Calling a spade a spade: Game journalists need to call the industry on intellectual piracy.

Posted: March 10, 2011 by ryanlecocq in Off-topic

For the past two decades, gaming has struggled to find it’s own artistic place beside other mediums.  Game developers often need to walk a very fine line between art and entertainment in order to please everyone.  Game journalists have often come to the industry’s defense, comparing games to art in other mediums.  A recent trend I don’t like though, is game journalists not calling developers when their new work bears obvious similarities to another property.  I’m not talking about the plot of Halo being a combination of ideas from popular sci-fi novels or that lightsabers are a common weapon in the Phantasy Star series.  What I’m talking about is when games draw direct influence from an existing license and then are applauded for inventing the concept.

What set me off this time was Game Informer’s (I know I pick on them a lot, but it’s hard not to) preview coverage of Deus Ex: Human Revolution over the past 6 months.  On several occasions, several different editors have commented on the game’s sepia-toned, Renaissance inspired visuals and themes.  As accurate as a description as this is, the proper one would be “basically steals everything from it’s plot to artistic styling from the Ridley Scott flick Blade Runner.”  Now it could be argued that those concepts came originally from the PK Dick novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” but if you’ve actually read it, you know the movie is a different animal.  Everything from the plot of a bio-tech renaissance to the color of the scenes and even the design or the buildings in Deus Ex: HR can be found in the 1982 film.  If you play the director’s commentary on the extended cut of the movie, Ridley Scott even says “I wanted to evoke sort of a feeling of the renaissance with the color and tone of the film, as this is in essence a second renaissance.”  If nothing else I have said has convinced you, break in to the development studio making Human Revolution and I bet you will find that quote atop the game’s original proposal.  Now if Eidos had responded to the praise with: “Well, we really owe all of our style to the pioneers of cyberpunk who came before.”  Even that vague statement would have appeased me.

Although this game was what tipped my ‘disgust-o-meter,’ this is not the only example in our current game industry.  Although I loved the game Deadly Premonition and I understand the difficulty in getting the license, the game definitely crossed over the fan service line into the ‘stalking David Lynch’s brain’ territory.  Not only does the game lift characters and themes wholesale from the show Twin Peaks, there is actually a character in the game whose facial model was based on actress Naomi Watts (who worked for Lynch on Mulholland Drive) without her knowledge.  Now stop thinking about how weird it would be to see your idea completely copied for a minute and think how creepy it would be to walk in and see your kids playing a game and one of the characters has YOUR FACE from 15 years ago.  Now that is weird.

Sometimes it isn’t even a malicious act.  Many have remarked on the similarity of the game Homefront to the movie Red Dawn.  The difference here is that the game is written and produced by John Milius, the director of the film (and Conan the Barbarian!).  Although Milius’s does not own the rights to the name Red Dawn, he has every right to want to see his idea realized as a video game under any other name.  The game even goes so far as to completely recreate a couple of locations, complete with “Go Wolverines!” signs, just to make it absolutely clear that this is an unofficial-official sequel.

Now the reasoning behind what I just exemplified is complicated and the justification more so.  It’s not like the guys over at Game Informer haven’t seen Blade Runner or the Publishers at Ignition didn’t catch Deadly Premonition’s similarities before bringing it stateside.  They are willfully and knowingly doctoring their opinion.  Now before you say anything about how that would be a serious accusation of a journalist in any other field, think about it.  Game journalists do this as standard practice.  When they see a game in early alpha, they would have to honestly say ‘it looks like shit.’  Instead, they have to report on the game’s potential and the ideas that are not yet realized.  If a writer in Car and Driver had done this about the Ford Edsel, they would have been crucified when it flopped.  In gaming this isn’t the case, because we know it’s a make or break field and as consumers we cut developers and journalists more slack.

Where this becomes a problem again is when opinions and emotions come in.  Whether or not Deus Ex looks like Blade Runner is not a matter of interpretation, it’s as obvious as Barbara Streisand’s nose.  Not immediately mentioning it is consenting to become part of a ‘cult of intellectualism’ much like we see in other artistic fields.  By saying “This is art, we are artists and we refuse to accept or acknowledge anything to the contrary” is an attitude that can only be bad for us as gamers.

The hard truth is that gaming is not grown up.  We’re still in the adolescent period that all other mediums have gone through.  It’s not just coincidence that the cleavage and blood filled covers of modern games bear striking similarity to movie posters from the 50s or album covers from the 80s.  Gaming as an art form is still maturing past that point where the core is just plagiarized from other past forms and the exterior is all tits and flash.  Just because George Lucas drew a great deal of inspiration from The Forbidden Fortress does not make Star Wars a bad film though.  Games have every right to make shameless rip-offs that let you ‘play Blade Runner’ or whatever other concept you want to experience in a new medium but haven’t yet.  This is a natural phase.  The first real movies were just filmed plays and it’s no surprise that the first few decades of games are just playable movies we’ve seen before.  As journalists, we need to be able to acknowledge our immaturity and still hold our heads up high.  We should be able to say without shame “Yeah Deus Ex may just be Blade Runner the game, but who wouldn’t want that?”

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