Games are not "games" anymore
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.
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.
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.
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!
I will say that a lot of the bigger titles are guilty of overusing QTEs and trying to make an interactive movie rather than a game (Asura's Wrath, I'm looking at you), but at the same time, I have always felt that game mechanics needed to have a story element. That's part of what makes a great game, in my opinion. Not so much differentiating itself from movie or TV, but rather blending game and story into a singular element. The best examples I can give of this would be the Persona games, and Fire Emblem, with Fire Emblem Awakening being the best example.
Fire Emblem has always been known for its unforgiving strategy-RPG gameplay, and it's Game of Thrones-esque stories. Awakening, however, takes it to a new level. The simple addition of pairing units together and giving them a percentage chance to either block incoming attacks or launch a tag-team assault on an enemy based on the relationship the characters have is nothing short of ingenious. Not only that, but the addition of a marriage mechanic with the payoff of having the children of certain characters joining your army - each with skills and stats reflecting the parents - gives you that much more incentive to explore the story and how each character interacts with each other character. It's this that leads me to cherish games like Mass Effect all the more, where deeply involved stories actually effect the gameplay. You sacrifice one character to accomplish a mission, and that character is gone with nobody filling that unique combat role for the rest of the series. It not only forces you to weigh choices against how you personally prefer to play, but also in relation to your opinion for a character, and how you want your Shepard to be seen, creating a unique experience that can only be achieved in a game.
To me a game isn't something that just has obstacles to be overcome in pursuit of a goal, nor is it a "press X to not die" movie. To me a game is something that combines both obstacle and story into a unique experience, and a truly great one is a game that can explain its mechanics within the context of its narrative, and still have entertaining challenges to overcome. But that's just my opinion.
Of course there are games where QTEs are supposed to be used like in fighting games, as you said. I mean all the unnecessary QTEs like the ones in Resident Evil 6. You can barely even go 30 seconds without a QTE or some other key press prompt in that game. Why in god's name would you need to wait for your NPC companion to open a door with you by using a QTE when you're not playing co-op? Stuff like that makes no sense.
these games you mentioned like bioshock and portal relays on the gameplay to convey the story of these games. these type of games that we don't see very often and i wished the gaming industry continued that path since it can't be accomplished with the interaction between the player and the world the game sets in. i'm talking about games that mimic movies like metroid other mockery and RYSE. instead of making games play like a game, they decided to make it like i'm watching a movie and have all the cinema cliches cover most of all the cutscenes.
TL;DR the developers either make the gameplay and the story go hand to hand or they just start making movies.
I blame David Cage. That is all.
That's like 99% of everything ever though. Some things does it in less obvious manner, but chances are that you're stuck with traveling from point x to point y where you're given a bit of story.
You had no control over the story of The Last of Us, but it's easily up there with my favorite games of this generation and honestly can't say that it would've been a movie or TV show that I would've cared about. Just being able to "move a pawn around the board sometimes" did make me immersed with the world and got invested in the characters and judging from all 10/10 ratings, I'm obviously not the only one. And it was a game. The gameplay is there. I thought it was really good, so did many others. I heard that even the multiplayer was good so you can have a "pure" game experience without story.
I couldn't disagree more. For me the story gives you something to follow that stays with you. If there is no story to follow then all you have are a bunch of levels that you are going through for seemingly no reason, fighting enemies you know next to nothing about, and playing as someone that might as well be a mindless robot. A story gives a sense of progression. As you get further in the game you get further in the story and you learn more about your character, the world he lives in, and just what you are fighting against. If a game has crappy game play but a good story just imagine how bad it would be without even the story. Obviously a game needs to give you a chance to actually play but a deep and involving story does not take away from this.
Take FFX for instance. A very story driven game. It wouldn't be a tenth as good as it is if it didn't have that. Other games like The last for us may be more movie like than game like but that is not actually such a bad thing. In a zombie movie you are simply watching a guy carelessly go somewhere he shouldn't and walks in on a group of the undead. In the last of us YOU ARE that foolish guy that walks into a room of zombies and gets killed. It is a totally different experience from an actual movie because you become a part of that world and go through it at your own pace.
Just because it's different from the old days doesn't mean it's a bad thing and I believe there are plenty of story heavy games that remembered to put in some good gameplay. and if you want just gameplay and less story check out some Indie games. Those might be more up your alley.
Their method of storytelling is exactly like in movies.Get to point B cutscene get to point C cutscene get to... you get it by now. Just because sometimes you get to move a pawn around the board does not make the story any more immersive or personal
But they're not trying to mimic movies, they're doing their best to improve on movies in ways movies can't, by making you part of it. If developers wanted to make a movie, they wouldn't struggle with getting rid of that pesky gameplay, they'd just make a movie. Gameplay is there because they wanted to put it in. They want us to be the guy in horror movie that viewer yells "NO, DON'T GO THERE!!!" at, they want us to be able to search every corner to find hidden collectibles that tells you more about the story and they want you to feel bad for other character dying because you weren't able to help them.
Yes and i agree
btw i am also against cinematic games such as Uncharted, Max Payne 3 and the Last of Us that just try to mimic Movies. That's just lazy especially when you have so many options. I was specifically talking about games that show how different and unique video game are from other storytelling medium. Games such as BioShock, Half-Life or Portal or alot of rpgs like Witcher, Deus ex or Planescape
And if you want a in depth gameplay play a pen and paper rpg. What's your point?
What i am trying to say is if we can have a game with good gameplay and almost non existent story why not the other way around? I find myself a lot of the times playing a game the get that that movies and even books cannot provide any more immersion in storytelling
Define great gameplay.
There's not much that movies can do that games can't. Games can often do things better. I have no problem play through 8 hour game in one sitting, but if I had to spent even half of that just watching a movie, I would rather just kill myself. You being in control keeps you from getting bored out of your mind and it will also make you so much more invested in the story, characters and what have you. I've been in situation where I was presented with multiple options and I had to stop the game for ten twenty minutes just thinking my options wondering what I believe would really be the right choice. Even after seeing the outcome in later game, that moment still haunts me. In movie hero would be done with the situation in five minutes and nobody would speak of it again.
Because it wouldn't work as well as a movie or TV show. The great thing about games is that quite often you can get as invested in the world as you want. You can just breeze through the game, or you can search every corner and read every note or message and listen recordings and listen to every piece of dialogue to get a lot better understanding of the world and the characters. That would all be lost in movies or TV shows.
I can't believe what people here are saying. Watch cutscenes of Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid and The Last of Us and tell me that you got just as much out of it as you did / would've by playing it yourself and actually having some control over it.
Because the experience a cinematic game gives is not the same as a movie?
Grew up with metal gear... If im not attached to the character, my interest is all but lost. A few action packed games bring me in.. and as well i hate most multiplayer anything.. so... im all sorts of screwed.
you missed the point. we don't want stories is the only factor to buy a game. we also want a great gameplay and a great story to makes us play more than once. if they want to make the game "more cinematic experience", why not make a movie instead of making a game?
You write well, but the post reeks of an old man waving his cane shouting "Back in my day...." There is still a sizable market for the games you want. It is the indie scene. There are some titles in there with remarkable gameplay, visuals and innovation. So, that would leave your problem being with which games are marketed most. You have only tapped onto big budget AAA titles.
I play all types. I will dabble in some AAA titles, then pop over to my indie library. And here's the really cool part. Because of how much less work is involved in the indie titles, they dont require a staff of hundreds and almost always cost less than $15. So, not only do you get what you want, but you get to save money too.
Heed some of your own concerns here and write something original.
A more recent and [perhaps better example of this is The Last of Us. Here we have a title that has perhaps the best narrative in a game to date, but as a game it's not all that spectacular. I often wonder why this couldn't simply be a film, or a TV series.
I enjoy a good narrative in my games, but when I play a game, I'm not in it to watch things happen. I have TV and YouTube for that. I want to interact in the events, and gain some sense of accomplishment from my actions.
It seems that the more cinematic games get, the less this seems to be, and I hope I'm proven wrong.
Why are you people so against video games becoming more serious medium then just toys
I do agree with you totally about games today. Maybe there will be another videogame crash and we can learn from this nonsense.