Press X to start playing. Cutscene. Buff dude with big beard, staring blankly into space. Realtime tesselation for maximum biceps. Motion capture actor is feeling silly wearing tights. Nobody cares! Three million copies first week, keep going. Marketing team is excited. Press X again to swing axe. What if I don’t? Existential crisis. Buff dude will stare blankly into space for all eternity. That’s art. I don’t have time for this. Go ahead and swing the axe. Have to pick up the kids from soccer practice. Last time I hit X I was expecting to play. Is this the game? Be patient. His axe looks powerful. Ok, we hit the tree. Nothing’s happening now, do I hit X again? It’s almost like a film, but it stops awkwardly. Oh wait, he’s talking. Who is he talking to? Doesn’t matter, I got an achievement.
There’s a wide variety of games out there and I’m pretty confident that my research has never been completely exhaustive. Not only have I stopped playing games, I’ve also grown tired of following games media websites with their tireless coverage of drab big budget titles that have always been of little interest to me. I spend most of my time surfing developer forums and some obscure indie game curation websites. I make sure to look at the IGF nominees every year but other than that I’ve not been on the cutting edge of game news for a while now.
I specifically called out big budget AAA titles in my previous post so I’d like to elaborate further on that category of games in particular. I find most blockbuster AAA action adventure titles to be schizophrenic. They’re built to deliver on a wide spectrum of completely disjointed experiences including but not limited to rich storytelling, fast-paced visceral action gameplay, puzzle elements, character development and dice-rolling stat-based RPG mechanics. They sport cutting edge 3D graphics, smooth motion-captured animations, meticulous writing, crisp sound effects, stunning original scores and polished mechanics that come together to deliver an experience that is unique only to our medium.
But all those individual components that are brought together only seldom interface with each other in any meaningful way. It’s not often we hear sound effects that convey rules (The Witness 2016), or read prose that changes how the players themselves might feel about a non-player character (Dark Souls 2011) or see animations that not only bring a virtual character to appear lifelike but assist in communicating to the player the mechanics of play (Platinum Games).
All the novelty there’s to be had from the next big budget title, isn’t going to come from a re-invented game, but a refreshed story, new characters and a minor variation to the moment to moment gameplay, all of which will be sitting inside a tried and tested framework that just simply works, and has been working for almost a decade now. Open world games have devolved into a platform that allows for delivering a lot of content linearly. It’s a new way to package content produced by talented 3D artists, animators, writers, sound engineers, composers and computer programmers all wrapped into a single unit made ready for consumption over a few days of engagement. Individually those contributions are quality, but when analysed as a whole they almost never bother to interact with one another in any significant way. They’re trying to do everything all at once. They’re very good at creating a believable and immersive fantasy world and in that they succeed. But I think they eventually fall short in executing on the strengths of our medium where those individual components speak with one another. Most of these games just feel to me like a coloring book with a story and a word puzzle thrown in for fun. The word puzzle has nothing to do with the story, and the story has nothing to do with the coloring sections. We can put that on shelves and people will buy it, but let’s face it, it’s no Dostoyevsky.
Every experience on offer today is somewhat tied to the technologies we have available to us. All games will remain, in one way or another, a byproduct of our technological know-how. Technology does not only dictate how a game is presented but to some extent, can also define the rules of the game itself. Tetris isn’t going to change much in its rules once we’ve perfected VR technology, but we can be sure that the way it’s presented will most definitely transform dramatically (Tetris Effect 2018). Then there’s experiences that aren’t so tightly designed, in my opinion, in that their rules and mechanics are somewhat informed by our technical limitations. For example, any game that’s attempting to immerse its audience into a universe that’s analogous to reality, eventually has to draw boundaries on the extent to which it’s imitating realism. Over time as technology develops, that boundary will move and those experiences will transform irreversibly, never to look back at how things were done before.
Our attempts at emulating human conversation in games today can almost always be reduced to a simple tree traversal, which is very much unlike how conversations operate in the real world. We spend most of our time shooting bad guys because it’s easier to simulate combat in the entirety of its possibility space. We lazily sprinkle cutscenes with quick-time events because that’s the only way we know to keep it from coming off as a bad movie and we play recorded dialogue over carefully lip-synced facial animations because our AI isn’t smart enough to make words yet. I refuse to believe that our favorite action adventure game of 2018 will be at all relevant fifty years from now. It’s a great game, no doubt about that, but it’s also only just the best we could do at the time.
I think over the last few years I’ve developed an affinity for simpler games that are more design complete and less a by-product of our times. We have games today that will retain the integrity of their design as time goes on, while others I feel might only be remembered as secondary mutations of an evolutionary process which will have eventually brought our medium into its final form.
Show me the games that are timeless, that’s my jam.
Those are the games I enjoy and that’s the kind of games I want to make. None of this is to say that all the work on the other end of the spectrum doesn’t have its place. I think all games have their place and in one way or another end up contributing to the medium in a meaningful way. It’s quite possible that our big budget action adventure games eventually end up pushing boundaries to give birth to new technologies that will bring about a revolution in how things work today to finally give rise to a new kind of videogame.
But I don’t see that happening if we spend all of our time making, playing and celebrating the same bloody game every Christmas.