Thursday, June 25, 2009

AdVantage Point: Prototype (2009)

Give an idiot a scanner and a comic book and let him to pick out all the advertisements for video games. This is AdVantage Point -- a chance to document the winding timeline of comics/gaming history as it was canonized by the adverts. Musings, rantings, observations, stream of consciousness.

Y'know, as a pseudo-archival concept, these AdVantage Point posts have been promising something more retro than the early 2000's for quite a while. Finally I was inspired to rummage through the back issues, to pull out what I think was one of the greatest gaming adverts to ever be put into print; the Splatterhouse double-page comic strip from 1990!

While I was there, I spent some time flicking through, and scanning, other advertisements for future reference. Their designs varied from the simple to the robust, but there was an inevitable observation to be made when comparing them to the types of ads that have been mostly featured thus far. Those ads actually looked like they were interested in trying!

While beginning this blog I happened to stumble across a similar post by "videosta" [Let's kill the AD men!] which provides a pre-emptive counterpoint to the post I'm about to make. I just wanted to point that out because I've been enjoying looking through the 1up blogs lately, and thought that was a great way to represent the opposing opinions of what I'm expressing (even if I vehemently disagree).

The 1990s were clearly an important decade to the video game industry.
By following the advertisements published year-to-year in the early nineties, you can almost see a timeline of how 8-bit gaming developed the medium beyond it's initial technical specifications, to start capitalizing and selling on the premise of concept and design aesthetic. Admittedly, not all of it is an artistic triumph, but ads like the Splatterhouse strip really remind us how technology and creativity converged to form the modern concept of a game.

The more extravagant adverts dabble in the kinds of esoteric references found in modern television campaigns, while more standard fare still manages to produce something heavily focused on informing readers of something more than just the title. There's artwork, sometimes screenshots, snide references to the opposition, technical achievements, reviews and awards, and of course, a healthy dose of story (or character) driven selling points.

Flash forward twenty years after Splatterhouse and you find much less compelling sales pitches.
Like artefacts from the post-apocalyptic future we always knew was coming; print adverts have become stark unimaginative propaganda pieces peddled by omnipresent corporations who own the press and want us to buy their soulless spirit-crushing crap. Information is minimal, character an afterthought, and design, simplistic and tyrannical. If you didn't know any better, you'd assume companys like Activision were run by bushy moustached madmen commanding a staff of whipped monkeys on typewriters. Which is about all you'd need to graft a single line of text on to the types of pre-existing artwork used in most modern ads.

With the proliferation of the internet, it stands to reason that most promotion is done online.
In a world where information and advertising is pumped directly into the mindstream, TV campaigns still exist, and have their place in a world where casual consumers are more than mere flirtations and facilitators, but it's the direct market that drives the cogs of the major releases, benefitting from the mainstream adoption of gaming consoles as household appliances during the early 2000s.

Prototype reads curiously like an artefact of the past.
If I wasn't wired most waking hours into the Matrix, (and had only the double-page advert [above] to go on), I'd assume someone had had a gross lapse of judgment and allowed Todd McFarlane back into game design.
With a flourish of red streaming out of what appears to be a nonsensical cluster of spikes and blades, Prototype's lead protagonist is something straight out of the most embarrassing examples of early nineties comics. All the hallmarks of a Toddy Mac special.

On the back of some of the most celebrated work in comics (in the eighties); nineties creators attempted to duplicate the rebellious and grim aesthetics of comics written by prolific creators like Frank Miller (Dark Knight Returns, Daredevil, Batman: Year One), and Alan Moore (Watchmen, Swamp Thing, Miracleman). When the mindless excesses of an era driven by visual extravagance and braindead double-page splashes attempted to recreate this creative success, the medium was met with a parade of stupidity that eventuated in the financial collapse of the once booming industry. The honeymoon was over, while in parallel, games were having more success.

Prototype at least benefits from a level of technical competence that games of the nineties did not have.
This liberation of technology, however, appears to create continuous struggle to attain the same heights early games appeared to aspire to. Whether or not game developers of the time actually intended to reach for the stars, often their games appeared to double their efforts, moving at a pace that suggested by now we should have something unique to the gaming medium, but cinematic in it's scope. Epic and interactive.

Technologically, we've reached that goal. While the PSX expressed some of the most vivid desires to reach the goal, subsequent console iterations have been the ones to provide the necessary visual fidelity, refinement, and storage space to actually fulfil the requirements. However, it seems much of the imagination that was once used to compensate for restrictions, and later drove us toward the year 2000 with gusto, has faded.

It's difficult not to see a pattern of complacency emerging across the "core" gaming industry.
While Nintendo have managed to break certain perceptions, they've done so through what can only be described as the familiar. By utilizing recycled technology, concepts familiar to any NES or SNES gamer, and a stable of brands that pander to mass market expectation, Nintendo have been just as guilty as promoting familiarity as any of the bland opposing examples.

Ultimately, this discussion has made some attempt to speak of the roots of the problem, but at the end of the day, this is a post about an utterly ineffective and creatively inglorious advertisement.
DC's deal with various [game] publishers means this double-page spread has been appearing in a wide variety of comics over several months. That repetition might very well successfully tap in to the subconscious of a demographic that is presumably already familiar with the product. It provides the bare minimum of information to ensure a sale in the event of successful penetration, but that assumes it is effective. In an established industry, maybe that kind of reinforcement is success.

"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
and then is heard no more: It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
- William Shakespeare; Macbeth

I can't honestly attempt to blame the content of the game, which might not be the crowning achievement of narrative creation, but does what is expected of it. I personally think some of the more short sighted examples that perhaps reflect onto a game like Prototype are preparing the medium for a recession. As this generation of gamers grow, their majority share of the market will potentially require the same types of progress we saw in previous eras. In a medium where the separation of techno ratios is becoming less significant, the most obvious source of longevity is the same thing that has sustained film and comic books for the best part of a century -- plot.

In that respect, the morality tale of Alex Mercer is exactly what the title claims.
Like any superhero from comics, the character has great potential as a serialized figure, and an emphasis on plot as a sales prospect needn't strip the medium of it's relevance. As a first chapter in something larger, the game could literally be a prototype build.
Gaming will always have interactive elements to rest upon and define them. Regular story-driven downloadable content has the potential to replace box sequels, while more ambitious projects could further take advantage of the medium, allowing players to enjoy subsequent instalments with ramifications unique to their initial playing experience. Effectively, it's an argument for something similar to film or comics, with sequentially divergent developments unique to each player.

As always, we speak in generalizations, and continue to look forward to excitement.
Opinions may vary.

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