Another year spent indoors should have facilitated another bumper year for video games, that most indoorsy of artistic pursuits. Yet the games industry has shared many of the difficulties that have plagued other creative sectors, where dispersed teams have been forced to collaborate on complex creations. As a result, a clutch of 2021’s big-budget games have been delayed until next year, a situation that has let the sunlight in to draw up more modestly made, independent endeavours.
Games such as Unpacking, which tells its unconventional story about a young woman moving into a series of homes exclusively through the act of unpacking the boxes of her belongings. Or Lake, in which you play as a burnt-out programmer who temporarily becomes a postwoman in her pastoral hometown and, by delivering letters and parcels, readapts to more fulfilling rhythms and connections. These and others titles have provided bright flares of creativity in a psychologically demanding year. Meanwhile, the so-called “forever games”, such as Fortnite, Call of Duty and Destiny, which aim to dominate the game space in our lives via regular and indefinite content updates, have provided a reassuring nightly routine with friends for many.
‘Learn what truly matters’: Unpacking. Photograph: Witch Beam
Always a few years behind its more esteemed Hollywood sibling, the games industry has had to contend with stories of systemic abuses – particularly toward women – and a series of high-profile investigations into major companies. Activision Blizzard, publisher of the Call of Duty series, is being investigated by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing following accusations of discrimination and sexual harassment across its studios. While the company’s harangued CEO Bobby Kotick – who, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report, allegedly helped cover up these abuses – remains resolutely in place, treasurers from six US states have called on the company to take drastic action.
In video games, far more than any other medium, the effect of economics on design is clear. The earliest arcade games were calibrated so that a newcomer could only play for a few minutes before they had to clunk in another coin. Today, behemothic games such as Call of Duty: Warzone and Fortnite are ostensibly free, making money from the sale of virtual character costumes, Hollywood tie-ins and, somewhat distastefully, vibrant colour schemes and stickers for their weapons. 2021 was the year in which NFTs – limited edition digital assets – have entered the mainstream. With millions of players already groomed to accept the idea of spending £10 on, say, a Rambo costume for their video game character, it seems inevitable that numbered limited edition skins that players can later sell on – with the publisher taking a nifty cut at every stage – are imminent (and, in the case of the child’s game Roblox, fully actualised).
Legal and moral questions around what will essentially …….