Watching ABC TV’s Good Game cover the recent E3 convention, I have to admit I was struck by just how dull the line-up was from the major games studios. Do we really need more sequels? Do any of them have anything new to offer? How many first person shooters can we create before the genre grows so stale it can sustain its own mould cultures?
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good first person shooter. I’ve played lots of them. They’re fun. They’re also, as games go, quite limiting. There’s only so many possible situations you can invent which allow you to blow things up, and you don’t want to be too involved in the storyline and the characters because, like a good action film, the whole thing depends on you suspending some of your emotional and moral capacities in order to enjoy the ‘splosions.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, this leads to story-lines which are not what you would call original or deep. This, in turn, leads to the ever increasing need for violence and gore to replace actual meaningful content because the games industry, like a teenager in a car they can’t quite control, seems to be involved in a giant game of chicken with regards to exactly how much violence is too much. The effect is compounded when, like an over-enthusiastic puppy dog, the games industry keeps bringing back the stick in the form of endless sequels.
When a developer is asked to share the most significant or interesting thing about their game and they choose to focus on the addition of a droid which follows you around and fights alongside you, allowing you to unlock doors or see through walls, or when they respond to a question about storytelling by prattling on about motion capture and next gen graphics, then what you have are not games, they’re gimics. The same goes for the hardware itself. How many collective hours have been poured into debating the specifications, price points, DRM policies and marketing strategies of the XBox One or the PS4 over the last few weeks? Why? How have we managed to get the cart so firmly hitched to the wrong end of the horse that we care whether the hardware does anything other than enable us to play the games we care about?
So here’s a thought experiment by way of a question. We’ve all been here at some point: you play a new game which excites you to such a degree that you feel compelled to bore your friends and colleagues by expounding at length, and slightly too loudly, on why you love this game so much, how all the mechanics work, how it makes you feel, and why it’s just so awesome! You try to infect the people around you with your enthusiasm for the game which is blowing your mind. You do this despite yourself. You just can’t help it. The game has had a profound effect on you in some way or another. Games like Portal or Scribblenauts or Minecraft or Journey do this to us. When was the last time this happened to you? When was the last time it happened with a triple A title? With a sequel? With a first person shooter?
The video montages from the major games at E3 this year seemed an endless torrent of bad writing, flashy but meaningless special effects, unnecessary and gratuitous violence, and patronising, self-indulgent marketing talk about ‘the player experience.’ One developer even had the gall to claim that the next generation of motion captured graphics would allow storytelling as had never been seen before. Really? Technology improvements are always a good thing, but in my experience, the only thing which improves storytelling is, well, better storytelling. Motion capture ain’t gonna do it, particularly if you’re working with the same cookie cutter characters and aforementioned limitations on the player’s emotional involvement you’ve always had.
The games we care about, the ones that matter, have always been about the game-play, the storytelling (or the freedom from storytelling) and the immersion. By all means tell us about your new graphics, and your motion capture. It’s interesting for a while. Just don’t pretend that it lets you do anything that hasn’t been done before.
I’m not saying that this year’s game gave nothing worth looking at, or that they aren’t fun. I’m not even saying they’re not art (and let’s not get into that particular debate right this minute). I’m just saying that I’m bored. So forgive me if I don’t spend a somewhat ludicrous amount on an XBox One or a Playstation 4. I’m off to play some Kerbal Space Program or some Minecraft instead.