AAA games are supposed to be boring and unoriginal

To criticise the AAA game for a lack of originality is to misunderstand the fundamental nature of a video game with a multi-million pound development budget, says Phil Hartup.

So it came, it saw and it conquered; GTA V, the Big Kahuna, the King of the Wasteland, the two hundred million dollar paragon of mass market media done right. Mark it well, because this, ladies and gentlemen is what exactly what every AAA video game is trying to be.

Forget those who question why the characters are men, forget those who wanted a significant divergence from the established game style, forget the questions about tone, violence and torture scenes, forget GTA V even, this is bigger than that. We are talking about giving the masses what they want, not what they think they want, and doing it right when huge sums of money are involved.

There is a criticism that is often aimed at AAA games, the big tent titles, your Call of Duty, HALO, or Gears Of War type games. This criticism is that they are all alike, that they are repeating the same tired tropes and the same staggeringly unoriginal methods of game play. You can bounce from one AAA action game to the next these days and be reasonably certain you’ll end up inhabiting the character of a white man with a military background fighting his way through a series of action packed corridors, equipped with regenerating health and a vicious array of weapons. Your principle mode of interaction will be shooting people multiple times in the face and most of the interesting things will take place in scripted events or cut-scenes. There are exceptions, but the norm is frighteningly common.

But here is the thing, to criticise the AAA game for a lack of originality is to misunderstand the fundamental nature of a video game with a multi-million pound development budget. When you’re spending that sort of money on developing a game it ceases to be a work of art, it becomes instead a product, designed to appeal to and satisfy as many people as it possibly can.

When you play any AAA developed video game you are not experiencing the creative expression of a single person, or even some big collective artistic endeavour, instead you are seeing thousands of different components designed by dozens, even hundreds, of different people that have been meticulously assembled by other people into a finished creation. A game in many ways is more like a car than a traditional piece of media, because not only does it have to look right and sound right, it has to actually function, it has to function well, it has to be fun to use, it has to make you happy when you press the buttons.

But why are so many games not original? Considering that originality is something that gamers, reviewers and critics will generally profess to love about a game it would seem logical that games developers would seek out original ideas, right? Well, no. Games developers aim for the known quantity for the same reason that car companies keep making four door saloons. They know that when push comes to shove most people will stay in their comfort zone with a buying decision, they’ll prefer the promise of limited satisfaction where they know what they are getting to the risk of disappointment with something new and so they’ll play safe. It’s easy to forget too that the games market is riddled with some absolute shockers. Gamers are wary of the unknown with good reason.

The stock formula of the console action game - follow the corridors, kill all the people, guide your hero to his goal, that is the saloon car of gaming. That is your four door family car, the one that sells best because it fulfils the needs of the most buyers. Gamers don’t always want to be challenged, they don’t always want to have to adopt a new set of skills, sometimes they just want to sit and play a game without it slapping them around or forcing them to learn things. This applies even if a player doesn’t care for the action genre, some players feel compelled to catch every new Pokémon game while others flock to Angry Birds. That’s not to say radical, unusual or difficult games won’t necessarily sell well, but they won’t sell as well as a known quantity. This is one reason why so much of the MMO and MOBA market is now free to play, to overcome the psychological barrier of the buy-in and get people to try the game out.

Another big reason why AAA games tend to be conservative in terms of design is one of development costs and the risks they bring. If you are sinking tens of millions into a development and you’re not as certain as you can be that your game is going to make that money back, you’re doomed. Chancing to luck rather than pursuing the best possible sales figures with the sort of budgets that AAA games demand is playing an unending game of Russian roulette with your company. Maybe you dodge the bullet one, twice, or even more, but sooner or later you’re going to release something that tanks and if that happens too often that’s you done.

So if you’re the sort of company that has hundreds of employees, offices in different locations, livelihoods and careers riding on every major project you make, are you really going to make that idiosyncratic 3d platformer about an inflatable crocodile that saves Portsmouth, or are you going to make Man With Gun 3: Shootface safe in the knowledge that will keep the company rolling for another couple of years?

We can complain about it, about how AAA games are boring, how they are all the same, how nobody ever takes any risks, but that’s sound business. Would we have better games to play if the companies took risk after risk, imploding and reforming over and over again? No, not really, because it would not be possible to get the budgets and time invested in titles like Skyrim or GTA V.

This sounds pretty grim for fans of originality and new ideas, and it would be if not for the fact that there is a relatively accessible independent and sub-AAA publishing scene in gaming that provides plenty of game series that are not necessarily going to be the biggest thing ever, but which can grow if properly supported. The Witcher for example was a decent game and it made good money on a fairly modest budget, and that money it made manifested itself in The Witcher 2, which was such a step up in terms of production values and game design that it could almost make up for the fact that the first game thought it was appropriate to give you a little card every time you successfully got Geralt laid. In keeping with this progression The Witcher 3 is looking, well, damn.

The iterative nature of video game improvement is another of their qualities that defines them more as a work of craftsmanship and engineering rather than art. If I sat down to rewrite King Lear using modern technology there’s a pretty good chance it wouldn’t be as good. Why? Because the written word now is as good as it was all those centuries ago. Same applies to film, if I tried to remake Cool Hand Luke I would fail, because Paul Newman could never be bettered.

A video game however can always been improved upon as technology improves, not just in hardware but in game design itself. Take the classic Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines for example, it had one of the best stories ever found in a game and the game itself was so good that it bears replaying multiple times, to the extent that fans of the game reading this sentence are thinking of replaying it right now. But could VtM: Bloodlines benefit from a remake? Absolutely. Graphics and animations can be improved, interfaces smoothed out, bugs squashed and controls refined, mechanical and cosmetic upgrades that need not impact the core qualities upon which the game is based but which can improve the experience nonetheless.

A sequel or remake will not always be an improvement, the developers of Dragon Age 2 for instance thought that the best way to improve Dragon Age: Origins was to give the systems and storytelling a lobotomy so severe it bordered on decapitation. Devil May Cry also suffered a hellacious remake when the developers decided to abandon the roots of original games. However in spite of this sort of mistake there is always a reason to try again. Fans of games always want to see their beloved classics updated because it doesn’t matter if you know the story, you want more of the game and its world. Kickstarter is riddled with teams trying to remake old games, with fans of those old games usually the first on the list to contribute. Syndicate, Total Annihilation, and Elite have all seen projects backed by fans to update them.

Contrast this eagerness to the sounds of retching and crying that accompany any announcement of Hollywood plans to reboot yet another beloved 80s movie.

It is through iterative improvements and gradual market growth that small games become series, then franchises and ultimately flashy yet functional AAA titles. So don’t bemoan the lack of originality in AAA gaming, because AAA isn’t about originality, that’s what indie games and the small developers are for. AAA gaming is about getting you another shot of your usual, hopefully a little better than last time.

A still from Grand Theft Auto V, a game that unashamedly aims to give the masses what they want.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser