The similarities between the videogame biz and Hollywood are evident: Both of them are more concerned with making their reboots, sequels and brand extensions as impressive as ever — and moving millions of units — than real innovation.
Walking the corridors of E3 is not unlike pummeled into subservience by the kind of deadening audio-visual onslaught that has been outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. But if you manage to hold on to your faculties, one thing becomes clear: The worst parts of Hollywood thinking seems to have infected videogames to a frightening degree. Or, maybe, it’s the other way around.
Looking around, the evidence is clear: giant billboards for the seventh Assassin’s Creed, the tenth Mortal Kombat, the eleventh Call of Duty, the ninth Halo, the fourth Far Cry, the billionth edition of Madden NFL…
Everything is a sequel, or a reboot, or a brand extension or the buffing of a piece of intellectual property counted on to provoke a nostalgic response. Of course, this has been going on for years, but faced with the brazen manifestations of it at E3 — the high-decibel pride at having successfully trodden the same ground, over and over — it’s put into even sharper relief.
Hollywood has always loved a good franchise, but today, the industry is currently making only four kinds of movies: Tentpoles based on pre-existing material (remakes, sequels, adaptations), Oscar bait dramas, animated movies for kids and the R-rated comedy. If anything else sneaks through the system, it’s an accident, never to be repeated. And anything else that makes it to theaters that’s cool or interesting or just out-and-out weird is an independent production — and we get fewer and fewer of them as time goes by.
There are, for the most part, only seven kinds of videogames: action (including first-person shooters, third-person adventures and fighting), RPGs, sports titles, simulators (flying, driving, etc), platformers, MMOs and strategy. And it’d be nice if you could draw an infinite variety of experiences from those seven categories, but you kinda can’t.
Everything feels like a variation on a theme, the refining of a specific set of circumstances. Every shooter is like every other shooter, with tweaks to the things you’re shooting and what you’re shooting them with. Every driving game is judged by how beautiful the scenery is and how robust the car selection is. The minds behind Madden could probably get away with just adding a feature that every fan hates one year, then removing it to great fanfare the next, rinse and repeat.
Not that these games aren’t fun, mind you. I’ve been a gamer for 30 years and still have the callouses from whaling on the Atari joystick. I was stunned by the depth of the Paris Ubisoft built for Assassin’s Creed Unity and the immersiveness of Destiny’s vast sci-fi world. I was tickled by the retro-cool of Sony’s downloadable espionage game Counterspy and scared poopless by Sega’s Alien: Isolation. Every now and again and indie game — like Hello Games’ space explorer No Man’s Sky or last year’s exercise in existential horror from Fulbright, Gone Home — will break through. Sadly, though, not often enough.
But when confronted by the wall-to-wall millions of dollars each giant game company spends to tout their shiny-hot newness at E3, when one examines the totality of the landscape all at once, the only conclusion one can come to is that we are just replaying the same game, over and over again.