Last month I wrote about the value of themes, and I lamented that the majority of triple-A games released today essentially do not present coherent ones. I feel that without a consistent theme, a work has nothing to say (or perhaps, in the case of a game, it has nothing to discuss), and is therefore limited to being consumed and enjoyed in the moment without further consideration and with no lasting impact.
Recently, more and more thematically coherent works have been coming out of the indie space, and have contributed to the general broadening of the sorts of themes games seem able to explore. A game such as Papers, Please explores the themes of immigration, terrorism, national security and profiling both through the dynamics of gameplay and its narrative elements. The coherence of its exploration of these themes makes the investigation of similar material in whatever multibillion-dollar covert war fighting FPS franchise you can think of seem laughable.
Of course, it’s fine to just be entertained. Games still have tremendous value as a form of entertainment that does not need to ask for, or reward, any deeper contemplation. It’s totally OK to make a game where you take on the role of a special forces soldier sent covertly into the sovereign territory of another nation to kill non-uniformed, non-military enemy combatants who are trying to repel you from their homes, as long as you don’t actually say anything about such a conflict. After all, we don’t want to make people uncomfortable; we want to keep the simulation of the state-sanctioned illegal murder of foreign nationals lighthearted and fun – like playing Whac-A-Mole after eating too much candyfloss and riding the rollercoaster.
Blockbuster franchises simply are not the place for meaningful themes; this has been proven time and again in film and literature. Lord Of The Rings is a sweeping epic about little hairy men fighting an ancient and evil demonic power. It’s about how cool rangers are, and the fact that elves and dwarves can never get along unless they’re killing orcs, trolls or goblins – all of whom deserve to be killed. It has swordfighting, wizards, chases and all manner of imaginary monsters. A major entertainment franchise that needs to give you all of that is never going to succeed if it tries to present some pretentious theme such as the need to value and protect nature from exploitation through industry and technology. Everything that is great about Lord Of The Rings would collapse under the weight of such a theme.
This is not just a modern-day truth, either. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a fantastically thrilling horror story about an ancient evil who can turn into a shadow or a pile of rats, and who needs to be killed (for real, this time) before he steals the hero’s fiancé. But that’s not easy – Dracula can fly, control wolves and bats with his mind, and keeps a harem of succubi around to ensure the potential for a hot sex scene. He’s bulletproof, incredibly rich, has a royal title, and he sleeps in a coffin – how cool is that? Clearly, no one at the time would have even read the book if its themes addressed the fetishisation of Christian belief and ritual. And had it been about those sorts of pretentious ideas, we would certainly not be reading it today. But thankfully, Dracula is nothing more than a horror story with some dirty bits.
And it’s not just western culture that repeatedly demonstrates popular entertainment is best when kept free of potentially troubling themes. The popularity of the Godzilla films in Japan in the ’50s and ’60s show us that nobody wants anything serious to think about when it comes to watching giant monsters trample buses, knock down buildings and incinerate tanks with atomic breath. The idea of destroying an entire city is preposterous outside the context of giant monsters from some undiscovered ocean trench, invaders from an imaginary alien world, or perhaps Civilization or Sim City.
Imagine the absurdity of a bunch of Hoplites hiding in a wooden horse to infiltrate a city, or of barbarians riding elephants over Alps. Imagine just how many planes and bombs it would take to completely incinerate even a modestly sized European city – never mind the staggering power it would require to turn a city into a crater in the blink of an eye. The idea that Godzilla had some deeper theme that spoke to Japanese fears about America’s growing nuclear arsenal following WWII is ridiculous. The Godzilla movies were nothing more than monster movies.
No, I say leave the pretentious and self-serving idea that games could be about stuff to the so-called ‘indies’ so they can all fail and come back to work for the real game industry. If people want serious, emotionally moving or challenging content, they have other places to go for that. Go see a film by that European director, or go listen to music by that chick from a country that has two months with no sun. Games are different. They aren’t there to get in our faces and try to make us get all emotional. Games are entertainment, plain and simple, and anything that interferes with my in-the-moment enjoyment of decapitating an orc is an insult to the modern gamer.