Today’s Games Revel in Creative Subversion

BY COLIN CAMPBELL

I’ve spent the last few days comparing Games of the Year lists for 2020, with those of a decade ago, and more. I wanted to learn how much games have changed these past ten years, and what that might say about the state of gaming.

What I found convinced me that games have changed more between 2010 and 2020, than in any previous decade. The gap between Red Dead Redemption (2010) and Hades (2020) might not be obvious from the look of them, but in my view, it’s a creative chasm. 

I know that’s a bold claim. Take a look at Pac-Man, and Missile Command, which were the biggest games of 1980. Now compare them with the lightning fast, three-dimensional wonders of F-Zero, and Wing Commander, which came out ten years later. Now zip ahead to the sophisticated elegance of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Deus Ex, which came out in 2000. 

But in gauging change in the last decade, I’m not talking here about how games look, or how they perform. I’m more interested in where they come from; in the creative process and the thinking that underpins their arrival in the world. I’m talking about how they make you feel, and how their creators want them to make you feel. 

Mischief and irony

A work like Hades, as a game of the year, would have been all but unimaginable in 2010, yet it’s heading up GOTY lists all over the media. It’s quirky, odd, difficult to play, and even harder to define. It’s a rogue-like dungeon crawler, but also a narrative adventure. It leans into the lofty culture of ancient Greece, while embracing a thoroughly modern sense of mischief and irony. Its central characters are cast across an array of diversity. The game’s story, its atmosphere and its activities all touch on issues of abuse, and the rage of victimhood. It has something vital to say about the tricky business of being a human being. 

There are games others too, that come loaded with meaning. The Last of Us 2 is the year’s award-winning Triple A game. It’s an action-adventure starring a gay young woman, with strong narrative elements about the folly of vengeance. Through the Darkest of Times (image below) asks us to make unhappy moral choices in the face of the fascist tyranny of Nazi Germany. It sits in opposition to the easy morality of most fictions, in which doing the right thing, and feeling good about it, is the only option. If Found… is a homecoming story about a trans girl who seeks to understand her place in the world. 

These are the games we celebrate now. And it’s notable that zero GOTY lists for 2010 mention games remotely like them.

2010’s lists reveal a time when the highest value was placed on games that excelled within broadly understood parameters. Genres were fixed, and their differences defined them. The audience was understood to be monolithically male, and invested in the genre-based discourse of the time. The games were funded, marketed and sold by large corporations. They were promoted and celebrated by rich media outlets, all of which had much the same things to say about their subject. 

Rockstar Games

Red Dead Redemption was the height of big-budget action-adventure. It told a story of a white hero in the wild west, a man who would have felt familiar, even clichéd, in any decade of the previous century. StarCraft 2 was real time strategy par excellence, its marvels revealed though intimately finessed, highly polished genre-details. Mass Effect 2 was a solid science-fiction RPG, that played out like a long, engrossing episode of Star Trek. 

Sliced and Sundered

Games in 2020 are different from those in 2010, because they elude classification. The idea of “genre,” which dominated gaming discourse ten years ago, has been stretched, sliced, and sundered so much that it’s become almost meaningless. Developers take gleeful pleasure in borrowing, subverting, and mashing elements from different genres, and so creating newness. 

And those developers are different from the creators of 2010. They are less likely to work for a big company, and more likely to be self-funding. They are less likely to be white, straight men (and if they are, they’re more likely to understand that they are no longer the default setting.) They are more likely to have a direct interface with their audience through social media, and digital shopfronts like Steam. 

Game developers discovered that creativity wasn’t merely about carefully iterating on what had come before, but on casting out on journeys into undiscovered terrain. They were enabled by innovations like social media, but also by wider cultural shifts. 

The definition of video game today is so much broader than it was ten years ago, partly because of the acceptance that the player is also different. The old monolith has been broken. Games are no longer entirely made for a subsection of the population, but for the population as a whole. 

This change is a work in progress, and it has not come about without cost. The bridge between 2010 and 2020 was built through the storm of Gamergate (almost exactly at the decade’s mind-point), which was a reaction against the process that got us from there, to here. But outside right-wing fringe fanatics, I think most people would agree that today’s games are more interesting than those of the past.

Ten years ago, game industry figures were making confident predictions about where we were going, based on emerging technologies like mobile gaming, virtual reality, and motion controls. But game developers and the gaming audience had different ideas. They remade games, not in relation to business models or hardware platforms, not in a reverence for the past, but in a joyful, combative anticipation of the future.