Harry Potter and the Chamber of Crap
Brett Todd on The Firing Line:
Flash, noise, and junk we’ve seen many times before
A.S. Byatt doesn’t like J.K. Rowling. Shared love of that gender-neutral predilection to use initials instead of given names aside, Antonia Susan doesn’t have much use for Joanne Katherine and her kiddie-book revolution. Last week, the author of such celebrated doorstops as Possession: A Romance and Babel Tower slammed the creator of Harry Potter in the New York Times for writing down to dullards who lack “the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing.”
Well, duh. Even though I finished Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in two sittings and have often hovered my mouse over the Buy It Now! button that would order me one of those neat Gryffindor rugby—er, Quidditch shirts, the books have been written for the great unwashed. Byatt may be a crotchety gasbag motivated primarily by jealousy over reports that Rowling can afford more Corgis than the Queen, but she’s dead on in her assertion that the Potter books speak “to an adult generation that hasn’t known, and doesn’t care about, mystery.” That they’ve been written for “inhabitants of urban jungles,” not those who know of “the real wild.”
That’s a good point, no matter what you think of Byatt’s upper-crust background and the unavoidable fact that she’s barely set foot outside of a university campus her entire adult life. Modern entertainment is about repackaging the familiar. Rowling may have written the first Harry Potter book for her daughter while on the dole, yet somebody in the process was remarkably tuned into children’s fantasy archetypes. Either Rowling was a lot more savvy than the press reports let on, even while scratching out Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone with one hand and rocking a pram with the other, or an editor made the changes necessary to turn book into blockbuster. No matter how you look at it, the whole concept was carefully calculated. It was conceptualized from first to last, just like a big new movie, a big new herbal shampoo, or one of those big new feminine hygiene products with those vaguely disturbing TV ads that make me channel-surf more than usual.
Or a big new game. A gradual Hollywoodization is taking hold of just about everything that we consume, so computer games have to be included on the list. It’s particularly noticeable in what we read, watch, and play, largely because we still don’t expect to see market forces in creative endeavors. Gaming has been quietly swallowed the past few years. Independent developers and publishers have all but vanished and a production line mentality has replaced creativity as the guiding force behind design.
Seeing as it actually takes a production line of sorts to produce a game, that’s somewhat excusable. But the creative philosophy has changed as well. Games are now mostly produced by faceless companies with huge budgets that make them beholden to attracting everybody with disposable income. Although star developers like Sid Meier and Brian Reynolds are still out there, the focus has switched to bigger and better. So many people influence game designs now that it’s hard to get any sense of coherence from the finished products. Games are more the product of committees and focus groups than an individual’s imagination. We’ve come a long way from Al Lowe’s Leisure Suit Larry. Or Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford’s Star Control. Or David Jones’ Lemmings. Or even Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.