The Revolution is Over

VGX

Ignore the title. I suck at titles.

Last night Spike’s VGX awards ceremony was broadcast all over the internet and as expected it was the cultural travesty we’ve all come to expect from it. I’m not really interested in how they can remedy the situation and fix the awards show, instead I want to use it to point at a larger trend that seems to be taking place this year.

Last year at the VGAs the competition for nearly every major award came down between Journey and The Walking Dead. Two high quality, emotionally engaging indie titles the likes of which the industry had not seen a wide acceptance of their existence. 2012 was one of the greatest years ever for gaming and it rested upon the bevy of artistically inspired indie games covering a wide variety of designs and themes. What we saw was a shift from hype and tech driven requirements for adulation and recognition to that of emotional engagement and artistic excellence. The question was less which game was the most ‘fun’ and which was the most ‘fulfilling.’

It wasn’t just at the VGAs. IGN, largely regarded and often derided as the most mainstream of video game publications, put out 10 nominees for their game of the year award. Half of which were indie titles based on that artistic vision. You can debate the merits and morality of those titles individually, but one cannot deny the ethos their creator coming through. At nearly every major site and awards show the game of the year title wavered between Journey and The Walking Dead. Nods went to Halo and Mass Effect and Borderlands and other big budget blockbuster extravaganzas, but they were overshadowed in the end.

It’s almost impossible to stress at what a change this was in the consciousness of mainstream gaming community. Starting in ’08 indies were considered an “and this one” affair. One title would be chosen though the communities communal subconscious as the artistic ambassador on the nominees list. Braid, Flower, Limbo, Bastion. They were yearly single offering towards artistic respectability. Obviously there are those individually that thought otherwise, but it was the wider consensus. Then 2012 happened and that thinking went out the window.

Last year, I had to contend with a lot of arguments calling 2012 a weak year in gaming. Out of personal entertainment, I keep a list of games vaguely defined as relevant or remembered for every year since 1972 and while it does get harder and less accurate before 1985 and after 2005 it’s generally on point to judge the year based on the number of great titles released in that year. 2012 has one of the longest lists. Yet, I would continually encounter people — from the critical community mind you — who would claim it to be overall a rather weak year in gaming, unlike 2011. (Which by the way my list shows to be one of the overall weakest years in recent history.) I never really understood until last night. Depending on how one counts as good or remembered 2012 had 3-5 AAA titles. All of which the gaming community was lukewarm about come awards and reflection time. 2011 likewise has depending on how one counts as good or remembered 3-5 AAA titles, but one was Skyrim and wouldn’t fade for months afterwards. So despite the rough list showing about 6 games for 2011 and around 20 for 2012, the former is remembered as the stronger year overall. Most of those 20 games in 2012 are indie titles. Our instinctive value is still prejudiced towards the AAA.

Earlier this year on twitter I started to fret about the collective whole of the community’s mindset towards what it values as an accomplishment in the medium. I even went as far as to declare that should IGN do the same 10 nominees thing for the game of the year award I could name what they would be ahead of time and it wouldn’t look pretty. The wider cultural consensus was sliding back into tech fetishism and an uncritical regard to higher aspirations for the medium. My despondency grew when they announced the nominees for the VGX awards. And this seemed further confirmed with Grand Theft Auto 5 taking game of the year and the general presentation of the awards ceremony that went above and beyond ignoring the actual awards to not even bothering to present or even announce 12 of the 23 on camera.

It’s true I’m choosing a rather bad example as a case study, since the show is far more interested in an outdoor concert and game advertisements than the nominal excuse for why the show exists in the first place. But my fretting came from months of watching the wider conversation around the titles and the general attitude for what constitutes a good game worthy of the highest praise.

A few weeks ago now there was a little kerfuffle on the term “The Indie Revolution.” As things go on the internet it wasn’t that big a deal and I wont upgrade it beyond kerfuffle. Basically a Sony executive whose job was, in part, to woo indie titles to PlayStation 4 announced that “The Indie Revolution” was not just beginning, but was in fact over and that they had won or some such thing because of wider acceptance of the games. Then there was the backlash that focused on everything from outright disagreement, capitalistic appropriation, vocab choice and by far the most interesting, asserting there was no revolution in the first place. Ignoring for a second all the specifics of their arguments for or against, one thing they all have in common is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a revolution ultimately is.

The idea of what a revolution is in the minds of many is that it is an upheaval of the established order of things, often violent, and the establishment of a new order. This idea stemming from the political revolutions of America, France and Russia over the past three centuries. Unfortunately it doesn’t hold water with a little historical examination. The American Revolution was the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a system of self determination and governance that would after the war was all said and done would build its infrastructure, financial system and power base on the back of slavery. The French Revolution was about ousting the king and with him the caste like system of inequality that when all was said and done they did indeed get rid of the king and then replaced him with an emperor and then another king and another king. The Russian Revolution was once again about ousting a tyrannical dictatorial leader with no compunction about killing his own people that when all was said and done replaced him with a tyrannical dictatorial leader with no compunction about killing his own people.

Revolutions don’t tend to actually change much of substance in and of themselves. What revolutions do do, however, is introduce new thinking to the wider populace. Each of the above revolutions added to the world’s collection of ideas that could be built upon and developed. The ideas were the change to the previous order, not the conflict.

So when I hear “The Indie Revolution” I’m looking for a change in thinking that has occurred in our small sphere of culture. Yet, after the great showing last year it seems the status quo of polish ruling day has reasserted itself and in fact may have never left us. The big AAA releases in 2012 were Mass Effect 3 and enormous backlash the ending created that tainted the game as a whole, Halo 4 which garnered praise but was lukewarm overall, Borderlands 2 which wasn’t that great and eventually faded from the minds of people, XCOM: Enemy Unknown was in the wrong genre and Dishonored wasn’t big enough to stand on its own. From a standpoint of the collective consensus it almost seems the indies so celebrated last year were touched by circumstance than any true shift in the mindset.

A revolution has taken place, but it wasn’t about artistic nature of the medium being fulfilled or the opening of minds to possibilities. What Shahid Ahmad of Sony is essentially talking about is a revolution of distribution. Technology and people’s acceptance of it has changed enough that it has become viable on a massive scale for games to come into our hand over an internet connection instead of a boxed store. That this move away from only physical store shelves allowed smaller games, more niche games and games with an aim at something other than pure commercialism or fun to get into player’s hands is a result of technological progress than the acceptance of the art. In that regard, yes, “The Indie Revolution” is over. Digital distribution will improve as time goes on. The heavy lifting of introducing the idea is over.

But if one was hoping “The Indie Revolution” meant something more to the medium, it seems there is a way to go. The Academy Awards, for all that is wrong with them, understands the difference between a popular and successful movie and one with artistic aspirations. Even if they don’t always get it right and can overlook something like Drive in their nominations, there is an understanding of that difference. Sometimes a work can be both, but such works, at awards times, are still ostensibly judged by their artistic content and not their box office total. Such a understanding still doesn’t seem to exist with video games. More than one person on twitter noted that the Indie Game category had a better Game of the Year lineup than the actual Game of the Year category.

In that respect, I wonder if the revolution is over of it ever begun in the first place. Then again the No Man’s Sky trailer seems to be the biggest thing to come out of the whole event, so who knows?

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