Most of Anthem’s setting consists of incredibly ornate flyover country. The player’s robot bodysuit swoops over the lush jungle landscape, the soles of her metal shoes firing like twin propellers on the way toward a mission objective represented by a blue triangle. Moving with the same velocity as a fighter jet, the game world becomes nothing more than featureless geometry—a pale mountain, its skyscraper height dotted with bits of scrubby green vegetation, is only a series of obstacles for the player to navigate on her way to the next waypoint. Frothing river rapids, bordered on both sides by thick-leaved trees that gather together into dark, dense forest further from the water, represent only an opportunity to splash some moisture on the robot suit, extending its flight time to get to the next mission more quickly. Nothing in Anthem, not its clear, summer day skies or the architecture of the chipped stone ruins sinking into the earth of its forest valleys, is functionally important—the suggestion being, of course, that all of this detail is functionally useless as well.
The effect isn’t unusual for a big-budget, mainstream videogame. It’s become standard for “major” releases to be filled with incredible detail of the sort only available to studios with the financial backing necessary to throw hundreds of people at their work. (A piece by Michael Thomsen from last year looked into how something like Horizon Zero Dawn, a massive game filled with a gut-trembling volume of detail, gets made via corporate outsourcing.) The only accepted school of mainstream game design is baroque, everything about its fiction, visuals, and sound screaming with detail. Like the desire to awe viewers (and listeners) that spurred on the 17th century art movement, videogames, too, want their players (and watchers) to be overwhelmed by extravagance, even if that extravagance isn’t put to particularly good use. Sometimes, as with the kind of facial and body animation that allows actors to lend non-verbal personality to their characters, the fidelity is artistically worthwhile. Last fall’s Red Dead Redemption 2, a game whose sprawling landscapes often resemble interactive pastorals, also shows the value of this sort of lavish approach to design.
A game like Anthem, though, is overflowing with details that seem to exist only as fodder for the impressionist background blur the jetpacked protagonist’s constant speed turns them into. Everything rushes by so quickly on the way to another objective—or falls out of focus during a given firefight—that the player has to disobey the game’s design structure to appreciate the setting on more than a general level+. Stop for a moment, though, and there is always something to look at. The setting, from the battlefields of its jungles to the first-person hub city returned to after each mission, has been painstakingly modeled.
This is odd to think about when remembering that Anthem is a game that’s repeatedly been described as “empty.” Sure, the term fits when focused on the repetitive, cookie-cutter mission structure and its plot (which shambles forward with all the formulaic emptiness of the same narrative skeleton wheeled out as the structural basis for every BioWare game), but it’s unusual when you remember the detail bursting from just about everything else. There is, for instance, a codex in the menus filled with a novella’s worth of fevered genre fiction notes; there’s an entire cast of voiced characters standing around the hub world, just waiting for the player to arrive before they start dialoguing multi-part short stories; there are striking statues and old stone fortresses and stunning vistas like nature paintings everywhere in the game’s world. All of this is optional, in the sense that absolutely none of it needs to be so much as glanced at as the game points out each new objective necessary to complete before credits roll. But it being optional or unwieldy to incorporate in the “main game” only indicates a flawed approach, not the sense of emptiness levied as criticism.
And yet, “empty” is a go-to complaint for games that feel hollow or insubstantial. The Destiny series, Anthem’s closest design inspiration, features a poorly told story and a series of planets that also fade into the background of the hurried mission design. Assessed only as series of things to do, in the strictly utilitarian sense, there aren’t enough checkboxes to complete. But look around at a given environment (or commit to the madness of delving into its similarly menu-siloed glossaries) and it’s hard to imagine calling the game empty.
Videogame players and critics want “content,” and that “content” fits very specific terms. In Anthem—in Destiny—the upsettingly commonplace idea that all media is finite brain meal waiting for its audience to “consume it” results in anger about game volume, not form. There needs to be more to chew up; more missions, more stuff to collect, more places to see. From a consumption mindset (the disease and the verb), a lack of “content” is a sin. Alongside this are message board users manically formulating “price versus play time” algorithms and game studios with the necessary resources making bloated open worlds whose sheer size is impressive enough that there’s no reasonable way to argue that they’re not, god forgive me, content rich. When games are discussed in purely mechanical terms, as these kinds of games inevitably are, any evaluation of what they actually achieve (or fail to achieve) on other fronts is always going to feel besides-the-point or navel-gazey. The accepted approach is to say that Anthem does not have “enough to do,” foregoing a look at whether what there is “to do” is worthwhile.
We’ve taken for a given that every big-budget game is going to look fantastic, at least on a technical front. Each major release is packed with things “to do” if the player is interested in looking around at a setting whose extreme level of detail is the result of much careful thought and laboured craft. When these things are deemphasized in favour of content talk (which, to be fair, is incentivized by a history of aesthetically disposable blockbusters and consumption-focused critical tradition), it gets hard to think about games in terms other than utility and volume.
Anthem and its reception are a distillation of all of these trends. It’s a game that everyone, from its mission designers and marketers to the majority of critics and players, have decided to approach as a product with a lacking feature list rather than a work that could be valued on the quieter merits (or demerits) of its aesthetics. In Anthem’s case, this isn’t a great loss: the game’s details are in service of very little that’s truly memorable. But, all the same, its place in this moment of time, in this medium, is an example of a larger trend that subsumes and crushes so much else, not just in games, but all modern media. Our popular art is judged by utility and it will become increasingly utilitarian as a result, honed by algorithms and internalized as an essential element of the creative process, unless this position is resisted.
- Games like the recent Tomb Raider series show a similar disregard for visual craft. Prioritizing raw utility over aesthetic appreciation, the player hits a button to automatically suck the colour out of the screen, rendering everything but important items (glowing yellow herbs, red enemy silhouettes) into a drained sepia. The player’s heart has to bleed for all the talented people whose artistic effort is undermined so consistently by a design that forces the player to so regularly ignore it.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.,