Among the social media tributes that followed Clive James’s death last month, one broadcaster said that James had privately expressed regret at having spent so much time writing about TV. If true, this was something of a betrayal of the younger James who argued that, as an activity that preoccupies a lot of the nation a lot of the time, television demands serious consideration. In an era when TV critics win the Pulitzer prize and Oscar-winning film directors make Netflix miniseries, the idea that TV is unserious seems anachronistic. Yet, for those of us who cast a similar critical eye over video games, it’s a relatable stance.
You’d think that, 40-odd years into the medium’s existence, video games would be over this period of pained self-doubt. Yet many senior industry figures still insist that their games are essentially entertainment. In The Division 2, for example, you play a government agent fighting paramilitary organisations following a shutdown of the US government. “We’re definitely not making any political statements,” Terry Spier, the game’s creative director, told a reporter from the website Polygon before the game’s release in March.
Games often borrow politicised themes and aesthetics (October’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, for example, allows players to deploy white phosphorus, a chemical weapon prohibited under international law) in order to benefit from the frisson of political relevance. But developers often seem not to consider or contextualise those decisions. But can we really blame companies for claiming that their games are nothing more than a benign pastime when the mere choice of which online store will have exclusive rights can result in thousands of abusive messages (as happened in the case of the husband-and-wife development team who announced that their project Ooblets would be available through just one platform – Epic Store?)
Of course, video games don’t need be serious. Often they’re at their best when, as in Untitled Goose Game, the surprise hit of 2019, they enable us to explore the absurd and wilfully silly. Arguably, in a medium that places primacy on the player’s agency to move the story in directions of their own choosing, there’s a case to be made that video games are a poor vehicle for a pointed narrative argument.
Also, when a publisher is spending tens of millions of dollars trying to attract the broadest possible audience, dividing that audience along political lines is a risk. Still, it’s a question of ambition, or imagination. And in a medium with such tremendous, unique qualities, why not give it a try – especially when politicians remain so eager to politicise the medium regardless, as Donald Trump did in August, blaming video games (rather than guns) after the mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas?
Then again, perhaps ’twas ever so. As James wrote in the introduction of Glued to the Box, a collection of his television reviews published in the Observer between 1979 and 1982: “Television is simultaneously blamed, often by the same people, for worsening the world and for being powerless to change it.” Plus ça change.
The top five video games of 2019
1. Untitled Goose Game
(PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One, Switch)
The tinkling and benign Debussy soundtrack belies the dark task at the heart of Untitled Goose Game: ruin what might otherwise be a perfectly pleasant day for the village in which you, a mean goose, reside. So you squawk, flap, peck and harass the villagers as you work your way down a series of to-do lists. Funny, well-crafted game-making.
2. Disco Elysium
While Disco Elysium is at its core a computerised Dungeons & Dragons campaign, its story and setting (you play as an alcoholic cop charged with solving a union-related killing in a working-class port neighbourhood) is about as far from fantasy-based swordplay as one can travel. Bracingly written and filled with memorable moments.
3. Outer Wilds
(PS4, Xbox One, PC)
You have 20 minutes to explore, via a lunar lander, a diminutive, clockwork solar system before the sun explodes. In an apocalyptic Groundhog Day, you resurrect after each ending armed with the knowledge gathered from your previous outing. In this way, you must unravel the game’s secrets across several short lifetimes. Plaintive, mystical and memorable.
4. Telling Lies
(iOS, PC/ Mac)
In this follow-up to designer Sam Barlow’s Bafta-winning Her Story, you play as a former FBI agent sifting hundreds of hours of footage saved on a hard drive stolen from the National Security Agency. The lives of four individuals at the centre of your investigation intertwine in ways you must fathom via deduction and careful use of precise search terms.
5. Resident Evil 2
(PS4, Xbox One, PC)
As in the 1998 original, you arrive as a rookie cop in the midwestern American town of Raccoon City to find its residents shuffling, zombified and hungry for human flesh. Once again, the game’s challenge derives from matching a scarcity of resources to a surfeit of needs. A tasteful and exciting reimagining of a classic.
With the legacy of Square Enix’s well-regarded tactical war game series Front Mission behind it, and the art direction of Metal Gear Solid’s Yoji Shinkawa fronting it, Left Alive showed promise that merely heightened the disappointment of the rickety, workmanlike results.