The Circus of Values

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  • For the longest time during the creation of videogames, their eventual quality is about as indeterminable as the health of Schrödinger’s cat. Simple concepts may be taken beyond their formulaic roots through brilliant execution or a few small twists. Ideas that sound great on paper may be a terrible combination in practice, or just never come together quite as intended. All manner of personal disasters might make it impossible for independent developers to finish what they started. And, while big publishers might seem more resilient to misfortune, their projects might still suffer from mismanagement or production woes that result in the release of broken or unfinished titles.

    For the most part, videogames have the potential to become either great or terrible, and you can’t be quite sure which one it will be until they are done. No prediction can ever be certain, of course, but games are notoriously hard to get a read on in advance of release. So many different parts are required to form a cohesive whole that it’s impossible to tell whether they will fit into each other until all of them are in place. In fact, even developers themselves routinely talk about being doubtful whether their game actually works, right up until that moment when it’s nearing completion and everything just clicks.

    That process of creation is fascinating, but it’s certainly not marketable. So a different way of talking about unfinished games was established, one that prioritizes their intent over the complexities of production and paints idealized visions of the future instead of revealing the messy present. Stu already covered the dubious practice of game previews two weeks ago in “Books and Their Covers,” [Issue Forty Seven – editor] but never is the scope of the problem and our obsession with them more apparent than during E3, the yearly industry event feeding us lies we would very much like to believe in.

    Perhaps this is being unfairly harsh on an event that many people appreciate as a source of enthusiasm, one of the biggest celebrations of games we have. However, it’s important to remember that the excitement you may draw from it is staged in the interest of loyal consumerism, as is every other little thing about it. It’s hard not to become cynical when you consider how enormous this ritual of dishonesty has been allowed to become: virtually the entire games industry puts their grand plans in the form of glossy trailers, loud-mouthed promises and early demos full of smoke and mirrors, and then we send entire halls’ worth of writers to translate their words back into real talk, something they frequently struggle with. And of course they do!

    Even though much ink is spilled on the anemic content of these press events, we rarely talk about their format and how it is specifically structured to prevent critical thought. How the dizzying pace of announcements is intended to keep us from properly mulling them over. How the limited space and need for invites is meant to make critics feel smugly important and gives publishers control over who is allowed in besides. How the crowded auditoriums normalize audience reactions, similar to how you might find yourself laughing along in the cinema to a scene you didn’t find that funny. That the event has become such an emotional affair for many alone should be cause for concern. It wants to inspire passion, and passion is the enemy of reason.

    You’ve been reading an excerpt from Unwinnable Monthly Issue 49.

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