it’s a good question and im not sure hwat the answer is. i like to rag on lead designers as much as anyone else, mostly because they’re convenient figureheads to accept blame, and they usually dress like nervous sophomores waiting for the football team to sniff out the impostor bro and dunk them into a trashcan.
I mean this was taken in 2008. cliffy what the heck
I think most of them aren’t actually malicious, and i think most of them are probably very talented (Levine developed the System Shock series, which is widely recognized as one of the greatest works in gaming, full stop), but have been jacked up the ladder until no one is calling them on their bullshit anymore. and i think they’re all carrying around a lot of adolescent white male Fear about being judged, not being cool, ‘pandering’ (a word you see used a lot to condemn game designers who decided to change something to cut down on rape themes or racism or whatever, as in this interview where Ken Levine describes changing the design of a “religious character” in Bioshock: Infinite after members of his own design team raised concerns. note that he is very clear that he “won’t change the character because [they’re] offended” but because he thinks it “made the story better”. ok bro).
i guess we could call this the Rockstar Problem in gaming right now (maybe always), with various dudes (mostly white dudes, with the exception of Japanese designers [i dont have a lot to say about Hideo tho]) being elevated to Lead Singers essentially or even Brand Faces, Maybelline-style, where there’s this mystique around the Cliffy Bs and Randy Pitchfords and so on that leads to facilitation of what is touted by (white male late-twenties/early thirties) nerd culture consumerists as that particular person’s “vision”, as if each designer was a Warhol or a Hirst basically overseeing labor and then being solely credited with “creation”. And I think the nerd men in the comment threads of Kotaku/Destructoid/Wired Blogs/etc (where I worked for a while) are eager to broadcast devotion to the cause, to brand loyalty, for exactly the same reason their hated nemeses “the jocks” will punch a man in a soccer riot for wearing the wrong colored scarf. i mean it’s bro culture. we call it nerd culture but it isn’t; it’s just armchair sportball hooliganism.
And on the one hand that’s every artist’s dream, to have a stable of working stiffs who take orders and make your stuff for you, right? and also a mass of devotees who’ll buy anything you produce, and kiss your ass in the process, right? hell yeah. that’s the life! i would unironically seize that opportunity, should it arise. But on the other hand Cliffy B started out with high school indie games he (presumably) developed himself and now, hahaha, i don’t know if you played Gears of War 3 but god damn.
but this really isn’t a talent crisis, and as much as we can criticize the Lead Singers over their support for and evangelizing of their own industry horseshit, they don’t shoulder all of, or even most of the blame.
I worked as an intern/personal assistant in one of the largest and most-used concept art studios in the United States. They worked on Bioshock 1 and 2 and, i think, 3, as well as Infamous 1 and 2, MoH & CoD, etc etc. i asked a lot of questions, particularly about why games are the way they are: why the protagonists are always white men, and if they’re women, why they’re always pneumatic mannequins in gogo ensembles. why is most everyone white? why are these same tired tropes and cliches trotted out over and over again? and the answer i got was, over and over, that this was what the clients would accept, and anything deviating from this would result in lost work, poverty, and failure.
a ton of the creative assets in games are produced by freelancers and contractors, and that number is going up. essentially a game company will contract a freelancer or a studio to create concept art, in-game assets, and so on, then bring those assets back to the game studio and build on them from there. what this means is that you have AAA Studio X going to Freelancer Y with contracts like, “We’re making Infamous 2 and we need lead character designs and if you don’t give us what we want we’re going to find someone who will.” when I asked artists in this contracted studio why they didn’t submit character designs that were anything other than the John Bioshock type—and check it out, all male leads in videogames look so similar that they easily could all be played by the same actor (as evidenced by at least one contracted studio using a portrait of one of the white male artists as the model for more than one AAA title’s protagonist, and no one noticing for years [i can’t name names, sorry])—they told me those designs would be rejected out of hand, and that spending any time developing them at all would mean losing money and work and possibly losing future work as well. you can’t eat your principles, and if you make a client pay for “revisions” on a character design no one wants (let’s pick a wild example and say, oh, making a non-skinny Black lesbian the star of Dead Space, a character design which would in no way impact the gameplay), then they’ll fire you and find someone who gives them the muscular but dull-faced brunette caucasian action hero on the first round.
i didn’t have access to the clients, or i would have asked them the same things. in fact no one has access to the people who are actually making these games, and i think that’s the way they like it. it allows them to plug their ears and pretend “sex sells” and “all gamers are white men; we’re just giving them what they want” are Real Life Truisms and not complete nonsense totally unsupported by actual research, actual statistics. “it’s just the market” is not just passing the buck, it’s setting the buck on fire and flushing it. it is a nonsense claim.
you (the game producers, not the studios, not the artists, and not the buyers) made the market, stupid. if it was just “the market”, you wouldn’t have to do any advertising. anything that hit the proper tone would just be gobbled up automagically.
to address this a little more broadly, artists are the last to get paid. when the economy tanked all the bankroll-holding producers of these shitshows ended up with a lot more power to pick and choose, meaning fewer and fewer people were making more and more decisions about whose art ends up going to “print”. and it meant that concept artists and designers lost a lot of their ability to say “fuck you” when a producer said “white male heroes, racial stereotypes, and objectified women or you don’t get paid”.
how culpable are Cliffy and Ken and Randy and their lot for enforcing this mediocrity? i don’t actually know. i don’t think they’re the ones writing the checks, most of the time. they’re complicit, but it’s probably unfair of anyone to single them out without massive disclaimers (you can consider everything i’m writing here to be a disclaimer), but at this point any criticism of the industry and its practices and its pantheon is so valuable that i am loath to nitpick it.
besides, to return to my old champion, Gabe Newell doesn’t really toe that line. Gordon is a white guy obviously but he was designed specifically to address the presumed audience—white nerdy beardy guys with ponytails (edit: I was wrong about Gordon’s ponytail, since it was in Halflife 1: Black Mesa that a security guard comments that gordon has just cut his ponytail upon arriving at work, not Halflife 1, which is a modern callback to an original Gordon model design decision to remove the ponytail) who don’t talk much—rather than to address the presumed audience’s projected power fantasies. Halflife is of course a power fantasy also: you’re clearly a savior, the suit makes you into batman basically, the grav gun, etc etc. BUT. it’s not a Duke Nukem and it’s not a Badass Simulator. Halflife is very moral and very political despite also being a shoot-em-up with excellent and engaging gameplay. it’s got a fucking brain, in other words. it wends itself around human stories, it criticizes police, the military and fascism, it harrows you with empathy for human suffering, it presents you with characters experiencing genuine sorrow, fear, disappointment, resoluteness and bravery in the face of hideous events. and I’m not going to call Alyx desexualized because she clearly isn’t, but she isn’t wearing makeup in a warzone and she isn’t hugely buxom and she’s wearing jeans and dirty hoodie and hiking boots and she isn’t white. Is she attractive? hell yes. but that’s not the problem, even though every fart-huffing redditor in every kotaku comment thread claims that “feminazis want every woman in every game to be ugly”. that she is cute is not the problem with female characters, the problem is how that physicality is exploited. Every single person who designed Alyx’s character or had a hand in approving it, rejected the notion that a heroine has to be anything but what Alyx is.
They rejected whiteness, glamour, helplessness, ignorance, etc etc etc. there’s a lot to criticise Halflife about so don’t think i’m attempting a grand apology here but maybe we can use it, Portal, and L4D as some lanterns in the darkness at least. and speaking as a woman who has to fight constant efforts to alienate, depersonalize and eject me from gaming, I don’t feel unwelcome in Halflife’s universe. just that is such a fucking relief. and if you want to talk about market share, well, i’ll just mention here that there’s a reason i don’t pirate Valve games.
returning to the topic at hand, i loved Bioshock. I loved it way past the point where i was willing to listen to critiques of the game based on “it’s just another boring FPS” grounds because honestly I didn’t care and still don’t, really. I’m hung up on aesthetics and will forgive a game a lot of sins if it shows me a beautiful pictureshow with a rousing soundtrack, and voice acting which isn’t actively terrible, which Bioshock did. Of course it’s art. All games are “art”; but so are post-it doodles, seashell collages sold in tourist traps, and Damien Hirst. that question—“are games art”—is predicated on a weird assumption, that whether something is “art” or not means anything.
and i was MEGA excited about Bioshock: Infinite when the very first trailers came out because it looked incredible to me, like maybe it was a redemption of Bioshock 2, which i didn’t think was terrible, and which i finished playing all the way through, but which i felt strayed significantly from what had made the first one very gratifying. In the very beginning of the Infinite media blitz a few years ago, it seemed to me like the game was a frontal assault on the execrable colonialist romanticism espoused by what has become “the steampunk movement”, in the same way Bioshock riffed on sandalsock Objectivism, which was extremely topical at the time (to the extent that I know at least one disgruntled Randroid who “refused to play it” because it said a mean thing about his pet theology, hahahah).
Bioshock 2 took a stab at “collectivism” with significantly less success, i feel, i guess because “what if ron paul built a city under the sea” is a far more realistic premise than whatever was happening in Bioshock 2 with, i guess, crazed pinko cultists? or something? submarine neosovietism? anyway, if Infinite set itself up to take a shot at beardy dudes in double-goggles in the same way, i thought, then hell yes. on top of everything else, the early videos had that same sense of dread and emptiness that a lot of the original Bioshock used so expertly. Elizabeth seemed capable and full of her own agency. she—her character deign and presentation and emerging backstory—is sort of the litmus by which i measured the decline of my interest in Infinite over the past couple years. i wrote a thing about specific changes and what they seem to suggest over here.
What we should be asking is why games have such consistently poor artistic methods and messages; why is the voice acting and writing and character design so consistently fucking offensive, and i mean offensive aesthetically as well as morally. Why, when so many immensely talented, versatile, original people are either jobless or already working in the industry, are we consistently subjected to bullshit that is not only racist, and sexist, and trans* and queer-hating, but also just boring? it seems weird? and it also doesn’t make sense from the standpoint of the arguments always raised to defend such practices, including:
- “this is what sells and if we changed the formula we wouldn’t have a chance” (yeah it’s weird how Portal didn’t move many units, featuring as it did a non-sexualized woman of color in the lead role. it’s weird how Beyond Good and Evil isn’t a cult classic or anything. its weird h-)
- “no one cares” (then why do we keep having this conversation)
- “if you dont like it dont buy it” (nah. i like playing games. see also: “boycotting is censorship” and “software piracy is theft”)
- “gamers are all white + male and that’s just who we’re appealing to” (over 50% of the total gaming market right now is female and the esports world is almost completely dominated by people of color, including at least one out transwoman)
- “it’s a budget issue and we have to cut corners somewhere so” (really? the majority of art assets in games are created mostly or entirely by contractors/freelancers who make pitiful amounts of money, have no health insurance, no retirement plans, etc. also, no one ever bought a game because the producers wasted 100 grand on a patrick stewart cameo.)
- “women are already represented in games by many fine female characters including,” (sorry dogg i think Siren and Lara and Elizabeth are cute and whatever but they don’t make me feel particularly empowered, or even like i’m having a good time? i sort of have to enjoy games in spite of these “options” for identifiable characters, not because of them. maybe when i was 12 and decorated my notebooks with tomb raider shit but frankly that was more because of the lack of alternatives than anything else)
i mean cutting to the chase, if you scrolled this far, the real question we should be asking of games is: why are games so bad, when they could be so good?
(ps gabe if you’re reading this please give me a job)