Why Not Games




Tortured Video Game / Music Comparisons

I like thinking about video games using the ideas of other media and while the result is always a little tortured and a little off-base and even a little dubious, it's a fun exercise and one that can lead to some novel considerations.

Battle Royale and Pop

A thing that I love about Battle Royale is that every game wants to be your entire life. They all are built so that they can be the only game that you ever need play for the rest of your life. They all want to be the only game that you ever play for the rest of your life. And they all know that you're going to stop playing them within a year or two at the most.

This exact dynamic isn't new. MMOs were the same. MOBAs were the same. Huge open world games were also the same. And to some degree, they all are still so. Millions of people still pay Blizzard for a WoW subscription every month. It's the transience that I love though.

I love pop for exactly this dynamic. There is no one in the world as big as a true pop superstar. Someone like Taylor Swift is a cultural monolith. For her people, she is everything. A single pop song can be your entire life.

It is only the very rare pop star that sustains though. When Britney Spears or the Backstreet Boys completely disappear from the conversation, no one is surprised. That's just the nature of the game. There's always the chance of becoming MJ or Madonna or Beyoncé, but the fact is that you're more likely to be ABBA. And what's really amazing about pop is that my mother still listens to ABBA.

This unsustainability is beautiful though. We want to see the rise and the fall. No one roots for the Golden State Warriors anymore because they've won for too long. You cannot sustain the intensity of a pop infatuation forever. Something always needs to change.

Similarly, the fight for the top is part of the fun. Sometimes, it's MJ and Prince and the rivalry lasts and both are remembered forever, but I also love the already-forgotten Katy Perry / Taylor Swift rivalry. Poor Katy Perry was trailing from the start and then while Taylor's Reputation shift largely stuck the landing, Katy's move with the blonde haircut was a misfire and her big single, "Swish, Swish", is arguably still the worst music video of all time. I'm going to link to her actually pretty decent song with the still-hot Migos here though.

The fight for the throne in games is just as fun. It was fascinating to see Fortnite take the crown from PUBG and it's interesting to see Apex Legends launch a challenge now. Five years from now, we'll have forgotten the principal players but for as of right now, the stakes are tremendously high and, no matter the impermanence of the genre, there are billions of dollars at stake.

Another thing that I love about pop is the constant need for reinvention. Pop always needs to be just new enough and a pop star that grows stale is a pop star that dies. The Beatles had era after era, Madonna reinvented herself every few years and MJ changed literally everything about himself. This is how pop stars grow and how they survive and how they thrive all at once because the beauty of pop is in how all-or-nothing it can be.

Blizzard is famous for this paradigm. They have made the pattern of taking the dominant game form of the period and making it less complex and more shiny, that is to say more approachable, which is to say more pop, and that's how they have spent so much time on top of the charts.

Absorbing Into Games

So, if this parallel holds, what does that mean for games? What can we as game designers learn from this analogue?

Not everyone can be pop: In music we understand what it takes to be a pop star and whether it is the right place to aim. It's not a bad idea to do the same with your games.

Skate to where the puck is going to be: I think that accepting this transience is the first thing. There's still a sizeable amount of follow the leader in game design and it's all too easy to get left behind. If you want to start work on your pop album now, it's probably too late to base it on Justin Bieber and it's definitely too late to base it on Boney M.

Live Outside The Game: The dance moves of Fortnite are unquestionably a large part of its cultural impact. I can't watch a basketball game without seeing multiple people floss in the stands. Before that though, it was dabbing, which came from the Atlanta rap scene. Ancillary engagement like this kicks these things into a far higher gear. The biggest innovation of Fortnite isn't the combination of gameplay elements, it's the popularization of dances that could be done outside of the game. Engaged players can always talk strats with each other, just like how pop fans quote lyrics at each other, but this is how this media goes far beyond its normal base.

Think About The Second Act: Pop stars understand that the choice is between reinvention or death, but games are slow to try the same. WoW actually pulled it off well with Hearthstone where they jumped from the hotness of MMOs to the hotness of card games (and started in the hotness of RTS games). It's hard to sell moving outside the comfort zone of the company, but the nature of this style of game is that to stay static is to become irrelevant.

Speak to people: For many kids around the world, there is a specific pop song that feels like the only thing in the world that understands them. The pop star is who they want to be and the thing that gets them through the day. It's harder for a video game to be quite so resonant, but there's a lot of reason to try.

Choreographed Routines: Many pop groups have highly choreographed routines. I want to see more game developers have highly choreographed routines. I don't think I need to make more of an argument here.

B-Side: Into The Breach is EDM

EDM is a remarkably focused genre of music. I can't think of any other style that is quite as lean. It has drilled music down to the beat and revels in the purity that it has found. Into The Breach took the fun of turn-based tactics and removed everything else from it. The story exists only because having no story would be more of a distraction than the archetype they put in wrinkle-free. There is nothing here but the tactics, and it turns out that is all it needed.

B-Side 2: Slow Point-and-Clicks and The National

I can't really put why into words, but certain slow point-and-click games feel exactly like The National to me. I felt this most recently with Old Man's Journey, but even Machinarium triggered this for me. There's something about the slow, gentle walking and the slow, gentle puzzling that feels exactly like the slow, gentle sadness of a National song. None of these are explicitly sad. You could make "I Need My Girl" into something much more romantic, but instead due to the pacing and the music of the song, it becomes wistful and melancholic. It's not bleak or depressing like Joy Division, it's just a little lonely. It's like reading a Kazuo Ishiguro novel.

Old Man's Journey is more obviously blue, but the more upbeat and charming Machinarium felt this way to me too. You can listen to "I Need My Girl" without words and the melancholy still comes through, and I think that there's something in the gameplay of these that would come through as melancholic without context. They give you the space for these more understated emotions. I still can't tell you exactly how they do that though.

- @murthynikhil

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Written for Why Not Games.