Published on November 27th, 2012 | by David Chandler3
What the Next Generation of Games can learn from the latest Bond Film
There’s a lot to be said for a genre that knows itself as well as its audience. This kind of awareness fosters growth and complexity, keeping material from stagnating under the crippling influence of formula. We’ve all seen it happen time and time again, and few franchises recycle their patterns more often than the James Bond series. An obscenely good-looking agent fights a shadowy organization helmed by a monomaniacal genius-cum-terrorist all while flirting with and eventually shagging at least one other obscenely good-looking person of the opposite sex. Bond, himself, never really changes (except, of course, meta-dramatically via new actors), and there’s a complete lack of character growth–until the most recent crop of movies.
Daniel Craig’s turn as James Bond is arguably the most dynamic, involving long character arcs that challenge the most fundamental aspects of what we’ve come to love about the films. It’s Bond as character instead of caricature, and the latest entry, Skyfall, provides the deepest interrogation of the franchise yet. Not content to just recreate another by-the-numbers film, Skyfall is that rare movie that is as much about the its legacy as it is about the plot and characters of the film proper.
Its elements are at once familiar and new. For the first time, a terrorist sets his sights on the actual agency MI6, forcing much of the film to take place in Bond’s homeland. M, herself, becomes a target from a villain who perfectly provides that dark reflection of the hero. Javier Bardem’s turn as rogue agent Raoul Silva breathes life into the most complex Bond villain ever filmed–a psycho-sexual cyberterrorist with an Oedipus complex that makes Hamlet look like a slightly confused child. All of these elements come together to attack not just the characters in the film but the franchise as a whole. It dares to ask the central question, “Is James Bond still relevant, or is the character a relic of a bygone film era?”
The film answers this question respectfully, paying homage to as often as revealing the anachronistic archetypes of Cold War cinema as they’ve persisted in film today. Skyfall grasps boldly at higher concepts rather than simply delivering another by-the-numbers spy thriller. As I watched the film beautifully deconstruct the paradigms that built its foundation, I began to see a need to apply those same critical principles to game development as we move into gaming’s next generation. I posit a similar need in the games industry–a need to revamp or rethink certain genres and icons as the tradition we know and love moves forward and matures.
While it may be a stretch to correlate a movie’s interrogation of its genre to entire industry’s need for self-reflection, I think the issue is worth addressing. Much like the surge in popularity of comic books in the 1930s and 1940s, Gaming has hit its Golden Age with this generation, garnering mainstream recognition and widespread recognition. They have metamorphosed from a fringe interest to a full-blown entertainment juggernaut. Now, more than ever, the industry needs to take a sort of inventory of where it is has been and the direction it should take to remain both culturally relevant and progressively engrossing.
Very few games of this generation have taken such bold steps toward self-aware commentary. BioShock may be the apotheosis of game design that tests its own implications with fascinating results, meditating on the idea of control vs. agency while acknowledging that gameplay itself is bound by a controlled system. Setting the game in a decaying underwater city reinforces the inescapable claustrophobia of digital space. The world crumbles around you as the game systematically pieces apart the first-person shooter genre by layering an intelligent narrative over inventive gameplay. It is a game about gaming, about control, about spaciality, about operatic violence; BioShock is a game about itself, all while immersing the player in its environment and mechanics.
Other games have made similar attempts at self-aware design. Most recently, Yager’s Spec Ops: The Line offers the best single-player campaign I’ve ever experienced in a shooter of any kind. It forces guilt and blame on the player responsible for every digital life he/she takes (even when the game directs you to commit the atrocities you lament). We have a military shooter concerned with pointing out the inherent moral quandaries inherent to its genre. At times I wondered if I controlled Captain Walker or if I was some lingering vestige of his fractured psyche intruding in his hellish world of sand and misery built out of ones and zeroes. Ultimately, I had no answer–only a sickening feeling in my gut and the realization that I had committed unspeakable acts with no real-world consequences.
Other games in this generation seem willing to offer meta-digital commentary by more lighthearted means. Thatgamecompany’s Flower focuses so closely on movement and control that it creates a game in the most minimal sense by removing narrative and challenge. The game acts as an experiment in simplicity, reconstituting play as something other than violence or puzzle-solving. Super Meat Boy lies on the opposite of the experimental spectrum by relishing the comic grotesqueness of 2d platforming by turning every missed jump into a splatter-fest. It has all the charm of a Vaudevillian slaughterhouse that pokes fun at itself as it playfully highlights the player’s sadism. Minecraft calls attention to its own digital architecture by distilling gameplay to manipulating a pixelated set of various building blocks. Bastion makes apparent the strange relationship games have with narrative through an ever-present voice-over and player-driven discovery. Embedded in the mechanics and codes of these games and others are criticisms and commentaries on the core concepts of what games are, what they do, and what they mean.
For all the thought-provoking experiences these games provide, though, I find it odd that none of them seem to question where gaming is headed. That is, these examples are largely self-contained metonyms, sometimes for their respective genres, other times for their existences as digital texts. If such complex works are signs of video games’ growing up, then perhaps it is time for developers to move their eyes forward as well as inward.
Developers could create a game, for instance, that does not utilize first-person shooting to reveal not only its problems but also question how they will grow to shape the landscape of human interaction with digital media. Build a platformer with a character unsure of him/herself as he/she stands on a precipice that leads to an uncertain fate, all the while questioning what it means to chase an uncertain goal across a TV screen. For God’s sake, give me a Zelda game in which Link does not just blindly accept the quest laid before him. Reflecting on how these characters, genres, and mechanics have manufactured meaning in singular games and the industry at large allows for more nuanced perspectives concerning the future of game development.
It will be no simple task, and since I’m a critic and not an artist in the trenches, I lack the technical and artistic perspective that comes with someone on the creative team. I also know the conceptual framework I’ve laid out is built with hypothetical toothpicks, but the core concern should be addressed. And it may very well be that some games (including those I mention) do this to some degree. The fact, nevertheless, remains that as digital landscape changes dramatically, as it has been for the last decade or more, there exists a growing need for critical insight into how the mechanics and archetypes to which we’ve grown accustomed shape the medium. If it worked for James Bond, then damn it it can work for games.