Spent Shells

Ask a gamer to complete a Venn diagram with Mario on one side and Call of Duty on the other and you’ll get a lot of blank stares. “Mindless fun” isn’t a criticism often levied at Nintendo, but it’s exactly what they strive for with their most important franchise. Platformers, particularly 2D sidescrolling platformers, are all about quick reflexive actions to achieve a simplistic goal. Notably omitting Braid, the narrative is never terribly important; how Sonic the Hedgehog gets from Emerald Hill to Chemical Plant will remain forever a mystery. The same goes for shooters, which drop players into shallow kill-or-be-killed scenarios; the particular hypothetical presented inhibits the why.

Fun though they may be, both genres stretch the definition of art. Even a sports simulation game has the extent to which it emulates reality as a measure of artistic success — what do New Super Mario Bros. U or Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 contribute? While the latter franchise does tackle broad political ideas, it does so without nuance. Plastic-faced characters voiced by B-list actors spout military buzzwords to elaborately expound a disposable premise.

Conversely, Mario stories rehash ad nauseam a (some would argue sexist) damsel-in-distress tale, and then evaporate in complete confidence of their own unimportance. Yet both series still succeed on the terms a well-constructed blockbuster movie succeeds, which is to say, they are fun. But as my interest in blockbuster gaming wanes, fun isn’t enough anymore. When two of gaming’s most significant, stalwart franchises have become this creatively cowardly and emotionally defunct, something’s gotta give.

The best games of the expiring console cycle were not the blockbusters. Dead Space, Red Dead Redemption, and Skyrim may be remarkable artistic achievements, but the most mind-blowing moments of gaming nirvana I’ve experienced over the past eight years were the out-of-left-field experiments. Portal, Braid, and The Unfinished Swan are masterpieces that uniquely marry story with innovative gameplay to restore purposefulness to shooters and platformers in a way behemoths like Nintendo and Activision either no longer can, or don’t care to.

Indie gaming has become a major talking point of late as Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony wrestle with the internal question of just how important these games are and will become. As independent developers fumble to find a foothold in this shifting landscape, there seems to be an acknowledgment from on high that the perfunctory thrills of Mario and Call of Duty may not be infinitely sustainable.

The future is nebulous, the marketplace is crowded, and in the short term, nothing will change. The video game industry is still in many ways a surly teenager, obsessed with its own burgeoning maturity, but not without nostalgia for childhood innocence. From their first baby steps, shooters and platformers have learned to walk, run, and ride a bike — but now it’s time to decide what they want to be when they grow up. Both can and will do great things, but only after their parents abandon the endless attempts to recycle spent shells.