Indie and AAA and a Complex Relationship

I have some feelings about a recent sentiment expressed by Patrick Lindsay on twitter. He told me that I could quote him here, so I’m going to for brevity’s sake:

I want to be clear here that I like Patrick and I think he is a #dopedude, but I’m wary of this kind of sentiment. I’m deeply, deeply critical of AAA, or just generally big budget, development for a number of different reasons.

The biggest reason that I am critical of these huge game releases is that I think that those games, like all media, speak to viewers and users in very particular ways. Everything has a message, and as McLuhan said, that message is always embedded in the modes of interaction that humans have with those things.

Patrick’s sentiment, shared by a lot of friends (and not-friends), is that AAA games are so diffuse as to never really speak to the lives of people. This is bitterly ironic in the context of some of the major releases this year–The Last of Us is a meditation on interpersonal relationships and what it means to care about another human being; Bioshock Infinite is about the very nature of the social and how one creates oneself in the world. I definitely think that both of those games are failures at what they’re trying to accomplish, but there’s definitely a strong strain of trying to say something important in those games.

At this point, I’m in agreement with Patrick. These games are attempting, and they fail, so…

Except I don’t think that a failure at a grand theme necessarily means that a work of art is a failure. These games offer glimmers of strangeness, moments that somehow manage to escape the overcoding nature of their Hollywood narratives stretched to ten hours. To crib on Dostoevsky in a way he probably wouldn’t agree with: there can be beauty in Sodom.

So firstly, to say that AAA games are devoid of value, or that they say nothing, is to assert that AAA games cannot sometimes escape their own shortcomings, their own giant apparatus nature, in order to produce something wonderful.

Secondly, I’m deeply critical of AAA games because I think they’re speaking to us and telling us awful things. The Call of Duty rhetoric of impassioned surgical-strike forces who always save the day, and are always right, fills me with a deep unease. The racist and sexist tropes that games use as a ground to build their stories on, and how ubiquitous they are, and how angry people get when you simply point those tropes out–that bothers me. The treatment of players as badly-behaved puppy dogs who have to be led around and told the exact meaning of every piece of symbolism and plot point is gross.

But my analysis of those ideological pieces of AAA games has to come first from the assumption that that game can speak to me and others. Maybe that speech is diffuse, difficult to understand, and lands in a hundred different ways, but at the end of the day it is palpable and interpretable.

For me to assume that AAA games can speak negatively with their design and narrative and not to assume, in a hypothetical if nothing else, that games can also speak positively with those same design and narrative tools is disingenuous.

There’s a response to what I’ve written so far that goes something like: “Speaking about personal narratives is different from the way this piece frames speaking.” This is absolutely true. I think we need more and better narratives from parts of the social that aren’t represented in the technology sector that produces AAA video games. Honestly, that might never change–it does not seem to me that AAA development is changing quickly, or at all.

But there isn’t a political equivalency between AAA games and more personal, indie games. They are not sectors with equal power that we are choosing between in a zero-sum political and economic sense. They do not trade off monetarily in the public market of games. If the new Call of Duty  disappeared from the earth, people would not be flocking in the millions to go buy the latest indie darling. The AAA games world has created a userbase from nothing and exploits that userbase for as much money per-year as possible. Additionally, the political commitments of the large AAA userbase do not compete with indie games in the sense that the AAA userbase doesn’t know about small, personal indie games. The large chunk of those day one adopters don’t know about Castles in the Sky or Triad.

When we talk about a dichotomy between indie/personal (I recognize the complexity here) and AAA, we’re doing a massive disservice to thinking about the complex political economy that surrounds both of these systems. At the end of the day, I think there need to be more moves toward alliances across these development perspectives. While there are a great many “bad” people in the tech sector, I do think that alliances with workers on the “factory floor” of AAA production is productive and helpful for small games creators. They’re natural allies in that they are alienated from their labor which is extracted from them through long hours of crunch situated in incredibly abusive cycles of storm and stress that shave years off of their lives and provides incredibly poor (but decently compensated) lifestyles.

I understand that the strict division of indie and AAA is political useful sometimes, and I’ve played into this as much as anyone else. But increasingly I have recognized, and want others to recognize, that there’s something to be gained by looking to those who are in the trenches/hives of AAA development as political allies. As Joel tweeted earlier,

I want to have some fidelity to that relationship, to do it justice. I want to recognize our already-interrelated nature and find the most useful, productive parts of it to focus on, to grow, to push. And maybe that’s hopelessly romantic (something I have never really been accused of), but there’s something there. It is worth looking into. It is worth developing.

Or if it isn’t I am wrong and you can tell me I am wrong. There are so many systemic issues with what I’m talking about here, both along the lines of identity politics and the inherent political conservatism of the tech industry, but maybe this is at least productive to pointing out there isn’t a clearly-cleaved line of distaste that we should be experiencing.


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One Response to Indie and AAA and a Complex Relationship

  1. It was a very interesting read, thanks for sharing, and I like your point of view.

    I have yet to play Last of Us, but I have been Playing Tomb Raider. And I like how the game works over some very specific AAA demands to make interesting things.

    However, even so, sometimes it fells like that it’s AAA nature is punching me in the face, specially during certain Active Time events I fell like dropping the game, because I don’t think that any of that was needed, or many of the stuff the game presents me (outsourced in a island,but with tons of ammo and killing like Rambo)

    But I will try to finish it anyway.

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