[Talking to Women about Videogames is a series where Jonathan Holmes talks to different people who are women about the biggest videogame news of the week for some reason.]
Like sex, hate, family, and most other concepts based off of leftover animal instincts, fear sells. That counts for just about everybody, though it seems to be an ever increasing presence among both the videogame press and readers/commenters who engage with the gaming press on a daily basis. That's part of why stories about Nubageddon, online passes, motion controls, tacked-on multiplayer, Capcom's Mega Man game cancellations, and other "scary" videogame trends make such a big impact. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to... irrational obsession and Internet ranting.
That's not to say that the fear that starts that cycle off is always unfounded. I can understand why people would be fearful of multiplayer in Mass Effect 3. Imagining that a beloved, narrative-focused series could slowly turn into another online frag-a-thon must be quite worrisome to fans of the first two games in the series or of the genre in general. Honestly though, I feel like that fear isn't all that productive. Fear helps us protect ourselves from threats, but in this case, the threat probably isn't real.
In the end, most of our fears (about videogames or anything else) are usually for nothing, though that doesn't mean that we're wrong for having them. Here are some thoughts on fears of the modern gamer and how best we can deal with them.
How about a little autobiography to start with?
When I was just out of high school, I studied the in-game artwork of titles like Street Fighter III, Darkstalkers, Earthworm Jim, Mega Man X, and many others, much like how people study a textbook. Sure, I read up on more conventional forms of animation as well as "fine art," like sculpting and sequential art, but sprite-based videogame graphics were what I really loved. I'd spend eight to ten hours a day designing walk cycles and standing animations for various videogames characters, trying to make them looks as expressive and original as possible. At that time, I considered the quiet, simple elegance of Cyclop's standing animation from X-Men: Children of the Atom to be a masterpiece.
Then polygon-based videogames came along. Yikes.
I'm not sure if people in their teens or even their twenties can imagine what this was like. Picture a game that you feel has the best looking polygon-based graphics, be it Gears 3, Uncharted 2, or Final Fantasy XIII, then toss them in the garbage. Next, replace them with the shoddiest, crappiest, most broken-looking crap you can imagine, and that's what it was like for me when polygon-based graphics blew up.
Are you a Gears fan who hates the Nintendo Wii? Then imagine that, one strange night, your copy of of Gears of War 3 suddenly transformed into Gears of War Mii; a cute and wacky mini-game collection designed to be played by the whole family (for five minutes a week). Are you Final Fantasy fan who hates Jersey Shore? Then replace Lightning and the rest of the cast of Final Fantasy XIII with Snooki and her gang. All your semi-turn based battles and adventures in a beautiful, futuristic world would be swapped out for battles over who gets the last squirt of styling mouse and "adventures" of mean-looking men lying motionless for three hours at the local tanning booth. That's what it was like for me when the polygons first took over.
I'd be lying if I haven't had a few contained "I told you so moments" in the years that have passed since then. Now that there is more or less a consensus that games like Super Metroid and Street Fighter Alpha 3 have aged much better than the original Tomb Raider and Virtua Fighter titles, I feel like the rest of the world finally sees what I saw all along -- these newfangled "3D" games are just plain ugly compared to their sprite-based predecessors. Back when those games were first hitting the scene, though, I wasn't so contained in my contempt.
While there was barely an Internet to rage on in those days, I was quick to seek out other outlets for my fiery despair. I found other 2D gaming loyalists via the letters column of the old videogame magazine Diehard GameFan, and we united in our disgust with the polygon. We had arcade parties where we grumbled that "this 3D gaming thing is just a fad" and swore that "if 2D gaming dies, we'll give up on gaming forever" all night. Trust me, it was way more fun that it sounds.
Why the emotional reaction to something as skin deep as videogame graphics? The answer is simple: we were dumb, dumb with fear that the games we loved were going to die. We didn't know what else to do with that fear than to make a bunch of generalizations and absolute statements. I suppose that at the time, talking like that made us feel more in control of an industry that we loved, an industry that was headed in a direction that we despised.
If you swapped out the words "polygon-based graphics" with "motion controls," "tacked-on multiplayer," "$1 apps," "stereoscopic 3D displays," or "over-priced DLC and/or online passes," then I suppose that our old anti-polygon conversations might sound a lot like some of the fear-based commiserations you see amongst gamers on the Internet today. Also, just like the today's scared and angry gamers, my polygon-hating pals and I had nothing to worry about.
Sure, the kinds of games that I loved the most became pretty hard to find for a while, but I learned to adjust. Part of that adjustment was learning to dig deep for the kinds of games I truly wanted to play. If I had 2D games spoon-fed to me during the PS1/PS2 eras like I did in the NES/SNES days, I might have never found Ikaruga, Einhander, Viewtiful Joe, Guardian Heroes, or Metal Slug 3 (to name just a few). Would I have bothered to try those strange and unfamiliar games if I had big-name titles from familiar franchises in the same genres, mushed up on my face on a daily basis? No way! I would have just stuck with Final Fight and Gradius, and I would have potentially missed out on some of my favorite games ever as a result.
You might have notices that a few of the games I just mentioned (gasp!) feature polygon graphics. That's because I also learned to stop being so judgmental and absolute in my thinking about videogames. For example, I may have hated the idea of polygon graphics at one point, but I loved the idea of zombie movies. Therefore, I just had to try Resident Evil, and it was love at first sight. Overall, I'm still more attracted to sprite-based visuals than to polygon-based ones, but even back then, I could see that those "dead-eyed" polygon characters were perfect for a zombie game. The polygon era (temporarily) made some of my favorite genres endangered species, but it also ushered in the world of survival horror, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
The same could be said for a lot of the trends in gaming today. You have to learn to pick out the good from what, at first glance, may look like an endless sea of crap. That's the only way to experience the best of what gaming has to offer. If you swear off a game/console because it utilizes motion controls, multiplayer, or friend codes, because it doesn't have multiplayer, or (perhaps silliest of all) because it's made by a developer you're angry with, you are screwing yourself over. Hopefully, that's all common sense by now.
If you just can't find anything you like in that endless sea of crap, remember that "this too shall pass." It took a long time, but all my favorite genres ended up making a comeback. Aliens: Infestation just came out, and it's one of my favorite sprite-based action games ever. This is hot on the heels of a new Shantae game, several BlazBlue and Cave Story releases, original titles like Tempura of the Dead, Half-Minute Hero, the entire Bit.Trip series, retro comebacks like Mega Man 9 and 10, Super Meat Boy, and countless other "old school" games. On top of that, we've got Skullgirls, Retro City Rampage, Mighty Switch Force, Fez, The Iconoclasts, and tons of other sprite games still coming down the pipe. Sure, the polygon still rules the gaming world, but it's a big world now, and it's only getting bigger.
Whatever kind of game you like, and however you like to play them, there is room for you.
We'd do well to remember that, historically, trends always drift toward the benefit of the consumer. People didn't think the PS3 was worth $600, and now it's a third of that price. People didn't like that Friendster took too long to load, so MySpace stepped in and replaced it, and then Facebook replaced that. People didn't like that the 360 had a horrid failure rate, so Microsoft put out a more death-proof model. People didn't like third parties putting their smaller, less marketable games on the Wii, and now we have Batman: Arkham City, Darksiders 2, and Tekken all coming to the Wii U.
The market will bend to our interests eventually, but only on one condition: we can't become chumps.
Once the series that we once loved goes in a direction that we don't want, we can't blindly stick with them. We have to be proactive in our purchasing practices. We can't just lie back and take it if Mass Effect turns into a multiplayer-only experience, or if the next Call of Duty requires an online pass in addition to a paid subscription. That doesn't mean we should get all pissy and boycott an entire company because it made some decisions that we don't agree with. That will only lead the company in question to produce even fewer games that we want to play, and more games for the people who are still willing to buy their titles.
We'd do well to keep fear, anger, infatuation, and clan-like loyalty away from our love of gaming. Don't fear Mass Effect 3's multiplayer. Assess it, then either accept or dismiss it. If you try it and don't like it, then don't buy the next Mass Effect game if it's got a multiplayer focus. Maybe more importantly, don't just play through the next Mass Effect game because you're loyal to series. Only play it if it's fun! With a market this big, you only have yourself to blame if you're playing a videogame that you think is overpriced, overrated, or otherwise unenjoyable.
Is this pep talk working? No? Well, how about this: next time you get upset about a new trend in gaming, remember that there was a time when I begged for the 16-bit era to go on forever. If I had gotten my wish, I'd still be paying up to $10 a week to experience the closest thing we had to online multiplayer (the arcade), paying $80 for new games that feature no multiplayer (online or offline) at all, and dreaming of the day when I could download an inexpensive quality game, some even more inexpensive quality DLC, or a (gasp!) free quality demo from the comfort of my living room.
Now I can buy an online multiplayer game like Minecraft for $15 and be entitled to a lifetime of free content and updates (including dragons). In the 90's, that kind of deal was literally like a dream come true. And don't get me started on M.A.M.E.! I was wrong for wanting the 16-bit era to go on forever, and I'd be wrong if I wanted this current era of gaming to go on forever too. As long as consumers are willing to take risks on quality new products and don't succumb to blind brand loyalty, flashy-but-ultimately-meaningless gimmicks, marketing ploys, and fear of change, then things are only going to get better from here.
Speaking of "flashy-but-ultimately-meaningless," can someone explain to me what a Jay-Z song about having quite a few problems (but no current "bitch problems" to speak of) has to do with this new "realistic" war simulator videogame?
Yeah, I don't get it. Other than stuff like that, though, the future of videogames is looking pretty good!