The Gaming Difference
Spore and its ilk are the latest step towards discovering videogames' own voice
After being feted by dedicated gamers and journalists alike for so many years, there's something genuinely uplifting about seeing advertisements for Spore on prime-time television in the UK. There's something even more uplifting about the genuine excitement the game has created among more casual gamers, and even some people who don't play games at all.
The reason it's uplifting is because Spore is, in a very pure sense, a videogame. Where other games that excite great public attention - Halo, Grand Theft Auto and their ilk - owe huge creative debts to other media, most notably movies, Spore's genesis and creative evolution is the story of an experience that simply has no parallel in any other medium. It was born, developed and is now being finally released as an interactive experience.
What this represents - to me, at least - is a clear example of this medium's own voice. It's a phrase spoken clearly and distinctly in the language of videogames, largely free of loan words and borrowed phrases from other creative media - a form of expression unique to this new medium.
Spore is, of course, not alone in offering this. There are many games, some of them dating back decades, which explored the potential of interactivity without taking direct inspiration from other media. In fact, you could argue that older games were more likely to do this, since they were less able to ape the style and form of movies and TV.
However, to me, that just makes the achievement of Spore - and other games like it - all the more impressive. The tools at the disposal of the modern developer are spectacularly powerful, but most developers choose to use them to copy the achievements of other media, rather than seeking out new achievements of their own.
Spore, and a handful of other equally creative works, ignore the temptation to recreate film, and instead turn those tools to a new and different use. Best of all, it seems that this innovative, daring approach can be just as exciting for consumers as copying Hollywood has proven to be. The voice of the gaming medium is seductive not just creatively, but commercially, it seems.
None of this is to say that there's actually anything wrong with borrowing elements from other media, however. Journalists tend to be a little too quick to praise innovation for the sake of innovation, and ignore the fact that sometimes a wheel works just fine, and requires little reinvention.
The progress of videogames as a creative medium has been vastly accelerated by its ability to stand on the shoulders of giants - learning from decades or centuries of experience on the part of writers, musicians, film-makers and TV creators. Each of those media developed a language of its own, gradually educating its audience in the nuances of that language.
Today, we are surprisingly media-savvy creatures - interpreting camera angles, subtleties of lighting and careful focusing in narrative to help spin our own understanding of scene-setting and storytelling. There's no reason for videogames to dispense with what those media have learned about telling stories and entertaining audiences, and every reason for our creative geniuses to continue learning from the techniques of other media. However, that should not, and must not, preclude experimentation and discovery of the unique potential of videogames.
If anything, the lesson we can learn about videogames from the past five years is that there is dual potential to this medium. Firstly, it has the ability to be a crossroads of all other media - a meeting point between music, film, television, literature, fine art and any other kind of medium you can imagine. Any of those media, or any combination of those media, can potentially be mixed up, played with, and turned into a unique, fresh, interactive experience.
At the same time, and not in isolation from that process, there is also the potential for games to generate its own unique experiences - its own lingua franca, which will gradually feed back to other media and blend into the world's culture as seamlessly as rock music, action movies and fantasy fiction have. Titles like Spore (and, with any luck, the forthcoming LittleBigPlanet) should provide proof that this endeavour can bring financial rewards as well as creative acclaim.
The challenge to publishers, however, may be too much for some. Approving products which lie at the crossroads between gaming and other media isn't particularly difficult, because executives at game publishers generally understand those other media. They grew up with music, and movies, and books - it's clear to them how a linear narrative, movie-style cutscenes and even music-driven rhythm action work.
A purely gaming-originated, games-driven approach to design, however, can seem alien to those who have never really picked up on the burgeoning language of videogames. In over a decade of writing about videogames, one very positive change has been the reduction in the number of industry executives who don't actually play or even understand videogames - but there are still plenty of these people around, often with keenly focused and extremely effective business minds, but with no grounding in the creative factors that drive games forward.
Some commentators talk in harsh terms about "getting rid" of such people, which is, of course, nonsense. There are enough business "leaders" in our industry who are terrible at business, if you want to talk in terms of a cull. Those who run fine businesses but lack the creative understanding that makes for great product decisions and brave bets on innovation definitely have a place in this market, but they must evolve and change.
Either hand off those decisions to those who fully comprehend them - or be brave, pick up the controller, and see where it takes you. For every Spore and LittleBigPlanet that gets published, a veteran developer complained to me this week, there are ten that the publishers just don't "get". An overstatement, perhaps - but it might be worth looking at the excitement and eventual sales figures around those games, and then looking at the proposals on your desk with fresh eyes.