The Gaming Club

In Search of the New New Thing
The art of play.
Dec. 15 2010 10:09 AM

The Gaming Club

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Heavy Rain
Heavy Rain

Seth, flattering though it is to be classed with you guys as an "expert gamer," I have to demur—I'm so not. But I am really interested in the medium and its potential. As I've said, my own medium is the novel, which in most respects is still a 19th-century form: You could take this year's candidates for the National Book Awards and the Booker Prize and give them to an intelligent general reader from 1890, and they would be able to read them without difficulty. The thing that's exciting about gaming, to me, is its newness: This really is a new medium being born, right here and now. Imagine if gaming has as far to travel as cinema did 100 years ago! (I take it that is the sly point of the movies you can go and see in Red Dead Redemption.)

So my interest in games is neophiliac: I'm after the new new thing. From that point of view, it seems to me that 2010 was underwhelming. The biggest gaming event of the year, obviously, was Call of Duty: Black Ops, which as we all know had the highest-grossing first 24 hours of any entertainment product ever: $360 million in the United States and United Kingdom alone, and $650 million worldwide by the end of the first five days. (James Cameron's Avatar earned $232 million worldwide over its opening weekend.)

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There's no arguing with the scale of Black Ops as a cultural phenomenon. As a game, though, I found it deeply dispiriting, mainly because, notwithstanding the Cold War setting, it's so familiar. If we were using Roman numerals, this would be CoD VII, and it shows—the whole run-and-gun mechanic just doesn't seem that gripping anymore. (The same goes for Medal of Honor, which has the interestingly, and transgressively, real setting of the 2002 war in Afghanistan, but beneath that is just the same old run-and-gun.)  For the industry, the success of these games must surely send a signal that the Hollywood model of sequels and franchises is the way forward. I don't mind sequels when they're well done, and it's interesting to notice how many sequels are significant improvements: Assassin's Creed 2, Uncharted 2, and the GTA and Red Dead franchises all show that. So I don't mind it when a sequel shows how the developers have kept learning and have made the game the original should have been. But it would surely be a pity if that were where the industry's main creative energies were to be located. Walt Disney banned sequels because he thought they stunted creativity; he had a point.

Looking around for that new new thing, it seemed to me that there were some potentially interesting experiments with importing storytelling techniques from other media. Alan Wake would be one example and Heavy Rain would be another. But the trouble for me was that as you introduce a more cinematic feel to a game world, it has the paradoxical effect of heightening the player's consciousness of the gaming conventions that remain. I liked the corny, cheesy, TV-movie feel of Alan Wake—I even liked the bad writing (which I told myself was deliberate) and I gave up on understanding the coffee thermoses at an early point. I liked the use of light to zap the bad guys. But all this made the repetitive nature of the fighting-monsters-in-the-woods-at-night action seem much more apparent. The good bits made me more annoyed at the bad bits. Same with Heavy Rain, which in many respects is extraordinary and shows a way forward in its emphasis on choice and consequence—that, surely, is one of the most promising things about games as a medium. But its good qualities made my irritation at the movement and control system all the stronger. Maybe it's another version of the uncanny valley, where the move toward verisimilitude causes a kind of allergic reaction to the elements of convention which are still present.

I did enjoy Metro 2033 and I liked the things about it that Tom cites—even if you didn't know it was Russian, you would, I think, guess that the game came from Somewhere Else. It was genuinely immersive. I wonder if that's partly to do with the fact that it's based on a novel—in other words, that there is a whole imagined world underpinning the game, and the developers were interested in keeping true to the feel of that world. That would partly account for the richness of its imaginative texture. Elsewhere, again, I didn't see anything that felt new in the way that last year's Flower, say, felt new. On the Wii, for instance—I live in the U.K. and the Wii seems to be a bigger deal here than it is in the States, as it accounts for more than half of all consoles—I didn't fall in love. My choice for best game was Super Mario Galaxy 2, which is ravishing but is also a pure sequel. (My 8-year old son loves it, but I have a huge problem with those games: They give me vertigo. When Mario falls off, it makes me feel like I'm falling too.)

So, given that you-all have forgotten more about games than I'll ever know, is this sense of mild neophiliac disappointment fair? Where should I be looking for that new new thing?

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John Lanchester is the author of three novels, a memoir, and, most recently, a book about the financial crisis, I.O.U: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. He writes for the London Review of Books, the Guardian, and the New Yorker.