The Exigent Duality
Gaming in the doldrums (Part I) - 12:11 CST, 9/11/11 (Sniper)
An interesting exchange took place recently between two gaming pundits. It began when Ben Kuchera published the editorial "In gaming, everything is amazing, but no one is happy." In this opinion piece, Kuchera stated that despite the fact that there is a "greater selection of games to play", and that everything "on the whole, is getting better", there is a huge faction within the gaming community-- in fact, Kuchera claimed that this faction includes "everyone", although there is undoubtedly some hyperbole in play-- that is continually malcontent, and that does nothing but complain about the "gnats in our [their] teeth."

The exchange continued when Jim Rossignol countered with his editorial, "Actually, It's Okay To Complain." In it, he counters that the only way for anything to improve, gaming included, is for people to critique it.

This opinion interchange was affecting because it reflected a debate that has been repeatedly playing out in the gaming community for the last several years. In fact, it would not be an overstatement to say that this exact exchange has been the primary undercurrent within the hobby during this entire hardware generation, with the Kuchera-crowd principally playing the "nostalgia" card as the explanation for why so many gamers are unhappy.

At first blush, the group Kuchera's arguments represent make some sense; perhaps people are being blinded by nostalgia? Or perhaps they are falling victim to the always-consuming-but-never-satiated societal pressures capitalism has created?

But is it really plausible that thousands, or even tens of thousands, of gamers are simultaneously falling prey to the same nostalgic sensations? Is it realistic to issue such a single, sweeping argument as the explanation for such a large groundswell?

Perhaps there is an alternative explanation: gaming is in the doldrums, and no one is courageous enough to offer this argument for fear of being shouted down by a veritable army of Ben Kucheras.

Consider the term "mind blowing". Merriam-Webster defines this term with the expression "mind-boggling", and offers up synonyms such as "breathtaking", "galvanizing", "rousing", and "stirring". Merriam-Webster goes on to define "mind-boggling" as "mentally or emotionally exciting or overwhelming", "astonishing", or "surprising".

"Mind blowing" is a subjective term of course. But it is reasonable to expect something "mind blowing" to be novel in some way, or at least executed so sublimely that it doesn't easily grow tiresome.

Let's take a look at the year 2011 in order to determine how many of this year's titles could be reasonably described with this vaunted term.

In this particular year, there are droves of titles obviously aspiring to attain "blockbuster" status in order to make their creators great wealth. These are video gaming equivalents of Hollywood's brainless summer action films. And like such films, this class of game is hardly imbued with great levels of creativity; the Left 4 Dead or Dead Rising-inspired "Dead Island", the obligatory muscle-bound shooter sequel "Resistance 3", and the Gears of War knock-off "Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine" are hardly original in style or substance, much less "mind blowing".

Let's look a bit deeper then. There are plenty of sequels that are almost exactly like their predecessors: a new "Kingdom Hearts" title, another "LittleBigPlanet" release, sequels to the "Mass Effect" and "Dragon Age" series, and yet another rehash of the "Call of Duty" formula in "Modern Warfare 3". Nothing "mind blowing" yet.

There are a plethora of "World of Warcraft" repeats, such as "DC Universe Online", re-releases of older titles in tired genres, such as "Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together", and the usual collection of racing and sports titles, like "Dirt 3".

Outside of Re-Logic's Minecraft-inspired sandbox title, Terraria, it's difficult to come up with a single candidate, even after a great deal of effort is spent diving into the massive swathes of titles featured on the release list.

But one might counter, couldn't every year in gaming be summarized in such a manner? Hasn't gaming always been about endless sequels and rehashed formulas?

In 1991, Sid Meier released "Civilization", starting an entirely new genre. As well, the first "Road Rash" was released, alongside "Street Fighter II", the original "Sonic the Hedgehog", "Final Fantasy IV", "Super Mario World", "Tecmo Super Bowl", and "The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past".

Every single one of those games either started entire genres, or became instant classics due to their execution. In short, they were "mind blowing" releases in their levels of creativity and execution. And every one of those games was released the same year!

But maybe 1991 was an aberration? How about 1992? That year saw "Wolfenstein 3D", "Mortal Kombat", "Super Mario Kart", "Star Control 2", and "Flashback" released.

Ok, so not an aberration then. What about 1993? "X-Wing", "Star Fox", "Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle", "Secret of Mana", "Sonic CD", "Doom", "Virtua Fighter", and "Ridge Racer". 1994? "Super Metroid", "Final Fantasy VI", "Earthworm Jim", "Tie Fighter", "System Shock", "Donkey Kong Country", "Marathon", "Jazz Jackrabbit", "Tekken", and "X-COM: UFO Defense".

To be fair, there were sequels and rehashes in those years as well-- one glance at the seemingly endless line of Super Mario Bros. clones attests to that. But those clones sat alongside games that have formed the very fabric upon which the hobby is built, and for good reason; they were mind blowing, genre-forging, instant classics. They were so original that it wasn't obvious at first how to even play them-- they were the epitome of novelty. And every one of those thirty-one games listed came out in a 36-month window. On top of it, that's not even a complete list by any stretch! And let's not even get started on the 1980s.

Jim Rossignol rightfully sensed something wrong with Ben Kuchera's arguments that people shouldn't be complaining in this day and age of mass quantities of games across over a dozen platforms. What he missed was the argument's obvious hole that quantity does not quality make.

As such, Rossignol issued the wrong counterargument; there is an easy explanation as to why gamers are largely discontent with their hobby of choice: gamers want more than nothing but annual deluges of uninventive sequels and derivative, formulaic rehashes. Gamers want a return to form that sees developers creating mind blowing experiences that require completely new ways of thinking and playing. And it just isn't happening anymore.

Read part II here.