Videogames Have a Pessimism Problem

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The 21st century has been a dramatic time for videogames. Games have embarked on grand experiments and stark deconstructions in attempts to discover what they can be. This introspection has undoubtedly allowed videogames to “grow up” somewhat. But what does that even mean? Looking around, all I see is darkness. Our works are touched with an ineffable cynicism and ennui that drives a painful wedge between videogames’ past and present. They hate the player. They are tone deaf to the politics of the world, showing adolescent awareness at best and bleak nihilism at worst. They no longer send us on quests to save the world. They damn their worlds and smugly offer surface metacommentary to justify their pretensions. (Say hello, Hotline Miami 2!) Yet, they don’t offer us any real models to live up to.

Lara Croft and Nathan Drake are pressed forward as everyday people while they wade through a sea of corpses. Drake wisecracks his way through his many battles while Lara develops from fragile and terrified into a bow firing dervish of death in about the span of twenty minutes. Battlefield Hardline’s Nicholas Mendoza does his civic duty by shooting criminals in the skull. There is no reflection; there is only brutish action. These are the normal people in our games and it doesn’t get any better as we move into our fantasies. We cut our way through Bloodborne’s enemies with reckless abandon while the industry votes the tale of Talion’s murderous rampage across Mordor an outstanding achievement in story. It is all dark, bloody and pointless.

Ian Bogost recently wrote about how games are better without characters. At this point I’m almost willing to say that games would be better without us. All of us: players, creators or writers. Created works always reflect the times they are made in and we all contribute to the tone of our time. The American zeitgeist is dominated by hopelessness. How could it not be? Debt cripples our students, the people meant to protect and serve citizens are little more than militarized thugs and our politicians vote to restrict the rights of the marginalized. This hopelessness isn’t unique to America; there are problems everywhere. It’s global. Add in the troubles surrounding game culture which reached a fever pitch last summer that we’ve still not recovered from and is it any wonder that our games pray at the altar of despair? Spec Ops: The Line mocked players for wanting to be the hero. At the time, the message was needed. The market was suffused with false narratives of insipid power dynamics and wish fulfillment. Now? A new message needs to be sent: we need to find our heroes once again. They may very well be the panacea game culture needs.

A slow moving wave formed near the turn of the century that we are riding the crest of today. Comics had their Dark Age in the ‘90’s; games are having their own right now. The infancy was harmless enough: Final Fantasy 7 gave us a world limping along and a hero of a different stripe. But for all his struggles, Cloud Strife got better and the world was saved. This last part is crucial and, sadly, the most overlooked. Things got better. Still, the pedigree of nihilism was set into motion and as creators began to make games explicitly to “say something” all we got were cheap narrative tricks that reveled in the supposed fatalism of the medium. We were too far gone the moment Andrew Ryan asked “Would you kindly?” The Dark Age was ushered in and we are living in the zenith. How far we’ve come from our roots.

There’s a moment in Chrono Trigger that springs to my mind. It’s an antipode to Bioshock’s empty rhetoric. Chrono and the gang have traveled to a distant future ravaged by catastrophe. The world is broken and wasted. They’ve just watched a recording of the moment it happened, Lavos bursting from the earth to rain fire and death on the planet. Marle speaks up. “We must change history!” Lucca follows suit. “Chrono, let’s go!” There is little hesitation. The player can say yes or no but eventually they must agree; they must agree to be a hero. As they do, the music swells triumphantly. It may seem impossible but the heroes will slay the monster and save the day. “Would you kindly save the world?”, the game asks the player. We choose to answer. “Yes, I will.”

This is what we’re losing in videogames. We are losing heroes and good deeds. We are losing a sense of hope. Say what you will about the mascot laden days of yesteryear but at least we had our heroes. We had a sense of momentum and a belief that we were moving forward. The stories we tell matter. They matter because they make us believe that things can be better. When I imagine my game hero, Vyse from Skies of Arcadia, in my head he becomes an icon that points to ideas: honesty, audacity, friendship, bravery. The image points so hard to these ideas that I believe in them. Who are the heroes of today? What are the ideals that our icons point to? These are not rhetorical questions. I truly don’t know. I don’t know who our heroes are supposed to be. I do not know what icons exist pointing to anything else but a deep pervasive pessimism. We might have our Lee Everetts and Clementines, our Inquisitors and Commander Shepards, but that is little consolation when we look at the worlds they inhabit. Those worlds are full of death and cruel cosmic forces. Devoid of hope but for the meager, fleeting amount we might bring.

Our experiments lack nuance. Our deconstructions are pained affairs and not insightful; they rely too much on the sledgehammer and not the artisan’s chisel. In our haste to establish relevance as a medium, there’s been a certain excising of things perceived as trite and tired. The idea, I suppose, is that to grow up we need to move away from make believe. This drive, this crazed desire for the medium to have “legitimacy” forgets the very things that made games enrapture us to begin with. Yes, we’re growing up. Yes, we’re big boys and girls. This doesn’t mean we should forsake our medium’s history and exchange our sense of wonder for a superficial “realism” and self effacing creations. We can’t fix games by destroying what came before now. Turning on a console should partly be like turning on a time machine; a journey back to our formative years and the lessons we learned. Our art teaches, informs, and influences players. It’s about time we consider exactly what we’re saying to them.

Heather Alexandra is a freelance writer and game designer. She can be found at TransGamer Thoughts or on Twitter at @transgamerthink.