Rautalahti stressed the value of digital preservation, although he sees fans and institutions like the Internet Archive as being more probable saviors than developers. “It really would be worthwhile to have some kind of effort to preserve these things. It might not seem that valuable right now, but as someone who works on this, it would be nice to know that games aren’t just lost in the ether. I’d like to think they’re also culturally significant, not an individual game necessarily, but as part of a whole. In 50 years I’m sure you could see a lot about how online culture has progressed.”
Avoiding the Grind
Archival options are a good long-term goal, but what can help keep more live games online today? Morris points to the increasing ease of cross-platform multiplayer as a way to shore up player numbers, while Rautalahti highlights the need for good onboarding.
“One problem with live games is that they’re really hard to approach as a player. There have been any number of events you missed, so you’re completely lost. Are there good onramps for the narrative? Can you even experience the narrative, or is someone just going to be shooting you in the face the whole time?”
A good story wouldn’t have saved Hyper Scape, but Rautalahti points out that Destiny 2, League of Legends, and Warframe, all of which started with thin and obscure stories, now have reams of lore and dedicated fans who create or consume Wikis and YouTube videos about them.
“When Warframe came out, it was pretty much weird space ninjas going around and killing each other. But over the years they’ve completely revamped their story and made a big effort to bring it to a higher level. I think that’s made a huge difference in how people view their game.”
There’s also the fact that live service games can become second jobs, demanding much of your free time if you want to keep up. If hardcore players don’t get a constant stream of content, then they’ll leave for another game, forcing developers to produce endless updates, which makes it intimidating for new players to get into a sprawling game with esoteric mechanics and lore videos longer than most movies.
That constant need for content can turn live service development into a pressure cooker. Taylor loves the genre but questions how these games are made.
“The model can be extremely lucrative. The problem is that many companies are getting into the market with such a poor understanding of what makes live games work. Planning and scope is extremely important for live games because they need updates. Players expect a constant stream of new content. Live games can be improved over time, but if you launch with the expectation that you can just ‘fix it later,’ then a lot of players are just going to drop it.”
While all AAA game development is challenging, the strict schedule of live service games is especially demanding. Delay an update, and you could lose players to another title. Rautalahti notes, “You get no slack. You have to keep putting stuff out. In order to make any piece of content you need a programmer, scripter, artist, animator, level designer, writer, a producer to coordinate, maybe a voice actor … and if anything in that chain gets delayed for whatever reason, that immediately leads to crunch. And you can’t disappoint investors by [putting] the health and safety of your crew first.”
Roads got so hot in the Pacific Northwest this past summer that the pavement cracked and buckled. Hurricane season grows longer every year. As the polar ice dwindles and wildfires level suburban backyards, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine life as it exists in the game Rewilding—scorched, smoggy, and devoid of life as we know it.
Rewilding, under development by indie studio Heavy Meadow and the recent recipient of a grant from the NYU Game Center, begins in the 2200s, after we’ve snuffed out America’s ecosystems and retreated to resilient megacities.
The main character, Syd, has been tasked with restoring a small parcel of land in Upstate New York, transforming a barren waste into a functional ecosystem. They’re employed by ReGen, a megacorporation that sees restoring the planet not as a moral imperative, but as a juicy opportunity for a tax break. If that wasn’t fraught enough, the rewilding process will take hundreds of years, so Syd manages their little chunk of greenery between extremely long naps in a cryogenic pod.
Syd is rightfully skeptical of ReGen’s intentions. Their questions about the value of the work is offset by the bubbly pronouncements of an AI companion who’s been programmed for blind optimism about the project. Together, they monitor soil conditions and plant seedlings, then check back in as the years fly by to see the results.
Rewilding, with its focus on the degradation of the natural world and the possibility of restoring it, belongs to a long tradition of games that grapple with environmental issues. 1997’s Final Fantasy VII influenced an entire generation of young gamers by casting large corporate polluter Shinra as the villain and a group of scrappy eco-terrorists as heroes. Another PlayStation RPG, 1999’s Chrono Cross, explores humanity’s careless extinction of other species and asks if we deserve to live at all. Games like Okami and Flower let players bring vibrant ecosystems back to life.
It’s no surprise that as climate change transitions from disquieting possibility to lived experience, games that incorporate environmental collapse into their themes or mechanics are increasingly common. But many of them offer easy solutions to complex problems. The lone protagonist of 2016’s critically acclaimed Abzû can bring balance to the ocean’s ecosystems in a single afternoon. Okami‘s celestial paintbrush restores nature with divine power.
Other recent games with environmental themes indulge in naive fantasies about the control of nature, rewarding players for mastery over it. Terra Nil, another game about rewilding promoted as a “reverse city builder,” falls into familiar patterns, exploring nature as a resource to be managed. Its top-down perspective evokes a godlike dominance over the landscape, taking the ruined earth as a blank canvas on which mankind can start fresh.
Rewilding offers a bleaker but more sophisticated portrayal of the end of the world. Its development team set out from the beginning to emphasize the player’s lack of control. In a wide-ranging interview with WIRED, Rewilding‘s creators stress that they wanted to make something that questioned the extractive calculus of farming simulators and other resource management games.
Barring some Jurassic Park-esque miracle, we will never share our world with Pokémon. So is it too much to ask for a truly open-world Pokémon game? There was that weird GameCube effort, Pokémon Colosseum, released back in 2003. At the time, one reviewer wrote that it was “certainly a step in the right direction to a good 3D Pokémon game.” That was nineteen years ago.
Pokémon Go adopted the real world as its open-world; and this was, as this tweet notes, the only time the real world knew true peace. Yet it was also objectively not a good game, and there is surely no need to expand on that. In 2019, we thought that salvation might lie in the sunlit uplands of Britain, or Galar, as Nintendo renamed it in Pokémon Sword and Shield. It gave us an intriguing insight into Britain’s image abroad; alas, it did not give us a true open world.
We know what we want. In the image above, taken from the original Game Boy Color games, a trainer stands before the blue right angles of a flat sea. His eye surveys the horizon. One observer juxtaposed this image to the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, by German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. It is only half a joke: Nintendo achieved this with Breath of the Wild.
We waited. We suffered. Then, in February 2021, a trailer. A vista mirroring that image. Perhaps, as the general badness of the world increased, our karmic debt had built up to such a level as to finally require the release of this game. So is this Pokémon open-world? Sort of. Is it the game we had dreamed of? Not really.
Metaphorically enough, Pokémon Legends: Arceus opens with a light at the end of a tunnel. “Welcome to my realm, beyond both time and space,” a voice intones. No, it’s not the Game Freak offices: it’s Arceus, the God Pokémon, who you know is a deity because they speak English in a Shakespearean argot, addressing the player as thou, and asking for “thine appearance.” After some consideration, it turns out my name is “Pokéboy,” one of Hisui’s generic blue-haired sons. As I plummet through nothingness towards my ignominious conception, Arceus has one last blessing to bestow: my smartphone case is cheap and plastic; I need a trendy gold “Arc phone,” which will let me track missions and survey the world map, and let Arceus issue his demands from the fourth dimension.
Pokéboy awakens surrounded by three Pokémon and the fetchingly dressed—purple bobble hat and striped ringmaster pants—Professor Laventon. Laventon quickly discerns that I have no memory of who I am or where I come from; all I possess is a deep understanding of Pokémon. (Naturally, for a person named Pokéboy.) I wave my new phone at the professor and tell him that God has sent me on a mission to catch every Pokémon on this green earth. “Then whoever and from wherever you may be, I welcome you with open arms,” he replies, gleefully.
Ever since Cats of Zero Wing delivered the oddly worded threat “all your base are belong to us” some 30 years ago, the writing in video games has been received with varying levels of enthusiasm. Often, it’s denounced as stilted, hackneyed, and just plain nonsensical. At the same time, it has become a much loved, instantly recognizable genre unto itself. While the earliest iconically bad dialog mostly derived from poor translations—like Magneto in the 1992 X-Men arcade game introducing himself as “Magneto, master of magnet!” and shouting “Welcome … to die!”—a lot of it has been terrible all on its own: Peter Dinklage, for example, tried to take a subtle approach to the lines he was fed in Destiny and sounded unmistakably like he’d been drugged.
Infamously, Hollywood has spent billions of dollars trying to adapt game franchises into movies and TV shows, yet decades since a goggling Dennis Hopper horrified children across the world with his turn as Nintendo’s Bowser, it still hasn’t succeeded. The latest show about to embark on this quest? Fallout. News broke earlier this month that Amazon is working on an adaptation of Bethesda’s game franchise, and on paper a post-apocalyptic, retro-futuristic wasteland—a bombed out version Don Draper’s Manhattan, with robot butlers—sounds like a prestige TV slam dunk. But here’s the problem: The game’s creator has done more to advance the idea that video game writing is awful than any other modern studio. From furious orphans in Fallout to lusty Argonian maids in The Elder Scrolls, characters frequently engage in what players, who catalog the moments on YouTube, call “Bethesda dialog.” Endless examples abound. Fallout 4 alone had 111,000 recorded lines and now some unlucky screenwriters are going to have to weave together the franchise’s dire plots with 7-foot yellow mutants bickering about who has to “collect more humans.”
This isn’t to say it’s impossible. Porting the franchise to TV will allow the show’s writers to refine clunky exchanges and capture the series’ epic lore, but sometimes giving a messy idea more room to sprawl only makes more mess. Instead, to truly adapt what Bethesda hath wrought with Fallout there may only be one solution: Make it a surreal comedy.
One of the main reasons Bethesda has been able to get away with being so hokey for so long—the reason their games are still popular meme fodder years after release—is that the dialog takes place in a game. It contains tension. It plays out like a debate, invigorated by the suspense of choosing the right thing to say. Turn that into something where the player/viewer lacks agency, where a scriptwriter has made the decision for them, and it falls flat. The internet has repeatedly pointed out that the dialog in the original Fallouts and Fallout New Vegas is superior to other entries. Yet even New Vegas’ endgame conversation with the red-feathered, gold-masked warlord Legate Lanius is less of a thrill if you’re not the one trying to convince him not to sack the Hoover Dam.
Often viewers, particularly critics, miss what is great about a piece of art because they come to it expecting it to fulfill some preconceived expectation—in this case, recognizably human conversation. But what if they—and by “they” I mean Fallout’s screenwriters—didn’t? Bethesda, unintentionally or not (and probably more intentionally than people give them credit for), create bizarrely surreal worlds. In one of the first pieces I wrote for WIRED, about the comedic uncanniness of bad artificial intelligence in video games, I quoted the academic Peter Stockwell, who argues it is “incongruity” that defines surrealist humor—jokes which “draw attention to their own landscapes as absurd landscapes … and resist sustained immersion.” Bethesda’s worlds are Truman Show–like dream worlds, populated by automaton people who live out their lives in absurdist cycles.
This absurdity extends to the writing, whether it is experienced through the white on-screen text or overheard as chance encounters. Bethesda’s dialog is combinatory, feeling like each line is only tangentially related to the next. Popularly, most people are aware of this type of speech in the work of David Lynch: the cryptic statements, the disconcerting pauses, the non-sequiturs, the feeling that the characters are speaking into thin air, off cue cards, rather than to each other. Bethesda’s worlds are similarly compelling. The studio has taken two of the most overused modern settings—fantasy and apocalypse—and injected them with chaos. Clichéd characters—Elder Scrolls’ Fithragaer, the smiling elf, for example—often end up in horrifically dark situations, like cheerfully bidding the player “farewell” as he is launched into a stone pillar trap. Bethesda games are anti-immersive, constantly alienating their players by drawing attention to the existence of the game itself. This is the ultimate dark joke about Bethesda’s characters: They aren’t just living through the apocalypse, or fighting off dragons in a Tolkien-lite world; they are trapped in a wildly incompetent game.
Microsoft’s war chest is a dynamo. With revenues that rival the GDP of a small nation, it’s got enough cash on hand to buy whatever it wants. When it does, it just acquires another money-making machine. Its latest gadget? Video game company Activision Blizzard, which Microsoft announced yesterday it was buying for a staggering $68.7 billion—more than the $26.2 billion it paid for LinkedIn in 2016, almost 10 times the $7.5 billion it paid for Bethesda’s parent ZeniMax Media last year. Microsoft now owns Call of Duty and Halo; it owns The Elder Scrolls and World of Warcraft. It owns Candy Crush. It also owns Diablo, Overwatch, Spyro, Hearthstone, Guitar Hero, Crash Bandicoot, and StarCraft. Its chest is full—but not with machines.
It’s tempting to view the acquisition as the latest shot fired in the console wars, a ploy to use Activision Blizzard’s deep catalog to sell Xboxes. But that would be shortsighted. If anything, the deal shows that Microsoft is far more concerned with acquiring gamers—it’ll gain 400 million monthly active players as part of the deal—than with moving units. “The fantastic franchises across Activision Blizzard will also accelerate our plans for Cloud Gaming,” the company said in a statement announcing the deal, “allowing more people in more places around the world to participate in the Xbox community using phones, tablets, laptops, and other devices you already own.” This is Microsoft’s move to a post-console world. It’s not about getting you to buy a gadget; it’s about luring you into an ecosystem.
When discussing online video game services like Stadia, Sony’s PlayStation Now, and Microsoft’s Cloud Gaming, insiders often reach for the same descriptor: X is “Netflix for games.” The goal of each service is to become a player’s go-to hub, month after month. Indeed, Phil Spencer, who, with the acquisition will be anointed CEO of Microsoft Gaming, uses this comparison often. “You and I might watch Netflix. I don’t know where you watch it, where I watch it, but we can have conversations about the shows we watch,” he told WIRED in 2020. “I want gaming to evolve to that same level.”
This is telling, particularly because of just how much it belies Spencer’s seeming indifference to where people play Microsoft titles. That in itself is a repudiation of the console wars, which have historically been tied to Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony’s alluringly shaped plastic boxes. These “walled gardens” Spencer said, are a “1990s construct” that he’d like to see dismantled. Microsoft’s new ownership of Candy Crush fits into this vision, giving the company an immediate presence in mobile gaming that transcends discussions of Xbox Series X.
“They’re not getting out of consoles, but they’re trying to reduce the degree to which they’re tethered to the Xbox,” says Joost van Dreunen, a New York University business professor and author of One Up, a book on the global games business. “That’s just going to be one of the entry points into their ecosystem.”
The goal here is one streamlined service—Activision Blizzard’s back catalog is the carrot for attracting users into that space. It could take 12 to 18 months for the deal to close, but when it does, Microsoft “will offer as many Activision Blizzard games as we can within Xbox Game Pass and PC Game Pass, both new titles and games from Activision Blizzard’s catalog,” Spencer said in the company’s announcement of the acquisition. “They clearly see gaming as an entry point that leads to a much broader universe,” says van Dreunen. “The Game Pass service has benefited greatly from this.”