Speaking as a mature, tax-paying grown-up, I want to complain about a lack of toys. I know. It’s not exactly a political polemic. I’m not even sure it counts as #firstworldproblems. Still, it’s something that’s bugged me in recent months, and one of those mild irritations that’s now developed into something of a rash – the depressing lack of decent gaming merchandise these days. The key word there of course being ‘decent’.
Basically, over the last few years it’s mostly disappeared without trace. Shops like Forbidden Planet used to have a ton of it – particularly things like action figures. These days, if you want to put your favourite characters on your shelf/by your PC/in one of those Ikea display cases, you’re basically screwed. And that seems a shame, because there’s something quite lovely about having a slice of a beloved game take physical life – a memento of a quest complete.
Very few games actually offer this though. Valve’s Team Fortress is a rare case of excellence, with the whole team available for a pricey but not entirely ludicrous £35 (around $50/AU$71) per member – I have the Heavy figure, and it’s a really well constructed bit of merch. Excellent paint job, sturdy, a strong pose, an expression straight out of the game – a model for how these things should be. It’s not really a figure to ‘play’ with, despite some articulation, but it does the exact job it needs.
As a general rule though, if figures exist, they disappear almost immediately. I was looking for some Mass Effect ones a while ago, and while there was a range of them, very few remain at a sane price – the Play Arts 9-inch Commander Shepard going for £75 (around $108/AU$153) over on Amazon at the moment, and the real Commander Shepard, as voiced by Jennifer Hale, for a whopping £300 (around $435/AU$612).
This is a good deal more than I was willing to pay for a slice of one of my favourite SF adventures, with the only other options on offer being tiny, tiny ships like a 15cm recreation of the Normandy, tat like an Alliance Keychain, or a couple of the visibly less popular crew-members like walking ass-shot Miranda or Thane, a character so dull that I only just remembered he exists.
And this is a game that actually offers some merch, which is fairly rare. More often companies only really bother with cool toys, figures and things for one purpose – something to pack into the Special Edition of a game. The Witcher 3 for instance has quite a nice statue of Geralt battling a Griffin, while Batman: Arkham Knight offered a statue of Batsy towering above a city with a hilariously shit "The Gotham Knight" plaque on the front, as if anyone buying a copy of a Batman game might need to be reminded who Batman is. By the wrong name, no less.
This kind of thing doesn’t work for me either though, because quite often the character that the company will focus on isn’t the one that I, or the audience, will actually go for. Case in point, the current #wheresrey hashtag for Star Wars, thanks to Disney and friends apparently believing in their hearts that kids are more likely to want to be whiny, tantrum-throwing coal-scuttle wearer Kylo Ren than badass staff-swinging Jedi scavenger Rey Nametoberevealed. (Let’s not even pretend the reason was trying to keep plot information secret; Rey’s front and centre on the damn poster, and toys gave up all spoiler territory when they released the action figure of Inspector Gadget’s Dr Claw with a face. Just saying.)
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate for instance offers a Collector’s Edition featuring a quite nicely made Jacob, but – well, to borrow the Star Wars meme, #wheresevie. More to the point, I never know before I play a game if I’m going to want its character on my shelves. Bioshock Infinite’s Songbird for instance looked quite cool as a pack-in deal, but is in the game so little that it doesn’t serve as a souvenir in the same way that the Big Daddy did in the original game, or the actual characters could have done.
Now, I’ve mentioned Mass Effect and Bioshock, and not entirely at random – cue segue to the next point, that when merch appears, it’s often crazy, crazy expensive. Both Bioware and Irrational put their focus on premium merch, and it’s actually quite cool – replica bottles of magic from Columbia, hand crafted larger statues like Tali and Mordin from Mass Effect. But goodness, those prices. A figure of Noir Elizabeth from the Bioshock Infinite DLC? £210 (around $304/AU$428). A bottle of Devil’s Kiss? £263 (around $381/AU$536), magic fire throwing powers not available. Goodness, you really have to be invested in the world or make more money than I do for that to be a snap purchase.
I don’t have a problem with these thing existing as premium offerings though – certainly in the world of geek culture, they’re hardly unique amongst all the Harley Quinn busts and replica Batmobiles and katanas and whatever else, designed to appeal to the hardcore market. The catch is that in most other fields, there are more typically reasonable alternatives out there too rather than either nothing or… shudder… Funko, which now pretty much has a monopoly on just about everything geek related, especially a few months after release when any other action figures dry up and only price-gougers and these tiny little figures remain for purchase.
I hate Funko Pops. I hate, hate, hate, hate Funko Pops. I hate everything about Funko Pops, which as far as I can tell exist only as a Borg like vampire designed to suck all the life out of your favourite games, shows and characters and leave them as a lifeless big headed corpse. I hate these toys. I hate seeing people on YouTube unpack them as part of the latest Lootcrate they’re pretending wasn’t a total waste of money. I hate seeing them piled up in stores; an army whored out from across the multiverse for the glory of worthless ugly bits of tat that use their sheer quantity to make people think that something’s only made it in pop-culture if it has all personality and individuality torn from it to be shat out as one of these gurning vinyl gonks.
I genuinely cringe every time I look for something, only to see their blank, mouth-less little faces glaring back in mute triumph. "Remember when Blizzard licensed really good World of Warcraft figures?" they whisper. "Now there is only Pop. And also some soft toys." All we need now is for Collector’s Editions to decide to save money by just throwing the damn Pop into the box and their victory is complete – a generic, pint-sized victory of mass production with only one redeeming feature. If you hit them with a tennis racket, the damn things fly for miles.
You might think it’s sad to want physical mementos of past quests. Perhaps it is. But there’s something pleasurable about it; that manifestation of the digital in the real world, a little like buying an anticipated new album on vinyl instead of just snagging the MP3 download, or choosing the hardback book instead of just reading it on Kindle.
The more things go digital the more insubstantial they inevitably feel. The hundreds of games on my Steam list at this point just don’t have the mental or physical weight of shelves full of boxes, the excitement of a download uncompressing has nothing on actually ripping open the shrinkwrap on a new game with my teeth and flicking through the manual and playing with whatever tchotchkes were bundled to make it rattle seductively in the store. Didn’t really matter what. They were cool.
I never used to be that bothered about the action figure side of things as a teenager, but as an adult, I think they’re something of a connection back to that sense of having something ‘real’ to remember the good times by, in much the same way that people like to bring souvenirs back from holidays abroad. My holidays just happen to be in places like Britannia and the Andromeda galaxy. Sometimes Florida.
In keeping with that, they’re something to celebrate once they’re done rather than before they start with Special Editions, something where I like to have a choice about what I remember rather than an entire universe being crunched down into no real options, and nothing I ever, ever want to remember with a bloody Funko bloody Pop. Gah.
It doesn’t seem that much to ask now that games are so crazy popular. Too bad that with very, very few exceptions, just hoping for anything worth its place on a shelf is asking too much. Maybe when 3D printing finally maybe takes off we’ll see a shift away from the cheap and generic and back to the figures and creations both the games and their fans deserve. Or at the very least, the realisation that we would want more of this stuff, if handled just a bit better.