As Jake wrote about yesterday, we went down to Brighton to attend Rezzed, a showcase of new PC games and talks. Not one to be outdone, I’ve given my thoughts – on being a gaming outsider, and yet playing lots of brilliant games.
I noted with apprehension on the train down to Rezzed that I had literally no idea what to expect. As somebody who had only started playing video games again recently, I was totally out of the cultural loop; and the conventional depiction of a show dedicated to computer games – a depiction that Scripted partly hopes to deconstruct, I suppose – must be one of geekiness, boys playing with their toys alongside other boys, trying out the contemporary equivalent of the Nintendo Scope.
Rezzed certainly wasn’t like that. While something like E3, the world’s most famous example of video game fandom and gimmickry, puts scantily clad women out in the rain and cold so they can wash cars, and sees avid fans dress up as their favourite video games characters, Rezzed was a dark hanger-like room with little frills and a smattering of indie games alongside a few mainstream studio releases such as Borderlands 2 and Far Cry 3.
But I didn’t know whether to expect that before I got there – because as much as it isn’t the wider gaming experience, it’s the gimmickry and fandom which receives the most attention in the media, and it’s that which represents the industry and culture to the world.
Rezzed wasn’t immune to that. While beautiful, thoughtful and subversive games like Proteus, Dwindling Worlds and Pop: Methodology Experiment One rested inconspicuously in schoollike rows of PCs, it was Aliens: Colonial Marines – inside an ‘over 18s only’ area – that had people dressed as the eponymous Aliens and Marines, wandering about the show floor and looking menacing.
It was also where, to our dismay, one of the games PRs talked to Jake and I for ten minutes about ‘what the Alien can do that the marines can’t’ – a slightly more nuanced version of the ‘this game’s got 459 guns’ chat I used to have when I was 13.
Indie is best
That wasn’t really of any interest to me – although the game looked decent enough. I’d gone to Rezzed to see what it was I couldn’t have played, or didn’t know about, when I was 13. To that end, it really was the indie games which drew me in, and made Rezzed a really interesting experiment.
Dwindling Worlds, in which a Glaswegian narrator speaks an allusive narrative over electronic music (a bit like playing an Arab Strap album), giving hints as to what the hell is going on on the screen; Pop: Methodology Experiment One, a game that wasn’t really a game, because you had little to no control over your actions, but which seemed to be using that lack of functionality to explore what it showed you on-screen, including a vignette in which I could only hold down the left-click and kill what I assumed was terrorists; and Thomas Was Alone, where the characters are little polygon shapes who, on a weird looking 2D backdrop, move around alongside a text as well as voiceover narrative (by TV’s Danny Wallace), almost as if you’re in a playable, slow-scrolling comic book.
These were the things that really excited me – and also that so many other people seemed to be interested in them. Plenty of other games certainly looked really slick; including Aliens: Colonial Marines, including Ghost Recon Online and Sniper Elite V2. But people, I think, were far more engaged in the games which challenged the notion of a game – in various ways – than they were the latest in a long line of FPS. After all, it was the developer of DayZ, the zombie survival simulation mod for ARMA 2, which drew a massive crowd that discussed the developments for a game in which you can spend your whole play-life living peacefully in the woods, catching and eating animals, if you want.
Compare that to the small line to go in and see a development trailer for the remake of XCOM, a much bigger release, and you get a feel for what Rezzed was like.
Massive – but invisible
It’s tempting to say that those with the bigger budgets at these shows are what give the games industry its bad name, when the one or two stories a year about it hit the mainstream press.
After all, while the kinds of questions a game like DayZ or Minecraft might ask you – given that you are free to do literally whatever you like, what kind of player are you going to be? – could make a really brilliant case for how games can be important cultural objects, it’s people dressed up as an Alien, generally, that get coverage.
And which make me, a not particularly good gamer with a paranoid disposition, a little bit scared of attending things like Rezzed. In 2009, John Lanchester wrote something similar:
There is no other medium that produces so pure a cultural segregation as video games, so clean-cut a division between the audience and the non-audience. Books, films, TV, dance, theatre, music, painting, photography, sculpture, all have publics which either are or aren’t interested in them, but at least know that these forms exist, that things happen in them in which people who are interested in them are interested. They are all part of our current cultural discourse. Video games aren’t. Video games have people who play them, and a wider public for whom they simply don’t exist.
He’s right. This year, millions will know only one or two things about the games industry – and it will probably be something like the rape controversy in the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot. Only a few thousand, all already gamers anyway, will hear anything about something like Proteus, a game which requires no ‘gaming’ ability in order to sample its strange and unique world, but which requires plenty of imagination, thought and nuance.
I wish they would hear about it. But it’s hard to tell whether it would be a wholly good thing. Persistent, the stereotype of things like Rezzed, with attendees depicted as basement dwelling neckbeards, is totally wrong. Equally, the idea that games are some sort of new ‘high art’, in which we explore high and mighty concepts through abstract constructed worlds, is wrong too.
See Jake’s post – two of the most enjoyable games at Rezzed were Hotline Miami and BaraBariBall; both of which were about, I think, entertainment, and play, in the traditional sense of the word.
What I’ve written here maybe does a disservice to games like that; and some of the best games ever made are those kinds of games. We have to be really careful (I certainly do) that in championing these more ‘artistically’ or ‘culturally’ acceptable games like Proteus or Dwindling Worlds, we’re not forgetting a lot of what makes games, and gaming culture, great.
And that’s the ability to have damn good fun. Maybe games like that won’t get the world at large to stop ignoring the industry – but in trying to get people to listen, they should be championed, too, in what makes gaming such a great hobby, activity and art.