Welcome to another issue of Currents, where video game industry headlines are typically broken down and editorialized. I say typically, because we're doing something a bit different this week. This issue will mostly be dedicated to popular internet discussions about video games. There have been a few things which have gotten under my skin as of late, specifically the role of crowdfunding, how we characterize and treat video game publishers and developers, the way news media portrays video gaming in relation to violent tragedies, and Final Fantasy X's assumed views on religion. As such, we'll be calling this The Rant Issue.
As an early apology for the nerd-rage you're about to read, I present one of my favorite YouTube series covering an RPG classic:
Tell me this video isn't impressive. I dare you.
If I could ask you readers some questions this week, they would be:
- Which gaming topics grind your gears?
- Do you ignore ignorant comments or comment yourself?
In light of the surprising comeback of Harmonix's Amplitude Kickstarter campaign, the internet has been abuzz over the role crowdfunding websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo should have in the creation and development of new multimedia, concepts, and products. Debates have sparked over ethics and the structure of these funding campaigns. Should these campaigns be restricted to smaller projects helmed by a handful of indie producers? Are there conflicts with the donation of major sums of money by larger organizations? How much say should you, as a funder, have over a project in early development? There certainly are concerns around this fairly new platform, but I believe it is exactly what we need right now.
Consider the case of Harmonix's passion project Amplitude. It could be argued that this reboot might end up dead-on-arrival; a commercial failure in before it's even released. At least, that's under the assumption that it will follow in the footsteps of the original Amplitude. Amplitude, released over a decade ago for the PS2, was a critical darling that really struggled in the sales department. It would be an understatement to call the classic "niche." As such, I had doubts in the success of this Kickstarter campaign from the start. Still, this was to be a game developed by the musical innovators behind Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Dance Central. Harmonix is a pretty well-known name, as far as independent game developers go. "Maybe it could be a smash hit," I thought to myself as I pledge $20. It wasn't though. In fact, the game didn't get fully funded until the eleventh hour and the developers really had to hustle for that. Again, this lack of buzz doesn't say great things about Amplitude's future success upon release, but that hasn't stopped the game from happening. We made it happen. That's a beautiful thing.
Currently, the greater video game industry is dominated by a hyper-inflated capitalist model. Not only are games not made if the potential success won't outweigh the risk of development, but more and more games are beginning to look the same in order to appeal to broader audiences. Publishers don't want titles that do their own thing; they want titles that can closely compete with extremely similar titles of other publishers. Battlefield vs Call of Duty, Gran Turismo vs Forza, Tony Hawk vs Skate, and Guitar Hero vs Rock Band all come to mind. We can vote for the games we like with our dollars, but at the end of the day publishers will always appeal to whatever the larger audience wants. That's why passion projects die and it's also why crowdfunding has become such a necessary industry disruptor.
This is a model that, while problematic at times, works. We can't just apply it to indie game designers because there are still larger developers out there, like Harmonix, that can't produce the games they want without a business case that appeals to a publisher. We, effectively, are that publisher. I have a strong feeling that Amplitude is going to be an excellent game. I'm glad I supported it, and I'm glad it was successful. It won't break my heart if it isn't a mega-seller upon release, because the reason I funded it had nothing to do with its long-term commercial success. I feel that way towards the indie games I fund and it stands to reason that I feel the same towards games by larger companies that are passionate about making good games.
I find it frustrating when people claim that projects launched or contributed to by larger organizations go against Kickstarter's core mandate. Not only was there fuss over Hamonix making use of Kickstarter, but some people gave flak to Insomniac and Mojang's Notch for chipping in a small sum towards the project's goal. I feel like some people are missing the point here. We don't have to be needlessly exclusionary over who can and cannot develop and/or fund games; the point of the platform is to take projects that might not otherwise come to be and allow the internet to kick-in if it wants to. To kickstart them.
Now that Amplitude is a fully funded campaign, we have begun the long wait until release. Harmonix will release periodic updates regarding the state of the game, the mechanics being introduced, and the changes that might take place. That last point is an issue with a lot of crowdfunders. To some, it wasn't the finished product that was funded so much as it was the initial concept. I've seen several fairly high-profile projects change on their way to release, and every time there are those who call foul and claim that they have been deceived. I know this will likely happen to Amplitude. Change and compromise are necessary evils in the development cycle, and I believe we as funders need to be flexible too. While it may be hard to believe, we are not investors. In no way should we have control over another party's idea, though I concede that we should have the right to retract our contributions if we aren't happy with the project's direction. Still, what better model do we have to see these passion projects to release?
Crowdfunding is not a perfect relationship between supporters and creators, but I'm not sure it needs to be either. We've somehow disrupted the model of guys in suits deciding which generic games get made, and instead can now actively playing a role in the development of more unique experiences. I've been burned before by supporting the wrong things, but it hasn't shaken my faith. I think we need this, and I will continue to believe in people supporting people with good ideas.
Going back to my days of being a human resources professional in the private sector, I've noticed that people approach companies more like individuals than they do collectives. There is a weird disconnect between public relation and public perception that either glorifies or villainizes organizations based on how they appear to act as a corporate entity. It's a pretty popular thing on the internet these days too, as far as video game commenters go. For instance, some might say that EA is the worst company in America because of its hard stance on DLC and micro-transaction, those snarky Frostbite tweets, and a few unoriginal games that require Origin. To the same effect, some might say that Telltale Games is an independent development wunderkind due to the company's strong support of episodic content, a few unique point-and-click adventure titles, and some family friendly games. There are problems in both of these characterizations.
You see, companies aren't inherently good or evil — mostly because they are no more than the sum of their parts. These organizations are composed of people with good and bad ideas, as well as good and bad intentions, but they are not by extension your enemies or your friends. EA isn't the dumb jock that hits on your spouse and Telltale Games isn't your buddy who buys your meal when you're short on cash. I feel like this has to be clarified because people tend to use the track records of these developers and publishers in order to personify those entities. It's the reason why some RPGamers will defend Atlus or tri-Ace as though they were their parents, while at the same time insulting Square Enix and Idea Factory as if they were the fat kids that used to be popular.
We should not feel positive or negative attachment towards an organization. It skews our understanding of reality. Valve isn't a force for good in the universe, Ubisoft isn't bereft of originality, RARE isn't our old friend that we've lost touch with, and Gearbox Software isn't a deceitful prick. The truth is that the track records of companies change over time because the people running them or working for them change overtime. Let's stop treating these organizations as individuals and start appreciating the collection of people who make it happen. If we focus on the games these organizations release, without deciding to love or hate the organizations as a whole maybe it would be easier to approach games more impartially. I assert that we do no favors for ourselves or the companies we characterize if we choose to pigeonhole based on perspective.
As you may know, there was a tragic public shooting near the University of California Santa Barbara last week which claimed the lives of six innocent people. It was discovered that the suspect, 22-year-old Elliot Rogers, wrote a 141 page long manifesto titled "My Twisted World" which chronicled his life and in particular his hatred towards black people, poor people, and woman in particular. His YouTube channel also made it very clear that there were strongly misogynistic motivators driving his "Day of Retribution." He's no longer alive to speak for his crimes, but the media certainly is and — yet again — many major outlets have pointed an accusatory finger at video games, specifically citing his enjoyment of World of Warcraft. As if our favorite pastime needed any more negative PR.
The same debate has raged on multiple networks. Do these games make impressionable youth violent to the point where they feel the need to kill others? Should video game purchases be more regulated? Can we develop a profile of people buying violent games in order to monitor them? It's all conservative hogwash, and to be honest I'm very tired of it. CNN, in particular, fixated on the fact that Rogers had mentioned WoW 41 times in his manifesto, attempting to make the inference that his obsession with a pretty innocuous multiplayer game somehow made him violent to the point of premeditated murder.
This claim is of course ludicrous. There have been literally hundreds of peer-reviewed studies done on the topic of violent media, interactive and otherwise, on impressionable minds, and all results suggest a minor correlation between that media and temporary aggression. In no way has there ever been a clear link or a strong correlation between long-term exposure to violent media and aggressive or violent acts. According to the American Psychological Association, no laboratory results have translated into real world, meaningful effects. This is mostly because research on the subject of violent media has failed to control for other variables such as mental health and family life, which may have impacted the results. In fact, many psychologists suggest that these other risk factors, as opposed to the media itself, are the true cause aggression and violent behavior. So why are we putting up with this smear campaign against video games?
We have a responsibility to hold the media accountable for spreading or perpetuating falsities. Most, if not all, outlets flaunt their professional integrity and would respond to that integrity being challenged publically. In this case, facts are on the side of video games — violent or not. It's unreasonable for outlets such as MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, and ABC to draw a link between violent media and acts of terrorism or tragedy. They do it for ratings, and it regardless of their core agendas should not be allowed to get away with it. I would advise you write, call in, and draw attention to stations that are anything less than earnest in the way they characterize media. If they aren't made accountable for their statements, they will continue to frame violent and nonviolent media however they like.
Normally, I would write a full editorial about a topic that concerns the subtext of an RPG, but numerous outlets have run similar stories about Final Fantasy X's stance on religion since the recent release of the HD Collection and the framing of the game's commentary by those outlets has seriously gotten on my nerves. Generally speaking, people seem to be of the belief that Final Fantasy X hates the role of religion in today's society. I can understand why, I suppose, but in my opinion that is a bit off-base.
I challenge the notion that Final Fantasy X has a problem with organized religion, praying, or the concept of God. The Church of Yevon may play a fairly antagonistic role in the game's plot and the presentation of the church may have been proven false by the narrative's conclusion, but does that establish that Squaresoft was attempting to make a wider socio-political commentary on the modern role of religion in society? I honestly don't think so.
Consider the fact that the Church of Yevon mostly acts as a proxy for a greater Spiran government. The people of Spira, excluding the Al Bhed, follow the dogma of the religion because Yevon is the only thing holding everything and everyone together. The lives of civilians everywhere revolve around surviving the threat of Sin, and the only group in Spira to propose answers and a solution is Yevon — therein giving the church the most power in this society. There are no presidents, no city councilors, no elections, and no legislature. This isn't a secular society. Everything is dictated by an institution known for political in-fighting, the abuse of position, and world-wide propaganda. To that end, I maintain that Final Fantasy X is making more of a commentary on corruption within societal institutions and the abuse of absolute power than the evils of religious belief or faith itself.
We should also take into account the ways in which Yevon was validated by Final Fantasy X. There were tangible examples of the church being correct in its teachings. For example, summoners can call upon the fayth for power through the use of Aeons, Sin can be defeated for a time by following the teachings of the church, the dead must be sent to the Farplane or else they'll become fiends, and Sin is absolutely drawn to towns and cities that grow too big or advance themselves too far technologically. The basic teachings that most of Spiran society is taught by Yevon are actually correct and visually demonstrable.
Furthering that point, the people of Spira aren't made to look bad or stupid simply because they're believers. Final Fantasy X never begrudges Wakka or Yuna for believing Yevon's lies and trying to save the people of Spira by working with the church. Instead, the game throws sympathy on those people for buying into a false institution.
If we're being fair, everything that is wrong about the Church of Yevon is a result of the institution's corruption: the ultimate deception of what Sin really is and the sacrifice of the Final Aeon, the way Maesters will abuse power for personal goals and aspirations, the political sphere between races, and the secret of the church's true inception. The church and its corruption are the real core of the game; not the belief in the church's teachings.
To conclude, I don't think it's fair to draw conclusions about the developer of any game based on the narrative content of their games. Maybe it was the intention of Squaresoft to put modern religion and its control on the stand. Maybe it wasn't at all. All I can say is that, as far as I can tell, Squaresoft wasn't calling you, the player, stupid for being faithful or smart for being faithless. In my mind, this will always be a cautionary tale of self-centered ambition, worldwide corruption, and civilian sacrifice. Hopefully your religious views haven't colored your appreciation for this RPG classic.
That's it for this issue of Currents. Shout out to Sarah McGarr for the new 'Currents' icon. You'll see another issue again in a couple weeks, but stay tuned to RPGamer for all the latest RPG news, reviews, previews, and interviews.
Your dork from the Great North,
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