AAA Culture and the Nostalgia Fix

In the era of the AAA everything, amidst on-disc DLC cash-ins and violent rehashes, it’s refreshing to revisit a classic tale from the first PlayStation console, from an era when gamers discussed video games off the internet and something was always left to discover in that long line of code that remained pretty static compared to the cash hauls of today’s DLC-planned titles. There was a greater sense of mystery to not knowing what lay ahead when we hit the power button without picking up a visually eye-popping strategy guide, scouring magazine shelves for GameShark codes, or even calling in to Sony’s “charge-by-the-minute 900-number ‘Tips and Hints’ hotline”. No wikis here.

Some number of Call of Duty FPSes later, I feel like I am reconvening with an old friend at the hearth when I boot up 1999’s The Legend of Dragoon, which I admittedly never finished but can now appreciate a good deal more. The video game industry has long begun to follow popular television and film for the worst, from the industry’s bold entry into fantastical new worlds in the burgeoning ‘90s to today’s mainstreamed hypnosis by loadout.

A related and growing problem is that more video games are coming out and demanding our attention than can conceivably be afforded and consumed. The medium has climbed that summit, long reached by books and movies, in which the typical person–even the typical avid gamer–can no longer entertain every entry that hits the market. A new saturation of the medium has brought with it fundamental changes to the form. The market has determined the popular features that ebb and flow with audiences, which, in today’s social-media era, are more uniform than ever, and, unfortunately, focused more on unabashed violence than more genuine literary qualities such as narrative, character, and setting (I recommend the podcast 099 segment “Can a AAA game not have physical conflict?” by Joystiq).

In this recent and growing paradigm between old and new video games (we should not forget how new and comparatively volatile the medium is compared with literature and film), the distinction between classic and populist titles becomes clearer. Roger Ebert proclaimed video games can never be art, and in the present and near future, that statement remains and will remain true, but some titles are certainly more artistic than others, or they have greater qualities because of art’s influence.

Literary influence, in particular, benefits any narrative in this form, although it is no saving grace, as so many popular stories in television and film prove all the time. And now video games follow the populist binge. As for my own splurge at the coliseum, my wallet is better for it, as I forget about the industry’s obligatory $35 day-1 season pass DLC of Destiny and dive into games of inferior graphical fidelity but that seem once ago to have reached for higher summits.

Last week’s season 5 premiere of The Walking Dead broke cable records. Good for it and its myriad consumers who taped their eyes open through its nonsensical violence. My interest waned to nil halfway through, the drab setting having undone itself, characters gone to hell and back and back to hell. The new is getting old. It is no coincidence nostalgia is often associated with our childhood innocence. We forget it somewhere and, as art mirrors life, culture does too. Popular media often mirrors how our culture shifts, and it is time to go back.

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