2 March 2005
It’s six years since I began writing a little book called Trigger Happy. Back then my usual explanation of the project, when I was chatting to people at parties, was that it was about “the aesthetics of videogames”. It was an impressively efficient conversation-killer. Blank stares and silence while the interlocutor carried out a rapid internal monologue: “Okay, now how am I going to get away from this geek?” Almost worse was politely feigned interest – a long-drawn-out “Oh!”, and then, hesitantly, “You mean, how they look?” Well, not exactly. Not only. Can I have some more beer?
This phrase about aesthetics, once received as a pure oxymoron – a baffling juxtaposition of high philosophy and low entertainment – now seems to be more generally palatable. People know about Grand Theft Auto et al – if they haven’t played them they’ve seen someone play them, or they’ve read scurrilous newspaper reports about them. And they accept more readily the idea that there’s something interesting going on. Meanwhile, both within academia and without, there are more and more good writers who don’t feel embarrassed to be writing about this form of art.
It’s a slow process, to be sure. When my book was reviewed in the august pages of the Times Literary Supplement, a mysteriously fatigued woman complained that it was “far too long”, and, in a borderline libel, accused me and my editor of deliberately spinning the subject out to fill the covers. As if a whole new genre of creative endeavour did not merit even 250 pages accorded to it! Her response is typical of a kind of prejudice that still exists in certain quarters today.
I was fortunate to receive a somewhat more positive review from Tony Parsons, music writer turned professional dad and sentimental novelist, who performed a nice rhetorical trick. After saying that Trigger Happy was “almost certainly the best book that could be written about videogames”, he proceeded to explain that this was because videogames were essentially worthless. In his day, you see, youth culture was punk – rebellious, cool, creative. A youth culture of gaming, on the other hand, just means that we are all placid slaves of corporate dream factories. It’s a clever argument, designed to appeal to ageing reactionaries everywhere, but it won’t hold up. We are no more force-fed the mechanized results of other people’s imagination in videogames than we are in the cinema. And just as in cinema, among the wealth of works produced, there is always a mix of cynical blockbusters and original, stunning works of beauty.
I’ve been gratified to see that many of the arguments I made in the original book have been brilliantly answered by the best games to have appeared since. (I am not egotistically claiming to have altered the course of gaming history, just that certain gifted designers had independently noticed the same things I had.) I argued that games should create coherent, beautiful spaces to engender an emotion of wonder, and then along came ICO. I suggested that games mightdraw on the non-realist traditions in art history, and then there was Rez. I insisted that a feeling of dramatic involvement would arise from improvements in AI rather than in prescripted cutscenes, and we got Halo. I hoped that games would widen their scope with new control systems: hello, EyeToy.
These jewels of recent gaming history do not quite make the book’s arguments obsolete, since there are still mountains of dull and incoherent gaming fodder. The stylistic shift between Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and its sequel I find depressing, an acknowledgment that marketing a clichéd aesthetic to teenage boys is still seen as the best way to assure profit. And for every MGS3, pushing the boundaries with ideas of complex corporeal peril, there is a Doom 3, a glorified tech demo whose symbolic paucity and spatial failure would have been risible 10 years ago.
Meanwhile, games still have a long way to go in treating the political arena with any consistent maturity. What does it mean to put terrorists and law-enforcement agents in a game after 2001? Episode five, season four of 24 plays out like a cross between Metal Gear Solid and Time Crisis; conversely, I look forward to the first game that explicitly takes place in the world of swirling propaganda and arcane geopolitical strategy of our current “War on Terror”.
This column, dear readers, has a retrospective feel because it’s the last one. I am hanging up my thumbsticks and working on a new book about political language. I would like to say that it has been a privilege to write for Edge, and to engage in many conversations with its consistently intelligent and passionate readership. It has also been most stimulating to rub up against my fellow columnists. I thank Messrs Mott and Diniz-Sanches for indulging me. And I look forward to continuing to observe the world of games as a consumer. As long as we have a Kojima or a Mizuguchi around, I think it will be a very interesting ride. Stay trigger-happy, won’t you?