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Why Did Video Games Start Being Pussies?

Things were so much better when they were kicking you in the balls.

Robotron: 2084 is the greatest video game ever made. It’s bloodthirsty and hungry for loose change, and it fires out some really weird sounds when you play it. Its arcade cabinet makes it look like Liberace’s sarcophagus. Its name makes it sound like a crucial component for a German FM radio or a heat-seeking torpedo. Stood in front of it, the screen, with its garish neon, and tiny characters, may cause you to suspect that you’re having a cerebral embolism, but it’s a cerebral embolism in which you can shoot people. Oh yes: and it was inspired by its designer, Eugene Peyton Jarvis, having a car crash. Jarvis is video games’ John Carpenter. He has a wonderful eye for exploitation, mayhem, super-violence, and artful splatter. He is cruel to his audiences, and his games—especially his early games—are how he explores the limits of his cruelty. From the start, he inherently understood that video games were meant to be malicious, and that they should have ambitions, above all else, to inflict pain on those that played them. This is an ideal that has been steadily eroded in the mainstream, particularly over the last few years. All games used to be as brilliantly unpleasant as Robotron, now almost none of them are. What happened?


In the old days, games lurked in the dark, drew you in with bright lights, and then took your money and knocked you around for a minute or so. It was like paying to be punched in the nuts really hard by somebody wearing an attractive sweater. If you stopped playing an arcade machine, it wouldn’t care. It could wait. There would be others. If you attacked an arcade machine, it would probably just tip onto you, and you would suffer fractures and internal bleeding, and somebody else’s cigarette butts and loose change might end up in your mouth.

With consoles and home computers, the tradition was largely maintained: games were obscure, flighty, and vain. They wanted to look good, and they often felt they looked best when they were giving you a kicking. You had to improve at them slowly and painfully, the same way that Napoleon thought he could become immune to arsenic by licking his wallpaper every day—or whatever it is he did when he was on that island before he died from licking too much wallpaper.

It was a wonderful abusive relationship, but it wouldn’t last. If I had to pinpoint a single moment when things started to turn, I’d choose the launch of the Xbox 360.

On the surface, the 360 is capable of glorious flights of nastiness. Microsoft launched it at Christmas, for one thing, and had preloaded it with an exciting congregation of dismal design flaws, meaning that most of them worked for two or three days out of the wrapping, and then coughed up blood and died, like a dog that has eaten a fork. Sadly, the software teams weren’t quite as committed to brutality as the hardware teams, and the 360’s other big feature—when it wasn’t burping smoke and setting fire to your housemates—was something called "Achievements." I wonder what kind of life you have to have led to think that "Achievement" is a suitable name for what the father of Internet Explorer had just come up with. Achievements take language traditionally reserved for Douglas Bader, Thor Heyerdahl, and the ancient Mayans, and then apply it to titting around in a make-believe tank, and generally doing the sort of things you’d be doing anyway. You unlock Achievements for killing people in a game about killing people. You unlock them for completing the campaign that you just spent £40 buying. Sometimes, you unlock them for pressing the start button. That’s only an achievement if you’re one of those Chilean folk singers who had their hands cut off by General Pinochet. If that’s you, there’s probably more you can be proud of.

Achievements kicked things off, but pretty soon everyone was getting in on it. Games that should have been kneeing you in the face or punching you in that bit at the back of your leg where Steven Seagal punches people were now flinging "Woo!" at you from every angle, pelting you with trinkets and drowning you in compliments. They were asking if you wanted to skip tricky bits. They were telling you that your new haircut made you look a bit like Toby Maguire. They were apologizing when you died. In other words, over the last five or six years, we’ve given games many of humanity’s least wonderful qualities. We haven’t taught them to engage, we’ve merely taught them to be insincere. They’re not better at wrapping us up in their clever systems, they’re better at bribing us to keep us plugging away at systems that are as bad as they ever were. I’m generalizing, I guess, but it is interesting to note that, these days, when a game comes out that is genuinely hard to get to grips with—a game like Dark Souls (Namco Bandai, PS3, 360), say, or Super Crate Box (Vlambeer, iOS)—it’s treated as a bit of an oddity, like a traveller from another planet, or a dangerous zoo animal. Back when Eugene Jarvis was making Robotron, we were the ones in the cages – and video games were stood outside, sneering, and lobbing in rocks.