So, I wrote about my distress over the very disappointing Angry Birds Epic game. And since then, I’ve seen a couple of things that I think make a good contrast with it.
The first is Saint’s Row IV. This game is fascinating, and it shouldn’t work at all. The Saint’s Row series started out as games pretty similar in theme to Grand Theft Auto, perhaps, but have gradually… digressed. They’ve gotten over-the-top, to put it mildly. In SR4, everything is even more over the top. And it works, even though it shouldn’t. The game has no consistent tone; it goes from ludicrous silliness to powerful and compelling characterization at the drop of a hat, and switches up tone constantly. They did a downloadable thing which has interviews with the characters about the making of the game, in which characters acknowledge having bribed or blackmailed writers to be included in the game rather than dropped. It’s ridiculously violent, but somehow the fact that throwing people through floating hoops gets a cheering “ETHICAL!” from a man wearing a giant pink cat head (or possibly a giant pink cat in a lab coat) makes this… not really seem like it’s about violence in the same way that some games are.
Ultimately, SR4 works because you can tell that everything in it was there because someone thought it would be fun. And also, perhaps, like anything that enough devs thought would be fun is there. This game does not feel like it was designed based on careful study by focus groups. No. There’s a dubstep gun (which fires “wubs”) because of course there is, that would be awesome. There is an elaborate setup to explain why the currency of the Matrix-like world is called “cache”, which completely ignores the question of how it’s pronounced. There’s a holiday-themed episode where you get to ally with Santa Claus to fight Evil Santa Claus. When you run really fast you make a whirlwind that throws cars around like a tornado. Basically, they just went ahead and did everything, and it works. It works, not because there’s a carefully-considered target market and they adjusted the game to appeal to them, but because everything about it shows that the people working on it really loved what they were doing. And not every studio is given the chance to just go ahead and do that, because most video games don’t make money, and developing an expensive game can be ruinous. So people don’t like to take chances. It’s worth noting that it’s Saint’s Row IV that was allowed to just go ahead and do whatever the hell they wanted; the developers had proven their ability to make things work and make money.
And that gets me to Pillars of Eternity, and why I am starting to really love Kickstarter. PoE is a game designed by people who loved the old Baldur’s Gate series of games, and loved the way they felt, and wanted to make a game Just Like That Only More. So they put together a Kickstarter, and they got funding, so they made that game.
And the thing is, this puts them in the unusual position of being able to make the game they want as their initial game, not having to do stuff that was more in people’s comfort zone first. So the game came out, and it’s not trying to achieve a T rating. There’s swearing. There’s sex. There’s domestic abuse situations, and there’s torture. And they don’t have to worry whether this might keep them off store shelves, because they already funded the development of the game. The resulting game is really amazing, and shows the same kind of love and attention to detail that I liked so much in SR4.
The option of making the game you want to make, instead of the game that the bean counters think they can sell, has the potential to be truly transformative for the games industry, and I am really, really, looking forward to it. I was one of the early backers of PoE, and I have backed a couple of other games (like Torment: Tides of Numenera) based on the same principle: Developers I trust trying to make the game they want to make, and if they get the money up front they can do that without having to be as answerable to middle management.
This is a great time to be into video games.