With the release of the hyped final entry in the most recent Star Wars trilogy, eyes have turned to the lackluster reception and immediate backpedaling present in the subtext. With numerous concessions made to comply with fan backlash since the first entry, heated debates about the appropriate level of fan service, the responsibilities surrounding a reboot or revival, and arguments on who should helm one of the most established contemporary pop media franchises, has finally culminated in one tumultuous yawn. Not quite a failure, not quite a success- just a lingering bitter taste in the mouth of those with expectations cultivated beyond reason. The impossibly high bar of quality demanded induced by runaway marketing strategies, artifically assembled as a sort of bulwark, a last ditch defensive effort by media corporations against cynical counter-culture.
It becomes increasingly self-evident with every passing year that we have an ethical obligation moving forward to examine the conditions that lead to this scenario, there are many lessons regarding the future of interactive media, film, and commercial games and the toxic influences that pervade each respective industry. As hardware innovation and novel inspiration reduce to a simmer, an uneasy sense of doubt begins to take root in the institutions we take for granted on a daily basis. The audience’s enthusiasm that has driven us unquestionably to this point begins to run dry- suddenly, the glamour has worn off and we’re no longer impressed with the emperor’s new clothes.
Where will the next decade take us when we can no longer coast on established success and the familiar momentum of presumption? after all, ‘He who controls the spice-‘ waitaminute, wrong franchise!
Reboots are nothing new, but the perpetual river of visceral contempt that they bring is, an unsurprising development that rode in on the vector of cynical media takedowns channels that defined the last half of the 2000s carried like an infestation of fleas. Some of this was born out of spite downstream from the insecurity that comes from deriving a sense-of-self in association with media brands, rather than out of adoration for the medium and a desire elevate the craft. Over time these bitter nostalgic tirades rose tensions to a roiling boil, a sickly gumbo of frustration and arrested cultural development that conflagrated any sense of civility in the public square we once enjoyed as a by-product from sharing our love of popular entertainment.
Eventually this trend spilled over into game critique via notable critic-entertainers like Jimquisition or Zero Punctuation, it was The Rise Of The Snarky Nitpicker, justified or not, and it contributed to the increase of acidity in the collective discourse. This is not to imply any sense of malice on the part of those well-meaning iconoclasts, and in many cases they were earnest in their quest to raise awareness around consumer power, unrestrained corporate primacy, and occasionally direct attention to working conditions despotically imposed by industrial dysfunction. The excesses of this Pyrrhic consumer revolution in the long-run would prove fertile soil for a highly reactive backlash, the start of our own hyperbolic witch hunt in search of endless collaborators within the ranks. It comes as no surprise that in time, these critical mobs intoxicated by this undiluted righteous zeal, would turn on anyone who refused to submit to the tempestuous ever-changing whims of populist rhetoric. Like brush fires on the wind: what was once intentionally harnessed for the health of the ecosystem now threatens to consume the entire substrate.
The rancorous consumer movement of the 2009-2014 period originally was built on a well-reasoned foundation of a demand for quality and fair practice. Rising launch prices, intensive pre-order campaigns with gated content for specific retailers, communal investment in decentralized spaces overrun with mandatory matchmaking, and exploitation of talent via burnout. There was no immediately obvious reason at the time why any of this grounded protest would prove toxic in the long run, but some PR firms and ‘guerilla marketing’ professionals increasingly grew seduced by the notion of taming the dark side energy emanating from this consumer fury and the numerous ways to harness it.
After years of both developer and publisher capitulation, there was never a recess in the unending tide of polarizing requests from audiences. Valid complaints steadily turned into petty demands, reducing in scope but not vitriol. Years of patches, revisions, meta-game updates, massive content expansions, inevitably positioned the shift towards ‘Games As A Service’ as the only plausible solution to an unending stream of righteous-pushback-turned-undue-entitlement. In time this trend came full circle, returning to influence the place it originated: Cinema discourse.
While the game industry may struggle with fan expectations, the film industry has spent decades honing methods of turning the tables on audiences, manifesting in the faux-controversy surrounding The Last Jedi or the recent Joker film. Learning how to leverage the momentum of bitter hostility in order to dominate hashtags and internet trends.
Things like Nostalgia baiting, evident in Retro-80s hyperfictive tailgaiting, or queer baiting, unending moralistic promises of ‘Representation’ manifesting as weak, easy to prune non-commital motifs for marketing convenience, now become foundational to daily life. Big Screen & Little Screen have learned to trans-mutate fan frustration into economic windfalls, even going so far as to have fans ‘Pick A Side’ between the caricatures of Reformed Democractic Republic or… Obvious Space Fascists in some sort of upscaled Alternate Reality Game of Secret Palpatine. When we continue to play with socioeconomic fire for such trivial purposes, why are we so shocked to find it burns us all?
The perpetual churn of streaming services has predictably manifested in the television and film equivalent of ‘Games As A Service’, leading to streamlined production pipelines that prioritize agile responses to ever-changing trends in taste at the cost of craft and scope. The perpetual recuperation of any and all obvious counter-cultural forces in popular society as a clever redirection of consumptive energy. However, it is impossible to stave off the forces of entropy forever, and as the disillusionment with novelty grows, we are left wondering what’s next over the event horizon. Those few nostalgic re-creations done with love and care manifest as retro revivals, eventually will run succumb to the simple fact that the pool of cult classics is finite, as even the most beloved re-imaginings in film have discovered previously.
Outside of subverting expectations, the way forward must be paved with an eye for the obscure inspirations, ones that lay beyond simple comforting repetitions of past patterns, to reach beyond our zone of familiarity into the projects of our artistic forebears. Like it has for art house film, the future of interactive media lays hidden in the innovations of the performance arts that have existed for millennia.
Otherwise, we will find ourselves chasing our tails in a never ending loop of mining nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, and it would be wise to understand how in doing so, we undermine our own ambition. If we do not tread thoughtfully into the future, we will in time deplete the creative ecosystem by which we depend on to guide our dreams, endlessly repeating the mistakes of those who have come before us, and echoing their injustices for eons.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice