Sales figures, review scores, new technology: there are a lot of tangible ways to measure whether or not 2016 was a good or bad year for videogames. But what about the people on the ground? When metrics and assumed consensus have failed us so spectacularly in so many ways over the last twelve months, it seems—strangely—prudent to distrust hard figures. So we asked a range of game-makers, whose work we consider some of the most challenging and provocative, what they observed and thought about during 2016. If not a comprehensive picture, their words form a counterbalancing worm’s eye view of an often broadly generalized culture.
First, the big question: for games, has this year been good or bad?
“It was an embarrassment of riches, relative to previous years,” says Jordan Thomas, level designer on BioShock, director of BioShock 2 and co-founder of Question, which in April ported its first game, The Magic Circle, to PS4. “I always want to see people take more risks, creatively—my list of ‘sounds bold and daring, should play that!’ is humiliatingly long right now. The brutal back swing here, though, is that for an indie developer, the competition has made it unsustainable. You can be incredibly well reviewed and still go unseen.”
“I really do love this medium and I don’t think I’m capable of having a bad year in games,” says Actual Sunlight creator and co-writer of Sometimes Always Monsters Will O’Neill. “There’s always something. Enter the Gungeon came out this year and I hadn’t even heard of it—I just trust Devolver. What followed was the biggest shitshow game obsession of my life, and that is saying something. I admire everything about it. For that reason alone, 2016 was a very good year.”
But as a creator rather than a consumer, 2016 has presented a lot of old and new problems, and fresh ground to cover. The advent of virtual reality opened games up to different markets and creative challenges. The vocal disappointment regarding No Man’s Sky made buyers even more suspicious of marketing and pre-orders. And political events, like the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote, combined with games like Mafia 3 and Watch Dogs 2, which took direct swings at the social status quo, put pressure on game-makers to be more daring in the future.
Michael Block, co-creator of We Are Chicago, a game about American inner-city life which is due to release in 2017, is convinced games could and should have more of a bearing on the larger world.
“A lot of the fallout from this election and from similar situations across the world seems to be focused on a huge disconnect between different political groups and this rift between people on all sides of the political spectrum,” he says. “Had more people played 1979 Revolution [which released in April] they would have hopefully come to understand that there is a wide variety of people with different and complex opinions and maybe found parallels to their own beliefs and their friends and family. Had more people been exposed to those experiences generally, they may have found Trump’s ‘law and order’ policies more offensive.”
But did games try enough, in 2016, to tackle bigger issues? And will they continue to try in 2017? Paolo Pedercini, a media production lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University, who releases games via his website, MolleIndustria.org, has two recent projects which embrace videogames’ changing responsibilities.
“This year I completed my first, and probably last, VR piece, called A Short History of The Gaze,” Pedercini says. “It’s an experiential essay about the relationship between gaze and violence, out early next year for the suckers who bought an Oculus or a Vive. But I’m thinking a lot about what kind of games or art I should make under the Trump regime. All of us, meaning the whole progressive spectrum, lost this culture war. We failed to convince half of the US that a multicultural, egalitarian, and diverse society is a better society. So I’ve been working on the second chapter of my ‘playable cities’ series—it will be about racial segregation and white flight in North America.”
Doom and Overwatch fared well in 2016—without making a value judgement, it’s clear the audience for games is still attached to its escapism. The events of the day might catalyze game-makers to try new ideas, and to say significant things. But when, as Jordan Thomas described, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for your game to get played, are more politically minded or socially conscious games a sustainable livelihood?
“The audience for games that could exist is huge,” says Michael Block. “I feel like we’re on the edge of a really important shift. The upcoming challenges we will face as a society may well be the tipping point to accelerate diversity initiatives and expand our audiences even faster—working on We Are Chicago this year, we’ve been looking to address a lot of the current problems with approachability.”
Lily Zone, who in Overworld created one of the year’s most abstract, idiosyncratic and wonderful games, is less optimistic. Despite some tentative steps in 2016 toward opening up games to more people, the audience remains largely unchanged; the industry is only too happy to give people what they want.
“People want free-to-play,” Zone says. “They want Bitcoin. They want stick-on-a-hog. The want ‘telephone’ games. They want to be bedazzled and amazed. They like strobing lights, and so do I—there are a lot of bright colors. For the first time in human history we have the ability to conjure up entire worlds capable of entirely unreal and abstract space and sensation, summoned like a wish from the ether onto a screen. But instead of being magic, it’s an industry dominated by companies that are stuck trying to figure out how to Maximize Player Engagement with their F2P tower defence game or whatever. Personally, that’s a feeling that deepens each year. It doesn’t change.”
So maybe with games in 2016—appropriately, considering how contradictory and beguiling the news has often felt this year—and going forward, it’s a case of being damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Release a ground-breaking independent game and there’s still a high chance no-one will play it. As Will O’Neill says, “All of these parties, game jams, zines, retweets, grad schools, tattoos, hair dyes and panels are a great time, I know, but I do not believe that any of them get any of us closer as developers to what I assume is our goal: To have people actually engage with our work.”
At the same time, continuing to play it safe risks alienating new audiences, audiences that are vital to sustaining games’ artistic credibility. 2016 was a good year for games. But whether the industry’s reputation will continue to grow, and in different directions, defined by more than just money and awards, remains a dubious prospect.
“The culture continues to make awesome, positive strides in expanding the diversity and number of people who are making games, but we don’t seem to be doing much to expand the diversity and number of people who are actually playing them,” continues O’Neill. “I think gaming culture is beginning to full-on devour the games themselves. I think the audience is more excited about being excited for a game to release than it is over it actually releasing. But I don’t know what to do.”
“I value my time a lot,” concludes Jordan Thomas. “If you can reach me in a couple of hours, I will pay for the privilege. But I am already pre-mourning the shorter, more poetic experiences that developers can’t afford to commit to any more. But it’s not all bad. For some of us, being forced out of the mentality where a game always stars a mute white man leads to a more interesting result, and we’ll see more of that on projects led by people who want their work to reflect the world as it should be.”
Ed Smith is a writer from the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed and find more of his work at bulletpointsmonthly.com.