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End of 2009: Three Chords and The Truth
by Stephen Chin on 12/30/09 01:42:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutras community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


What with this whole end of the year thing, I thought I'd join in the fun and do something like that. But, the Gamasutra crowd being as prolific as it is, pretty much all the fun topics have been covered. Like any forum, starting up redundant threads of discussion isn't really going to do much other than spread the chat around.

So I ended up procrastinating and surfing TV Tropes (NSFW - if only because you may end up doing a wiki walk and losing track of time), a sort of wiki for the creative and creative concepts, when I came across Three Chords and the Truth. TCATH is music that consists of, more or less, three chords of music and little else. As a trope, it more or less describes the cycle in pop music where " becomes too pretentious, or too slick to be taken seriously, or formulaic corporate bubblegum. In response, fans turn to Three Chords And The Truth to "get back to where we once belonged." But with time, the limits of the trope mean that everything begins to sound the same, and fans return to more elaborate songs."

It's a cyclic trope as the above quote describes. So why do I bring this up? I think, the general cycle, if not that of TCATH than a generic cycle, is applicable to the video game industry. Perhaps our young industry is more cyclic and less evolving than we think; the real evolution being technical and technological rather than any inherent aspect of immersion and what have you special aspect of video games. I think in part, due to the youth of the industry, alot of these cycles that may be more apparent in other mediums have yet to show up significantly or repeatedly. 

 And now I get to talk about all that stuff everyone else already has. We'll start with some obvious stuff and then go to, perhaps, less obvious stuff.

Death of the PC/Console: I've seen both and while both sides have valid points, I don't personally see any solid sign that either side is right. More over, these are points that have been raised many times over the years as one side or the other gains a temporary advantage. Then there's the group that considers a consolidation of PC/consoles into one unified entity. While having some valid points, I think that the industry is such that should PC or console 'die' or merge into one, it'd be a short death (though maybe longer than some would like) before a re-emergance.

Video Game Packaging/Fluff: Hey, remember back in the 80s and 90s when games had all sorts of cool packaging like funky looking containers, random bits of fluff like maps and replicas, and sometimes obtuse copy protection schemes. Of course, one of the reasons these things fell out of favor (remember that standardization of PC and console packaging movements) was lack of shelf space, cost, and what have you. While the cycle of this is perhaps debatable (with with things like digital distribution), the recent surge of late of things like fancy pre-order bonuses does remind me of this.

Death of the JRPG, Rise of Co-op: This has been a big one; at the very least, a dismal year for the genre, as it is said. Only a handful of releases this year and the next, generally from one or two stalwart mainstay companies while the rest of the industry focuses on something else (probably military-action FPS, sci-fi optional). If this sounds familiar, it probably should - it happened with the adventure game. And if games like Tales of Monkey Island, Sam and Max, and other smaller games are an indication, adventure games are making a comeback. One hopes then that more companies will take the plunge so that the 'fate' of the genre doesn't fall upon a single company. Likewise in it's turn, co-op has been the big thing - after seeming a long stretch of titles that focused on first single player experiences and then multiplayer experiences.

Focused Genres/Hybrid Games/Sandbox Games: A more subtle and long term cycle I think but of the biggest games of the year, most of them were very focused in what they did. Contrast years before when hybrid and sandbox games were bigger.  

Serious/Hardcore/Casual: Yes, I think even this is cyclic (well, maybe not but it's food for thought at any rate). Computer/video games as we know them, after all, started as a bunch of scientists using their supercomputer to goof off. From that serious basis, came hardcore gaming in the form of the arcade and early consoles. As the market expanded, so then came a flood of casual titles. Then the market crashed, games went hardcore again, and... well, here we are as the casual shifts back into focus.

The Rock Star Developer: Not the company but rather the idea of developers and publishers as rock stars, idols, and icons. This was pretty much the thing that happens back in the golden age of video games - EA (yes, that EA) went the risky route and actually credited individuals who contributed to their games (or labeling titles as X's Game). Such lead to the rise of various icons in the industry. But... then that rock star status go carried away, the tide turned back to more conservative only for it to start happening again.

Art/Indie/Corporate Games: Perhaps to a certain extent and perhaps mirroring a lot of what TCATH means. After the emergance of studios and bigger funding, this greater amount budget and what not was not considered a bad thing. And now here we are with huge budgets and people starting to shift back to 'simpler' things. Maybe in a few years, we'll start seeing blooming budgets again as we shift back again as indie developers become big. After all, the music industry has made money off the sale of anti-corporate and anti-establishment songs.

 - - -

General miscellanous stuff...

Three Chords and the Truth made me consider the whole games as movies thing. Maybe that comparison came back because of the similarities (multi-sensory, length of time, budget, etc) but maybe...  maybe that's wrong. Maybe it's not a matter of how much like movies we are and maybe that's an entirely different thing. Maybe the video game industry is more like the music industry, at least on an operational level. Both perhaps share a lot more in common than it would seem - not on the end product level but on the way we operate and sell outselves (not to mention the whole shared piracy thing). Much like the music industry, while we have an end product (games, music), we may not actually be selling a product at times, but an image, a celebrity. The music industry has artists (people that make music for the love of it) but they also have people that are stars (people that are selling a product/themselves/whatever). Perhaps this has parallels in the video game industry.

Also, check out some random tropes at TV tropes. Whether it's just fun humour like Shoulders of Doom to general concepts like the Action Girl and the Straight Gay, the website can be surprizingly insightful at times. Also, it's lacking in video game examples so... ;)

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Chuan Lim
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Hi, first of all props for coming with some original thoughts + the link to the tropes site which is quite interesting in itself. Never thought I'd see Burzum associated with a discussion of games though that's really cool. Loving the free range thinking on there though IMO the timeframes are a little skewed and it could be rewarding to zoom back a couple of millenia "Powers of Ten" style and talk about influences, representation, and content. Methinks the whole phenomena of things seeming "cyclic" comes from human culture at large being one long bloody cascade of differentation; as each generation seeks to define what's new and what's relevant ..

Against this to'ing and fro'ing though, there's also the historical and evolutionary backdrop of other stronger forces such as how plainchant [ Gregorian chant / you know monks, an' Enigma an' stuff ] around 500AD was the precursor to the invention of musical notation and also how the Western system of Standard Tuning [ first on the invention of th' harpsichord, then piano and finally guitar ] has paved the way for Sex Pistols and AOR radio material.! What was once arbitrarily set in the past is such a massive influence on the content now produced be it reactionary or not and this also holds true for language in general not to mention the QWERTY keyboard that I type this on ..!

It seems to me that we're somewhat slaves to our upbringing and the environment around us; for example growing up listening to the Top 40 on the radio and forming ideals based off the input from images on television and marketing. It's a huge phenomenological thing and for the large part we're just fine being oblivious to it all as we're pretty sure what measures up in terms of "beauty" and an emotional response to music but in reality its like driving down the road and having the perception that most of the Earth must be covered in ashphalt because that's "just what is" [ there ] from the experience that you've carved out for yourself as driver.


Furthermore, it takes real effort or disruption [ such as being a teenager ] to fight against this stuff.! As with anything you need to put in th' time and effort to *actively* open yourself to new experiences or scales or types of music but once done your vista increases a bit and every once in a while with this new knowledge are able to make connections between disparate things. I guess the similarities come from a very basic human physiology, as we could never hope to appreciate the world in the same way that say a dog or a bat can with their increased hearing range. Anyway with regard to music, I remember actively buying + listening to more and more confronting music when I was younger [ well ok, yesterday ] because it was a real kick and the impetus was to *explore* rather than to expect something more functional whether that be smooth elevator jazz w/ saxophones or a great pop song which would give me a psychological lift. I guess this stuff bleeds into a discussion of "muzak" which is pretty interesting if you do some reading around on the company that gave its namesake.


How does this relate to games? For a gamer of 30-odd years I'm feeling that we never really got out of sating the craving for a satisfying I-IV-V-IV chord progression and as designers are mostly guilty of not taking th' risks of the road less travelled. We are in fucking Bruckheimer-land as far as emotional or narrative development in games, and I give them full credit for knowing how to skewer the four part Greek Tragedy every time.! In terms of plot development and the experiences offered in our games we've become so skilled at manipulating "intensity" that the process has overrun any purpose in offering the experience. The representation [ or let's say achievement for discussion's sake ] has become the most important thing with content or actual thoughts, ideas, feelings conveyed being reduced to something ancillary rather than the focus.

It's what's happened in the last 20 years to mainstream films whereby Hollywood blockbusters are the same tropes re-enacted over and over again to elicit much the same learned responses. Japanese RPG's such as Final Fantasy are now adopting this model and to that I'll rant here and say live a little + go read good book. At least you'll have some better level of narrative, if not life experience. We are way too caught up in the representation and its just a nice looking waste of time with no real agency or resonance with the world [ imagined or real ]. I still love games though, just that very few seem to offer content that's not purely escapist an' of a rudimentary level of engagement. At least in abstraction and something like VF5 or SF4, there's a richness in the virtuosity to enjoy and I appreciate that in terms of pure gameplay and the experience it brings. Not everything has to be super meaningful but at least attempt to speak with a unique voice. Death to the grind -- and your ever expanding arse cheeks.!


Platforms, markets, and marketing are all changing as well but to me it seems to be more of a consolidation of lessons learned and in an evolutionary manner we will see some big changes in terms of ubiquitous gaming platforms and I can't wait for more inter-operability between games using concepts such as XML / markup language to solve the problem of developers endlessly re-creating the same content. Why can't we have something akin to a Collada standard for game content & assets so that everybody doesn't have to remake trees or other in game items? I can see a future where this is the norm, with current middleware and things like Sketchup's warehouse being an indicator of where things are headed. Surely, with the advent of cloud gaming this is going to be a natural fit for future game production.

For the moment though, we'll continue to fight the wrong fights and spend all our time + energies doing dumb things and travelling in parallel down that blacktop which has become a multi-million dollar highway when IMO what we could be doing is to be heading in as many different tangents as possible as far as content is concerned and let a thousand flowers blossom. Independents are trying to do this, and their songs aren't pretty because they don't have the budgets or collective talent to do all things at once with maybe the exception of Eskil. Soon enough though, given th' rise of web-based gaming this year and the things content providers on the periphery are doing maybe we will see a seachange. Until then listen to more Harry Partch ..

-- Chuan