Editorial: The Lowest Common Denominator; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Modern Gaming

Welcome to Bro-B-Que, Tim! Grab yourself a chair! There's Natty Ice in the cooler.
Brodacious! Brotastic! Brolicious!

Greetings Lusipeons! If you are reading this, then my message has been successfully smuggled out and decoded. I have locked myself in a supply closet deep within the bowels of Fortress Lusipurr. Mops and brooms have been made into makeshift barricades. The mop bucket, though it makes for a poor trap, ought to offer attackers a decent shin bruise if they were to knock into it. Pitchfork defenses have been set, and I have jerry-rigged some cleaning liquids into a makeshift torch-extinguisher. I tried scavenging food supplies from the local vending machines, but the nearest ones had only hot dogs and Pocky for my sustenance. Occasionally I hear the scurry of security drones, but thankfully they have not sensed my presence. I have also saved a few rolls of paper for my use here, allowing me my written confession: I rather enjoy modern video games.

No, not just the Indie games, or the intelligent modern games such as those by Paradox Studios. I mean Call of Duty. Cover based shooting. The occasional Madden. Dare I to say it- I even rather enjoyed Dead Space 3. These are games built for marketing, hyped up in order to sell as many copies as can possibly be done. They are rarely innovative, smart, and often attract a crowd of people who would barely know who Nolan Bushnell is, but I still think it is possible for parts of them to be good. My point is that while understanding the intended audience is useful for critiquing a game or tempering expectations, the audience of a product should very rarely act as an influence on the product’s quality.

Tim's first thoughts here: 'Okay, where's the medpack?'
I’m sure we can come back from that.

The Modern Warfare games are probably the archetype of these products. While I am sure there were earlier examples, Call of Duty 4 was the first game in my experience to kill off a player character in a first person shooter. Twice. It was such a novel experience that it was replicated by countless first person shooters since, most notably the rest of the Modern Warfare series. So, okay, the corporate machine ground an innovative narrative device into a cliche, but that first time was in a game made for the masses! Consider also Modern Warfare 2, which had the famous No Russian level. My experience with the level was nothing less than awe. Here was a level with disturbing subject matter, and so long as the player did not opt out of the experience they were forced to wallow in the destruction. The forced walking-pace of that portion, along with the juxtaposition of it with the standard run/sprint speed of the shootout which followed, was far more effective at making me, as a player, think about my actions than any amount of “would you kindly.”

I will agree that the deep significance of these events most likely passed over the heads (with room to spare!) of most Call of Duty gamers. I made the mistake of viewing a video playthrough of the second Modern Warfare and, as opposed to encouraging the player to reflect on his behavior, the slow pace of No Russian merely made him curse and scream more than usual. Which was already rather often. Yet his experience did not inhibit my experience of the product, nor did the fact that Modern Warfare 2 was very clearly made for the masses prevent the developers from doing something interesting with their product. Naturally, it did have an effect as the series wore on and the pressure to put out yearly releases turned innovation into formula, but that was a problem with the development cycle, not the intended audience (who had not changed since the first Modern Warfare game).

Okay, it's a bit generic.
Totally not a generic cover.

Thus I am brought to the catalyst for this post: the impending release of Bioshock Infinite. With the shelf date just around the corner, I glanced through some of the controversy which erupted around the game, specifically the box art (of all things). Ken Levine’s argument for the cover was that he (and the company, by extension) sought to tap into the alpha-male college market, ie the Fratboy demographic. The comments were generally positive, but nonetheless the usual crowing came from the wings. “…I find it unfortunate that Levine (and more importantly the stockholders) feel they have to pander to people who won’t appreciate the deeper meanings and messages that Irrational injects into Bioshock.” wrote one commentator. Another wished Levine was more like Jonathan Blow (private thought: Uggghhhgghg) and just said “Fuck the frat guys, those aren’t the people who we are making the game for, we shouldn’t be making changes to appeal to the imbeciles who won’t even appreciate the game.”

My personal favorite came from a series of comments on a Gamespot article in which one “fan” went on a four comment rant. “I take his remarks to mean that to a large degree, they basically take us for granted…” wrote the commentator, “…Moreover, to then mull the opinions of the common frat boy…” and on and on it goes. Once again, it should be added as a caveat that a vast majority of comments understood the difference between gameplay and box art, but the notion of corporate game developers “pandering” to the masses (or the “common frat boy”) is hardly a minute segment of the hardcore and traditional gamer audience.

The thing is, Levine marketing to the masses does not inhibit his ability to make a good game, and by all indications Infinite will be a good game.* Should not we, as gamers, be happy to share such an experience and hobby with those whom we share little else? This is a topic I may return to again, should my bunker remain safe and I am able to reclaim a few more dozen meters of toilet paper, but for the time I turn it over to you, dear readers. Are there any games you secretly enjoy, despite their very clear lowbrow audience expectations? Do you think some games get a bad rap for being mass-appeal? Or are you strapping on shin guards and preparing to beat me with a cricket bat?

*I promise to print out this article and eat it if this is not true.

5 comments

  1. I like the games I like, and tend not to factor other people’s contrarian opinions into my purchases. It’s sometimes fun to bash on what’s popular. It’s also a pretty popular thing to do…

  2. I don’t really mind the CoD series (or games like it) as much I do about the effect they have in the industry. Everyone and their donkeys are so eager on getting a piece of that CoD audience, they stopped making the games I like.

  3. “It’s sometimes fun to bash on what’s popular. It’s also a pretty popular thing to do…” – Oh ho ho yes, yes, and yes. Or, at the very least, it’s popular with the “traditional” gamer audience who are fluent with the gaming webpages and spend time in the forums. I think the much of the masses who purchase CoD, Halo, or played Zynga games would probably outnumber the bashers themselves, but it’s at the very least popular within that subsection of the community.

    @Gochiir – I WILL CONTINUE TO LIKE WHAT YOU DON’T LIKE WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT. WELL, NO, I’LL STOP IF YOU START LIKING IT, BUT ONLY UNTIL YOU START LIKING THE FACT I STOPPED.

    @Epy – I could see that argument for consoles, especially for the 360. Given that consoles are still more accessible to mainstream audiences than PCs (due to upkeep and fine tuning), it really isn’t that surprising to see the games move with the tastes of that behemoth of an audience. I suppose it helps that I’m only a part-time console gamer, with a vast majority of my time being spent in the far more varied plains of PC gaming. Except for Space Combat Simulators. Where the HELL have they gone and WHAT GENRE MUST I HATE ON IN ORDER TO BRING THEM BACK?!

  4. Good stuff, I’ve definitely shared some of these sentiments as well. Although sometimes marketing to a different audience is just confusing and bad for everybody. Look at how a movie like Fight Club was marketed.

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