Before getting into the topic itself, we should probably define what the blockbuster video game is. More commonly referred to “the AAA game” or simply as video games, the blockbuster game (as this article will almost exclusively call it) is a historically bounded phenomenon, beginning in the mid 2000s at the earliest but not really taking off until the seventh console generation and especially the beginning of the present decade.
We could say a blockbuster game is any video game published with significant corporate backing and high budgets — the kinds of huge budgets that only significant corporate backing can make possible — but stopping at this definition risks glossing over too much. Levels of funding like these bring qualitative changes. Artistic vision, although not outright precluded, very often takes a back seat to marketability. And because the blockbuster takes as its audience a ravenously loyal consumer base, marketability takes on a narrow definition in practice — often but not always about affirming that consumer’s importance. These are the games that get a boxed release at GameStop; that are guaranteed a review at every major publication; that dominate the discourse because everybody feels obligated to play and discuss them; that are guaranteed consideration at Game of the Year discussions; that get to represent what video games are.
And they are nowhere near as important as they make themselves out to be. As video game writers and without even thinking about it, we treat these games as though they automatically deserve the pre-eminence we give them. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Their success and the attention paid to them have more to do with their aggressively crowding out all other options than with any artistic merit they might have. While I’m far from innocent in giving blockbusters undue attention, and although I’m hardly the first person to challenge their supremacy, I still feel such a challenge has been necessary for years now. It is time we finally realize that blockbusters are not the only form of video game that are deserving of attention.
The only game in town
With the blockbuster asserting itself as the default form of video game, it’s easy to treat historical developments in the game industry as a slow build up to the birth of the blockbuster. But what if I were to tell you that things weren’t always as they are now? Because once we pull out and look at the larger picture, we see that for decades, most creative activity in video games was centered around modifying pre-existing works; usually (but not always) at relatively small scales.
It was how each region (from America to Japan to Britain etc.) first started creating video games, and it was a truly universal phenomenon occurring at all levels. Enthusiasts modded the Stay Puft marshmallow man into Doom, but not before an advertising company modded cereal mascots into the game first. Mid-size studios would often get a footing in the industry by porting established games to other systems, or reskinning them to serve other purposes. Even larger companies would regularly release their older games on newer systems. And lest we treat this as some minor phenomenon of limited influence, keep in mind that games like Ms. Pac Man, Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, and Defense of the Ancients were all modifications to already established games.
Nintendo is also familiar with this approach to game design. A Japanese card company who first entered the video game industry by cloning Pong, much of their success has rested upon iterating on and re-releasing already existing works. When their attempts at making a Popeye arcade game fell through, the company chose instead to base their next game on the King Kong movies — and put themselves on the map in the process. Nintendo themselves don’t deny this fact. If anything, they ensured their future success by embracing it. As for what that future success would look like, one need only look at how often they’re re-released and re-skinned Super Mario Bros. to get an idea.
Yet to leave things here would be to tell only half the story. Fast forward to 1989. By this point, Nintendo was already well known for their hardline approach to what was and wasn’t allowed on the NES: only five games a year per developer, and with tight limits on what was in those games. This strategy was a marked contrast to Atari’s lax attitude with the 2600, and it had the effect of excluding unlicensed games from the discourse as inferior products. As innocuous as that may sound, it was an idea that had never before applied to video games. Legitimacy as a concept held little weight in the Atari 2600 days. Pirating PC games tended to be so easy that your average consumer could easily do it, meaning the scene offered just as much space to releases from major companies as it did to homebrews. And bootleg consoles and video games were making their official counterparts available to foreign markets that major console manufacturers either couldn’t serve or had no interest in serving.
In short, the potential quality of bootleg/unlicensed games was less of an issue than their ability to threaten a console manufacturer’s profits. Oddly enough, Atari (through Tengen) would be the one to bring this logic to the surface by releasing Tetris for the NES. Possessing features that neither of Nintendo’s iterations of the game did, it was a demonstrably better version of Tetris. But because the game was not licensed for their hardware, Nintendo sent Tengen a cease and desist letter on selling their version of Tetris, and eventually took the company to court over the matter.
It’s an odd case if we try looking at it in terms of ownership. Given the licensing fiasco surrounding Tetris and the more basic fact that neither company had any hand in the game’s actual development, Nintendo arguably had just as much of a claim to the franchise as Tengen. No; what necessitated the court case was that Tengen had the temerity to threaten Nintendo’s control over a market they had every right to control. Not only did they undermine Nintendo’s ability to decide what would and wouldn’t show up on store shelves, but also their ability to profit off another party’s work with the upcoming Game Boy release of Tetris. Nintendo could not allow a competing vision to exist.
If modifying already existing games was what propelled Nintendo to success, then striking down other people’s modifications of their own games was what allowed Nintendo to solidify their gains. The examples are too many to count: Super Mario Maker’s roots in a Mario ROM-hacking scene that had already existed for at least a decade, threatening a fan remake of Metroid II with cease and desist orders some time after announcing their own remake, etc. At the root of this strategy is the double assertion that smaller fan games both threaten Nintendo’s ability to profit off their properties yet are inherently worth less than an authentic Nintendo product.
While this is far from the only force behind the blockbuster’s birth, it has nonetheless proven highly influential on the blockbuster’s self image. Imagine it: a game is worth more on a cultural level simply because its developers have enough money to enforce the idea that it is. What’s more, smaller works are only allowed to exist on whatever terms the massive corporations responsible for blockbusters decide on. What more could the blockbuster want?
Some modifications, for one. Nintendo’s framework rested on modernist assumptions about originals and simulacra that the cultural shift to postmodernism (and later metamodernism) would soon outmode. Besides that, it’s just too risky to your public image. Not only does a company asserting its dominance over smaller creators risk drawing attention to the very projects they’re trying to stomp out, but it can engender sympathy for their targets by making that company look like a tyrant. That isn’t to say Nintendo is the only company to have employed such a direct method. Atlus tried to control how much of the game those not playing it were allowed to see, and although I haven’t been able to find evidence for it, I remember a similar incident occurring with reviews around Spider-Man 3 on the PlayStation 3.
But on the whole, blockbuster game studios have adopted tactics that are more appropriate to the modern era. The power remains roughly the same in both cases, but rather than emanating from specific agents susceptible to blame, the blockbuster wields its power in such a way that it appears to emanate from reality itself, where it’s less susceptible to being noticed in the first place. In more practical terms, the blockbuster achieves this illusion through its sheer size. This size can manifest in several ways — an endless stream of content, cinematic realism as the height of technological achievement, vast worlds laid out for the player to do with as they please — but size is always the constant. It’s a size so large that only studios with staggering amounts of capital can even dream of making these games; a size so large as to obscure individuality and, in fading into the background, assert itself as the natural state of things.
It must be said that this is a long way from the small scale modifications that once defined the video game industry. In modification-receptive contexts, games aren’t just objects to be passively consumed as they are, but material for the player-creator to work with; the author’s vision only holding as much primacy as a given player is willing to grant it. Furthermore, modification as a creative method is fast. So fast, in fact, that Sonic the Hedgehog’s first video game appearance wasn’t in an official Sega video game — and this isn’t even the fastest turnover I’ve been able to find. Add in a lack of profit motive (as we see in fan games, ROM hacks, mods, etc.), and we see video games with incredible artistic flexibility and ability to influence and respond to the culture around them.
By contrast, the blockbuster exists at a scale beyond modification; beyond any creative interaction with it. I am not only referring to the games themselves being large, although as we will see, that is certainly part of the problem. Their production, too, is defined by their massive size. Assuming the latest release is not itself a slight modification of another game released a year before, the blockbuster can cost tens of millions of dollars on average, and several years to finish. The human cost can be significantly worse. Made by teams of hundreds scattered all across the globe, the blockbuster demands from those responsible for its creation countless sacrifices — their relationships, their health, their lives — before it can manifest itself in our world. So numerous are the sacrifices to this fundamentally inhuman construct that the individual developer possesses few if any real opportunities to leave on the blockbuster some evidence of their existence. At best, they will only ever see an infinitely small part of the whole during its creation: a tree, a rock, a braid on a robot dinosaur, etc.
And yet we accept that this is what making video games look like. We ask novice developers to crunch their weekends away at game jams, not in the hope that they might one day enter the blockbuster game industry, but because there is supposedly no more enjoyable and worthwhile activity than emulating that industry in our spare time. It is both a norm to be recognized and an ideal to aspire to. Never mind the obvious contradiction that entails from aspiring to what already exists! Such is the extent of the blockbuster’s power. It alone possesses the ability to set the standard for what success in video games looks like and the conditions necessary to reach it, so naturally it proposes itself as the standard.
Conveniently for the blockbuster, setting the bar this high ensures its continued dominance. Whether competing on the blockbuster’s terms or crafting terms of one’s own, no party can ever reach a position powerful enough to challenge the blockbuster’s status quo. Indie games are an option, but recent years have seen them become increasingly similar to blockbuster games, both in quality and in budget. Critics have already recognized the shift: just as we call the blockbuster game AAA, so too have we started referring to indie games as III (triple-I). Having lost much of its distinction with it, the indie game can no longer function as the viable alternative to the blockbuster that many originally saw it being, much less as its replacement.
Alternatively, one could always mod the blockbuster; the closest thing to working with them without directly working on them. But as we’ve noted, the blockbuster is averse to modification, and so exists at a scale that precludes it. This isn’t to say that modding has dropped off within the last decade, or that the work modders have done isn’t important. Some mods plug holes in the game’s original vision, or address problems the developers themselves express little if any interest in acknowledging. On the whole, though, the blockbuster strictly limits whatever impact any mod can leave on it. Most of the mods I’ve been able to find for blockbusters amount to small modifications. A few weapons added here, a few numbers tweaked there, a SpongeBob model or two dropped into the game world — the only modifications the blockbuster accepts are those that leave the original vision largely intact and reinforce its centrality.
This is also why any attempts to work at a larger scale, such as a total conversion mod, are doomed to fail. The blockbuster, in its enormity, demands from those looking to work with the whole similar levels of self-flagellation that professional developers endure during the game’s creation: large teams dedicating years of their lives to see the project to fruition. The only difference is that where professionals work under tight management and for wages, the modder is expected to work as a hobby and for no monetary profit. In many cases, this is demanding the impossible. Self-managing a small group of enthusiasts can be difficult, and many projects fizzle out before they can make much progress.
Yet there still remains one last option. One could always choose to make video games by abandoning the blockbuster system entirely. In itself, this is the most viable of all the options. Not beholden to any one standard, one is free to set that standard for one’s self. It’s perfectly acceptable to spend a week making a game that takes less than an hour for players to complete. The numerous game making tools out there (Unity, RPG Maker, Ren’py, Game Maker, Aseprite, etc.) ensure that no matter what genre, it’s possible to spend a week making a game that takes less than an hour for players to complete. What’s more, it’s perfectly acceptable to do just that. If movements like altgames and flatgames are any indication, the scene for smaller games is more than receptive to games that challenge the strictly commercial understandings of the medium that blockbusters have promoted. In all of this we see, if not a direct revival of the earlier spirit of modification, then at least the closest thing to its modern equivalent.
The only problem is the silence awaiting these games when they are finally made available. When I said that the blockbuster sets the standards all other games must follow, I was not referring only to how they are produced. How they are played and talked about is also subject to the blockbuster’s influence; especially where the world of video game writing is concerned. This isn’t to say writers willingly neglect smaller games. In fact, most writers at major publications desire nothing more than to cover these games and highlight the best the medium has to offer.
Yet theirs is a losing proposition. In a media environment whose survival depends on courting a constant readership, the blockbuster can easily foster dependence from even the most notable giants of video game writing. It alone has the money and manpower necessary to supply publications the steady stream of content that keeps them afloat. Here’s a new feature we added. Here’s a small plot beat we might change later down the line. Here’s an announcement that we might possibly be thinking about announcing a new game, perhaps.
The most obvious effect is to minimize whatever impact games outside the blockbuster can have by flooding game media with countless stories. The average video game developer can generate, at best, a single article about their game per publication. It will be an article about their game existing at all, and it will quickly be swept away in the deluge of writing about what the latest Smash trailer reveals and what it feels like to play the latest build of the next Assassin’s Creed game.
Still, even one article may be too generous an estimate. Anything without a PR machine to espouse its significance is expected to justify its existence. We can’t cover every video game, after all. It simply wouldn’t work, and besides that, it’s not what our readers want. Covering smaller games any more frequently than we do would drive readers away by making them think we’re a niche site, and we’re trying to reach a general audience. They would rather read a twentieth news story about Bungie tweaking numbers in Destiny 2 than they would any story about a game they’ve never heard of — or so the industry wisdom says. If you want your game to matter, you’d better have enough money to flash to make it look like you’re worth a damn. At best, you are a novelty: deserving of maybe one article recognizing your existence (what more could you want?), but not in the least capable of making a worthwhile contribution to the medium. At worst, you might as well not exist.
By successfully convincing video game writing of its automatic importance and making the former dependent on its existence, the blockbuster circumvents any need to justify its own existence. Safe from reproach, it laughs at any form of game lesser than itself for daring to think it has value. Only the blockbuster is deserving of any real attention, regardless of what it does to warrant that attention. “Behold!”, it announces to all it has forced to listen. “The nothing I proclaim is more important than anything you will ever say. My easily predicted failures will always be more deserving of discussion than the greatest success you could possibly muster.”
Not even the parties responsible for its creation can stand alongside it as equals. This might be surprising to hear when one considers the importance of the auteur in certain cases: your Kojimas, your Cages, your Molyneuxs, etc. Yet in all cases, power remains firmly with the blockbuster. It’s important to remember that in cases like these, auteur theory usually functions less as a grounds for artistic introspection and more as a reflection of the blockbuster’s origins in a time when video games, in their self-imposed immaturity, cried out for the legitimacy of more established media and so adopted their language in the hopes of attaining that legitimacy. This is both why the blockbuster adopted cinematic realism as one of its tools and those considered auteurs in video game spaces are often those whose games heavily invoke cinematic language.
More tellingly, the auteur himself is a brand that arises out of the blockbuster’s commercial success. Not only does the blockbuster precede the auteur, but it is necessary for his existence. It is what confers upon the game developer the title of auteur. As Kojima and to a lesser extent Cage show us, the only way an auteur can emerge in a non-blockbuster context is to precede the historical invention of the blockbuster entirely.
In a general sense, the blockbuster exceeds the forces that created it and claims authorial authority for itself, through itself. We are already familiar with the cause: with so many people contributing to that creation, no one person can say they’ve made a large enough contribution to it to claim ownership of it or say that it reflects some part of themselves. Indeed, the only party large enough to make such a claim is always corporate in nature: a developer or a publisher. It must be admitted that this manner of authorship can be a useful tool for identifying house styles, but it doesn’t protect either developer or publisher from the blockbuster’s ire. If, for whatever reason, the blockbuster cannot match the superhuman standard of perfection players have learned to expect from it, all it need do is point its finger at supposed corporate incompetence to preserve its integrity. Its acolytes are unfortunately all too willing to accept the sacrifice.
If I have characterized the blockbuster as haughty, then it is a haughtiness born of fear. For as much as it looks down on other forms of video game, it knows that ridicule alone will never be enough to control them. Some games will slip through the cracks and get to where customers can see and buy them, where readers will actually consider what those games have to say, threatening the blockbuster’s monopoly in the process. This is why, in addition to scorn, the blockbuster maintains its monopoly by appealing to fear. Their exclusion is not only acceptable, it argues, but absolutely necessary. It evokes the ghost of Atari’s 1983 collapse to say that smaller games will be the death of the industry. Whether mobile games at the birth of mobile gaming or “asset flips” as of late (as though the blockbuster is not already predicated on reusing assets to minimize costs), it depicts them as an undifferentiated horde that, if not eliminated from our storefronts and our minds, will overwhelm and eventually destroy all that we cherish.
In truth, the only death at play here is the death of the blockbuster. The parties it dismisses as lesser than itself are also necessary for its survival. It needs writers who will affirm its importance, consumers who will buy it, and lesser developers to generate the ideas its own tight limits will not allow it to. What’s more, its emphasis on continually larger play experiences that grant ever more access to the player (and demand ever greater sacrifices to make a reality), the blockbuster always requires more writers, consumers etc. to sustain its existence.
Scaling back at this point isn’t an option. Having risen to power on the backs of a consumer base it has trained to demand from their games more stuff, the blockbuster now finds its own strategies working against it. Rather than choose to buy the newest games, many players are instead choosing to continue playing their old games, whose stuff they have not yet completely exhausted. The only remedy available to the blockbuster is to entice those players with games packed with even more stuff than their old games could hope to have — in effect, perpetuating and intensifying the cycle. In theory, the blockbuster could mitigate this cycle by monetizing these new games well beyond their initial release, but as this undermines the sense of control its players value above all else, the strategy has proven extremely difficult to implement in practice. The bubble must eventually burst. By looking down on the parties responsible for its survival and stymieing any alternatives to itself, the blockbuster seals its own doom. Its paranoia is only its own, and it projects that fear outward as an absolute of reality.
In the image of God
So far, we have considered the effects of the blockbuster from the developer’s perspective, and, to a lesser extent, the critic’s. (We will briefly return to this latter point toward the end.) Yet there remains one equally important lens that we’ve yet to consider: the player. What does blockbuster game design look like? What relationship does the blockbuster cultivate between itself and its players, and what strategies does it frequently employ toward that end?
I have saved these questions for last because they are the most difficult to discuss. With the variety of blockbuster styles of game design, there are multiple ways to answer these questions, and commonalities are elusive. Fortunately, what we’ve said before provides us a hint as to where we should start. Assuming the idea of its own importance defines the blockbuster video game, then it follows that blockbuster game design exists more or less as a monument to that importance. The various schools of thought that intersect with that design philosophy are merely different methods of relating that importance to the player. Cinematic realism dictates to reality what reality should be — reality here defined in such a way that a computer’s representing it becomes both achievable and worth achieving in the first place. It’s an abundance of effect; a wide breadth of information conveyed in as fine detail as technologically possible. Open world games develop this further by expanding that definition beyond the visual and into play. When combined, we are left with the infinity of reality that defines the genre.
At the same time, the blockbuster is first and foremost a mass-produced consumer good. Despite whatever pretenses others may attach to them, the blockbuster is rarely if ever designed as an artistic work or to express specific ideas. Instead, it is carefully molded according to some easily marketable standard; made to sell enough units to recoup cost of making it. It is an investment both on the developer’s and the player’s part, and is expected to justify itself as such on both fronts. Most important of all, it is designed with the player’s enjoyment first and foremost in mind — “enjoyment” here being narrowly defined as empowering the player within the game world.
Such empowerment is, fundamentally speaking, an extension of how the blockbuster imagines itself. If it sees itself as an absolute ideal, then it can think of nothing better than for others to become like itself; to offer them the same opportunities to impose themselves upon the world that it already enjoys. This isn’t to say that the players it does attract are simply mirrors of itself. Where a relationship like that would be incredibly unstable, the players we are describing exist in a perfectly enabling symbiosis with the blockbuster. The infinity of content, existing only for the former to control and exert power over, allows the latter to exceed the very world it aims to simulate. Likewise, their narratives speak both to the developer’s mastery of the form that they can evoke such raw and powerful emotions from their players, and to the player’s importance to the world at large that their choices decide the fate of millions.
Which is to say this isn’t really about empowerment at all, but about training players to be the loyal customers the blockbuster needs. In fact, its core logic is very disempowering. The blockbuster posits that you are a weak and fundamentally incomplete being, and that only the game can complete you. However, it’s important to note that no matter what the blockbuster’s real nature may be, it must present its training as empowerment. Its players like to think themselves willing participants and refuse to tolerate any suggestion that they are not in control of their media habits. This is why we only ever see the latter half of the blockbuster’s core logic in practice: this is the only half it can use to entice its players.
The fulfillment these games promise is twofold in nature. We’ve already described the first kind of fulfillment. Here, it is enough to note that the infinity that blockbusters promise isn’t as infinite as it might initially seem. The player will eventually exhaust their supply of stuff, or more likely, their willpower to continue playing this particular game and indulging in its stuff. What are they to do now? The answer the blockbuster proposes is simply to buy another game that will hold your attention and tell you that you matter. You could even cut out the middle man by treating your game purchases like you would a side quest or set of collectibles within that game; in other words, find fulfillment directly in the act of buying the game.
We cannot deny that these tactics work. Backlogs (vast stores of games one has no intention of ever touching) are a common feature among video game enthusiasts, and Valve has continued to draw a profit from Steam long after they’ve turned purchases into a literal game. At the same time, however, they are untenable in the long term. No video game can hope to simulate the whole of reality in a digital context, much less provide players the purpose they search for within that whole, and people have started to notice this. Using open world games as an example, one can find countless examples of players comparing the games to empty drudgery they cannot free themselves from (here I defer to Mike Rugnetta and Brendan Vance). In fact, we might more accurately describe this form of play as terror management than as an enjoyable activity in its own right.
We can attribute part of their worries to the inherently alienating nature of the games’ infinity. No matter how thorough its work, no open world video game can completely erase that uncanny presence. To place the whole of reality on an ontologically flat plane where all is simultaneously available to us is to erase distinction, the possibility of meaning, and with it, anything with which players might engage. At the heart of the open world video game is a self-defeating impulse: in the pursuit of absolute power over reality, both player and game misunderstand the pursuit and the object of their pursuit, and so render meaningless the very things they’d hoped to attain.
And what of non-open world games, like the more cinematically minded blockbusters? Just as observers have noted the emptiness at the heart of open world games, so too have they discerned that the excess of effect that characterizes narrative focused blockbusters has nothing of value to communicate. Still, I feel this description requires elaboration. While there is often a subjectivity of some kind behind the blockbuster, it is not a subjectivity that offers itself up for others to engage with. Indeed, the blockbuster struggles to understand how to relate to the Other. In its desire to dictate to the world around it what it should be, it refuses to admit any possible vulnerabilities in doing so. Such an admission would risk contradicting its image, either by pointing to the limits of its power or by prioritizing something higher than the player’s enjoyment of itself.
The cost of this choice is that the blockbuster can no longer make itself relevant to the larger cultural and political trends of its time. At best, it can only relate itself to those trends with severe clumsiness. It will either waffle on the subject and expend so much energy dancing around the issue that it ends up saying nothing of significance beyond maybe a bland conclusion; or it will so severely misunderstand its subject matter that, in its carelessness, it will undermine the very issues and people it chooses to represent. It’s also worth noting that this kind of cultural seclusion is not a necessary trait of the blockbuster. Consider Kowloon’s Gate, a highly esoteric (at least outside Japan) predecessor to the blockbuster. Despite the four years it spent in development, it was able to say a considerable amount about the Walled City precisely because those responsible for its creation began seeking to engage that subject matter. The modern blockbuster’s immaturity is self-imposed; the consequence of a choice freely made and fully considered.
Despite this, I remember a moment earlier this year where people held up a God of War behind-the-scenes video as a reminder that there are real, flesh and blood people making the video games we love. (Note again how the blockbuster gets to represent what video games are.) The crux of this sentiment was that the blockbuster is a human endeavor reflecting the hopes and beliefs of those who created it. Then and now, it’s a sentiment that deeply confuses me. There is nothing human about blockbuster video games.
Butterfly Soup, All our Asias, LOCALHOST, Lieve Oma, one night, hot springs, Boa Retina, the works of Heather Robertson (particularly Genderwrecked), the flatgame movement — these are the truly human video games. In seeking to share a part of one’s self with the player (in actively seeking out conversations with others), these games bare their vulnerabilities to others and fully realize their own beings in the process. Possibly existing outside traditional video game spaces, they are not beholden to expectations of what video games should conventionally look like. They are bold, honest, deeply personal. These are the games driving the medium forward. I sincerely hope that years from when I write this, these games (or others like them) are what represent the medium in people’s eyes.
Returning to blockbuster games, it’s hard to find that many equivalents to the games we’ve discussed, and most are limited to Japan, although this may be just me. The contemplative and philosophical quality of Yoko Taro’s work comes to mind, as does the reckless abandon of Platinum Games and Yakuza’s theatrical flair. Atlus’ work with the Persona games may also count, although the expectation that the series play into anime convention so as to pass itself off as a media franchise puts a hard limit on what their games can achieve. Outside these games, examples are few and far between in the blockbuster world. Most are as we’ve described before: timid, controlling, ignorant of themselves and others. I doubt these traits will change any time soon; not without significant impetus, at least. When the blockbuster finally collapses under its own weight, we will have lost little of real value.
Blockbuster video games are no longer the most profitable video games. Mobile games have most likely taken that title by now. They are not the most influential games, as others like Undertale and Doki Doki Literature Club have left a deeper impact by presenting themselves in the same highly marketable terms but at a small enough scale that they appear more personable than the blockbuster. And as we have seen, blockbusters are not the most artistically progressive games, either. They are arguably the best selling games, but that status has become too muddied and lost too much of its meaning to boast about. What blockbuster video games are are the most conspicuous games; the most expensively and lavishly produced games; the games most able to produce an illusion of importance that, if anybody interrogated it, they would struggle to defend.
And people have been interrogating these games for years. Since the release of BioShock Infinite (and in particular, the publication of “On Videogame Reviews”), writers have been questioning why these bloated nothings were receiving more coverage and praise than they frankly deserved, and the sentiment would only grow from there. The following year saw Leigh Alexander tell readers that gamers don’t have to be your audience. The rest of 2014 and 2015 saw an explosion of new writers ready to continue her work and challenge the field’s most cherished assumptions. But then things cooled down. Those writers either slowly fell out of video game writing, or else became the establishment and ended up accepting the centrality of the games they’d previously critiqued. The wider culture of video game writing hasn’t been much better, either. Where before writers directly challenged blockbusters, now it is more common to see writers address their decline through indirect euphemisms, like the death of single player games.
By my own admission, this reluctance is almost certainly systemic in nature. Still, I remain optimistic. From what I’ve seen, there’s a growing awareness of and frustration with the blockbuster’s unearned significance among video game writers. All that remains is to translate that sentiment into action: to directly challenge that assumed importance, or better, not provide blockbusters a platform simply because they’ve made themselves seem important; to instead provide that platform to games that actually have something worthwhile to contribute. We shouldn’t be so naive as to assume that our actions will completely knock the blockbuster off its pedestal, much less do so immediately. However, we can slowly carve out the space for something more substantial to eventually take its place.