Have you ever had something staring you right in the face and you couldn't figure it out? Something that is blindingly obvious in retrospect? That's me and the reasons for my newfound phobia of zombies.
I noticed this phobia for the first time when I saw the movie version of Resident Evil (a clue in itself). As anyone who has seen the movie will know, as will people who saw trailers or could otherwise make educated guesses, Resident Evil was quite the cheesy flick. Why on earth was I having nightmares for weeks afterward about being devoured by zombies?
That was at the beginning of the recent zombie movie craze. Friends would assume that I wanted to see 28 Days Later or tell me that the new Dawn of the Dead started off as a decent semblance of a post-apocalypse scifi story. I ended up seeing both movies, as well as Shaun of the Dead, with predictable results: nightmares that would wake me up just as terrified of the dark as if I was a little kid again.
But where was this fear coming from? I have not seen any of the old-school zombie flicks, not even Night of the Living Dead. I've never read much horror, and I don't know much about the authentic roots of zombie stories, in their pre-mass-culturized versions.
Then I played the much-anticipated computer game Doom 3 last year. The game itself had some gameplay problems that are outside the scope of this column, but I also found that the game, when it was scary, was way too scary for me.
It made me look around at the games I was playing. Within a year, I played Doom 3, Half-Life 2, and Thief: Deadly Shadows (the third game in the series). Each game had a plenitude of zombies, a veritable cornucopia, as did each previous iteration in the series! Perhaps not so much in the first two Doom games, but definitely Half-Life, Thief 1 and Thief 2. And there is a whole genre of survival horror games like Resident Evil that I've never played but that the gaming press constantly covers.
I don't have a controlled case study here or anything, but I suspect that, absent the computer games, I would never have been as scared of zombies. So I started asking myself some questions. Is there something more visceral about playing computer games compared to other media? Am I turning myself into a mushy-brained incipient sociopath? How does cultural iconography play itself out in video games?
For example, what are zombies anyway? Are they just an easy villain, one that makes it less disturbing for the player when they bash the zombie's rotting brains out with a crowbar? Is there anyone else pondering this stuff?
I'd like to leave these questions aside for now; I'll address whether anyone is writing smartly about video games later on. First, I'd like to discuss why it might be important to look at video games with more than half a brain.
I've been thinking about a series of articles that a Hollywood reporter named Edward Jay Epstein has been writing for Slate about the actual economics of the movie business (as opposed to the PR versions we hear more about). For example: "Nicole Kidman's Knee", about insurance liabilities in the age of massively budgeted projects. Do stars actually do their own stunts? Nope!
Epstein often ends up writing about the changing habits of consumers and how big corporations like the movie studios will inevitably follow the money. People are still watching movies, but less often in the theatres and more often on DVD. This puts the movie theatre business in jeopardy because the studios are driven by the bottom line to release movies on DVD sooner rather than later.
Epstein mentions another statistic in passing, one that I find fascinating. Pre-television, 90 million Americans went to the movies every week. After a decade or so of television, that number went down to 40 million. What a blow to the business! And attendance at movie theatres has been decreasing ever since.
Is there an upcoming seismic shift of this nature? In any of our familiar media?
If there is, it'd be bloody well nice to know about it, either to make the most of the collapsing business (while it's still viable) or get into the expanding one.
Who can tell the future though? And it's not all bad news. What I take from Epstein's articles: people might be changing their habits, but they're not consuming or creating fewer cultural goods. There are more entertainment options available than ever. And a non-broadcast medium like the Internet—which is pushing out television for people in the younger demographics—is not as passive as television (of course Steven Johnson would argue that some television has gotten more sophisticated; again, that's outside the scope of this column).
It seems everywhere I look, people are talking about shifting audiences and what that might mean. In terms of books, I've read lots of debate about publishing numbers; are there really more books being published than ever? The official 2004 numbers from Books in Print indicate that records were broken. I'm not entirely sure that BiP's raw numbers tell the whole story. What were the trends? My impression is that much more YA work has been published . . . how does this affect authors and opportunities available to them? Perhaps the more important question: what will be next for publishing? See the intro to the free version of Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town; Doctorow is determined to find out where the reading audience will shift, for the very good reason that he wants to keep writing and getting paid for it.
(As a side note, does anyone know of accessible, well-written summaries of the state of publishing? Free, online info? I'm thinking of the way Epstein covers movies, or The Escapist covers video games. I would dearly love to know.)
That finally brings me back to video games. As a business, video gaming has been increasing, and a lot of smart, creative people work in the industry (often with less than stellar results, for reasons discussed in point 6 below). I see the tally of $8 billion per year, even though there's some doubt about that and some people put it even higher. Clearly there are opportunities for people to express their creative vision, and for others to enjoy the end result.
And if video games are where the audience is going, maybe not now but eventually, then that's something worth looking at, no matter if it's something that we are personally enthusiastic or distressed about. As Greg Costikyan puts it in the The Escapist, generational change has a lot to do with how tastes change.
Questions With No Answers
If you were waiting for me to answer all of my earlier questions about zombies, then my apologies, because you're out of luck. I don't know why zombies and video games in general might be more visceral than other media, and I certainly haven't figured out the meaning of violence in games. I was kinda hoping someone else would do this good work; some people are (see my list at the end of the column), but not many. If video games are the upcoming thing, then why so little good writing about them?
Sturgeon's Law is one reason. It's just as hard to make a good game as to write an excellent novel or make a worthy movie, but I don't think people are used to making that distinction for games. The 90% law can get conflated with the notion that video games are for kids, or more particularly, obnoxious boys. Sure, lots of them are, and sure, they're crap. You've got to dig for the good stuff, just like in any genre.
But that's not easy here. Discussion about video games is hampered by two big things: business issues and technical issues. Costikyan points out that video games, as they are marketed and retailed currently, have a two-week window for the majority of their sales. Incredible! That means that if I want to have an ongoing discussion about influences or trends in video games, it's nearly impossible over any span of time. This ephemerality is worsened by changing computer specs and the shortening lifespans of consoles. This becomes a vicious circle because there is no point in a company spending the money to keep the game on the market if it simply won't play on anybody's computer.
For example, I would claim Grim Fandango (see my review at Challenging Destiny) as my candidate for the best computer game made to date. Visually, it has a gorgeous mix of Mexican Day of the Dead iconography and an art deco feel. Narratively, it has a compelling noir story that is paradoxically often quite funny. Someone who has not played the game might never be able to find it, due to the complete lack of a back catalog, and might never be able to play it, due to lack of technical compatibility.
To go back to movies as a handy analogy, that's a situation where, yes, some old silent movies were lost, but otherwise almost any movie that comes up in conversation is available to rent or buy. For example, Grim Fandango was made by Lucasarts in 1998 (which seems ancient in computer terms). If I say that something possibly obscure like Deepa Mehta's Earth from the same year is an excellent flick, it's super easy for anyone to find. And it'll play in your DVD player.
Another issue that gets clarified by comparison to the movies is the state of criticism and reviewing. In video games, that state could be categorized as primitive (again, see my handy list at the end of this column for some exceptions). Talking about movies has a venerable history. Highbrow movie criticism has been around for a long, long time, and it's also easy to find smart writing at a more popular level.
Here's hoping for not only better video-game criticism, but also better games to write about!
Computer Games 101: Some Generalizations
A few observations about video games, intended for the genre reader who is wondering what's going on in this field.
- 1. Not Much Science Fiction
For anyone who has read the deeper, more intelligent works of written science fiction, computer games will be a huge disappointment. There's not much science fiction to begin with, and when a game uses an SF background, it's mainly of the "Let's go kill some aliens" variety. Ie, it's an excuse for the same game mechanics as if the aliens were zombies. If you're looking for SF in the vein of a Gardner Dozois anthology, forget it.
Fantasy is a different case. Fantasy is everywhere in computer games. Sad to say, most of those games are sub-literate Tolkien clones.
- 1a. Do Games Even Need Story?
So who cares if a game is sub-literate? There's a huge debate whether it even matters if a game has a story. It's the old Pacman canard: would Pacman have been a better game if it had an in-depth narrative? No, it would have been a different game altogether. Personally, I think there should be all kinds of games, and if you're trying to have a story, you'd better do a good job of it.
- 2. Mainstream Press Will Only Cover Violence (or Selling Virtual Items for Real Money)
Like clockwork, the press will mention the latest study that proves that computer games cause kids to be more violent. Ditto for all the claims that school shootings were caused by in-game violence. I'm not convinced, but I'd like to see a proper, rational rejection of these claims, rather than the knee-jerk ones that I see most often.
The exception to the violence-only rule is the recent uproar about the (supposedly) sexually explicit Hot Coffee mod in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Grand Theft Auto is a long-running series of video games more notorious for its violence. See Steven Johnson's excellent comments on the topic.
The other favorite cliche of non-specialty press is the "novelty" that people will pay real money for virtual items in online games such as Everquest or World of Warcraft. This is a little more interesting, because it fits in with my earlier points about following the money. Still, it gets stale after umpteen variations on the same story.
- 3. Problematic View of Women
When I look at games and the sexist way, knowingly or unknowingly, that they are made and marketed, I see a time warp back to the worst parts of pulpy scifi back in the old days. My perception is that things have changed in science fiction and fantasy, in part simply due to lots more female writers. I suspect that the same thing will have to happen in games, which are currently made mainly by males. For commentary on this topic more informed than anything I could say, see a site like Game Girl Advance.
- 4. PC Gamers Know About Consoles and not Vice Versa
This is a small point, but my observation is that console gamers (XBox, Playstation, Nintendo) don't know or care about games on the personal computer. PC gamers, on the other hand, know all about the console business, often have a few consoles even though their computer is their first love, and constantly talk about the consoles putting the PC game companies out of business. Also, stats used to show that console gamers are younger on average, although I haven't seen any numbers recently.
- 5. Movies Made from Games are Terrible
I can't think of an exception to this statement, my Resident Evil nightmares notwithstanding. And I don't think the upcoming movie version of Doom (out this October) starring The Rock is going to break this streak. Watch for it!
Interestingly, games made from movies are not so clear-cut. Most stink just as much as the video-game movies. Others have been passable. I'm planning to take a look at the long history of Star Wars video games in an upcoming column—some have been better than the movies (although considering the quality of the recent prequels, that's not such a grand feat).
- 6. The Business of Games is Dysfunctional
You think book publishing is screwed up? Try getting a job at any point in the process of getting a game from the idea stage to selling it to the customer. Creative types hate the game publishers with a fury that simply doesn't happen in other endeavors (see this rant from the The Escapist). It's the Hollywood blockbuster syndrome, where the higher budgets decree less risk-taking; the problem is that games have less of an indie system to give the new talent a break or creative people a place to fool around.
Video-game retail has taken a notable turn for the worse as well.
- 7. Expect Nerd Humor
The best example is probably the comic strip Penny Arcade. Penny Arcade is so popular that is has its own convention, the PAX. Most of the humor is of the in-joke kind—incredibly dependent on inside knowledge of computers and computer games—but when PA gets it right, they knock it out of the park. To me, this is the funniest and most accurate strip they've done: let's play frisbee!
I should also mention Old Man Murray and Something Awful. OMM could be called gonzo game journalism, although the archive doesn't seem as funny to me now (the site is otherwise defunct). I have to put a warning with the link to Something Awful—the tag-line for the site is "The Internet Makes You Stupid" and they find a whole mess of offensive, weird, and just plain disturbing stuff to make fun of. They also run (relatively) serious reviews of hentai games, i.e., Japanese pornographic video games.
- 8. Gaming Journalism = Shills
As far as I can tell, the majority of the glossy game magazines in the store have review copy that is essentially bought and paid for by the advertisers with the biggest ad buy. It's partly an economic problem, due to the general difficulties of running a magazine. It's also that these magazines attract young guys who seem overwhelmed by all of the junkets and other subtle or not so subtle pressures.
So here's the best part. Are any non-shills writing about games? Yes, yes, and yes! My list of some good places to go for information about games:
The Escapist—New and exciting! A glossy, free, online only, weekly magazine, just started this summer. This is the kind of smart writing that I'm talking about in this column. The Escapist really has some stellar writers. I recognize a lot of them from my own painstakingly assembled list of sites to check, so having them all in one place is a godsend for people reading about the field for the first time. Any of the names will have a fascinating blog or book or column to track down.
SciFi Weekly—They've always run game reviews, maybe not every week, but the coverage of games with a genre slant is pretty thorough. The format sticks strictly to reviews rather than commentary about the field.
The Cultural Gutter—My colleague over at the Cultural Gutter, Jim Munroe, has an archive of video game thoughts going back about two years. Good stuff like indie games and illegal modding.
Terra Nova—Somewhat scholarly articles about persistent online games like World of Warcraft.
I'll happily take suggestions for other good sites as well.