Good day, wintery readers, there are not too many weeks left until this fierce cold melts away into something more tolerable (except for our friends in other hemispheres). Until then, why not abandon the outside world and its harsh demands and read a good Mel article instead? This week, I am going to touch on a pervasive topic in modern gaming, something that has become common if not detrimental only recently as gaming grows an ever bigger history to draw from. It might seem to tread a lot of common ground with my previous article about remasters, but this goes a lot deeper than reheated content. Modern gaming has become rife with examples of pandering to a specific playerbase that is predicted to respond well to it. This can take several forms and in nearly every instance it represents lazy game development often with an insulting connotation to those who pick up on it.
Reheated content, as mentioned previously, is a very common form of pandering to players as it attempts to offer them exactly what it is thought they will enjoy. It does not even attempt to produce something similar, instead this sort of lazy development takes a previous product and (sometimes literally) repackages it as new again. The biggest problem with this method, and the others I will go on to mention, is that does work. That is the player’s problem anyway, as it guarantees less time and effort for original content. But it also ends up being the developer’s problem, as they paint themselves into a corner of burnt out consumer interest when the market is flooded with re-releases. It serves little more than to kick the developmental process of the industry down the road to be resolved another time and the problem is only exacerbated when new hardware is designed not to communicate with old storage mediums. This made more sense earlier on when systems like the NES, SNES and N64 used very different cartridges, it could be reasoned that designing a system and a cartridge that would be backward compatible would probably be more effort and expense than it was worth. Some games would see re-releases, but not very many. Today, the systems are entirely capable of being backward compatible not only because of the ubiquity of the disc format but because the system offers those games as premium downloads. Taking advantage of the information gained from sales of previous re-releases, console makers decided it no longer makes sense to give players access to their old games for free when they will eat up reheated content sometimes at full price all over again.
The complicit nature of players when it comes to industry pandering might seem to challenge the label in the first place, but to pander is to appeal to baser desires. My examples here are all low-effort appeals aimed at getting low-effort responses. A popular old game is on the shelf again, and a simple nostalgia factor drives those purchases. Pandering is almost always referential in some way, which lets the thing in question call on something else to do the mental heavy lifting. In-game references are therefore a major part of the industry’s reliance on pandering and eventually this plague infects every major series. Some new game series even decide to be referential by lazily plopping in callbacks to other games completely out of context, however these examples seem more secluded to the Steam Greenlights of the world. More common is an older game series attempting to deliver on “fan service” by emulating a popular entry in that series. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is largely made of callbacks to the very popular Ocarina of Time, and can be seen as a remake of that game in many ways. That is the obvious example in the series, but in truth the Zelda series has been making callbacks to that particular game ever since. Wind Waker drops references less often but with little reasoning beyond “people will get the reference”, and a time travel mechanic of some sort now seems all but necessary for a console Zelda game. Even when the examples of callbacks and self referential design are inoffensive, as I personally find them to be in most Zelda games, they are still disappointing. Instead of crafting an entire world that could be used to raise the specter of Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess could have been much more original and memorable in its own right. Majora’s Mask, for all its flaws, did an amazing job of being a post-Ocarina entry by keeping the callbacks to minimum (aside from the recycled character models but I do not think they count) while giving context for the callbacks it did use (time traveling).
Callbacks and re-releases are all bad enough, but I think the reaction to them is fairly muted. At least it is compared to the kind of pandering I am about to mention which seems to elicit vein-popping outrage in some. Social pandering has come to the scene only recently as social issues in gaming discussion becomes more of a common thread. While personally I am not opposed to a game creator making a social comment in a game of any kind, it is just as disappointing as a lazy callback when some kind of unrelated cause is given a spotlight. The outrage comes less from the fact that pandering in gaming is lazy, because if it did then the outrage would have been here long ago, and more about real people’s reactions to this kind of pandering. When the inclusion of a hotbutton social issue is deemed out of place or lazy it riles up the people close to that particular cause as being evident of opposition to their cause (often labeled casual or unwitting opposition). Issues of gender equality, sexual orientation, and gender identity are usually the topics on the table and unsurprisingly the people enured to those topics treat them very seriously. Whatever conflated attack they perceive on those topics that might actually be directed at the game or at them personally (sometimes illegally, which complicates the discussion), and whatever accusations of misanthropy directed at criticizers, are enough to make sure everyone gets offended to the point of missing the forest for the trees. When battle lines get drawn, any comment coming from “that side” get contextualized out of context, in a way, and the discussion goes no where. Nevertheless, the cheapness of social pandering has not prevented its inclusion in games (which leads to suspicion of outside pressure, which complicates the discussion even further) in much the same way cheap callbacks and re-releases continue to be produced. Eventually these examples mount up and a backlash occurs (not just among those sensitive to examples of pandering) which will suppress these efforts until the industry needs another quick cash injection in four or five years.
Well, I did it, I mentioned social issues in one of my articles. Will you comment now?! I would deliver a more robust prompt here, but I somehow think it will not be necessary. See you next week!