Opinion: Gaming’s aggregation binge
The decline of newspapers, some say, ?can be attributed to the Internet’s ?power as the great disaggregator. Newspapers aggregate, bundling disparate ?stuff (news, recipes, fashionista fluff, crosswords and so forth), but the Internet disaggregates. Online, everything can ?be provided separately, and better, by specialists. You go to Craigslist to look at classified ads; you get your celebrity news from Gawker, your sports coverage from ?the BBC website, and your sarcastic deconstructions of political phraseology ?from Unspeak.
If this is true, then modern videogames ?are swimming against the tide of history, and their rectangular blue air meter is about to ?run out, triggering a poignant drowning animation. Big-budget boxed games have, ?for the past couple of decades, been on a hysterical binge of aggregation. It’s not enough, these days, to be a shooter; you must have interludes of driving, mech-stomping and flying as well. This is the fairground paradigm of modern videogames to which I referred in ?a recent column, and the competition at the high end of the market has become a global war between rival fairground mafias, each ?one barking: “No, our clowns are more psychotic!” The big announcements at E3 ?this year were all about the nth sequel to ?long-running series (COD, Halo) which are ?no longer really ‘games’ as we knew them but globe-squatting aggregation brands, showing off their slightly different game-style mixtures. (Look, everyone, a bit of underwater sabotage with handheld submarines!)
The positive side of aggregation is that ?it can deliver a beautiful surprise. I loved G-Police on the first PlayStation, a game of helicopter-based detection and shooting in ?a futuristic city, but the hardware couldn’t deliver on the designers’ vision. Playing ?it again as a PSOne Classic re-release was painfully chugging, yet the game’s compelling, downbeat ambience was still intact – as though Michael Mann had stolen the sets for Blade Runner in order to remake Airwolf. For years I had wondered how that game could have been on modern hardware – and then, quite unexpectedly, I found out, when Halo: Reach put me in the pilot’s seat of an armed helicopter cruising around a futuristic city, half of ?which was tragically-prettily on fire. There wasn’t much detection to do, but the Banshee dogfights over the city were like laser-flavoured butter.
Yet with this unexpected pleasure came ?a kind of frustration that is endemic to the aggregation game: I wasn’t getting a full-on reimagining of G-Police (or Colony Wars, another Psygnosis classic of which the ?space-battle level was eerily reminiscent), ?but a couple of tempo-changing distractions from the main alien-faceshooting mission. And if you like one of the gamestyles that ?has been aggregated into a modern blockbuster, you can’t choose more of it: you’re just herded forcibly to the next ride after your time is up. In general, of course, ?we happy ‘consumers’ don’t actually get to decide which products are made; we just ?get to choose among those ‘offered’ to us. ?I would gladly pay £100 for another 20 ?levels of co-operative Spec Ops in Modern Warfare 2 style, but that’s not an option. Instead my only choice is to buy the swollen aggregate that is Modern Warfare 3, hoping that the co-op is equally awesome, ?and discarding much of the rest. (I’m not interested in shooting teenagers. At least, ?not over the Internet.)
Meanwhile, it’s the spunky, anarchic disaggregators that are stealing mindshare. Flash games, Facebook games, cheap iOS ?and Android games: they’re nearly all built around one repetitive mechanic, as though ?it were the 8bit 1980s again. (The number ?of lurid Canabalt clones that have sprung up recently is amazing, and slightly depressing ?if you were a fan of Canabalt’s original aesthetic.) The best of these games do one thing, and do it well. Mike Capps, president ?of Epic, is nervous: “If there’s anything that’s killing us it’s dollar apps. How do you sell someone a $60 game that’s really worth it? They’re used to 99 cents.” So far, the way to sell $60 games has been to ?make them obese aggregations, but more players might be starting to wonder why they are paying so much for products of which they only intend to ?use a part.
If the aggregation model is eventually eclipsed by the specialised app, however, something valuable will be lost: aggregation’s great virtue is that it can give ?you what you didn’t expect, and didn’t know you wanted.
According to some media theorists, the aggregating power of newspapers helped create an informed citizenry by showing readers news they didn’t ask for. When everything is disaggregated and you see only what you already like and want, creative serendipity is toast. In videogames, too, that might be a shame. The helicopter level in Halo: Reach wasn’t a remake of G-Police, but maybe no ?one was ever going to make that. At least I ?had my time in the air.
Illustration: Martin Davies