Games aren’t what they used to be: I recently reinstalled a copy of the Witcher 3 some five years after I bought it bundled with my then new Xbox One console.
The game hadn’t aged a bit. I plunged into its dark world and complex characters, without a thought for frame rate, graphics chips and all the other things which used to sell units back in the day of Street Fighter, Tomb Raider and Gran Turismo.
I’m not alone in this. My teenage daughter enjoyed the Old West atmospherics and moral dilemmas of Red Dead Redemption 2, but I was interested to then see her dig out and play the first game in the series, originally published for the older Xbox360.
She commented on the plot (it’s a sequel to RDR2’s story) but didn’t identify any clunkiness or shortcomings in a game that’s now in double digits. Her verdict: “it’s kind of lit” (parental translation here).
Backwards compatibility baked into consoles, plus the sheer strength of content in plots, characters and cut-scenes gives games a longevity which was inconceivable to me as a gamer in the 80’s and 90’s.
This lifespan continues to expand — it’s now an established pattern to have ports of older games such as Witcher 3 & Skyrim for new platforms like the Nintendo Switch and see them spend serious time in the top 10 for premium content.
Such depth, nuance and longevity are no accident; the budgets for big games in many cases exceed those of major studio film releases. Red Dead alone used over 1,000 actors, making them the single biggest employer in New York “by miles” in 2018 according to Rockstar Games.
The best can play with the genre without losing credibility, and go off-piste in terms of our expectations. The Witcher even manages a sly reference to Frank Zappa in advice handed out to wanderers in the frozen realm of Skellige…
By contrast, I’ve struggled to find this sense of fun in recent film releases, with notable exception of the first Deadpool movie. Many characters are interchangeable, masked vigilantes with whom I struggle to connect, while the Star Wars canon and comic books which power the content engines of the studios reached their own creative high-water mark over 30 years ago.
What about game/film crossovers? Aside from simple, guilty pleasures like the Angry Birds movie, the fact games can deliver so creatively on an author’s vision causes problems when something like the Witcher migrates to Netflix. The talents of stars and character actors can get lost under stringy wigs and CGI with the overall effect that of high-end cosplay.
All of which makes me excited for the prospect of this troubled decade becoming a golden era for gaming entertainment. Forget the outside world, settle in with a friend or loved one for an immersion, or casual diversion, in whatever digital setting takes our fancy — horror, suspense or anthropomorphic whimsy.
Whether the sun is setting on films is up for debate, and it may seem absurd to question an industry worth $50Bn worldwide each year, but the gaming world overtook it some time ago and is predicted to hit $300Bn by 2025.
Dig deeper, and film is starting to break down as a way for brands to socialise and create desire for items like luxury watches, cars and consumables which no longer fit into the way we live now.
In-game purchases of skins, weapons and custom content are the way we increasingly demonstrate our identity and agency in the vast, communal spaces we create in our imagination and online.
No masks needed — see you there!