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Race into Daddy's Clothes: Gaming's Misguided Journey Towards Growing Up / 13th of January 2016

I am sure there are plenty of more suitable launch pads for me to spring from when it comes to my contributions to High Rez Gaming in the field of video game centric writing though frankly I figured I may as well address something that started off as an irksome cliché and seems to have become some holy sword developers are willing to jump onto like they were Arnold Schwarzenegger at the climax of “End of Days” and throw anyone who doesn't like it off a cliff like they were Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Commando”.

This trend is one of appearing “grown up”. Like action films before it, video games are trying to convince everyone they are totally and completely mature and should be respected just like poetry, theatre and all those other “mature” mediums of entertainment. The video game industry tires of being the “smoking gun” of whatever tipped the latest massacre instigator over the edge, it finds no joy delivering statistics to its critics about the industry's growth and good points, it sags with embarrassment and lost vigour whenever a chart topper is mentioned like the Call of Duty franchise. Nowadays, developers are trying to appear “grown up” by dancing to the tune of “pop culture critics” as they demand more games to feature this thing, or that thing or for them to disregard their loyal fans and consider them “dead”.
Much like any self-proclaimed pretentious enthusiast on the internet however, I take a contrary position to the “games need to grow up” declaration. You see the crux of these “pop culture critics” argument is that mainstream gaming as it stands is unfit to deliver any meaningful message about the world as we know it. They say you can't have a game that enters in on the discussion of, say, the complexities of an adult relationship and the consequences of burdening oneself with infidelity (we’ll come back to this one later). There cannot be a game with a developer who works frequently with “AAA” publishers that can make a more nuanced discussion about the United States' relationship with the military industrial complex beyond “war is bad but necessary cause 'MURICA!” to give another example. When you ignore indie games, disregarding that such games can sell and dominate the industry better than a fair few AAAs could ever DREAM of, there are no video games that could dare touch on the life of a mentally disturbed bisexual who ends up cheating on his significant other and struggles to confess the truth and even in-game has to go seek a psychologist for help.

And queue the punchline.
Though the last one will have people contesting it to be disqualified for age (it comes from the second Phantasmagoria game, after all), I do believe that the point still stands, there are plenty of video games that aim to discuss these “adult themes” with a sense of “maturity”. Hell, strip the original Silent Hill of its monsters and gore and you effectively have a story of child abuse at the hands of adults who neglected their common sense and care for their young in favour of following a cult, all of which leads into a long nightmare sequence for any responsible parent who has ever lived. Keep in mind that though I have been gaming for years, there are titles of which I probably completely forgot who tell stories of such pathos and logos you could visit a video game forum and mistake it for an online class discussing the intricacies of Ayn Rand's “Atlas Shrugged”.

Video games don't need to grow up, video games were communicating to its players the terror and burden that haunted American defences when Mutually Assured Destruction dawns upon California and its neighbouring cities as early as 1980, a time when films were too busy milking sequels out of the Star Wars and Superman cash cows. But that isn't to say that even the action centric blockbusters that got reeled up back at Hollywood is in fact the medium that needs to grow up, much like video games after it, these action movies can easily tackle complex issues with maturity. The original Robocop was a journey for the lead, Alex Murphy, to find himself in a role that daunted over him and appeared to consume his life and very existence, Demolition Man managed to make a warning about the double-edged nature of what many modern progressive thinkers and ideologues would deem a utopia back in the 90s, and do I have to touch on the themes of womanhood in the Alien franchise?

“Well alright Greg, but what if a game developer WANTS to make a blatantly grown up game? Why are you so hung up on it when, as you said, it’s been happening for ages?” First of all, the argument was that games NEEDED to GROW UP, implying it hasn't already achieved the goals set by these pro-ported “pop culture critics” and second, I worry about the direction this takes. You see, I am not a professional video game or “pop culture” critic, as empty as the latter is as a title, most of my knowledge on gaming derives from years of research in video game design back at university which I still do to this day. I managed to extract interesting points of discussion from these video games that it seems people who are supposed to be far more educated and experienced than me completely failed to even recognise and have instead resorted to demanding them to be more visible and obvious to them. This, I fear, will not lead to games becoming more mature in narrative or even function, but just less subtle. Let's backtrack for a moment and dive into the pit of spoilers so as I can better explain. Do you remember my reference to Catherine?
Well, in Catherine there is a character who frequently appears to talk with the protagonist, Vincent Brooks, about his issues. This character, who goes by the name of Erica Anderson, doesn't have much impact to the storyline, much like the rest of Vincent's friends. There are however a few things that hint to her past, such as Vincent mentioning that she would never be allowed in the women's wrestling team, Johnny and Orlando's rather extreme reactions to the young Toby confessing to have lost his virginity to her and, perhaps most telling of all, when she admits to having nightmares that seem to exclusively effect men, Toby concludes that the nightmares clearly must effect women also, something that Erica is actually rather hesitant to accept. Now while I did give you three obvious clues all compressed within a short time span, it is perhaps no surprise that the minority of people who are still reading at this point without prior knowledge, figured out that Erica is in fact a male-to-female transsexual (at least that is how she is defined by the game's wiki so take it up with them if “transgender” is the right term), however when mixed with other mysteries in the game and her talks of “a witch” among other seemingly irrelevant dialogue fluff, it is in fact rather rewarding to get the True Katherine ending and hear Toby mention with surprise that Erica use to go by “Eric” after you yourself had drawn to that conclusion before with your powers of deduction.

Now, imagine if all that hinting was cut off in favour of statements like “Erica is trans. Hey Toby? You got it on with a transgender woman, how progressive is that?! Wowie, she's so great and trans”? You probably would tire of hearing about it, praying that the game was going to build up to some point like, I don't know, Toby drops that the whole him dating and having sex with Erica was actually a ruse and he was really just meeting her to build up the confidence to out his own secret as gay or something. But no, Erica is just trans, nothing special here but game developers have to make it special so that click-bait article scribes can actually notice it and recognise said developers as “mature” or genuinely “artistic” in their perspective.
One of the greatest things about gaming is that the events and actions that unfold are earned. Developments like Erica being trans had to be earned by pushing blocks and climbing death-traps away from allegories of crises tormenting the protagonist's life, not shovelled onto the player to appease lazy critics. Same for bad things like the Genocide Ending in Undertale, why is it so well done? Because the player actively pursued it, fighting battles unlike anything else in the game and pushing on in the face of adversity. Such impacts are striking because we had to actively bring such events to life, you had to talk to Erica about Women's Wrestling to get a clue to her history, you had to hold your own against Senator Armstrong to understand how he plans to liberate Americans from “beltway pansies” that plague the Senate, you had to grind through a dull office day in the life of Curtis Craig and butt heads with Sierra puzzles before uncovering clues to Curtis' childhood and why his nightmares haunt him so and many more. In an age where an indie developer's cryptic mini games that hide the true ending is uncovered, posted onto YouTube six times over and seen by tens of thousands in a matter of days, why is it so hard for these “pop culture critics” to find these mature, developed themes they yearn for and instead lead them to believe such pieces will only be uncovered by damning their readership like Leigh Alexander's embarrassing “Gamers Are Over” article that once mired Gamasutra?

I am sure this article will not sway many game developers already determined to build their own Sunset or Gone Home or some other “mature” “art” “game” (I think I am wearing my keyboard out with these parenthesis and quotation marks) and I wish them well, truly I hope that their piece grants them the success they yearn for. To the remaining game developers whose intrigue I have piqued I will conclude, adults are educated enough to read between the lines, piece together seemingly unrelated tangents, uncover the why from correlation or dissonance between play and narrative. Rather than drape yourself in your father's coat and shoes as you try gesturing around with his pipe while he's downstairs catching up with the current news, go back to your room and reflect. Ask why things are how they are, empathise with the tech savvy man who watches the news with sweat riding down his brow as he awaits the verdict on his government's new network snooping charter, or the woman who feels voiceless across a medium of ladies clucking and squawking loudly or some being of your own imagination in a comprehensible though difficult plight. Then, with knowledge and creativity, craft a piece where each in-game mechanic, every dynamic and all the atheistic decisions communicate your premise, your message, your belief. I do not ask you to make an essay, I ask you to make art.
Greg Baxter
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