I want to talk about three buzzwords today, and I'll have to ask for your indulgence as I get slightly angry about the semantics of marketing doublespeak and the damage it's doing to our industry. So many of the press releases we get these days, usually pertaining to shooters or hack and slash titles, come bearing emphatic statements supposedly to do with quality. But a trend has arisen wherein, perhaps in attempt to move away from the somewhat childish connotations associated with the word "game", titles bearing 18-certificates now have to come with a blurb that spells things out. Just in case you weren't aware, folks, these are "mature" games, with "dark" subject matter, told in a "gritty" way.
This is all bollocks, of course, because nine times out of ten, what this actually means (and this is a direct translation) is "We've filled this game with guns, violence, and maybe some boobs, you'll shoot a lot of people in the face, and everyone will speak in a gravely voice and act like The World is at stake."
To be honest, I think the game that first started to really make mme angry about this was Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, the insinuation being that a bit of wobbly-cam and buckets of grime would make for an intense, dark, and gritty adventure. Except it didn't. It made for a nausea-inducing standard third-person shooter. There was talk of Inversion featuring a relatively gritty and mature storyline. Of course, it had about as much bearing on the action as an ant might have on a football match. The obvious current talking point is Visceral's take on Army of Two, which is literally described as "intense, mature and grittier" by EA.
Jon went into great detail explaining why the framework of an Army of Two game was wholly unsuitable for trying to deal with incredibly current subject matter such as the Mexican drug wars in a recent article, and he's absolutely right. It might be a difference between UK and US English to be honest. It might just be one of those thing, like spelling Medal of Honor without a 'u' that I just have to suck up and take, but in my book "mature" doesn't mean blowing things up with abandon and killing as many people as I possibly can. In fact, that sounds decidedly immature to me.
Not that games can't be immature, I have plenty of time for the Prototype series after all; but I would like a little more honesty. Let's not kid ourselves and pretend that the likes of Halo, Call of Duty or Gears of War are "mature" games. They're gory and violent, sure, but these are the days of the 12A rating at cinemas - kids grow up quick and they've seen it all before. But what about games that encourage you to think like an adult. Well those are few and far between. Part of that is the prevalent notion that we need to be stimulated, constantly. Well, no we don't. We're adults. Which makes you wonder who the ultraviolent adverts are really for. The eyes are looking at a PEGI 18 sticker, but the brain has gone to sleep. Maturity is not skin deep, and there's more to a game than how much blood it contains.
Of course, those aesthetics - in the case of the dark and the gritty and the mature - are usually driven by a narrative of some sort. The most successful ones make you think, they make you choose, they make you weigh up action with reaction, put you in situations that challenge your mind as well as your thumbs, and give you something to talk about the next time you're at the water-cooler. Kane & Lynch purported to do that, but in the end, the game was essentially guiding two flabby, naked, copiously bleeding men through the blurry streets of Shanghai. The recent Spec Ops: The Line delivered such a narrative in far better fashion, although even that game occasionally spelled things out for the players, and the effect of some rather average gunplay was minimal at best.
Too often, "gritty" simply mean "grey". The first looks at Star Wars 1313 have done nothing to instil confidence in me because all I'm seeing at the moment, in a universe of vast vibrancy and variety, in a Gears/Uncharted clone set in the most grey part of the that universe. Will the situational switch deliver anything new in terms of gameplay? Will it evoke something more than "must kill must kill must kill"? John Carmack once famously said that stories in games are like stories in porn, but with more and more developers and publishers looking to craft narrative experiences, that's an outlook which is fundamentally outdated. Stories in gaming are here; isn't it about time we started doing them right?
The worry, perhaps, is the fun factor. Games have to be fun, right? To be honest, I would rather posit that games have to be engaging: whether that's through fun, or furious competition, or a compelling story, or simply because I can't look away. Games don't have to be fun at all, unless you're stretching the definition of "fun" along with the the definition of the word "game", which is problematic in and of itself as we've discussed on this very site. The potential of interactive entertainment is such that I'm ready for other things, for other emotions. I still want my blockbusters and my zombie horror and my sporting goodness, but I'd quite like us to take the next step too. That Deus Ex is still the pinnacle of "mature" gaming is worrying. That in over a decade we've failed to build upon Warren Spector's work is maybe even a little damning. And no, I wouldn't call the QTEs of Heavy Rain progress in that regard, although I do think that Quantic Dream should at least be applauded for trying something a little different.
The fact is that I'm not entirely sure that the gaming audience is treated with as much respect as before. These days, it's impossible to get away from the financial side of things. Even as consumers we are constantly aware of our place in the industry today: sacks of cash to be monetised at every opportunity. The sad fact is that companies like CD Projekt are applauded because they are in a dwindling minority. Risk is out, copycat ventures are in, and you don't stray too far from the beaten path because of crippling fear. Moreover, marketing material constantly treats us like idiots. As adults, we want details, deliberation, and difference. I don't agree with the notion that stealthy gameplay makes for a shit trailer. If you're making a stealthy game then surely that would pretty much be wish fulfilment for the fans, rather than looking to stimulate them with an action-oriented, swiftly cut adrenaline rush that only serves to bring the hackles of scepticism to the fore.
So please, stop with this lip service to maturity. Like the boy who cried wolf, one day a mature game might actually turn up and we'll pay it no attention. One day a game that actually proves to be strikingly, thought-provokingly gritty might turn up, only for us to ignore it completely. We have to stop absorbing what the marketers are telling us to believe, and start believing in better things. They cannot tell us what's "mature" and "gritty" and "dark", and what isn't. Those are calls for us to make, and by such standards, they fall short.