31/08/2011

dusty code factories

'He looks across the room at her. An 8bit face on a 2bit body. Like himself, she is a collection of blocks of colour masquerading as something else entirely. Pinks and reds assemble into a dress, indeterminate skin tones approximate a face. Theirs is a world of easy money and mushroom-shaped people, of wayward turtles and fire flowers, of piranha plants and the pipes they call home. She is a princess, he is a plumber, this is their story...'

The Mario of Super Mario Bros fame. In an age of reboots, re-imaginings and reinventions it pleases the Nintendo fan boy long buried in me that he has yet to fall victim to the sort of savage overhaul that tends to befall most of all the childhood icons of yesteryear. Oh sure he and his world have been tweaked and defined in sharper resolution but the overall effect is still much the same. Unmitigated full-force charm of the type that would make me vomit into the screen were I to find it elsewhere.

He may not be as synonymous with gaming as he once was but mention his very name and you know it to be shorthand for the activity of video gaming itself. I mention Mario and there is a better than average chance  that me the writer and you the reader are on the same wavelength if only for a split second or two.

A rare bond of unambiguous understanding between those on both sides of the page. Cultural currency, bought and paid for by actual currency and accrued over decades. It takes a lot to build that bridge into the unknown quantity known only as 'the audience'. Wads of cash are spent in pursuit of a description of this elusive entity.

Absent from the scene of the crime, incomplete is about as complete a picture of the audience as we can get without dissecting the brains of everyone who's ever watched films, played games or read books. The glorious future where that will happen is thankfully yet to happen. So in the meanwhile those concerned with who their audience actually are make do with vast quantities of hot raw data action and hope for the best.

Mmm data. Sexy data. Specific, detailed and comprehensive but never, ever complete. No one has ever managed to put a full stop at the end of the whole issue of the audience. The collection of data on this subject never ceases, never ends. Where does it all go? Is there somewhere we can fly-tip all this redundant data?

After all it doesn't seem to be serving a purpose. Uncertainty can never be diminished to zero for those who pour money into what we watch, read or play. Separation anxiety with their money shapes the face of modern mass entertainment. Poor sods, they could be investing their money in the blockbuster equivalent of tinned vomit and they wouldn't know it until it was too late.

So what about the video game audience. It's bigger, it's better, it's blander than ever before. But the problem here is not a more diverse audience, the problem is how video game makers react to this new demographic, their default setting to new found success is where it all goes wrong. It goes to their head and promptly nukes what it finds there whilst somehow leaving the head intact, leaving only a brain smoothie inside their skulls.

The result? Gaze in numb horror at the shelves of your local game emporium for a variety of games that offer no variety at all. It's like staring down into the maw of death, an experience much like watching daytime ITV with your eyes open.

In their defence (whoever they are) they'd probably say that they are only dead on the inside, that's never stopped people making great things they'd say. Lets ignore the gaping wound where our soul used to be and get to work they'd say, that derivative uninspired motion-controlled family-friendly me-too bandwagon chaser is not going to make itself.

It's more than a gaping wound however, its a veritable lack of something so dense it collapses in on itself and forms its own personality. A walking, talking black hole of imagination, wit and charm with all the personality of at least two Robert Kilroy Silks, which is two Kilroy Silks too many I think you will agree. At most the world should contain no more than half a Kilroy Silk at any one time.

It wasn't always this way though. Back in the dawn of time, or 1995 as the locals called it, game makers didn't seems half so worried about who they were making games for. There they were in their dusty code factories, toiling away as they listened to their Shabba Ranks and their 2 Unlimited. Lost to history is the gentle dignity of these craftsmen of the code as they attached Lara Croft to her inexplicable norks. It was a better time, a more honest time, a nonexistent time.

Which brings me back to Mario. Man, plumber, legend. Killer of Goombas and a regular culprit of the health and safety guidelines on wielding high-speed turtle shells, he makes for an interesting case study on the normalisation of insanity. A seemingly perfect point of synchronicity between Nintendo and its audience, he's a character largely free of character, employed with deadly precision again and again and again. 

He's a glaring exception to the entertainment fatigue that eventually swallows all cool ideas whole and I can't make an iota of sense out of it myself with my mere human brain. If Nintendo is trying to be a wholesome bakery of interactive entertainment then I will no longer nibble at its bread of contempt.