I recently discovered a music group named Salem. Salem’s music is commonly filed under a subgenre known as “witch haus.” It’s heavy, operatic stuff that is sometimes hard to listen to due to the oppressive nature of the music. Here, take a listen:
It’s dark, it’s hard to follow, it’s slightly scary, and it’s downright amazing. Salem isn’t alone. Pink Floyd is a classic band that released album after album of disorienting, drugged-out rock that preyed on feelings such as loneliness, paranoia, and fear. Mulholland Drive and other works of David Lynch (nevermind countless horror movies) embody those same qualities in film, and books like Requiem for a Dream and American Psycho create a bizarre place where readers are taken on a tour of many of the mind’s ills.
In gaming, however, things are decidedly “light.” Sure, sometimes dark things happen, but by and large gaming is filled with stories of heroism and overcoming odds in an effort to save some damsel in distress. The problem, it seems, stems not necessarily from the audience’s side, but from the designer’s side.
I interviewed developer and critic Clayton Donaldson aka Hulk Game Critic* for some insight on what goes on in development houses when it comes to deciding on the themes of games. His responses were candid and insightful. And smashy.
“The financial people get into the mix,” he said, “and they get this idea in their heads that everything needs to be happy and Barbie-ish to sell.” He referenced the original design document for Bioshock and posited that somewhere along the way Irrational was pushed to give the game a more traditional narrative focus, one that pushed away the darker themes presented in the design document for something that, while having some subtle dark elements, still had a somewhat heroic story.
The problem, it seems, is somewhat related to things I wrote about in this post. As game budgets become bigger than is really necessary, the primary goal of most games becomes to sell, more so than getting across any narrative themes that are important to the designers. In looking at games that have been released this generation, the darkest games have been smaller games, whether it be Braid or Limbo on XBLA, or things like Lone Survivor or Day Z on PC, which also seems to be the case in other media (David Lynch films are decidedly niche).
Clayton railed against the current state of game development: “a $75 million dollar budget just isn’t necessary,” he said. “You can get by on $3 [million], make small little games, and if people like it, build on it…too many publishers go after the sure thing, and shy away from any risk whatsoever.”
Hopefully, this is the path to getting more thematic variety in games is developers making games with smaller budgets that don’t have such a high risk attached to them. Once developers get to the point where a title’s failure could doom a studio, then any hope of having some variety is gone.
The only glimmer of hope, it appears, is outside of the current publisher/development system. Kickstarter, for all of its potential problems, offers a marketplace of ideas where developers don’t have to worry about whether or not something can sell, only if it’s getting people interesting. Also, by interacting directly with their audience, developers are able to gauge the interest in any project, and a meritocracy is created where something that has no interest simply doesn’t get funded, and therefore never gets made.
Going back to Salem, it’s quite possible that people reading this article have never heard of them. That’s okay. They’re small, they make a very specific type of music for a very specific audience. It’s not about getting as many people to hear their stuff as humanly possible, it’s about having the audience bend around them. Similarly, games that impose their will on audiences (such as the Souls games from From Software) have found a fanbase that appreciates them for their unwillingness to be malleable, for their unwillingness to bend around their audience to make something that’s going to sell 6 or 7 million copies. From Software is perhaps the closest thing to a Kurt Cobain or Nirvana in the development world.
Perhaps gaming is still just too young of a medium to really have a mature sense of thematic variance, and there is some evidence of that. There has been a slow build-up of thematically mature titles (read: dark) coming up on the indie scene. Where films and music have left gaming behind, though, is that there are mainstream artists who deliver very complex themes throughout their art (Christopher Nolan and Kanye West are notable examples). There might also be an inherent problem with the process of designing games. Salem is comprised of 3 people who have a consistent vision of how their music should sound, and their like-mindedness create a consistent tone in their work. Game design is often a huge enterprise, with the development cycle being more focused around technology than the writing or narrative focus. It feels like the writing and story fit around the ideas of the gameplay team, rather than the other way around. This creates a messy and disjointed narrative without any thematic consistency beyond “this is cool!”
We as gamers should be demanding more thematic variance in our games. We should be comfortable with exploring unhappy feelings, and I hope one day that AAA game design talent will be put to a usage that serves more than the widest possible audience because, sometimes when you try to please everybody, you really please nobody.
*Clayton runs the Hulk Game Critic blog located here. For those that don’t know, there’s a tradition in criticism circles for someone within the industry taking on the persona of The Incredible Hulk. Clayton Hulks out on Twitter when videogames make him angry (which, like Mark Ruffalo in Avengers, is always). There is a link to the full audio of our conversation (which covers this topic, as well as many others) here.