Dr. Gamelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Video Games Again
I’ve been bored as of late. Bored of video games. I have been a gamer for the vast majority of my life, starting with a Sears edition Atari 2600 in the early 80s, graduating to Nintendo Entertainment System in the late 80s, and then eventually most major console releases that followed. I have loved playing games, from classics like Combat, River Raid, Super Mario Brothers and Metroid, to more modern titles such as Mass Effect, Catherine, Kingdom Hearts, and Dead Rising. Bottom line: I’ve dropped countless hours of my life playing digital interactive entertainment, and for the most part I’ve loved it. Over the last few years, something has changed in me. My love for gaming has waned. Whereas a title such as the upcoming Batman: Arkham Knight would have been enough to make me shell out the requisite $60 a couple years ago, today I can’t be bothered to care. In the end, you’ll just go around as Batman from point to point on a map, juggling thugs in endless combos whilst leveling up all of the Dark Knight’s gadgets & skills (because heaven forbid he actually retains any of the skills learned from previous games – he’s only the BATMAN!), with ridiculously easy boss fights, and a paper thin story. None of these things appeal to me anymore. So what happened? How did my gaming preferences get so jaded?
Let’s go way back to 2008. A friend of mine, Patrick Moran, got a job with a well known video game developer: Bioware. He told me about one of their latest releases, Mass Effect, and that he would be working on the sequel to that game. Out of respect for my friend, I purchased Mass Effect for the Xbox 360 and gave it a solid run through. What a fantastic game! It had a lot of positives to note: great story, interesting characters, deep lore, the ability to make moral decisions that affected story outcome, fun gameplay based on gun and special over-the-top abilities, and a core game experience that lasted at least 25 hours but could easily go 40 or more if you decided to pursue all of the additional side content. The game was not perfect though, as it had plenty of graphical glitches, poorly executed vehicle sections (which were mandatory to complete the game – damn you Mako!), horrendous character customization and nearly all of the bases you infiltrated on explored planets were the the same base entirely or mirrored. All in all, the positive experiences of the game made the negatives fall out of view, and Mass Effect still stands as a great gaming experience. And there you have it, one game changed my perspective on what gaming could be. Suddenly the Street Fighters, Halos, and God of Wars were no longer interesting. They were rote experiences that were too narrow in scope and ultimately way too short an experience. My tastes as a gamer were evolving, and as they changed I found that most games that were big on the radar, the AAA titles, lacked the necessary gaming experience to hold my attention. My buddy, Patrick, has since taken an amazing position with another company within the game industry working on very exciting and different projects outside of the AAA game design meat grinder. When he left Bioware I thought he was crazy, now I’ve come to understand that he was way ahead of the curve. Patrick “gets it”, and slowly but surely I was going to get it too! Games and the industry itself are changing. The audience for gaming is changing too! It’s time for new gameplay experiences and for the expansion of what games can be and what they can mean to a mass audience.
Full disclosure: I have never been a huge fan of FPS, sports, or other such competitive multiplayer games. If I play multiplayer at all, I generally play co-operative and for the sake of having fun with my friends. I’m not hugely interested in meeting new players online, and as such I usually restrict the party to friends only. The key take away here is that multiplayer based gaming has nearly zero effect on my decision to buy a video game. Also, I have just about completely fallen out of love with fighting games. $60 for a game that has to be unlocked via overpriced DLC? No thanks, I’ll pass. Call me when fighting games pack all the unlockables in the core game and the gameplay evolves past fireball motions and endless parries and juggles – been there done that for over a decade now.
While we’re at it, let’s talk about content sold after game release, I’m looking at you Mr. Season Pass DLC! Batman Arkham Knight comes out next month, with an optional season pass that costs $40. Destiny, Forza Motorsport 5, Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, and Far Cry 4 all had season pass packages between $30 and $50 each, and they aren’t the only ones. Nearly all major AAA titles come with a costly season pass, even Lego Batman 3 has a season pass. When I have to pay an additional $30 on average to play the whole game as intended, essentially making a game cost part near $100, I lose all interest in the game instantly. And these season passes are usually not much more than a couple new maps, weapons, or possibly a playable character or two. It’s ridiculous considering the price paid! Needless to say, there is a greed culture inherent in AAA game development and I, for one, will not support it. At least one developer seems to have their head on straight about DLC: Nintendo. Their content is robust and fairly priced . An example: the DLC add on for Mario Kart 8 is $12 and it comes with 16 new race tracks, 6 new racers, and 8 new vehicles, a solid value, plus they give give you a Mercedes licensed vehicle pack with 3 more new karts for free. Nintendo may have been slow to get there with DLC, but when they got there, they did it right.
Above and beyond the aforementioned issues I have with the game industry, I just find most AAA games boring nowadays. They are linear, unimaginative, and repetitive button mashers that are rarely over 4 to 6 hours long (not including multiplayer). This has been my experience with recent titles like Killzone: Shadow Fall, the Order 1886, and Watch Dogs. Just tepid game experiences. Shooters are too linear (and the stories are mostly garbage too), sports games are too “realistic” to be any fun (if I have to hold a direction down and 3 different buttons to perform a simple action, I’m out. Give me Tecmo Bowl any day of the week over the current crop of sports games), and most action games are centered around an edgy anti-hero type and a plot that hardly drives the nonsensically repetitive action forward. Yawn.
So what’s a gamer to do? For starters, I’m a whole lot more selective about the games I play. Also, I go for games that aim for creative design or have a unique approach over the AAA titles. I love to play something that is going to let me stick around for awhile and get invested in the virtual world. I like to play games where I have more choices than just beat up the bad guys (news flash: I don’t need bad guys in games at all to enjoy them). I want games that evoke a slice of life experience, that allow me to reflect upon the human condition and enjoy seemingly low key activities like taking pictures, fishing, designing in game items and characters, etc. Games that I have played and loved recently include Gravity Rush, Tearaway, Animal Crossing New Leaf, Tomodachi Life, and Fire Emblem Awakening. These games are fun, simple, quirky and amazingly robust in content. They have a lot of personality and more than that, they allow you to play at your own pace and to be creative. They are as relaxing or thrilling as you want them to be, and the experiences that they give you are always changing as you spend more time in their virtual worlds.
What about console games? Well, there’s not much to say here. I crave games that will allow me the freedom to explore, that don’t place strict time limits on the virtual world I’m in, and that will allow me to establish relationships with characters that will evolve based on the decisions I make through conversations and actions. There’s just not a lot of games that have scratched that itch recently. In the last few years I’ve enjoyed Heavy Rain, L.A. Noire, Back to the Future, Dragon Age Inquisition, Binary Domain (I still think it’s criminal that we will likely never see a sequel to Binary Domain – the story was too good!) and a few others. The only console game that I have jumped completely into this year has been Life is Strange, an episodic adventure game by DONTNOD. So far they have released 3 of the proposed 5 episodes, and they have been excellent. The story is centered around a high school art student named Max, and she has just learned that she has the ability to briefly rewind time – about a minute or so, just long enough to correct a mistake. The interesting thing about the game is the amount of events you can change, from something as mundane as helping someone not get struck by an errant football to something as massive as determining whether someone lives or dies. The amount of choices you get to make is staggering, and each of them will have an effect on how characters in the game perceive Max and also how plot driven events will unfold through all of the episodes. What is great is that you are allowed to play the game based on how you want to, as opposed to just shooting a bunch of bad guys on your way to the next cutscene. It is a subdued world, of nuance and intrigue, and the majority of the topics dealt with are relevant to every day life: relationships, rebellion, deceit, jealousy, social media, privilege, authority and a whole lot more. It’s a game that wants to make you think about what you’re talking about and how you want to respond the issues that are set before you. Ultimately, it’s game experiences like “Life is Strange” that I’m looking for, a game that allows me to choose my character’s path based on a decision matrix slightly more complex than kill everybody to finish the story.
The type of console experience I flock to now is fewer and farther between, but very rewarding when I find them. Perhaps one day that style of gaming, a style built more on human interactions and decisions and less on bullets and explosions, will become more popular and more developers will bring innovation and broader imagination to narrative driven games. Until then, developers like Bioware, Telltale Games, Quantic Dreams, Supermassive Games and DONTNOD are to be applauded for their efforts. Their games are what keep me playing on the big TV in my living room, and it’s their games that I most look forward to when I see an article about new games being announced. Hopefully, newer games will be coming out over the next few years that will challenge the very idea of what a video game can be, and as such give us all a new reason to keep gaming alive. Until then, the industry can keep its vanilla shooters and its re-skinned annual football games, I’ll stick to the new, fun, quirky and daring titles that choose to live outside the AAA hemisphere.