The Case for Never Talking About AAA Games
I believe this entire post, much like this sentence, should be accepted without the slightest hint of irony.
I really can’t even recommend talking about AAA games for any reason at all.
AAA games are, by design, utterly exhausting to consume. Exhausting of your time, your money, and your senses. I currently exist in a constant state of academic panic interrupted only by flirtation on twitter, unprofitable freelance writing, and catatonic alcohol consumption, so this is a particularly difficult point for me. Bioshock Infinite, for example, ate up a whole weekend, which is not a big deal once and awhile. But only once and a while—that is a problem.
The time, though, isn’t the part of Bioshock that exhausts me so much as how it refuses to let go of my attention. I’ve sunk more hours into Brogue and Espgaluda II over the past year than Bioshock, but Bioshock’s consecutive hours far outstrip every non-AAA game I’ve played this year. Small games tend to let me come and go, while AAA games want to keep me at the same emotional high as a summer blockbuster for roughly the amount of time it’s healthy for a human being to be awake in a day. Bioshock’s transitional sections are very interesting and calming, but compare it to the original, whose entire experience was more ambient: I felt like that was a game I could occasionally stop playing.
Instead, Bioshock Infinite throws twist after twist at me on a day long rollercoaster (please imagine being on a rollercoaster for 16 hours). The problem with plot twists is that even when they’re incredibly dumb, they’re amazing at forcing me to wonder what’s going to happen next no matter how little I actually care. It’s easy to force someone’s attention narratively: this is why Dan Brown novels and thrillers are so popular. Sure, the book is beyond dumb, but he’s a genius at forcing you to turn the page. The thing is, I’m getting wise—I don’t even want to start these games now.
There’s the money, too; I can’t recommend anyone interested in writing about video games actually pay for video games. You’re lucky to find a place that pays enough money to even cover the cost of a $60 game. There are review copies, of course, and “other options” but it’s not a great incentive, especially since it will also be a game everyone else is already covering and also wants to cover. That ground will be well trodden and even if say more people read that review they’re mostly thinking about the game, not the reviewer.
What the readers are looking for is also very different. They are not reading because they are curious about this game they have never heard of. They have been already told by a multi-million advertising budget exactly what their emotional response to the game should be and are mostly looking for validation of that feeling. That’s not to say readers of AAA game reviews are completely uncritical, just that they’re generally not going to think outside of the promises the ad campaign made. If the ad campaign says something and doesn’t deliver that’s a problem, but it’s not very common for an audience to actually be interested in questions like “well I don’t even know if this concept is interesting in the first place…” because they’re already interested because they watched all the trailers and previews. More to the point, they already know how the game is supposed to play and what’s it about: the only thing they don’t know is how it actually works in practice.
I know AAA games tend to be nice reference points for discussion—I can say “Bioshock” and you get the gist of my argument even if you haven’t played it—but when it comes down to actually saying something about it, AAA games are so big and messy and flawed that I keep finding whatever I really want to talk about in the game is so shallowly implemented I have to stretch my argument way past the point I have any confidence in it. Spec Ops was, for me, this huge text that when boiled down amounted to nothing more than a starchy residue. That’s a very personal criticism of Spec Ops, I understand, but what I typically see in non-AAA games (i’m avoiding saying indie for a reason) is a concept that’s executed at an extremely high level without anything superfluous. More than a few Twine games talk about the murder and moral dilemmas in Spec Ops with a lot more grace and depth; Spec Ops is mostly talked about because it has the budget of a mediocre shooter and messing with that formula a bit, which is notable mostly because it did so in the AAA space, not because it did it very well.
Smaller, cheaper games are usually way shorter, but they have a lot more to say about the one thing they really care about. Espgaluda II is about nothing more than threading a beautiful gender-fluid lazer death fairy through a wall of pink bullets. Skullgirls cares about nothing other than ridiculously high standards of traditional 2D animation and fighting. Neither of these games are very “intellectual” (whatever that EVEN MEANS) but they are also genius at what they do, and so I find there’s a lot of things to talk about. I think good writing, which mine isn’t always, is really focused but deep, which describes a lot of small games to me.
To me a AAA game might do dozens of things really well, but none as well as single game focused on nothing but that one thing. When I write essays on dumb video game stuff, I’m more interested in the “thing” than the game itself. The game is just a vehicle to get me to the thing. So I don’t really care about the game except through how it gets me to the thing, and it’s easier to write about a game that has a lot of the thing to talk about.