Video games

Let’s go back to independent games retail

Earlier this week Game Group went into administration. With around 600 Game and Gamestation stores here it is the largest specialist games retailer in the UK.

Despite this dark week for games retail I implored gamers on Twitter to support other independent game shops on the high street. Many supported this notion, but lots more pointed out they had no indies near them – that’s tragic – but I can’t help but feel we as consumers are partly to blame for this.

Our independent gaming history

We have a vibrant video game history in this country. It’s not as well documented as other countries, but despite that, important franchises and development houses were born here, often fresh from the bedroom development scene of the early 1980s.

We had that same patchwork of independent games retailers too, who were usually fans of gaming with business acumen who realised that there was a gap in the market the came with the proliferation of games and games systems. We were largely safe from the video games crash of 1983 precisely because the majority of our developers, publishers, and home computers were based here and nearly totally uncoupled from the American market.

So these independent gamers realised that high street shops like Woolworths, Boots* and WH Smith etc were not always best placed to sell games. Sure they could put them on shelves with prices, but their staff weren’t best equipped to answer questions about what was the best console port from arcade, or what games were best suited to a player based on what else they enjoyed.

Then in 1995 (when the first big US games retailer hit our shores in the form of Electronics Boutique) this idea of independent games shop sort of fell by the wayside. By the time all EBs became Game we’d all collectively coasted along with this new model of games specialists.

Coasting off a monopoly

Game (and with their uncontested acquisition of Gamestation in 2007) became the de-facto shop Britain thinks of when it comes to game shops. More importantly this retail chain has become the retail experience by which we were all judged by non-gamers in turn. If less gaming-savvy relatives or friends wanted to buy us a game for Christmas they’d go to Game, it seemed easier than researching the title involved themselves, going online, or popping into a independent shop.

Why? Because as my Twitter audience pointed out there simply aren’t many independent retailers on the high street anymore, and if there are, they’ve been totally dwarfed by the Game/Gamestation behemoth.

However we’ve partly perpetuated this by feeding back into the loop of Game equalling the only Game shop. In turn Game and Gamestations senior management relied too heavily on our laziness. They collectively focused less (at a senior management level at least, I have no issue with the bods on the retail floor) on the experience of games shopping, and fell more inline with the experience of the very high street shops that those savvy gaming businessmen swore all those years ago to deviate from.

Game and Gamestation became another ordinary shop in all but name, still defending their “game specialist” status, but bar a few notable examples of specialism (midnight launches, pre-orders) not really providing much that you couldn’t experience in any other store, and at a premium at that. The idea of game retail specialist became a complete fallacy because Game Group had totally watered the idea down. In the process of their dominance many independent shops couldn’t compete, gamers that didn’t like the new model or weren’t catered for by Game Group went online.

One area where most high street retailers fail in regards to games is the fact that many don’t even to continue to properly support our gaming history by providing easy access to retro titles, or even the “niche” titles that befit a games specialist. These titles now can’t be found anywhere else but online, fuelling the need for people with an ardent interest in games to go elsewhere.

Where the indies come in

This week has shown that one giant games retailer doesn’t always work in the best interest of it’s audience. I’d like to see more indie stores, tweaked and tailored to the unique needs of the local area, filled with gamers or at least people that properly respect gaming at every appreciable level. It might make for a better and more sustainable business model.

They should stock what gamers want (and that means all gamers) not just the audience that Game caters for now (with all the major franchises in tow, but minimal numbers of much else). Pre-owned retro stock shouldn’t just be a nice to have. Additionally game shops are on the high street have become far too focused on the last six to twelve months of gaming. Good indies cater as far back as their customer base wants, as well as offering pre-orders for all and any new games, not just major titles.

My most important requirement form a specialist games retailer is a helpful and respectful shopping experience with friendly staff that make people want to commit to shopping locally rather than going online or via a supermarket. We gamers often have more disposable income than other consumers and yet we’re still chasing the cheapest price when many other local retailers (particularly those stocking locally sourced food and crafts) are having a bit of a renaissance here. We’re starting (with other things we need at least) to go back to the idea of customer loyalty, and that’s genuine loyalty not shown with cards, but with footfall and returning business.

So why not with games? Independent shops won’t exist where they’re not supported, and while the Game Group situation may may survive in some form, we as consumer have a chance for a new and better model for games retail. Let’s not waste it.

* Yes, once upon a time, Boots did in fact sell video games. Boots is a very famous pharmacy chain in the UK.

Currently playing

Saying goodbye to Mass Effect

I feel very lost after completing Mass Effect 3 – not because of the fan controversy over the ending, but for more intentional reasons. This final game (in the trilogy proper) was always going to be about finality, whether in the form agreeable closure or murky conclusion.

So I finished the final chapter with a bruised ego. There was no shaking off this spread of feelings. We all knew this was the final, bitter outing with Shepard and her companions.

It’s my view that this labour would have happened no matter what the ending – good or bad – and as such there are no spoilers here.

Moving on from the end of the series

Like many I have watched the Mass Effect saga unfold for nearly five years. Few developers have managed to attempt the beauty and scale of another world setting with such panache.

However it’s the little details I appreciate Mass Effect for – the way I rediscover characters from previous games like old friends. Treading over old ground, sharing old memories from the past games, wondering at our accomplishments, and of course the cheer excitement of exploring the galaxy with my favourite squad members.

So this week after completing the game I find myself mourning that lack of new adventure. The Mass Effect universe is now a closed book that I have little desire to return to. (In the same way I am reluctant to return to Halo after the primary story has ended). It’s not resentment about how things have turned out. In fact I find the discussion about the ending is almost detracting from my previously experienced sense of loss after the commitment that playing a three-stage space opera had become.

Shepard and her squad

This was always a story about Shepard’s influence on the galaxy, her decisions and influence however profound or difficult. I always found the interplay between the different characters Shepard meets the core of the game.

It’s the main humanising detail in Mass Effect’s extraordinary and alien world – and the one I looked forward to the most, there is little I can seek out to replace it. In fact I find myself looking back to the very first game. The first tentative steps of my Commander Shepard who was still finding her feet – cut from the cloth of Alliance proudest and most accomplished stock, but embroiled in something far larger than she could have ever imagined.

The team that I – that she – cultivated across all three games were the making of my experience with Mass Effect. Shepard had become a beacon within the context of the game and the epitome of a masterful, empowering and intelligent female protagonist that I (and many others) have desired for decades.

My soul lifted through the course of two further games, watching my Shepard interact with characters who returned. I started to rely on the same faces with each iteration of the game. I knew the members of my squad dearly (and one intimately). I knew their strengths, motives and backgrounds. I doubt with anyone other than Shepard to frame this discussion I would have found any of this dialogue as interesting. That sense of anticipation at meeting and finding old friends has gone now, and I’ll have to move on – but I do so with some standout moments and memories.

Sidestepping the ending

I still find myself reeling from the very difficult decisions I had to make during Mass Effect 3 – some of the hardest in the series, and the hardest ones were all before the ending. These were decisions I genuinely struggled to make, my insides writhed with the responsibility of the consequences. I urge anyone reeling over the final decision in particular to remember the compelling and believable moments leading up to the endings curveball, to think of those who have yet to make those decisions and how the large community fury is tarring the experience of those who have yet to see it for themselves.

I have always played my Shepard as myself, and acted I would have reacted to each question and decision. I suspect I share this experience with many others. The beauty of it was how our choices differed, and we’ll meet few people who played precisely as each of us did in turn. I will miss this most of all. The copious discussion of who, what, where, the agonising and the heart rates. It was glorious while it lasted, and I feel immeasurably proud to have been there from the beginning, with wide, wondrous eyes.

The finality rather then the method of the finality is causing me to feel down. It’s a blip on what has been a remarkable and enthralling five years, but I couldn’t see a world where the Mass Effect narrative ends as anything other than the darker horizon for narrative games. Upon refection I doubt I’d reacting with anything other than sadness at the conclusion of such an amazing and compelling story, and one that I will treasure dearly, and for far longer than most.

To summarise with the words of T.S. Eliot:

“…This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.” – The Hollow Men (1925)

Video games

The regional bias of voice acting

I have become so accustomed to Japanese character models and American voice acting that Xenoblade’s British voice acting cast came as quite a shock to me as a Brit (and no doubt to a great many American gamers who imported the game).

Xenoblade’s British streak hints at something lacking in more of our gaming experiences (in English at least). We’ve lost a lot of our world view. We’ve started to expect the characters in our games to sound a certain way. With all the same regional hallmarks.

Sounding distinctly foreign

Xenoblade’s British voice acting cast came as a welcome shock to me. It was wonderful to hear many of my native tones and accents pour of the screen. It was also strangely jarring. I grew up with games that didn’t speak, and those that did were a rare and impressive novelty. My immersion into game characters sounding a certain way came very slowly.

I read text heavy games such as Final Fantasy VII in my own style internally, I imagined Cloud and the other characters speaking in my native accent, in the same way that you imagine a character in a book looking or sounding in a way particular to your own instincts and background. That’s not to say that’s how any of those characters sounded, but that’s merely how I imagined them within the framework of what I knew.

Over time though this imaginative approach to gaming has been slowly eroded away by the inclusion of voice acting. While this is for the most part totally welcome it’s definitely affected the way that I now perceive games. I don’t even blink hearing lead characters with an American accent anymore, or even a Japanese audio track.

Yet hearing the Xenoblade characters for the first few minutes was very hard work – despite how brilliant the voice acting is. The British tones are how I hear Shulk and Reyn when I imagine them now – without question. I was merely taken aback by how ubiquitous American and Japanese voices have become in the gaming world, how rare and exciting it was to hear my own country in the audio track of this distinctly Japanese game.

I hadn’t realised this voice casting bias had happened until Xenoblade came along, and now I’ve realised it, it’s really made me question why more games aren’t voiced by people from another region.

Xenoblade’s not the only example of British voice acting of course, but it’s one of the first I’ve experienced, and certainly the first one to really make me sit up and think about this, precisely because of the polarity between how this games sounds and what I am used to. It’s marvellous.

A slow change in standards

Of course the quality of the voice acting in a game is an important factor too. A good voice acting cast will often make me forget about the original nationality of the voice actors. Mass Effect is a great example of this. The only reason I found Xenoblade so briefly jarring was because of the rarity of hearing my native accent in the context of a game.

Another difficulty with voice acting comes with the localisation and modernisation of older games that didn’t previously have an audio track for voices. A part of me still prefers to read game dialogue than to hear it, as I can take in the story at my own pace – perhaps faster or even slower than someone acting the part could allow.

It can also be extremely hard to hear characters you know intimately who were previously silent. I still can’t watch Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children with the English audio track. No one will ever sound or come close to sounding how I imagined those characters through our hundreds of hours together. The “sound” of that game has become something very personal to me, and it’s a difficult listen for someone else to retrospectively try to voice those characters.

That’s why a game like Xenoblade stands more of a chance at exposing the issue of the lack of variety of video game voice acting. The characters are new to us and stand a better chance of making their mark as to how those characters should sound to a Western audience.

The fact that it’s come to Europe first means the localisation has been done with a European audience in mind, with a voice cast to match, and that’s turning the tables to an American audience, forcing some gamers (perhaps sometimes uncomfortably) to realise what we on this side of the Atlantic have realised for some time. That voice acting may not always be pretty – that it can infuriate and not always be appropriate to your needs, or how you feel a character should sound.

Certainly not in Xenoblade’s case though, I think the voice cast have done a fabulous job, and I highly recommend any American gamers awaiting the NA release try it (rather than the Japanese voices) to see what I mean.