There’s a new children’s movie, Hero Mode, coming out based around the games industry, and because the game’s industry is a very normal industry, people are losing their collective minds. Am I saying industry too much? Here’s another: our industry sometimes forgets that it is essentially a toy industry, and while there’s a lot of hard work, craft, and talent pouring into it, we are essentially fun makers – at least, the developers are. Journalists and critics mostly think too hard about imaginary pixelated beings. Anyway, since games are about fun, you’d think that would make them perfect fodder for a lighthearted children’s movie. Unfortunately a lot of people seem to be taking it far too seriously – then again, maybe they have a point?
Think of it like this. You could make a slapstick comedy about a funeral parlor; several already exist, in fact. No one would be particularly offended or would want to ‘cancel culture’ the movie or make it ‘woke’ or whatever other buzzword you want to throw at it. But if your dad had just died, you probably wouldn’t be up for seeing the death-comedy at the cinema. Hero Mode is similar. Working in games is hard, and I don’t mind admitting that journalists have it easy compared to what some devs go through, so I get that a quirky movie about how games get made is probably a little too close to the bone to be funny.
There have been some absolute hell takes mixed in with the good points being raised following the film’s reveal, so if you’ve been following the fallout with no idea of what to make of it, consider this a handy explainer.
First off, a rundown of the movie’s plot, based on the trailer. The main character is a whiz kid who loves making video games, and his dream is to work at his parents’ studio. A few days before a big convention – it’s not E3, but it is E3 – the game leaks (I think?) and the Gamers don’t like it, so they decide to essentially scrap it, and have this whiz kid whip up a game (or at least enough of one) from scratch in a month. Oh, and someone else is planning to buy out the studio to gut it and fire everyone – how cheery. This whiz kid starts off selfishly wanting everything his way, no one listens to him, he learns the power of togetherness, happy ending. It’s not very realistic, but it’s a children’s movie – that’s to be expected. Still, there are some things in there that do warrant if not outrage, then certainly sarcastic mockery.
“We need a game that real gamers really wanna play,” one of the characters says while everything is falling apart. I already absolutely hate it. I can guarantee that this exact sentence has been said by an executive at a major studio somewhere, to the collective eyerolls of the entire dev team. I’m sure in the movie ‘real gamers’ means good old fashioned players of all genders, ethnicities, and sexualities, with the studio taking their eyes off the prize and getting too corporate or too old fashioned. But for folk in the game industry, ‘real gamers’ is a pretty loaded term.
Then there’s the fact this kid is able to make a game – or at least an E3 ready version of one – essentially on his own in a month. Gaming has a bit of a problem with distilling down the creative endeavours of hundreds of people into the ownership of a single person; the idea that Cory Barlog (and Cory Barlog alone) made God of War. If I’d spent days figuring out how to make rope physics work only to have everyone call Neil Druckmann a genius for asking me to figure it out I might take issue with that too.
It also feels like it taps into the idea that the gaming industry runs on passion. We all know of studios where crunch isn’t necessarily mandatory… but if you don’t crunch, you miss your targets, other departments fall behind, everyone hates you, oh, and also you’re fired. It’s not quite Crunch: The Movie, and it’s a stretch to say it glorifies crunch – there’s no real crunch in the movie, just one kid making a game – but if I’d worked 70 hour weeks for a month only to have my audience call me lazy because of delay I had no control over, ‘some kid makes a game in a month because it’s just that easy’ probably wouldn’t have me queuing up for popcorn.
That said, it is still a children’s movie – it’s not supposed to be a serious look at games development. I do think the idea of the kid joining a real studio, instead of just making a game for E3 in his bedroom while juggling adolescent life, is a poor choice – but it’s hardly the end of the world. Hero Mode never tries to present itself as realistic, so though I get why some devs aren’t ecstatic about this one, and they do have a point, we should probably all calm down.
Perhaps the reaction that best summed this up was a dev incredulously asking who the audience for Hero Mode even was, before suggesting it must have been made for an extremely specific group of adults, but the answer is much simpler – kids. It was made for kids. So let’s all chill out, yeah?
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