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

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
Show Hide image

The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496