Gaming's quiet revolution
The games pushing the boundaries of how we play aren't violent or explicit. They're mellow, meditative and curiously creative. Jack Riley reports on a chilled-out cultural shift
Wednesday 01 April 2009
From alien invasions to deadly viruses, rampaging armies to illegal street races, the world of video games can be a pretty stressful place. But of late, the screams, crashes and explosions have taken a back set and a strange calmness is beginning to descend, all thanks to a few pioneering titles taking the industry – very quietly – by storm.
Spurred on by the phenomenal success of the Nintendo Wii, the last few years have seen a significant market develop for games which reject everything they were raised on. The birth pangs of the gaming industry were stressful enough; now many argue we're seeing the tumultuous upheaval of what some would call a burgeoning art-form in its adolescence.
However, it's hard to imagine a more prosaic rebellion. The games which are pushing hardest at the boundaries are those which seem to abandon conventional gaming traditions altogether. Flower, a recent downloadable PlayStation 3 title in which the player controls a gust of wind pushing petals around a dreamlike landscape using the controller's accelerometer,has caught an industry brought up on the violence and testosterone of titles such as Grand Theft Auto and Gears of War off guard.
To play Flower is to enter a world unlike any most gamers have experienced before. While there is a roughly mission-based structure to the gameplay, its dazzling visuals and the simplicity of the controls encourage you to explore and experiment with the various landmarks dotted around the engrossing landscape. To push your petals up and over the green crest of a hill and watch the individual blades of grass flow around them is to experience a transcendental calmness the Dalai Lama himself would be proud of.
Its co-creator has described it as an "interactive poem regarding the tension between urban life and nature", putting it about as far away from recent hits such as the zombie-filled Resident Evil 5 and sweat-stained Fifa 09 as you can get. While Sony refuses to release exact download figures, with more than 2 million users of the PlayStation Network (the online store from which the game can be downloaded), and a price-tag of just £10, the internet is buzzing with Flower fever.
"I think we are starting to see the birth of a new genre," says Gavin Ogden, editor of CVG magaine. "One which, while light on traditional gaming mechanics, offers a relaxing escape where there are no lives to be lost, time limits to run out or end of level bosses to defeat." With its eerily soothing soundscape and disarmingly simplistic graphic charm, playing Flower can feel more like meditating than playing a game – which is its whole point, according to co-creator Kellee Santiago. She says her aim is to "make video games that communicate different emotional experiences which the current video game market is not offering". Santiago is also behind the critically acclaimed titles Flow and Cloud. Nature is a running theme throughout their games. "Flower began as an attempt to capture the feeling of being in a gigantic flower field," she says. Santiago is passionate about creating new kinds of games. "There is an untapped market for games that are unlike what's been made in the past," she says. "We can't predict the future, but hopefully by showing developers, publishers, and players that games could offer something different, it will encourage more of them to create games that are unique."
Gaming's short history has been dominated by the kind of competition its own creations have encouraged, with developers trying to outdo each other with the fastest or most controversial releases available for years. Now though, with the depths of controversy well and truly plumbed, some argue an industry larger than Hollywood is just beginning to recognise its powers of expression are much greater than it ever realised. Santiago, like many others, is wary of comparisons with other artistic mediums.
"We say that video games are now a mass media, that it's bigger than the film industry," she claims, "but when you compare the sales figures of GTA IV to Monopoly, there's no competition. Monopoly far outsells it. And it's not a technology barrier. It's an emotional one."
This urge to change the way games affect players emotionally has manifested itself from both ends of the development cycle, from consumers who are responding to new, unconventional releases with enthusiasm and high sales to some of the most mainstream of games developers. Peter Molyneux, who having been responsible for hits like Theme Park and Dungeon Keeper is about as close as the gaming industry comes to a celebrity, perhaps describes this shift in attitudes best. "The psychology of making a video game has been in the past," he says. "What's gonna make you sweat, what's gonna keep you on the edge of your seat? That's a fundamental problem for me as a designer. We're now trying to make you feel something, anything, other than just sweating and sitting on the edge of your seat."
This fresh attention to gaming's effect on the individual represents a recognition of the moral and creative shortcomings of the medium's mainstream. Titles such as Gears of War 2 will always be highly profitable for developers and publishers, because the excitement generated by completing complicated and often violent missions is more than equal to the comparative thrills offered by films, television, books or sport.
The huge cash generated by these titles has funded the entire growth of an industry now worth more than £4bn in Britain alone, but with consoles now ubiquitous, it's understandable that a wider audience is wondering what all the fuss is about with the little box in the corner of their living room. Gaming's new, more diverse audience of the last few years means that the conditions are perfect for a shift in gaming's position in society. As it stands, the boundaries are shifting with every new release. But with independent titles such as Cloud and Flower leading the charge, not only is the sky the limit; the answer is blowing in the wind.
Cool and unusual: Unlikely titles
'De Blob' – Wii
Propelling a blob around a virtual city, painting surfaces different colours and rolling over your enemies is just as much fun as it sounds. Described by gaming website IGN as "one of the best third-party efforts to come over to Wii in a long time", it's easy to lose hours to the smooth cartoon-like graphics and addictive gameplay.
'Nintendogs' – DS
Following in the paw prints of the Petz series, and a distant cousin of the Tamagotchi, 'Nintendogs' is every stressed-out parent's best friend, allowing children to be easily pacified by raising a virtual canine without the annoyance of costly vets' bills, toilet-training and the ruining of furniture.
'Seek '*Spell' – iPhone
'Seek '*Spell' is part of a growing trend of "augmented reality" games designed to be played by a group of friends with their iPhones. Players are shown a map of their current location on their phone screen, overlayed with random letters. The aim of the game is to build words out of the letters by moving to their location on the map in order. Currently awaiting approval from Apple to appear in the App store, it seems a sure-fire hit for iPhone users this summer.
'Cooking Guide' – DS
Featuring 245 recipes in painstaking detail, the DS's personal cookery guide employs the spoonful-of-sugar approach to teaching you how to cook; with the novelty of learning from a handheld console, you almost don't realise you're finally weaning yourself off the Domino's pizzas.
'PixelJunk Eden' – PS3
The third title in the 'PixelJunk' series is a mind-expanding affair, in which you control a "grimp" (a combination of "grip" and "jump") whose job it is to swing around the game's psychedelic gardens while all around plants unfurl their foliage to aid your progress.
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