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Games are not "games" anymore

7/15/13 6:30pm
tl;dr

Should the industry really be working towards "blurring the lines" between videogames and less interactive mediums like movies and television?

At the risk of echoing the sentiments already voiced by zillions of gamers, I discuss my own feelings on how videogames are becoming more passive and the various problems that result from this growing trend. I’ll be using specific examples to demonstrate who does it right, and who does it wrong.

There are many ways to define a “game” and deduce it to its basic elements. One multifaceted definition I’ve taken a liking to is that a game is a player activity that presents some sort of conflict or obstacles to the player(s). Said obstacles must be overcome, and some goal must be achieved, within a limited context of specifically defined rules and mechanics. Succeeding or failing to meet the end goal has its own unique consequences. Put even more simply, a game involves a means (stomp on Bowser’s minions and eat lots of mushrooms) to an end (jump on countless flagpoles and rescue the princess) (game design instructor Ian Schreiber does a much better job of explaining this stuff). Albeit a little long-winded, that’s a very basic definition. I imagine many game designers perceive these aspects in a much different way, and how they organize those basic elements to form their own unique creations is what makes the medium of games, especially videogames, so fascinating.

Super Mario Bros.One of the purest (and most obvious) examples of a game.

However, there seems to be a growing trend, mostly in the realm of triple-A titles, in which the “game” is becoming less prominent, and in some cases, being ignored entirely.

Why is this a problem? Take a look at all the cinematic cutscenes, the quick-time events, the ever-increasing focus on flashy, realistic graphics – games are now trying to emulate Movies and Television. What is supposed to be a mostly active experience is now riding on the coattails of more passive mediums. Player decisions and interactions are becoming less important to the point that we may as well not have controllers in our hands.

The early adventures of Mario, Link and Sonic helped the videogames medium rise to prominence in the 80s and 90s because they offered uniquely interactive and challenging diversions that couldn’t be experienced anywhere else. Sure, the crude visuals left a little to be desired, but in advancing graphical capabilities over time, and in turn attempting to mimic big budget blockbusters, developers and publishers are loosing sight of what made videogames so great in the first place.

Call of DutyMore like a rollercoaster ride than an actual game.

Perhaps I’ve come to this sentiment because I’m not a very story-driven gamer. I don’t closely follow any overarching lore or backstory, I don’t get too attached to any characters, and I don’t shed a tear when said character dies (well, I usually don’t shed a tear). I find myself paying a greater deal of attention to the level design, the feel of the controls, the different types of obstacles, and the ways in which the game rewards the player, among other gameplay-related aspects, when I play most games. For example, Super Metroid’s under-the-surface complexity that’s hidden by a seemingly simple shooter-platformer shell always provides much greater satisfaction to me than a modern day Mass Effect will ever be able to accomplish.

In general, I think my increasing disinterest in big budget modern titles has led me to have a greater appreciation for older, and often more cleverly-designed, games.

Speaking on the subject of story, let’s play the devil’s advocate for a moment and shine a more positive light on these modern games. I understand that my emphasis of game design ignores a game’s capacity to also work as a story-telling medium, one of the major aspects of videogames that influenced many to lash out against Roger Ebert and defend the medium as an art form. Maybe well-arranged games can tell a good story, and a recent example I’m sure many gamers will readily consider a work of art in this regard is Bioshock Infinite.

Ken Levine’s virtual magnum opus is already in the running as a 2013 game of the year contender, and for mostly good reason. It’s a former Pinkerton agent’s surreal and violent romp through a colorful city in the clouds, all of which is made more insane when tears in the space-time continuum come into play. The suspense of uncovering Columbia’s deepest darkest secrets is quite compelling. Indeed, Bioshock’s narrative depth is quite possibly its most appealing factor. Very few games can say they boast such intriguing characters as Booker and Elizabeth, and even fewer can say they explicitly cover themes and philosophies like American exceptionalism, racism, jingoism, and religion. Like a good book or movie, Bioshock Infinite has plenty of themes and motifs that can make for good subjects of analysis and discussion.

All those fantastic story pieces are held together by a pretty decent FPS-RPG hybrid. But therein lies the problem: the gameplay isn’t very remarkable, serving only as a conduit to carry the game’s more lauded aspect – the story. Bioshock’s obvious story emphasis makes it feel more like a movie than anything, and (in my opinion) the game suffers as a result. Completing an “objective” feels less like an accomplishment and more like just pressing a context-sensitive button to activate an elevator and move the plot along. Finishing the game (no spoilers here, don’t worry) focuses more on hitting the climactic resolve of a typical three-act narrative structure rather than evoking feelings of triumphant victory.

I don’t want this to come off as too pessimistic, as I actually really love this game. I’m certainly not saying that these cinematic story-driven games shouldn’t exist, but I feel that Mr. Levine could have told his story just as effectively in movie or book form. Some potential to make the experience more interactive and engaging is lost when focusing strictly on plot. This is a videogame, after all.

There’s no doubt that Bioshock Infinite is a memorable, thought-provoking experience, but as a game, it, and the rest of the industry, can do much better.

You know who else seems to share that feeling? My good friend Warren Spector.

“We can get partway to where I think we’re capable of going as a medium by borrowing from other mediums, by studying and stealing from them, but we can only go so far. We need some original ideas, tough problems solved.”
-Warren Spector, Game Informer June 2013

Okay, so I don’t know Mr. Spector personally, but I do suspect he’s a pretty smart fellow. He’s the co-creator of the 2000 action RPG Deus Ex, which is quite possibly one of the greatest PC games ever made.

Gamers may place Bioshock Infinite upon a pedestal as a work of art for its masterful writing and visual splendor, but the game design itself, the cohesion of all those basic mechanics and obstacles to produce a satisfying and challenging experience, should be considered the true art form in videogames. Deus Ex gets it right.

Though Deus Ex may appear to be a run-of-the-mill sci-fi shooter at first glance, playing further will reveal a tremendously in-depth stealth/hacking/negotiation simulator with immensely rich, fully interactive cyberpunk worlds. It can all be quite intimidating, and JC Denton, the game’s augmented protagonist, certainly has his work cut out for him, but it all works well to (overused word incoming!) immerse the player. In order to combat the corrupt UNATCO agency, Denton has to get in contact with the right people, which may involve hacking computer accounts to discover their geographical whereabouts, interrogating their acquaintances, and possibly using your cunning stealth to knock out bad guys when they least expect it.

Deus Ex’s open world structure isn’t what makes it so remarkable. Rather, it’s the fact that player choice has real impact, as evidenced by the countless branching dialogue paths and three different endings. The outcomes that players encounter are, of course, scripted, but the game does an impressive job of making you feel like the objectives and advances in the plot are the result of your own skill and ingenuity.

To better accomplish that sense of personal achievement, Deus Ex also rewards players for their creativity and exploration. The game employs such awesome level design that is conducive to that sort of play style. Trying to enter the Statue of Liberty and infiltrate the NSF? There’s a deadly security bot blocking the entrance? Well, you can take out the bot with a grenade and use a multitool to hack the front entrance door, or you can sneak past the bot and find a datacube tucked away behind some crates that contains the login info to open the door. Seriously, just the first level contains an unbelievable number of choices and paths. That’s why Deus Ex works so well. It’s designed with skill and strategy in mind, just like every game should be designed.

Unfortunately, if this year’s E3 was any indication, developers are not following Deus Ex’s example and are continuing to ignore those basic gameplay elements to an even greater degree. Remedy claims to be “blurring the lines between gaming and television” with their new game Quantum Break, Ubisoft is partnering with Nickelodeon to develop Rabbids Invasion into an interactive TV show, and Crytek’s Ryse looked like it was almost entirely controlled by QTE’s. In a time when gaming is at the peak of its popularity, why is it evolving into a medium that involves less playing and more watching? Are these “innovations” really advancing the videogame medium? I just wish games would be games again.

If there’s enough interest, I may do a second part to this blog that covers some special cases of “non-games” (Telltale’s The Walking Dead immediately comes to mind). In the mean time, what do you think, g1s? Do you also wish games would return to their older design philosophies with new and interesting ideas, or do you welcome the more cinematic, narrative-oriented experiences with open arms? Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

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