The last year has seen a glut of games that seem to be 'going through the motions', and that failed to engage me on even a superficial level. These were games where the gameplay was clearly considered 'thumb-candy' between FMV/Cutscene/Quicktime Events, where the world and its characters and their motivations were incredibly poor. While their teams had cinematic pretensions, they lacked the skill to execute them.
But that's missing the point. I don't want games to be better movies. I want them to be better games.
Resident Evil 6... I am looking at you, squarely, right in your rotten, decaying face. I hate you. Once, you were the scariest of the scary genre. Since then, we've seen you move from Zombie Apocalypse horror into Bio-terror/The Thing parody and finally into sub-standard, yet standard Military Buddy Shooter.
A point of note: if 'one guy wandering around a spooky house' is scary, you don't increase the scariness with each extra person you add. Thinking so indicates you have no right to work on a horror game. Hand in your notice.
I have waded through all the 'Gears of Medal of Honour of Duty of War' games. 'Waded' is particularly accurate because it is a word associated with slow passage, frustration, and an eagerness for the ordeal to end.
Spectacular cinematic moments aside, the paired 'grunting buddy machismo' and 'run in, die, then run in slightly differently and get a tiny bit further' patterns have begun to chafe more than wicker underwear. It's not the difficulty - 'baby modes' are always available - it's the lack of 'fulfilling experience'.
I'm really bored. I'm bored by the explosions. I'm bored by shooting people in the head.
I'm bored with 'killing people in their droves' being passed off as a general game-mechanic. It's not. It's a very, very specific game mechanic, in the same way that a 'Soya Chai Latte with 2 Sugars' is a very specific hot drink. Others are available.
During the '80s we faced a similar problem in mainstream cinema. Super-macho action movies were so ubiquitous that they occasionally began to parody themselves (both intentionally and unwittingly). Some of their stars even went on to openly state that they regretted playing a major part in so many brainless gun-fetishisation projects.
I am beginning to see why. It's not that violence in games is 'wrong'. It's that violence in games (particularly the mass-murder involved in most big-budget games) has started to feel silly, overused and tasteless. At some times it even feels a bit like this is our end-goal:
I know, I know. Vox Populi, Vox Dei. Democracy in action. But, people also watched Transformers movies in droves. Transformers: Dark of the Moon made $1,123,746,996 in 2011. A lot of people who watched it knew is was going to be awful, but went anyway.
Why? Well, there were enough flashing lights and explosions and blackhawk helicopters (does Mr Bay have a blackhawk-club-card or something?) to satisfy those who have never seen anything better. Literally.
Nobody tells potential audiences about the films that aren't this crap, so these are all they know about. It's like the marketing itself is a kind of pre-branding: "They spent 30 million promoting this... it must be entertaining, at the very least!" These same people moan that there was 'nothing good on at the cinema last year', having missed gems such as 'Cabin in the Woods'.
Back to games: if I am buying my games from Tesco the shelf will hold maybe 20 different titles. You can bet that they'll mostly be 'Michael Bay' games for the same reason. But at least they won't contain horsemeat.*
(*this wry comment will not age well.)
A Rebuttal Against Rebuttals
Now, a lot of you will be rolling your eyes and preparing internal platitudes that fall foul of a number of logical fallacies:
- Dene has obviously not played the 'right' games.
- Dene has produced big video games. It is hypocrisy.
- Dene now produces games for tablets. He has 'fallen' and wants to take down those who have not.
- Dene's message is unoriginal. He is just saying it to be part of an in-crowd.
- The future is mobile, and mobile games suck more, and are all evil with their F2P nastiness...
Let's look at these one by one.
Dene has obviously not played the 'right' games.
I think I've played 75% of major console releases in the last couple of years. Borderlands 2 and Far Cry 3 are yet to arrive, but at this point I'm getting through major releases slower and slower as my will to live drains away. I'll get around to them eventually, but it's not fun anymore, and that's wrong.
I have enjoyed a couple of major console games over the last few years (the new XCom and Dishonoured being the standouts). I am, however, increasingly feeling this is a rarity, and that anger has replaced enjoyment.
Dene has produced big video games. It is hypocrisy.
That's a logical fallacy right there. Murderers can disapprove of murder. I loved what we did with the Fable series, and genuinely felt like there was nothing else like it out there in the world. In a world of massive cinematic-wannabes, Fable still stands up as a (flawed) silly, fun game with a vast potential for self-expression. People still talk about the sheer tastelessness of the Darkwood Bordello, and the choices they made while playing. That's lovely.
The perceived consumer demand for greater graphical fidelity, and publisher desire for fast, regular turnaround now make that kind of game a rarity. We wasted a lot of time making Fable, fumbling around trying to make things work in a cool, unique way. Our result was not perfect, but I hope players could feel the love everyone put into it. It was a massive risk. We felt it paid off.
Nowadays, I rarely feel that I'm in a lovingly-crafted play-space (not just well-rendered terrain) when I play big modern games (Dishonoured being a rare exception). Instead, I usually feel I'm taking a studio tour at Warner Brothers; an actor dressed as a Dementor is going to leap out and try to scare me, and we'll all laugh and take another drag at our butterbeers (and be sent back to the beginning of the tour because he touched us).
Game designers have a unique relationship with their audience.
- Films are about getting the viewer into another character's head, and watching his experiences.
- Games are about getting the player into another person's world and creating exeriences (even if that world is just a set of rules).
These things are different, but somewhere along the line, we've shifted from the latter to the former, and it is ruining console games for me.
Dene now produces games for tablets. He has 'fallen' and wants to take down those who have not.
This is the 'motive fallacy'. The messenger's business goals do not automatically invalidate the message. As a consumer I will be delighted if big console games start living up to their expectations again. At the moment they are not, and I do not believe the ecosystem exists for them to do so.
This is not sour grapes. I do not covet a publisher relationship, or a big budget team. I would turn down any deal offered by a major studio now without hesitation.
I enjoyed The Room much more than 90% of the console games I played last year - mostly with vastly larger budgets. (Oh, they should be congratulated on their BAFTA, by the way. Really, really well deserved). Fireproof shows one potentially bright future for mobile/tablet. I do not see such a glint on the consoles.
Dene's message is unoriginal. He is just saying it to be part of an in-crowd.
I realise I'm late to the party. I know that the indie scene has been saying similar things for years, and that many like to make disparaging comments about people like Phil Fish for his outspoken commentary. I'll be honest; while on Fable 2 I heard a lot of similarly dismissive comments from indies and dismissed it as sub-punk-movement posturing. It seemed like some people had confused bravura with bravado.
But they were right. The game I enjoyed most last year was Fez. Bar none. No contest.
I loved it. Not for some half-assed nostalgic reasons. Not for the nods, winks and nudges to old-school gamers such as myself. I loved it because the author made a vast world he loved and invited me to explore it, and to discover its secrets. That was it. For me, this is what gaming is all about; an invitation to learn about someone else's world... as myself.
I loved other games, too. Kairo - again, a world and an ambiance that tells me that it wants me to explore and have an interesting time doing so. Home - left me questioning the role of authorial intent, and how games' interactivity allows the audience to twist this. Amazing.
Ultimately, when I play these games, I don't feel I'm walking in the same footsteps I made ten years ago. Those footsteps are pretty deep now, and I've begun to stagger as I retread them.
The future is mobile, and mobile games suck more, and are all evil with their F2P nastiness...
A vast majority of mobile games also suck, regardless of their pay methods. The issues caused by a touch-screen versus a joystick often mean that traditional gameplay/control pairings have to be neutered in order to eliminate frustration. But this also opens up new opportunities, too, in the same way mice did when introduced a couple of decades ago.
A touch-screen is 'just a controller' like any other, and needs to be treated as such.
When I provided the touch-screen 'slide to jump' in Incoboto, I found it made play much, much easier: you didn't have to move your hand from one corner of the screen in order to pick up, throw or otherwise interact with things. Some people misinterpreted the amount you had to wiggle your finger and declared that it was unresponsive. In truth, the travel needed to jump was less than that needed to lift and drop your thumb on a jump button. I know. I measured it. Likewise, in Year Walk, I've seen people move forward and backward by pinching the screen rather than swiping, making life much harder.
The reason for this kind of difficulty is that touch-screens offer no feedback. this means it is much harder to know when you're doing something 'wrong'. This is a problem in need of solutions. We're still in the early days of figuring out our standards. We're currently seeing a lot of super-simplified skill-free games while developers figure out what works and what doesn't. The Room is a great example of how we can use this platform in a cool, interesting way that doesn't feel like a neutered half-arsed version of controls long-past.
As for F2P: it's just one funding model, and the games built around it tend to have a similar feel and flow. I think gamers are getting bored/annoyed with it, and we're beginning to see F2P as another genre, like FPS (even though it isn't, really). Its ubiquity will not necessarily last forever.
As the 'big boys' and their wholly bottom-line focused bosses get more involved with mobile and tablet games, we're going to see an increasing number of games produced with the same kind of attitude as the big console games: all bluff and bluster, and little emotional resonance or... game-play.
Thankfully, all the while big publishers do not control the purchasing portals, I can't see tablet audiences exclusively playing 'realistic' cinematic blockbusters involving shooting people in the face ad-infinitum. Perhaps the next generation of gamers will see a more varied, vibrant and fresh world of games.
Bring it on. I can't face my console at the moment.