This is pretty old, but isn’t it the sweetest?
It’s hard to tell how far the audience gets what’s going on — they laugh at the Black Mesa line, but do they know the reference? — but even so, it’s not often you see a game penetrate so deeply into our cultural consciousness. Super Mario did, obviously — and maybe Space Invaders? Pac-Man?
And how did Valve achieve it? By making a comedy puzzle game about science, starring a girl of Brazilian-Japanese descent and a megalomaniac female computer. And by turning their end credits into a cute song. And by joking about cake. I’d love to see that pitched to a publisher.
I’ve always thought it was a cop-out for gaming executives to say they’re forced to greenlight games for thirteen-year-old sociopaths “because that’s what sells.” No one knows what’ll sell, no one can hold the entirety of this sprawling universe in their heads and say with any certainty how it’ll turn out.
The only gauge you have — the only one you can ever have — is that little voice within you that laughs and cries and is moved by experiences. Make a game that speaks to that voice, and it’ll speak to the voices of others, as well.
That loud, gauche whizz-bang that most games (and films and books) instead aim for may momentarily catch the attention of the passing masses, but it’s not going to mean anything. You might sell enough copies to keep your development house afloat, but two months down the line your game will be forgotten, and so will the next, and the one after that. I may not know how the universe will pan out, but I don’t feel I’m putting my neck on the line saying that school choirs aren’t going to be singing about Homefront or Bulletstorm in the years to come.
The difference is in the intention. It’s the difference between growing a product organically within yourself, and trying to piece one together from the outside. A work grown within you will be idiosyncratic, personal, bizarre. And it’ll touch people for just these reasons. A work pieced together from the outside will be full of themes targeting a key demographic, aiming to ride current market trends … and perhaps it’ll make money, perhaps not — but no one will ever really care about it.
But those executive types — the ones in suits — they always get it back to front. They analyse games that have already succeeded, dissect them clumsily with a scalpel, and try to reanimate the elements in their own games. “Recharging health and two-weapon systems and multiplayer unlocks are hot — let’s do that!”
But you don’t create life by cutting out the guts and organs and limbs of existing animals — the claws of a bear, legs of a frog, wings of an eagle — and splodging them together into some new body. I mean I know I’ve made that sound totally awesome … but Mary Shelley probably has some words of caution about that path. You don’t assemble life — you give birth to it. The same is true of art.
Valve know this. The fluid, creative approach can be seen all through their development process — the reactor sequence in the first Half Life was built by two designers working passionately across their weekend off; the insanity of Portal 2‘s final third came not from a design document but from an animator’s impulse that rooms crashing into each other would look cool — and the quality of the finished games speak for themselves.
As do their sales records. Okay, Valve will never sell as many games as Activision — like the Guardian will never outsell the Sun — but Christ, who cares? Valve’s workers certainly won’t; they get to wake up every morning and go make titles they love at arguably the best games studio on the planet. A wallet full of paper notes is neither here nor there when you’re already happy.
Which is what the suits will never understand. You don’t do things for an external prize — make a great game so it sells and you get a promotion and become famous. You make a great game to make a great game. The external, like the future, never arrives. But the internal present is always right here.
So well done Valve. And well done school kids. And well done everyone who’s not wearing a suit right now. Hurrah.