Did Games Get Too Serious?

Over the last few months, I’ve been catching up with some of the older games of the past generation, replaying HD collections of classics like Ico, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and most recently, Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus.

The Sly game in particular, combined with more recent releases like Rayman: Origins—and its unfortunate tanking in sales—have made me stop and wonder at the state of gaming of these days. More specifically, I’m starting to wonder, are games trapped in the same “dark n’ gritty” mode that comics found themselves in during the 80s as they reached for legitimacy?

Just off the top of my head, let’s take a look at three major developers in the industry today. Naughty Dog, Sucker Punch Productions and Insomniac Games. In the previous generation, these developers were known for making fun, buoyant, even exuberant “funny animal” games. Naughty Dog had the Jak & Daxter series, Sucker Punch had Sly Cooper and Insomniac worked on Ratchet & Clank. All three developers are now working on grittier, more serious franchises, with only Insomniac occasionally releasing a new game in the Ratchet series.

Of course they’re not the only developers that are doing this. Even in a series that is generally known for dramatic changes from one iteration to the next, such as Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy series, there was a light heartedness, even a silliness, that has been gradually phased out of the franchise. Final Fantasy VI had strange, hilarious moments where a giant octopus obsessively chased the various adventurers, challenging them to a battle at the worst times. Even the iconic—and often gothic—Final Fantasy VII took time for cross-dressing, detours into an amusement park and time outs for chocobo racing. The latest entry, Final Fantasy XIII was so deadly serious about its intent, and story that it nearly beats players into submission with its overwrought angst. Games, in an effort to provide mature, engaging entertainment, are now almost embarrassed to be fun.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy challenging, mature experiences, like Bioshock or even Heavy Rain, but it seems like, of late, the emotional spectrum of gaming has been heavily weighted in this area. In previous generations, “funny animal” games abounded everywhere, from Crash Bandicoot to Rayman or even the surreal Earthworm Jim. These days the only consistent ambassador of this more innocent time of gaming is Nintendo, with the ever ready one-two punch of Mario and Link. Everyone else is dark, gritty, or at the very least, angst-ridden.

Is this because the audience that plays games is older now

According to the Entertainment Software Association’s own market research, the age of the average gamer today is 37, with the age of the most frequent purchaser of games in a household being 41. That means that the national average (at least in North America) for gamers are those that discovered gaming during childhood, during the first generation of consoles with the Atari/Intellivision war, and have been playing ever since. It means that the average gamer was probably already 11 years old when Mario first wandered onto home TVs in 1985 with the seminal Super Mario Bros. cartridge that was packed in with every Nintendo Entertainment System. It means that all those gamers that grew up playing with Mario, Link, Spyro, Gex and many other more light hearted games, are now grown up and possibly even working in the game development today. And they’re making the kinds of games they think people their own age would want to play. They’re making grown up games.

Taking another line of thought, could it be that these games just moved on? That it was the console or gaming rig, sitting in an “adult” room with a surround sound that suddenly got embarrassed to have these younger experiences that aren’t necessarily meant for children? Did these games move over to the portable sphere? When you look at the kinds of games available on the PSP and DS, there’s a lot of titles that enjoy a more random, nonsensical sort of levity. Games like Elite Beat Agents, Patapon or Feel the Magic: XY/XX have a surreal, carefree, humorous randomness to them that hasn’t been seen since the previous generation with titles like Space Channel 5 or Parappa the Rapper. There’s still plenty of slap-stick and humour in games if you’ve got a portable system. Even for casual games, the monster that is Angry Birds is an exercise in both physics and silliness. Where the best selling title on consoles features a hardcore, moustache-sporting soldier demanding you follow him as terrorist get shot and major landmarks topple, the best selling title for portables is about cartoony birds knocking things around. Do people on couches have less of a sense of humour than people on a bus or a subway train?

Whatever the case is, there’s been a definite drop in the more light-hearted kind of game, and a greater emphasis on darker, more cinematic action. Fortunately, it’s not all bleak, grim gaming, with recent titles like Rayman: Origins debuting over the holidays, and Sanzaru games working on a new Sly Cooper title. But these games are still small blips on a radar screen that is otherwise filled with dark and gritty games that scowl constantly at themselves. We need to see more clown shoes on occasion.