While I don’t think it would be fair to make a blanket presumption on absolutely everyone who has ever made the choice to largely avoid AAA games and franchises with eight-figure budgets in favor of smaller, more creative titles or even indie games, there definitely seems to be a certain smugness that I sense from many of the people who take this approach. By refusing to give a single dime to the coffers of Rockstar or EA or Activision et al, they get to feel like they aren’t contributing to the problem of the loud, expensive, big-budget dreck that permeates the release list of any given month. They can sleep easy at night because they aren’t to blame for the never-ending barrage of Call of Duties, Assassin’s Creeds, Maddens, Grand Theft Autos, and Resident Evils. Their spot in gamer heaven is secure because their lifetime video game stat sheets include little to no heads shot, f-bombs dropped, buildings exploded, or breasts ogled. They can just sit back, playing their indie and smaller-budget games, watching the rest of the industry collapse on itself in a pile of uninspired ideas, endless sequels, and games made by committee primarily to be sold to fist-bumping dude-bros. And they can do that with a smirk and an air of self-satisfaction.
Here’s the thing, though: By doing that, they are still part of the problem.
Look, people are entitled to buy what they want and play what they want. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to be a gamer. Whether you’re a tournament-level Street Fighter player or you pour thousands of hours into every new Bethesda game or the majority of your game time is spent on an iPhone, you are entitled to be the gamer you want to be and you aren’t beholden on anyone else to prove yourself as such. Where I have an issue is people who take a hard-line stance against a segment of the gaming world that they aren’t all that familiar with and base most of their “opinions” on assumptions and hearsay. It’s easy to assume the buzz about Grand Theft Auto, but to write the entire franchise off as “those games where you can kill people and run them over and have sex with hookers” is no better than when Fox News took Mass Effect‘s sex scenes to task for being X-rated, supposedly containing full nudity and the ability to control the characters actions during intercourse (neither of which is remotely true, as most of us know).
It’s a very slippery slope when we start making all-consuming assumptions about anything, even just the content or quality of a video game we haven’t played. There is absolutely nothing wrong with looking at a preview or trailer of a game and deciding that that game probably isn’t for you. I am certainly not advocating playing a game you think you’re going to hate just for the sake of playing the game(s) everyone is talking about. However, if there is an aspect of the industry you’d like to change or improve, outright ignoring it is not the answer. Retreating from the entire plateau of AAA games and deliberately flying as low under the mainstream as possible definitely sends a message, but the message of “all smaller titles are good and all bigger titles are bad” is not a fair or productive message to send. I believe that all gamers should be in favor of the entire spectrum of gaming being the best that it can be. We should want there to be more creativity and originality and risk-taking in big budget gaming and not just be satisfied with it all just existing within smaller, quirkier titles.
So how do we do that? By being actively involved in all facets of gaming, big and small. Keep an eye out for the occasional AAA game that tries something new or different, and support it, spread the word on it, get some word-of-mouth muscle behind it. Think of how different the industry might be today if games like Psychonauts, Beyond Good & Evil, Okami, Viewtiful Joe and Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath were bigger hits. All were definitely “big budget, AAA” games of their time. A few of those games’ commercial failures ended up completely shuttering a few particularly creative studios who could’ve and should still be making games to this day, and another caused one of gaming’s true visionaries to see his signature creation devolve into years of being party mini-game collections (no disrespect to the better Rabbids games, but Rayman they are not). And the games that sold well instead of those games are what laid the groundwork for the AAA games we have today, most of which tend to involve a fair amount of gritty action and bloodshed. AAA publishers still le more creatively risky games like this slip out from time to time, and when they do, sales are generally underwhelming. Alan Wake, Mirror’s Edge, Valkyria Chronicles, Brutal Legend – all games that people in search of creative, groundbreaking titles should’ve rallied around, games that break the mold and do something special with a big budget and a top tier publisher behind them, yet they all under-performed at retail. Probably because the audience for those games were all too busy dismissing them because of their platform or publisher or whatever other arbitrary reason, and pouring all of their time and money into the not-quite-as-AAA games that were “safer bets” for those seeking creativity and originality.
So by completely ignoring games that were essentially made with gamers like them in mind, they sent the message to the big publishers and the platform holders that those types of games weren’t wanted. The publishers’ response? Make more games filled with blood and bros and boobs, games that do sell. Which, from where I’m sitting, makes those gamers that didn’t buy the good games an equal part of the problem of lack of originality in modern AAA gaming, because their (monetary) silence was heard as loudly and as clearly as the dollars that were spent on those types of games.