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

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism