Warren Spector Was Right

Games design legend Warren Spector—whose resume includes a few little things like Deus Ex, Thief and Wing Commander—turned heads a couple of weeks ago when he railed against the trailer for the Wolfenstein reboot, Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Posting to Facebook (and typing from his iPhone, just to put the statement in its full and proper context), Spector wrote:

Did the world really need another Wolfenstein game? Did we need a generically dark, monochromatic, FPS, kill-the-Nazi-giant-robot game? Uh. No. The world did not. I am so tired of stuff like this.

Sidebar: These images are all from different games.

This lit the world on fire a little bit, because when a guy like Spector says something about video games, everyone stops to listen. And although 2009’s Wolfenstein was uninspired, the series dives into alternate histories and plays with elements of science-fiction and horror—hardly the cookie-cutter, real-world shooting game that so many people are tired of.

Spector elaborated on his initial comments in the ensuing Facebook comment thread, which was filled with a hundred comments after only a few hours. What steams Spector is the ubiquity and homogeneity of generic shooter titles at the expense of all other kinds of games.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t be allowed to make or play stuff like this, but I reserve the right to be depressed about it and to wish games supported a more diverse range of styles and content.

As his comments began to be reported in the gaming press, Spector wrote a much longer explanation in a comments thread at Destructoid.

Anyone want to deny it’s a shooter? Anyone want to deny it’s using a monochromatic color palette? Anyone want to defend the ‘in a world where…’ narration? Does anyone look at the state of the industry and, leaving indie stuff aside, the major publishers are pushing much besides shooters, sports and action-rpgs?

But Warren, if you’re setting aside indie stuff, sports stuff and action-RPG stuff, you are setting aside an awful lot of stuff. All of that stuff is where the meat of PC gaming is happening every day. Dear Esther was a first-person walker with no enemies and no guns. Torchlight is an action-RPG that out-Diablo’d Diablo. FTL put you in command of a starship as the entire universe tried to kill you. The Walking Dead put you in the lead role of a cell-shaded moving comic book. All of these games, great and small, were commercially successful and helped push modern gaming in new directions.

There’s a renaissance going on right now in PC gaming, and focusing on the frequently bland world of AAA publishers is basically just complaining that the world isn’t changing fast enough for your tastes. The variety and quality of games coming through independent developers and non-traditional publishing venues like Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight is unprecedented, and that’s a thing that should be celebrated more than it is.

Army of Two

Pictured: Bros

Spector is right about the stuffiness of the AAA game market. Most games are able to sell millions of copies on launch day only if they appeal to every possible person with a PC or gaming console in their house. Distressingly, these games do this by being about large men firing large guns at large enemies, usually in the future, usually with a snarky, foul-mouthed bro in attendance.  This trope is so well established that whole games are built on it: the new expansion for Far Cry 3, Blood Dragon, is an 80s-tastic parody of the adolescent male power-fantasy problem.

But is it really fair to launch that attack from Wolfenstein’s back, considering that the game doesn’t exist yet? This angst is an incredibly premature reaction based solely on a trailer that doesn’t show any gameplay or finalized art.

There’s being right and then there’s picking your moment. I think Spector took his very reasonable frustrations and took them out on a game that has at least a possibility to reintroduce us to interesting locations and novel gameplay designs.

And, after a day’s worth of abuse, Spector came to pretty much the same conclusion. He apologized in a follow-up post:

I owe the Wolfenstein team an apology. And to everyone who pointed out that I didn’t know enough about the game to judge, well, you were right. Consider this my mea culpa.

I hope the conversation doesn’t end there, though. I hope that the same people who wrote to Spector in defense of Wolfenstein also paid attention when he said this:

I’ll stand by my overall statement about lack of variety and innovation in mainstream gaming. I was simply expressing, once again, my long-held belief that we make too many shooters, lots of which look, sound and feel like basically the same game dressed up in different clothes.