterosexual man emotions or both that people making games outside of studio oversight became worth paying attention to.
(Now of course the net cast of “indie worth paying attention to” in popular press is much broader but at the same time I don’t feel like we owe any debt of appreciation or recognition to supposed “trailblazers” in this area because it has unfolded in essentially the same way any other medium or tendency has gained academic and institutional recognition.. lol as they say online)
I feel like videogames are still so defined by their industry side, despite frequently showing how quickly they can become a medium of the people, that when those of us who don’t belong to this perspective ie, lone amateur creators, artists, academics from other fields, dip our toe in this form, we feel pressured to adopt the language and values of the consumer history model to be taken seriously.
To quote from Adorno, and I promise this is the last time he’ll come up for a while:
“Innumerable people use words and expressions which they have either ceased to understand or employ only because they trigger off conditioned reflexes; in this sense, words are trade-marks which are finally all the more firmly linked to the things they denote, the less their linguistic sense is grasped. The minister for mass education talks incomprehendingly of “dynamic forces,” and the hit songs unceasingly celebrate “reverie” and “rhapsody,” yet base their popularity precisely on the magic of the unintelligible as creating the thrill of a more exalted life.”
Obviously reading this passage today the first thing that came to mind was how particular words and phrases hold so much loaded power now through the mediated way that politics is conducted, morphing into something that is almost always extremely remote from any real situation it may be referring to. That was an obvious concern for Adorno as well, but in the same breath he also talks about the lyrics of pop songs as functioning the same way. And of course, I thought about the way we talk about games, because it is so littered with these words too, isn’t it?
Gameplay. Replayability. Agency. Embodiment. Experience. Interactability. Mechanics. Flow. Balance. Immersion is especially a chestnut for me. What are the qualities of immersion, what is its effect? What makes up the situation of being “immersed?” Buy the latest consumer VR headset to find out, I guess. The trouble with these words is not that a definition doesn’t exist, but that they’re so often used as shortcuts that we haven’t really bothered to refine what we mean by them when we deploy them in different contexts. They’re part of the language that you speak to indicate that you are talking about videogames in the first place, so often using them, or feeling compelled to, comes prior to understanding them. “Immersion,” as its most often used, is simply a trigger to provoke fantasies about how important, novel, and revolutionary VR will be, its non-specificity being the source of the thrill. It’s a sort of indicator of lack of confidence, that the actual game itself isn’t enough, but the ideal we were hoping to get across is enough to sell it.
As long as videogames are sold as an aspiration or fantasy rather than as what they really are, we’ll have to keep talking like this. Of course, this is the normal situation of a commodity, but to do interesting things with the form, as well as examine them historically, we also have to look at and talk about what they actually end up being, rather than just repeating how they’re sold to us.