Swiss games, art and commerce

David Stark / Zarkonnen
2015-03-18 16:17

I just got quoted in this article by 20 Minuten that argues Swiss game developers lack a certain grand vision to make it big. I'd like to expand on my quotes here, because I don't think the issue is exactly a lack of vision.

First off, I totally stand behind my quotes - I approved them before going to print - but I can hardly ask Jan Graber to give me five paragraphs in which to hold forth on my theories.

So the question is this: Swiss games have been bringing home international prizes and accolades, and the Swiss game development community is growing, but we don't have a breakout hit. Why?

The simplest answer is that it's a matter of time: it's a small country, and success is distressingly random, so given enough time some game from Switzerland will click and make it big. But if we want to start worrying about the why, here is my pet thesis. Note that I don't exclude myself from it, this is self-analysis more than indictment.

Back in 2009, Switzerland produced its first "proper" science fiction film, Cargo. I watched it and found the name very apt: it's a cargo cult SF film. It's beautiful, nicely shot, with an aesthetic heavily influenced by classic US science fiction films - but the plot is an utter mess and the performances are forgettable. It has all the outwards trappings of a successful dark SF movie but lacks the inner structure that makes it tick.

I think this film is a great example of the way culture is handled in the German-speaking world. Media are either meaningful or entertaining, but not both. If you cycle through German TV you have a vapid programme about doctors in love on one channel, and Marcel Reich-Ranicki going on about literature on the next. In the English-speaking world, there is a continuum between literature and entertainment - as I say in the article, Shakespeare was entertainment and is now traded as the very pinnacle of literary genius. Games like The Last of Us or Papers Please manage to provoke thought while being accessible and entertaining. The makers of Cargo wanted to make a science fiction film, so they made a pretty, entertaining, and hollow shell of a movie.

Switzerland is a small country, and any game hoping to be a breakout hit needs to have international - that is US - appeal. Other countries achieve certain worldwide cultural exports - think of the recent fashion for Scandinavian crime drama. But I worry that with our German-influenced attitude to culture, our attempts are going to flip-flop between the overly lowbrow and highbrow.

Whenever Swiss games come up, a popular proposed solution is a really fancy and expensive triple-A Swiss game. I think such an effort would produce a game like Cargo: a doomed attempt to emulate US cultural output without understanding what makes it tick. In the end, we need to figure out what we can bring to the table.

In my case, the only way I know how is to keep on making games and feeling my way forward.

PS: Swiss games? Yes!