It's the kind of thing that would have never happened even just a few years ago. At the annual E3 gaming conference this week, Sony kicked off its PlayStation showcase with a clip of a simple conversation that ended in a passionate kiss between two young, female characters. It was from flagship title The Last of Us II, the sequel to the acclaimed post-apocalyptic original, and it was a remarkable moment — tender and quite unlike the tenor of most of the blaring expo.
Right after the romance, however, the camera cut to footage of the gameplay itself, which saw protagonist Ellie plunge a knife into an unknown person's throat. The footage then continued to a gruesome disembowelment, and then saw Ellie brutally take out enemies with a knife, axe, or bow, all of it rendered in the most advanced graphics and replete with sound effects as vivid as they were lurid. The crowd at E3 clapped and hooted at each kill.
To the game makers, this stark juxtaposition was the point: These are the contradictions of the brutal world our character inhabits. But it was also an inadvertent summation of the problems with gaming writ large. Such rare moments of humanity are almost always underpinned by a relentless focus on violence and cheap thrills. It is the product of a complex web involving a broken culture, an unwillingness to take risks, but also, as ever, the economic pressures of a multi-billion dollar industry.
In truth, The Last of Us and its sequel are among the better examples in gaming. The original was praised precisely because it had complex, human characters. But the very rarity of such subtlety is itself a problem. In discussing the game, cultural critic Leigh Alexander said that The Last of Us' maturity was simply "the least we should ask of games." Despite its critically praised narrative, even this paragon of gaming has brutal violence as its central mechanic.
It is the sheer ubiquity of such an adolescent approach, rather than the violence itself, that is the problem. Almost every major gaming franchise, from Call of Duty to Assassin's Creed to Halo relies on some form of aggression as its basic mechanic. The inherent challenge in games themselves — that is, in order for games to be fun, obstacles must be overcome and goals achieved — defaults to stabbing, shooting, and killing far too often. It is creatively bankrupt, but also hamstrings gaming from becoming something more.
Things were supposed to be different by now. A few years ago, many analysts believed that the industry was on the verge of maturing because consoles were in decline and mobile was rising. Independent games would flourish on smaller platforms and bring with them new ideas and approaches.
It's true that indie and mobile gaming did indeed become more popular. Small game developers took risks and some found success, sometimes critical, sometimes commercial, and occasionally both. But what actually happened more broadly was the opposite of the predictions. Mobile gaming is enormously popular but far less lucrative for most individual game makers than many had imagined.
Instead, gaming has split into three main areas: mobile; big, AAA titles with multi-million dollar budgets and years-long development cycles; and finally, online multiplayer games played predominantly on consoles and PCs, the most recent prominent example of which is Fortnite, which brought in an astounding $300 million in April alone, and now boasts 125 million players worldwide.
The real money is in the last two types of games. There is thus a huge economic pressure to stick to the adolescent past of gaming and focus on what gamers already know. For flashy console titles like The Last of Us or Assassin's Creed, the basic principles are the same despite the technological evolution on show: Here are some goals, and here are the people you have to kill to get there. Meanwhile, the popularity of so-called "battle royale" games like Fortnite, or other online games like shooter Overwatch, or complex "arena" games like DOTA 2 reflects the transition of such titles into something much closer to sports. These games are not only popular among players, but are also watched through streaming services like Twitch, and have generated enormous economies around them. Unfortunately, the games themselves are simply ever more complex versions of their childish progenitors.
The business of gaming thus constrains the development of new, less obvious forms of play because profit is to be found in reworking the past. In much the same way that Hollywood has become driven by sequels, remakes, and established IP because the costs of making and marketing movies has made the risk of failure too high, so too does gaming reflect a similar conservatism because of economics.
What is obviously unfortunate about the situation is the creative constraint — that for all the millions of dollars poured into gaming, every year at E3 we see the same simplistic tropes of knives and guns. But in reproducing the adolescent culture of gaming, you also reinforce an adolescent culture of gamers. That means encouraging and fostering the more toxic elements, such as the recent kerfuffle where fans of Battlefield were absurdly incensed about the inclusion of women in the latest title. This is to say nothing of the many similar angry or sexist campaigns that have sullied gaming over the past few years.
The way out of the bind won't be easy. The financial pressures shaping gaming seem firmly entrenched for now. Perhaps the solution will be in some sort of analog of Netflix — a new competitor to the established system that provides a different way to distribute and fund content. Or perhaps it will simply require a spark of creative genius that breaks through and changes how we think of this important new cultural form. Or things may simply continue unchanged, and moments of tenderness or subtlety in gaming will be forever drowned out by gore.
That would be a profound shame — and both the culture of gaming and culture at large would be all the poorer for it.