I've been thinking a lot about yesterday's announcement of Playdate, the new experiment for handheld games by Firewatch publisher Panic. More than anything else, it's strange: A small handheld with a 12-week program of mystery games is just what your attention requires. And yes, it has a crank. It's a cleverly marketed way to watch what happens when clever people spit for a few years and do not think too much about selling their jam sessions, and the question arises: why games are not weirder? And who has the luxury of being weird in the video game industry?
The date of the game is weird and it's weird because games – at least the biggest and most monolithic ones – are not. Why should they be? The modern publisher of high-budget video games has reduced the behavior of an average video player to a science. You know people will spend money on FIFA Ultimate Team or Fortnite Battlepasses. They know where each kill takes place on a Call of Duty card and how often each Destiny weapon is used. They know the way each player takes to a destination in Ghost Recon: Wildlands – and they show you that they know about a heatmap available in the game.
You are not a mystery to the modern video game publisher. They are data. There's a plan for you that has arrived pretty well, except for occasional micro-transaction controversy. And the games are selling.
In this environment we are hungry for the strange and the unusual. This is one of the reasons why Nintendo is so highly regarded. Consider the last decade of his ideas: a modular console with a configuration for every kind of game. A cardboard playing set to build your own peripherals and to learn the programming. A handheld console that created the idea of glasses-free 3D. A home console controlled by something that looks like a TV remote.
These are all things that no one has asked . Nor are they all winners or completely successful in everything they intend to do. Sure, the Wii U failed, but the 3DS did not – though the key innovation was out of the question. The strangeness was exciting. One of the biggest names in video games is still interested in offering us new ways of playing, even if they do not change.
Doing strange things is risky, and the entire entertainment industry is increasingly risk averse to watching movies and watching TV for books and video games. Safe bets are the name of the game in which the risk is best borne by individuals rather than companies. Steps taken by companies like Sony and Microsoft to innovate – streaming video games, built-in share functions, cloud services – simply fold existing, popular business models together in one place as companies move on to other areas of entertainment and expand technology. Stadia, Google's leap into a revolutionary, console-less future, is not so much a shocking new idea as a desired term for a number of existing ones.
The risk of being weird often lies with independent creators who carry the risk themselves. In order to find really new types of work, one has to look at people who have not been represented in the mainstream for some time. Color's queer artists and game designers develop afro-futuristic RPGs and games about giant robotic struggles as romance, taking a look at sinister worlds and futures that move away from the familiar. They are weird and that makes them good. You are not sure.
That's what makes Playdate so attractive. That does not make sense. As I said, it's more game than game – more of a spontaneous street performance than a real album or even a concert. It feels new, a way to import the artificial mayflies of the Instagrammable pop-up museum into games and combine them with the trendy kitsch of Tamagotchi. Most game consoles are not designed for pop, but playdate.
And Playdate is praised for that. We like the idea very much, and many others too. It's "quirky", "adorable" and, more importantly, it has credibility. Panic is a newcomer to the industry, but it released Firewatch which exceeded a certain threshold of taste. But I wonder how novel Playdate really can be: Although there is a crack team of designers working on the console, it's not very diverse. This is supposed to be a surprise, but the list of exciting creators released to tease us is pretty much white and exclusively male. And while the presence of Maestro Keita Takahashi makes me keep my fingers crossed that the rest of the list will make up for it, that's a shame. Video games are expansive, bizarre things, and the boundaries they constantly occupy do not just deserve to be broken. They deserve to be broken by people they have never had a chance to do. It's good to be weird, but games could be weirder and weird. And we'll never know how much it costs until we give more people a chance to surprise us.