A man walks into a bar.
(Wait wait, you haven’t heard this one before, stick with me.)
So, a man walks into a bar. And orders a Coke Zero. The barman, who has been friends with the man for a while, snorts and says, "Coke Zero? You realise it's just Diet Coke, right?"
Said man looks puzzled. "You mean you've switched the pumps and didn’t mean to tell me?"
"No," says the barman. "What I mean (smart-arse), is that your precious 'Coke Zero' tastes pretty much the same as Diet Coke, but the only MAJOR difference is that you've been dragged into a marketing scam. They make it a teensy bit sweeter, throw in some zeitgeisty-bull name and advertise it to MEN. So instead of several women talking about 'Diet Coke breaks', ogling half naked builders and all that crap, you get lots of mid-20s to early 30s guys disparaging a world of inconvenience, which JUST so happens to contain very few women. And how we're going to take it all back by indulging in a drink that the fairer sex has indulged in for years, but THIS one doesn’t make us feel all effeminate, like."
The man stands there, unsure of what to say. The barman continues.
"It's all about perception, mate. Snow to Eskimos."
The man ponders this for a few seconds. Then says, "Oh. Okay. Just a Diet Coke, then."
The barman shakes his head in jest, and serves up the drink.
After a few sips of his cold beverage, the man says to the barman, "so, you catch Family Guy last night? Funny as hell."
The barman laughs. "Family Guy? The cartoon thing? That's for bloody kids!"
Life's ironic like that.
The year I became employed full-time into the games industry just so happened to be the year Nintendo unveiled The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on GameCube. That very first bit of footage, where Link turns to the screen with his big anime eyes, in full cell-shaded glory, I heard the world choke on its cornflakes. As if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced, so to speak. The subsequent uproar was horrific. Any legitimate concerns about the game's direction or content were drowned out by the non-stop screaming of people declaring Nintendo had changed its franchise into something "childish", and "juvenile". How the series had been "ruined". And so on. My personal shock came with a degree of trepidation, but most of my outrage was aimed at the severe prejudging the game had received based on nothing but a short video. After all, much of the dismay conveyed was at the solitary changing of the previously displayed traditional art style into something much closer to that of a cutesy, chibi formed expression – with the more irrational sections of the gaming community saying Zelda was now "kiddie" because it resembled a cartoon.
Naturally several years on, we know this isn't the case; The Wind Waker shared its moments of a dark, brooding and even sinisterly violent tonal excess that managed to combine well with its doe-eyed enthusiasm, but there are several layers of irony that surround it to this very day. The first being that many of the people who were overly worried of Wind Waker's 'childishness' were actually less mature than the game they decried. It's funny that we're so caught up in fronting a false and idealistic sense of what's mature when many mature people don’t really care what others think of their pursuits as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone or negatively impact on others' lives.
The second layer is that in harshly prejudging Wind Waker based on its appearance (at the stage of its first showing, very little was known about its actual content) we did the very thing gamers hate the mainstream doing; assuming our medium is childish based on the surface of what they see, rather than the reality itself. We kicked and screamed that our sacred franchise was being taken down the 'wrong' path and misrepresenting 'our' mythology, which was now going to supposedly tell onlookers that our beloved pastime was always better suited for infants.
The third layer? Well, in the act of throwing a tantrum over something so early and misleading, we actually proved some of the said mainstream ingrained naysayers right; maybe gaming IS childish. Because only children would spit the dummy like so many did when we first saw Wind Waker.
Like I said; life's ironic like that.
Yet, we keep making the same damn mistakes.
Wii's image is a bizarre garden hedge labyrinth of confusion and misconception. Christian Svensson, senior director of Strategic Planning & Research at Capcom U.S. recently went on record to say the company has many titles in the pipeline for Wii, but doesn’t really see the format being one of a "sizable mature player base outside of some of the early adopters." He finished that he sees its audience as more family oriented and the core base is likely to be that of a younger demographic in the following years. Which was amusing given Manhunt 2 had been announced for Wii barely days earlier. But let's address one thing at a time.
Svensson's comments aren’t really that unfair. I personally don’t find anything offensive about them, nor will I start going crazy over what is essentially his opinion, which he is more than entitled to (especially when you consider Capcom's first Wii titles will be Resident Evil and Devil Kings, anyway). But there is a rather strange and contradictory inference nestling in his statement -which Svensson latter clarified, but it's still worth exploring-: family audience = young demographic. Now, I'm more than aware that there are very child-aimed forms of entertainment out there, but these are different from family based examples. Something like Dora the Explorer is child-oriented. The Simspons is family aimed. TellyTubbies - child. Toy Story and many other Pixar films - family. And so on. The obvious differences being one is usually geared towards didactic uses of growth and learning or more 'simplified surface' entertainment, while the other is made for a broader audience to appeal to as many people as possible. And as such the rewards are greater because adults will be buying it for themselves as well as the younger demographic.
Wii, for all intents and purposes, is marketed at this 'catch-all' user base; aimed to bring in as many adults as it does children because many of its early first-generation titles are indeed family oriented. Which, by my reckoning, gives it a potentially wider demographic than its competition. Party games are as much an adult pleasure as they are for children - hell, everyone plays and enjoys games of somesort and a vast majority are created by adults in the first place; does that mean the creators are of childish mindset? There's lots of strawmen in that particular field…
The thing is, as long as Wii continues to bring in a wide audience, sceptical publishers will be unable to ignore it regardless. If it does indeed become a leading console, then as market leader it becomes the most viable and potentially profitable means of output. And if Wii gets to that position, then guess what – it's not because it's only alluring to kids. Successful consoles don’t draw in just one section of an audience. It has to have mass appeal and a wide set of genres and game types to bring in an equally wide set of consumers. Which in turn would mean Wii is far from 'kiddie'; regardless of whatever perception people have of the machine or of Nintendo itself. Funny, that.
The irritation of such false acuity presents a terrible Catch 22 argument where reality is created by that same erroneous observation. Company declares a console has a certain audience, so only makes games for that audience. Said audience is drawn in because those are the only games available for the console. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. Which is quite a droll situation, because much of the above is the evident power of marketing. Wii Sports is great, yes, but if there hadn’t been many adverts out there using people of vastly different ages (rarely seen in videogame ads) doing lots of relatable gaming activities with the Wii remote, chances are much of that audience wouldn’t have understood or realised just how much fun they could have with Wii. Just because we see a few 60+ year-olds playing Wii on TV doesn’t automatically make it so. A good commercial spread can work wonders, although the product naturally has to back it up - but you have to bait the fish first before you can get them on the hook. Somewhere, a paradox is almost laughing…
Nintendo's image is a large factor in all this, yet the perception of Nintendo equating with "childish" is something that has emerged regardless of whether the company wanted it or not. Videogames come from an era where it was indeed accepted by the young because, as with any new medium, the young are the easiest to fully acknowledge new things. Mascot gaming was huge in the 90s because demographic expansion demanded as much, and with Mario being the biggest at the time, Nintendo was attached to gaming which was a medium also synonymous with 'child-like'. And since, it's become something the company has failed to totally shrug off, especially after confusing messages via green blood Mortal Kombat compared to latter day throat clutching death sequences in Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. As the market changed to embrace older targets, Nintendo has tried to change too – but mainstream perception has made that very difficult.
Which is partly why Manhunt 2 hitting Wii is such a huge thing. Clearly this sense of support loaned to Nintendo via Rockstar is massive given the companies' rather silted relationship prior, but the implications to Wii's fanbase and videogaming on a whole are huge. Not just because it will widen the audience -always a good thing- but it will quite possibly push the boundaries of the medium's certification board; a factor that has long become a bugbear for gaming. Fears of us taking our virtual avatars and stabbing polygonal people with Wii remotes have almost certainly got the Jack Thompsons of the world sharpening their legalese as we speak. It's a precarious situation, given Manhunt's background and the controversy that surrounds it.
But why should we cower and back down? Shouldn’t the boundaries be pushed in the first place? Not only are we prejudging a title based on very little video footage and its precursor (always a dangerous thing to do) but we fear something that was inevitable. Videogames are an INTERACTIVE medium. There will forever be studies and worries about a game's effect on susceptible minds, but we can safely assume that should Manhunt 2 go down a violent path it will be slapped with an 18/M certificate and as such should only be playable by people of and above that age - in principle. The same principle that applies to everything else. Of course it's different to an 18/M rated film because we'll be the ones directly interacting in it via the Wii remote, doing actions that will likely translate into something gruesome on-screen (which I should point out, is barely a step-up from what The Godfather: Blackhand Edition will be doing when it's released imminently), but every single form of entertainment has been deemed a danger to society at some point since its conception. And the world keeps on turning, despite rock and roll, despite hip-hop, despite porn and romance novels and the Kama Sutra, and horror flicks and sci-fi and comic books and Harry Potter and everything else. The degrees of separation are slight. After all, should we fear method actors who play psychos and killers in films? How about child actors who have to play traumatised roles in certain movies? It's not directly analogous, but danger is danger. Where does the line of censorship begin and end? Why stop at one ban when others would be just as effective to keep us safe? Why take any chances or risks at all? Will somebody, anybody, please think of the children??
Some gamers are equally fearing Nintendo's reputation will be somehow soiled by Manhunt 2, in the rather spurious suggestion that the big N doesn’t realise exactly what it's letting itself in for. But of course it knows. The sewer-storm that will inevitably come is something that was no doubt expected long before the crossing of t's and dotting of i's on the legal agreements. The aim is to diversify Wii's market at an early stage to avoid the fallacious perception trap Nintendo has been fighting the past two generations, where its machines are just for one (particularly young) audience. It's a marketing tool and show of faith to Wii's already wide demographic, allowing for a breadth of gaming experiences rather than a limited range. PlayStation2 managed to keep within the mainstream's good books despite Bully, Manhunt, Grand Theft Auto, and a whole host of other games that picked up bad press. Nintendo and Wii will as well, regardless of it being a 'family machine'. After all, a DVD player is still a family machine too, and is just as likely to have something like Brutal Teen Evisceration 5: The Bleeding sitting next to Barbie's First Date (although not literally, I would imagine). Variety and diversity is the lifeblood of any successful entertainment medium.
And who's to say Manhunt 2 will be as bad as we're expecting, anyway? Despite the first game's rather gory tendencies, it provided a sharply satirical slant on gaming and our outlook of murder, if you played it far enough. The sequel could be absolutely anything Rockstar wants it to be, and its writers are more than talented enough to convey that within the series' imagined confines. By condemning it without much information as to what exactly it's going to be about, aren’t we doing what the mainstream did to Bully barely a year ago? In fact, hey, here's that The Wind Waker comparison again. Isn't this in the same stable of suggestion? Knee-jerk reactions above rational reason or evidence? Those examples, especially in the case of Bully, were a horrendous show of misjudgement over a medium that's taken its unjustified lumps over the years. We, as gamers, should perhaps choose to be a little more reasonable about out pastime because there are plenty of people out there who won't be. And while they won't be the ones affected by such ranting; WE will. Solidarity is something we need to take stock in. Time to stand up and be accounted for.
Perhaps the largest irony underpinning this whole thing is that the definition of 'mature' entertainment in the gaming sphere is quite misleading anyway. We tend to lump blood and swearing and gore in this category, but while being definably 'adult' they're often far from mature. My personal idea of a mature game would be something that handles themes and issues which a typically younger/less developed audience may not appreciate or truly understand as much, potential condescension and misinterpretation aside. Some of the most mature games (and indeed other forms of entertainment, such as comic books and films) have been in presentational modes that fly in the face of popular discernment. Final Fantasy VI/III deals with race, identity and death without being visceral or sensationalist, as was the norm for the role-playing game genre and graphical style of its era. PC adventure title, Grim Fandango, had violence, love, mortality and exceptionally dark scenes that were depicted in an extremely clever manner, and without a single drop of blood through its use of a literally skeletal cast and razor sharp script. These are among my personal highlights of maturity in gaming. Although that's not to say the heavy inclusion of blood and violence means it can't be mature -Eternal Darkness is an intelligent and innovative example of that- but they're not mutually inclusive concepts. Execution is all. And throwing lots of crimson over a screen while simultaneously turning the air blue is no more a show of maturity than a 14-year-old screaming random abuse at you from across the street. Or a man in a bar telling you something is childish because through his myopia it simply looks that way from a distance.
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