I haven't written much on the site lately. I moved house a few times last year and in the chaos of moving I fell into a habit of only playing a handful of free to play games on my phone, which I doubt many of you are interested in. On top of that, just thinking about worthwhile things to say about videogames has been pretty depressing in the last couple of years, now that anyone whose work relates to games seems to be under threat from a community of malignant reactionaries actively seeking lives to ruin. It's difficult to stay focused on making interesting observations about Pocket Card Jockey when the private lives of your peers are being torn apart online for sport.
Still, nothing lasts forever; I've no doubt that our current problems will eventually decay to nothing and replaced by other, worse problems, and in the meantime we will adapt to deal with things as best we can. Life hobbles on.
Back when we started Midnight Resistance, I wanted it to (amongst other things) provide a platform for new voices. I think we've had only minimal success in this regard, but the surrounding culture and community of games criticism has changed a lot over the years. These days I'd rather encourage new writers to submit pitches to sites like Zeal - publications that can pay them for their work, and aren't run by yet more straight white men. Every time we discuss future podcast plans, I'm left wondering whether booking more diverse guests is ultimately a form of exploitation on our part; ultimately there's no perfect balance, of course. Similarly, in years gone by I would have happily linked together a reading list of bloggers with different views on controversial topics, but in recent times I've become wary about unintentionally creating a handy list of harassment targets. This is the thing I find most depressing about the current political climate - recognising someone's work can become a kiss of death once the dog whistles sound in your wake.
The long break has given me some time to reflect on what and how we write about games. I try to strike a more positive, less cynical tone these days. I still think about ruminating on subjects like whether becoming rich and famous overnight can transform a decent person into a dickhead, or if it just unleashes latent dickhead traits that were there all along.... but honestly, why bother? Nobody benefits from taking cheap shots at strangers - not least when they seem miserable already - and there's every chance it'll just spark a chain reaction of resentment that culminates with some random woman being harassed out of her job. Good criticism is important and necessary, but I've become a lot more wary about the consequences of bad criticism.
In any case, what is there to say about videogames in the year 2016? Or, to bust out my lazy Žižek impression, perhaps the real question is what do videogames say about us in the year 2016?
This year's E3 was pretty quiet, right? Zelda looks good - probably the best thing in the show - but it's pretty much the only thing Nintendo have on their docket right now, and it's still won't be out until next year. Scalebound ought to be great, but perhaps not worth buying an Xbox for (especially with expensive new hardware on the horizon). The Last Guardian continues to be in development. Kojima is back in business. Don't get me wrong, there were a good few other things that should be worth a bash, but nothing really electrifying - nothing that'll make you rue each day until its release.
We keep blaming this kind of conservatism on the fact that games have become increasingly expensive to make over the years, squeezing out risk and raising barriers to entry, but I've been thinking recently that this has always been the situation. The counterbalance has been the growth of hardware sales from generation to generation - larger, more varied userbases supporting more experimental design, etc - but perhaps the real problem we're seeing is that this generation has stalled? A quick skim over historical console sales figures seems to support this, although we're left to speculate over why this is exactly.
I think it's fair to say Nintendo did a great job of selling the Wii to people who wouldn't normally buy games consoles, but failed to get them to upgrade to the Wii U - there's probably still a large contingent of people who don't even realise it's a separate console, and not just a fancy control pad. Microsoft had a disastrous console launch at E3 2013 which drove me, most people I know, and presumably many others to the PS4, and they've been scrambling to recover ever since - I suspect the two new consoles they announced this year are driven by a hope that fresh hardware launches might clean their slate. The PS4 is certainly dominating this console generation (40 million units sold, versus 17 million Xbox Ones and 12 million Wii U's - all these figures alleged by unconfirmed internet sources, for what it's worth) but still seems to be trailing behind where PS2 and PS3 sales were when they were the same age as it is now.
In a broader sense, I think people are less impressed by the incremental improvements in this generation - the graphical advancements are much more subtle than the jump to high definition, and many of the big games we've seen so far have been sequels to franchises that are already three or more instalments deep. My other theory, which I don't have a lot of hard evidence for but feel pretty happy proposing, is that kids just aren't very interested in consoles right now. Whenever I see or hear about a preteen taking an interest in videogames, it's often very specifically in relation to Minecraft, or else some free-to-play game they installed on their parents' tablet. And who can blame them? Look at the top-selling games for different consoles and you'll see each passing generation shadow their aging players with a drift towards 'mature' content. Consider how jarring that Crash Bandicoot remake sounded, wedged in alongside Call of Duty, God of War and Death Stranding during Sony's E3 show this year. The original PlayStation had tons of fun kids games like that, but they've been steadily snuffed out in favour of grit and violence.
An anecdote: I went back up to my hometown last weekend and spent some time walking round to see how the shops had changed over the last few years. At one point I found myself walking around Iceland and reminiscing about when it used to be a Woolworths - one of the main places me and my friends used to buy games when we were kids. I bought my launch day copy of Pokémon Blue there on the way home from school, and once had a long (and futile) discussion with a member of staff about the legal difference between a BBFC rating and PEGI's age recommendations while trying to buy a copy of Command & Conquer: Red Alert (particularly grating since I'd already bought a copy from the same shop three years previously without any hassle). I then realised that almost all the shops where we used to buy games (Woolworths, Blockbusters, the indie place where my mate used to work, Safeways) are gone now, with the crucial exception of a Grainger Games that popped up about four years ago. Yes, obviously many more people buy their games online now, but I think the lack of high street presence is significant.
By coincidence, it was our summer fair weekend. I walked up and down the high street, bought a posh lamb kebab for lunch, and went down to the leisure centre car park where the travelling funfair sets up its rides. A lot of the larger thrill rides from my youth seemed to have disappeared over the years, but the Waltzer - a rite of passage for local teens since before my time - was still going strong. Still, one key feature from my youth was missing: The travelling arcade they used to set up each year has long since gone. For one day each year this strange plywood cave would wheeze open, and I'd delve inside to play some big, flashy games. I once played through most of Knights of the Round here with a friend, and crashed a Street Fighter II cabinet by slamming my salty fist down on the attack buttons after losing a bullshit round to Zangief.
There used to be a betting shop in town with a couple of Neo-Geo cabinets - not exactly Segaworld, but when I was about 12 there was a period when my friends and I would regularly pop in to put a few credits into Samurai Shodown and League Bowling on our way home. Come to think of it, I also recall a Star Wars Arcade cabinet in the old cinema before it was converted into a nightclub. I doubt there's a single arcade cabinet left anywhere in town, today. Even in Newcastle, which back in 1997 had three great arcades, I can only think of two or three cabinets that are in use today. The nearest surviving arcade is south of the river in the Metrocentre, and it's a shadow of its former self (pictured above) - what was once a magnificent elephants' graveyard of 80's and 90's pocket money magnets now hosts the same roster of DDR, Guitar Hero and that one Rambo game as every other mid-size arcade seems to have now. Again, yes, we all understand that consumer hardware has improved to the point where arcade machines have lost their brute power appeal, and people would rather buy games outright rather than pay for another credit every few minutes; my point is that the death of arcades represents a huge loss for videogames' presence in public spaces.
If you don't see videogames around you, why would you care whether they exist at all?
The next two paragraphs sculpt a beautiful metaphor out of a moderate, late-game story spoiler for Metal Gear Solid V, so skip them if you're the kind of person who only likes reading about videogames in theory.
There's a scene towards the end of Metal Gear Solid V in which the child soldiers you've been trying to rehabilitate at your base hijack a helicopter and fly off into the sunset, never to be seen again. It's a strange story beat, but the strangeness stems from the circumstances surrounding the game's creation - the original plan was that the final chapter of the game would involve tracking them down to a sort of Lord of the Flies island ruled by a teenage despot, but deadlines and budget limitations meant that chapter was ultimately cut from the game. As it is, the exodus of the children brings their storyline to a sudden, opaque end.
Leigh Alexander has written about how Metal Gear Solid 4's themes reflect issues faced by the game's developers. I feel like this scene in Metal Gear Solid V can be read similarly. Snake and his pals on the base - representing the 'old guard' of traditional videogames - are slowly going mad together on this remote Galapagos of their own creation, where they keep reiterating the same self-destructive ideas and ideologies that have been slowly consuming them for decades. Meanwhile, the younger generation look at what these old fossils have to offer and decide they'd rather leave in search of something better. I worry that the (traditional) games industry is experiencing a similar exodus event where the kids fly off, never to return. The fact that this whole story beat was defined by backstage corporate dealings rather than a deeper artistic decision just adds further layers to its relevancy.
Of course, this isn't the whole picture. I think there's still a lot of room for growth and innovation in mobile games, and indie games are continuing to flourish - there's been a lot of talk about an Indiepocalypse in the last year or two, but so far it sounds to me like a simple case of more developers entering the market (bad news for individual developers perhaps, but healthy for the industry as a whole). There is also some cool progress going on in the AAA space; think about all those brown-and-grey FPS games that have come and gone in the last ten years, where now games like Overwatch are setting a new trend. What's bothering me isn't so much what we're getting, but that the AAA market as a whole seems to be drying up.
What videogames are saying in the year 2016 is that people want games that they can fit around their lifestyle, rather than the other way around. I'm not sure the AAA industry is really catching onto this idea - the new Zelda game does look great, but it also looks like it's going to soak up weeks of your life with exploration and item-collection. I'm sure the traditional console gaming crowd will love that stuff, but I get the impression kids would just watch highlights on YouTube. This focus on existing customers is making the industry's audience demographics increasingly top-heavy, and increasingly unsustainable.
The shift to games-as-a-service makes play much more convenient, but it seems damaging to videogames' long-term cultural power. We can preserve screenshots, data and analysis of games like Destiny, but I doubt you'll be able to play it in ten years' time. I've been slowly ploughing through some of the old, unplayed games in my collection recently, and often rating them unfavourably for their lack of checkpoints and auto-saves and other modern user-friendliness, but at least they still run.
I think the industry would be better off all round if we all spent a bit more time thinking about how to bring games into the public eye. I'm not saying we need to bring back arcades, but I think we could all bear to think of some new ways to engage with communities - maybe by supporting more public play events like Indiecade, or the London Games Festival? We tend to shy away from the public eye - even from dedicated player communities - for the sake of controlling media messaging, keeping people focused on the next big release, and so on. We purposefully maintain a kind of 'post-historical' state that erases public access and recognition of existing works, and so dooms future works to only brief flickers of relevancy.
Videogames are integrating into peoples' lives in a much deeper way than longtime observers may have expected. The new audiences (of younger and/or casual players) are often putting far more hours into games than self-declared 'gamers' of years gone by, but they don't consider gaming to be a notable part of their identity; it's just a thing they do, as (in)significant to them as watching TV or catching a bus. It's a bit like watching a dam break, and suddenly instead of having a river running through your town, the whole area becomes an indeterminate expanse of water - another, less popular local tradition where I'm from. This social shift towards videogames is bringing a loads of real-world concerns into the culture of game design; I doubt anybody in the 90's cared about what a player's average daily session length was like, for example.
At the same time, videogames are having a growing impact on society. Search Twitter for the word "censorship" and it won't take long before you find a spittle-flecked rant about how a publisher's decision to de-sexualise a teenage girl in their own game is somehow robbing the very same publisher of their own creative freedom. It's a ridiculous assertion, but it's worth noting that even an argument as poorly-constructed as this cannot help but acknowledge an underlying relationship between game design and society - that videogames both influence, and are influenced by external culture. The indication that videogames are truly merging into mainstream public consciousness doesn't come from counting EGX ticket sales, or Nintendo-themed trainers, but from subtler signs like the spread of this unconscious understanding.
If you talk about games in the year 2016, you can either highlight the links between videogames and people, or you can gloss over them. The former makes games more relevant; the latter makes you less relevant.