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

OLI SCARFF/GETTY IMAGES
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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era