Quantity over quality. Videogames, their makers, their players, even their reviewers, have come to believe wholeheartedly in this precept. The prevalence of this conviction catalyses Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands. A game centred on the War on Drugs, regardless of whether its directors front load it with character monologues and an accompanying documentary about the cocaine trade, will not be taken seriously if it also involves 60 plus hours of repeat gunfights and finding hidden items. Not without good reason, people are distrustful of general loathing of the medium, but movies, television and novels, one feels confident asserting, are of a broadly better standard than games. Particularly games like Wildlands. Projects like it exist elsewhere and often make good money, but they aren’t so warmly received. Boisterous movies are attended and enjoyed but not released so uniformly, or considered by their watchers and critics to be, in any sense, state-of-the-art. For lasting what is regarded as an appropriate amount of hours, for including enough “content” and for looking good in a way that is now common in videogames, Wildlands seems to be, not just tolerated or passingly appreciated, but welcomed—it deserves to be challenged, but instead seems the recipient of blithe, shrug of the shoulders praise. If creative, critical and customer standards are this simple toward other entertainments, they ought to be challenged in games as well.
If Wildlands possesses a redeeming quality, it’s the potential to alert anybody who plays it to videogaming’s grotesquely low expectations—if you can experience this game without developing a concern for the condition of one of our most popular cultures, one can only envy your naïveté. Wildlands feels like the end product of an industry and an audience raised to favour sheer accumulation. Its thoughtless mechanics and writing, its immense marketing campaign and general pretension, signal game-makers who want as much financial return for as little intellectual investment as possible; its hours upon hours of repeat spectacle, its collectible items, its large landscape, its innumerable, meaningless weapon and character customisations, are designed for a clientèle for whom the act of getting and having virtual things has been equated with sincere appreciation and enjoyment.
On reflection, in regards to the studio behind Wildlands, quantity over quality feels too complex a tenet. For them, it seems like quantity is quality. Thus the commitment to mass appeal, by refusing to make convicted statements about anything, the attacking and shouting at subject matter rather than unpacking it discernibly, and the measurable amounts of raw game. Likewise, for the audience, simply ingesting Wildlands feels akin to caring about and understanding it. Where real appreciation is signaled by astute rather than plentiful observations, getting more from Wildlands—more guns, more clothes, more of the map—is how we’re encouraged to interact. The player who knows the game better is the one who has accrued more of its stuff. If we’ve unlocked more guns, more character options and more of the map, the game directly informs us, with achievements and more unlockables, that we are good players. Mental engagement is neither encouraged nor rewarded—lacking, deliberately, any narrative substance, Wildlands impresses upon us that acquiring stuff is the only way to measure our relationship to it.
And thus, the precepts—quantity over quality, quantity is quality, more equals more—are calcified. It is tempting to blame videogames’ predilections for stuff, things, “content” on the multi-million-dollar budgets, the $60 price tags. When so much money and time is dedicated to game production, creators will rinse every drop of publishable material they can from each dollar; for $60, customers and consumers expect to be “entertained” for many hours and will not repeat their business should they be let down. To the phenomenon of quantity reigning above even basic narrative cogency, these compacts contribute both.
But the fascination with sheer amount by games and game audiences is compelled—as in Wildlands, where acquisition of items and patent hours played are the simplest, if not only ways to measure any kind of lesson learned or insight gained—by what we actually do in videogames. They teach us that more is better and less is a disadvantage. Bereft of substance they leave us with nothing but material gained to measure our engagement with their stories and worlds. Lacking even basic understanding of their topics, but boasting—as Wildlands does through its pretentious opening cutscene and drug business jargon, learned and copied from popular movies and TV—respect and apparent insider knowledge, they simultaneously give us nothing and assure us it’s something. Little wonder that in-game, digital litter, which we collect or are expected to collect dutifully, has started to feel like justification enough for calling a game like Wildlands acceptable, or even excellent. We have been groomed, as audiences, as game-makers, to believe that apoliticism and lack of conviction are kinds of artistic achievement; to make videogames welcoming and unchallenging, and unlikely to disturb our already existing worldview, is imperative.
Under the rubrics of non-confrontation of the audience and self-sustaining, long-lasting games, saying lots and it all meaning nothing, and repetitive actions, rewarded with narrowly useful virtual items, have become the things we value. Wildlands, wherein hours of play and effort result in no improvement of our understanding of the war against drugs—no intellectual stimulation whatsoever—suggests that production of sheer quantity is considered by game-makers a professional obligation. If they can extract from us days of play time, tens of dollars and almost uniform praise without giving anything in return even close to intellectual betterment, games like Wildlands have succeeded, and upon terms they themselves set and have maneuvered us all into accepting. The fact Wildlands has sold more at launch than any other game of this year so far signifies we’ve become used to rewarding this kind of game-making, and accustomed to giving videogames something in exchange for nothing.
Ed Smith contributes to Vice, The Observer, Edge, Play Magazine, and Kill Screen. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.