People always talk about pandering like it is a bad thing. Granted, it doesn’t have the best origins. Technically pandering was initially a synonym for pimping, and as we all know, pimpin’ ain’t easy. These days we associate it with taking the easy way out in terms of popular opinion. Just heaping on the equivalent of bacon and chocolate sauce. It gets a bum wrap from critics, and politicians are perpetually accused of it. The thing is, is taking the easy way out really a bad thing?
Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Movie, is a masterpiece. Few people within its target age bracket will proclaim it to be any less than genius. It threads excellent performances through a story and visuals that strike so many chords with the 8-bit generation that it is practically a symphony. As a tie in, Ubisoft produced a Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Game. It turned out to be quite the contentious piece of software. For those of you who haven’t played it, you may have played it and not realized. It is River City Ransom. Not LIKE it. It IS River City Ransom. Complete with juggling a trash can between your fists and the bad guys face and a hidden shop in the wall of a tunnel. Mix in a scoop of SNES graphics, a few arcade nuances, and references to a half dozen of gaming’s greats and you’ve got Ubisoft’s creation. It speaks shamelessly to the nostalgia center of the brain in the quickest and easiest way possible. Naturally this prompts people to slap the pandering label on it and write it off. The problem with doing that, though, is that it is still good.
Yes, putting giant blocks that spew coins, old-fashioned graphics, and references to everything from Megaman to Sonic The Hedgehog (subtle, but it is there) is a pretty cheap and easy way to make a game appeal to a certain type of person. That doesn’t mean that the underlying game isn’t any good. It is a straightforward, well executed beat ‘em up with RPG elements, a fantastic art style, and tons of humor. It plays well. That makes the rest of that stuff gravy. Perhaps there would be cause to complain if the nostalgia was the only draw. You shouldn’t rely upon condiments to make something bad into something good, but surely it is okay to use them to make something good into something better. Icing exists for a reason, as do sprinkles. Just because a pie is topped with whipped cream doesn’t necessarily mean that the cooks are trying to distract you from the filling.
Entertainment isn’t politics. A politician who promises the people everything they want, or even GIVES them everything they want, might not be doing his job. That’s because he has a job to DO, and that might mean doing the unpopular thing from time to time. But the only purpose of entertainment is to entertain. And it is thus not only recommended but necessary for entertainers to explore every avenue available to them. Cheap laughs are still laughs. It might be admirable to take the most respected and esteemed route to a destination, but it isn’t mandatory. I didn’t hear anybody complaining when we took a rocket to the moon rather than building a ladder. Is a Christmas tree any less of a tree because it’s got lights and tinsel? I think not! In fact, dare I say it is more. Because sometimes there are presents under a Christmas tree. You never find presents under a plain old pine. Unless you consider moose turds and pine cones to be presents, and if that’s the case I very much doubt that you are an avid Internet user. Even if you are, I’m not sure your opinions regarding entertainment are entirely valid.
When it all comes down to it, like all things, pandering can be good or evil. Yes, a bowl of frosting is a shallow way to the heart of a child, but that’s no excuse to serve all cakes naked. It is silly and dangerous to assume that, simply because something seems to cater directly to a certain group of people, that it doesn’t have anything to offer beyond the superficial. That would be judging a book by its cover. Realistically, if all pandering was bad then filmmakers, developers, and other entertainment professionals would have to bury anything overtly satisfying deep below layers of artistically pure substance. Metaphorically, that would be a cake FILLED with icing… which would be a Twinkie, the least respectable pastry of them all. And is that what you want? An entertainment industry that can be best summed up as a hostess snack cake? I didn’t think so.