Thursday, March 24, 2011

Time Investing is Not Enough

So, in the hours and hours and hours of commuting that Boston requires, I play a lot of DS games. Right now, I'm playing Radiant Historia.

Radiant Historia is a really good game, a lot like Chrono Trigger except that the battle system is significantly deeper. The two games are distinct enough that it's a mistake to directly compare them, but it made me think: fame is largely a matter of time and "space". Radiant Historia is better than FFVII, for example. It's definitely better than FFXIII, allowing for the graphical and interface restrictions of it being on the DS.

But Radiant Historia could never become famous like Chrono Trigger or FFVII. These games were released into a ripe position: there weren't very many RPGs around, they were king of the hill. Sure, Chrono Trigger was excellent, but importantly, it also had room to run. The only other significant JRPG-like released in America in 1995 was Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. While a good game, it didn't come out until 6 months later and was not even vaguely aimed at the same audience.

FFVII was the same way. It had to compete with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and one or two others, but it was really in its own class as a 3D RPG.

On the other hand, Radiant Historia has to compete with other JRPGs not just from 2011, but from the same month. The market is much more crowded. Even a good game doesn't have "room to run". If you were to pick up and play Radiant Historia, you'd probably say "Oh, it's pretty good, yeah..." and then forget about it in six months. There's not any space in your brain, no place for it to really take root.

We see the same thing in other industries. In the past, you would get a few catchphrases that would last a decade. You can still see hints of this looking back at older entertainment routines, where you could be assured of a "LUUUUCY!" or an "Ayyyyyyyy!" (finger-guns). Now we have a much, much larger set of memes that vie for our attention. Our culture has actually adapted to annihilate memes after a set period of time to make room for the next wave.

That's why when we use famous but aging internet memes ("All your base", "he's not me, but he could smell like me...") we are actively judged by our internet culture as being outdated. "Stop using those, here are the new memes..."

Angry Birds has sucked down more time than all of Wikipedia's editing since it began, by an order of magnitude or more. But in five years, nobody will remember Angry Birds very well: it'll be forgotten. Despite the time you spent on it, there was no "space". Your brain had no room for it to run. (To be fair, it's also not built to run even if you had space, but that's because they know there's no room...)

The only memes which continue to survive are those which produce daily variations, such as lolcats or "fail". While old memes by our standards, they remain viable because there is a continuous stream of widely varied content. They are more a method of expression rather than an expression.

These are memes which don't require room to run in order to stake out a piece of our brains. Instead, they continually chip-chip-chip away at our brain through repeated exposure from different angles of attack. If you think of Chrono Trigger as a cheetah that needs room to run, lolcats is a mole, patiently digging out a catacomb of thought and value.

It may be that the future lies mostly in "mole" memes - games and media which chip patiently away at the audience until they establishe a niche that lasts as long as maintenance continues.

Alternately, it may be that the future lies in emptying out lots of space in our heads and unleashing cheetahs of our choice onto those fertile plains. For example, it would be pretty easy for me to really fall in love with Radiant Historia: all I have to do is not play any other RPGs for a while, and maybe draw some fanart.

A hybrid option is also available. For example, in the form of the anime "Naruto". A continuous release schedule of new episodes allows the show to chip-chip-chip away at their audience's brains, although the flexibility is somewhat more limited than a proper mole meme. However, Naruto is shored up on the cheetah side as well, as it is the target of a hugely successful marketing campaign and a relatively small number of directly competing anime. These two combine pretty well with the active support of fanboys chattering like monkeys in insulated forums and circles. Fan art, fan fiction, and so on enhance Naruto's limited flexibility by stepping way, way outside canon to say whatever the audience likes. Naruto's simplistic characterizations and drawable visuals make it easy for it to be stretched to express different things as required by any given fan.

This is easy to contrast with other, less famous shows. The audiences of something like Desperate Housewives are A) buffeted by a lot of similar/competing shows, B) not as likely to form into fan groups and stretch the expressiveness of the show. The show itself is also much more limited than something like Naruto both in terms of how far it stretches in canon, and in terms of how easy it is for a fan to stretch it further.

If we were to say that lolcats is a mole and Chrono Trigger was a cheetah, Naruto would be a monkey, perhaps. Not particularly fast, not particularly good at digging, but able to live in the weird and complex garden built for it.

phwa. I guess that's all I have to say about that.

1 comment:

Ellipsis said...

I cannot help thinking of different animal-inspired styles of Kung Fu reading this.

It's a good point, though.