I Dream In Pixels: Falling out of love with the modern blockbuster

For a game about freedom from the establishment, “Bioshock” plays it very safe. Photo courtesy Irrational Games.
For a game about freedom from the establishment, “Bioshock” plays it very safe. Photo courtesy Irrational Games.

In a 2013 interview with Kotaku, lead creative director on the “Bioshock” series Ken Levine said that the reason games so often rely on shooting as their main mechanic is “a limitation of the medium.” From his perspective, there is a narrow range of possibilities for what games can center around, and chief among these is violence.

Look at any of the most popular games currently being released and you can see Levine’s words echoed back at you. “Battlefield,” “Assassin’s Creed,” “Call of Duty,” “Halo;” aside from Nintendo’s “Mario” franchise, you would be hard pressed to find a blockbuster game that is not predominately about violence. To Levine and seemingly many developers, this is simply a fact of game design— the result of having, as Levine calls it, “fewer forms in the game-space.” I find this bothersome.

For the last several years, I have found myself increasingly disenfranchised with the sort of games being released by AAA developers and big-name developers. It is not that these games are so much bad as they are incredibly limited. To have a game sell, or even be picked up by a large publisher, a developer is required to play by rules that are often recognized as unavoidable truths. Games must be violent, most likely a shooter, and focused around recognizable and uncontroversial themes. Within these boundaries, it is not hard to see why so many games share more than a passing resemblance.

Before digital distribution and the rise of indie developers, there were no options for people who were not drawn to games about white dudes shooting their way through the galaxy (or an underwater city, or wherever the setting of choice may be). But all that has changed in recent years and brought with it an influx of games that not only contradict Levine’s assertion that games exist in a narrow possibility space – they completely obliterate it.

A few years ago, it would have been absurd to imagine “Gone Home” – a game about exploring an empty house to learn about the family that inhabits it – being crowned game of the year. Games used to shy away from sex as if the mere recognition of its existence would instantly shut down a project.

But now we have games that explore first discovering sex (“How Do They Do It?”), BDSM (“Hurt Me Plenty”), and online dating (“Cibele”). There are games about race (“Sunset”), games about the human cost of war (“This War of Mine”) and games about being a mom (“Shelter). Games have finally begun to match movies and books in their broadness of topics and how they are approached, yet the largest games continue to hold fast to the same small set of commercially viable tropes.

Though the production values of games like “Watch_Dogs” and “Skyrim” are impressive, what they are attempting to do fundamentally is a known and accepted quantity. Blockbuster games are not without merit, but the machinations around them prevent the sort of wild creative freedom that exists in other mediums and smaller games.

Not all indie games are great, and few of them can come close to matching the scope of their AAA cousins, but they are indisputably different. Also, with sequel fatigue at an all-time high, being different matters far more to me than how many pixels a game can push or how many guns I can play within it. Games can be, and are, about more than fully-automated violence. They just have to choose to be so.

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