Friday, March 2, 2012

In The Flesh

With these stories finally told, we can at last answer the primary question: so what?

Consider it a parable. The world of video games, as it stands today, is a very warped and bizarre place that is slowly but surely forming the black hole center of a cultural quasar. Rather than engage with the world around it on the terms of reality, it chooses instead to create an entire supporting psuedo-culture, either by bending existing media to its will or making new abominations to further extol its own virtues. "Hardcore" players of plastic instrument games are generally attracted to metal because of its difficulty as gem sequences, and clamor for video game-related novelty songs because their subject matter reinforces their lifestyle. It's why people remember "Jordan" by Buckethead from Guitar Hero II, "Through the Fire and the Flames" by DragonForce from III, and why when given the keys to a content pipeline in Rock Band there came a surge of Jonathan Coulton and Evile. To be fair, though, those are also some of the artists that sold the best, so they at least deserve credit for knowing their audience (themselves).

"Note Shuffle", i.e. "Just Put The Gems Wherever"

When the masses at large started to tune out, Neversoft's tactic at the end of the series was to play right into the demands of the fringe. "Alternative metal" guitar virtuosity like John 5's solo career was largely the province of technique fetishists and fan-made hack charts, but there he was on the Warriors of Rock disc; you owned the game, you owned that song... if you unlocked it by beating the campaign, anyway. Harmonix, for a long time, tried to include some artists via DLC regardless of their potential sales profile, presumably to create a varied selection and correct some of the skewing of the accepted Abridged Rock Music History. Releases from Mission of Burma, X, Dinosaur Jr., and deep album cuts from The Clash's London Calling all found their way to market, only to sell dismally compared to Avenged Sevenfold, Dream Theater... and DragonForce. And the enabled super-fans dominating the releases seen from RBN? They spent time and effort preparing and selling a re-record of "Still Alive", the credits song from Portal, the original of which was already available for free. And even by a conservative estimate, it doubled the sales of the only available song by The Walkmen in a fifth of the time. Neversoft might be the studio that gave out in the marketplace, but it was Harmonix who had their idealism thoroughly debunked.

Many people don't want things that are complex, or new, or unfamiliar. You can try to coax them out of their stupor, but you can only do it at a loss for so long. Instead, the thing to do is to cater to them, bilk them for everything they're worth, and move on when the well runs dry. In music, this manifests itself often as "rockism", or the assessment of all music through the lens of the rock-and-roll mythos; it's the reason people proudly can declare their ignorance to the "inauthenticity" of all current and popular music and not realize how childish they sound. For the "gamer" lifestyle, the "subculture" relies on rejection of everything outside of the accepted canon as a core tenet. And when the "subculture" is entirely predicated on consumer electronics and accessories, there's plenty of loose money just a few validating gestures away. What you have is an entire industry with a fervent devotion to maintained ignorance and upkeep of the status quo.

Someone's idea of a good time is doing this 20 times in a row.

Don't just play video games: listen to music from them, listen to music about them, watch movies about them, hang art devoted to them, wear ugly shirts with references to it on them, read books about them, read news about them, follow the lives of the people that make them, follow the lives of people who play them professionally, build your very lives around them. Don't engage with larger cultural entities or have other passions in life; everything you could ever need is right here, neatly packaged and ready to go, and we can sell it to you. Anyone who says that you should care about something else is wrong: if it's closer to the mainstream they're a "douchebag Neanderthal bro", and if it's more obscure they're a "douchebag insincere hipster". They might even be a nerd poser, trying to horn in on all the sweet, sweet gamer action that they didn't earn like you did by spending so much. 

People like Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather) and Wayne Coyne (The Flaming Lips) initially shunned band games for satisficing people's desires to be musicians, even if they may have been overestimating the games' appeal and longevity. Clearly for a handful of cases it was the truth, but who's to say those weren't already lost causes to begin with? Is there something about the primary audience for video games that simply has lower demands? One would naturally loathe coming to that conclusion, but the level of discourse and critical thinking I've seen from professional "New Games Journalists" and everyday Internet denizens alike is, on average, disheartening at best. Watching paid writers with sizable readership struggle to confront topics as simple as narrative or gameplay or UI design portends badly for the future growth of the medium.

At least Wayne had some fun with his objections.

If you were somehow not aware already, these articles were named after songs by Pink Floyd. If this were an exercise in music journalism, invoking these five songs from The Wall would have about as much commandingly authoritative gravitas as a Xanga post. But given the album's theme of the protagonist building a barrier between himself and reality that eventually forms a complete seal, it proves oddly fitting. Not only are they are arguably one of the most important classic rock bands of all time, but they are arguably the most important yet to permit their songs to be included in music games. Given the ways things are... how much can you really blame them?

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed this final article in the series. The third-to-last paragraph in particular jumps out and makes me think - now that we are so convinced that games are the newest, greatest medium for storytelling and art, you never have to leave the geek priesthood. Who needs to read a book?

    Don't just play video games: get your emotions from them, obsess about the characters from them, let us pat you on the back for playing a game that is superficially about difficult subject matter. Now you're a gamer and you're "cultured" to boot!