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The State of the (Gaming) Union

The PlayStation 4 Pro and the Xbox One X represent the half-life of the 8th generation consoles. Given that, an apt question is, where are we?

It’s hard to explain.

The 8th generation has brought us remastered game after remastered game. And we love what’s been served up; the Bioshocks, the Uncharteds, the Crash Bandicoots, the Gears of War. It’s exciting, to play the games that shaped our childhoods on these newer consoles. And then we pull those out and put in, what? Another Call of Duty (CoD). I remember the trailers for CoD 3, way back on the PlayStation 3 in 2006. And now this November we’re getting another World War Two-set Call of Duty.

Dice gave us something only marginally fresher with the release of Battlefield 1. But with the exception of mustard gas and trench warfare, not much else is different. There are still all the modern scopes you could dream of, and you’re spoiled for choice if your taste is for something automatic (though period accurate). It’s New, but we’ve Seen It Before. But now with 64 players per server on Conquest. Which is still a raucously intense good time. Sometimes more is better.

The Metal Gear Solid saga ended with the release of The Phantom Pain, and while it was an interesting game from a technical and gameplay standpoint, it didn’t feel much like a Metal Gear. There were flashes of it—most of the missions in Africa, the battles with Sahelanthropus, and some of the story with the child soldiers. But beyond that? It felt tame, as far as Metal Gear games were concerned. In its defense, however, that was less the fault of director Hideo Kojima and the suffocating effect of Konami, Kojima’s publisher’s influence.

Mass Effect Andromeda was a beautiful shooter, but a crappy Mass Effect game. In Andromeda, decisions were mostly arbitrary, the story was lukewarm at best, and the romances were all over the place in quality, mostly lackluster or even bad. In a series that had always been short on the men-loving-men (mlm) options to date, Andromeda was even more barren at launch than the previous entries. Bioware’s talked about fixing these issues, too, but so far hasn’t really done anything to remedy the situation.

And while Bioware does bear some of the blame for the mess that was Andromeda, it isn’t all their fault. Electronic Arts is the publisher that oversaw Bioware’s production of the game. It set the new Bioware IP up to fail almost from day one, with constantly accelerating deadlines, no unified vision, and an almost entirely rookie team spread across three physically separate studio locations hundreds of miles apart. And even if those disparate pieces finally found a way to work coherently together, they were undermined by the accelerating deadlines.

So where are we? The titanic force of Activision, 2k Games, Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, and such believe we want more multiplayer-only cooperative games or the same rehashed franchise, but with a different location. This is what their focus groups tell them. The evidence of this exists not just in the modern slew of games on the shelf but in the developmental difference in a game called Fuse.

When it was first introduced, it had a unique art style, it was almost wacky, it was quick and light and interesting and fun and cool. And then the developer, Insomniac Games, turned to Electronic Arts for help with getting the thing published. The result was the game was neutered, broken, and beaten into a stale-gray GrimDark knock off of the same old Call of Duty veneer that’s gotten increasingly more worn-out with every new release.

This is the difference between catering to an audience, and catering to a focus group. The latter is boring as hell. And year after year, we the audience clamor for something different.

In the midst of this dysphoria between audience and publisher, there are developers that heard the cry, and delivered a remedy.
Guerilla Games did something new with Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s a third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective game that takes place from the point of view of Aloy, a woman and an outsider, as she struggles to find a place amongst her tribe and the larger world beyond. It’s not necessarily post-apocalyptic, it’s post-technological. It’s beautiful, interesting, thought provoking, fun, and combines so many rare little touches that it feels utterly unique. It reflected an audience that’s largely ignored by the Triple-A publishers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the talking heads who tout the invulnerability of those publishers predicted its failure.

Which must be terribly embarrassing for them, considering how well the game has done, critically and commercially.
Telltale Games continues to release narratively immersive and entertaining new entries into the episodic game market. Some big studios noticed the popularity of the newer format and tried to compete there. Square Enix, a publisher on the same scale of Activision and Ubisoft, released their new Hitman game in two-mission chunks. Except there was a huge difference. While there’s an over-arching story throughout the episodes of a Telltale game, each “episode” features a coherent beginning, middle, and end that’s unique to that story, and influenced by the chapters that preceded it.

Instead of understanding this and building the new Hitman game to fit the episodic format, Square Enix just amputated a complete game and released it in small chunks and called it good.

The result? In spite of some of the most finely finessed gameplay and most beautiful graphics of the series, the game was tonally inconsistent, the pacing was unpredictable, and the little chunks of story you got in the small cutscenes didn’t actually set up a narrative to experience so much as just introduce the next sandbox for Agent 47 to kill his way through. Thus? An episodic game that’s quite clearly not designed to be experienced in the little pieces you got, but compiled as a whole. Personally, the game became more fun to replay linearly when there were more episodes to go through at a time. Because it comes together that way, like it was designed to.

Anyway. I digress.

Games made by Telltale or Guerilla or Arkane are not the norm. The game industry is in a feedback loop of only ever putting time and effort into developing Triple-A games that satisfy a focus group. And that focus group just keeps calling for a new and improved CoD, because Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was the freshest thing – in 2007.

If that sounds callous forgive me. Except look at the number of first person shooters with a military flavor that it spawned.
It’s a lot. And the problem with emulation and not innovation is not that we don’t like first-person-shooters with guns we can recognize and political situations that aren’t entirely dissimilar to the world we live in. We do; even with consistently shrinking sales year after year, CoD remains a best-selling series.

The problem arises when the mimicry these successes spawn fail to emulate the things that made the original interesting. I’ll explain more about that in a moment.

The audience, those of us out here wanting to buy games, are calling for something else. Jim Sterling expressed a similar sentiment in a remastered episode of the Jimquisition, citing variety as the actual spice of life.

We, as an audience, don’t want one game with only slight variations between them. We want different experiences. XCOM 2 is a turn based strategy game that is so successful it’s threatened to become its own franchise by itself. Which would be awesome, because it’s a fantastic game. But it’s something of a unicorn in the ever-expanding Call of Duty emulator market. XCOM 2’s turn-based strategy is quite a Far Cry (pun intended) from the traditional game being published. Unrelated to this, Far Cry 5 looks beautiful and for once in my life I can say I’m absolutely excited by a game being made by Ubisoft.

Moving on. Let’s look at another piece of the 8th generation that’s gaming speed on both console and PC markets.

Virtual Reality is a trend hot enough right now that the PC market is adapting and evolving its hardware to compete with the consoles directly. Alienware and Dell had booths that focused on their new VR-ready hardware at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). That would be exciting, too! Except, there doesn’t appear to be anything really unique about VR. At that same E3, Bethesda showcased its own VR experience, where Fallout 4 and Skyrim were now VR compatible. Which would be cool, if it didn’t look incredibly cumbersome to play, and not particularly evolutionary.

VR doesn’t feel like a unique platform to play games on. It feels like a gimmick. And an expensive one at that, with the barrier to entry for most VR devices costing far more than a standard console. Oculous Rift costs $600, and the HTC Vive costs $800, and that’s before you have a PC to plug them into. Given how expensive that is, what does it offer in terms of gameplay? Not much. Roller coaster simulators and arcade shooting galleries.

Despite its cost, however, I have a point of contention. I don’t think the rules of this storytelling medium have been figured out yet. To explain, I need to flash-back to the earliest days of gaming.

In 1972 when the original Pong released with the first Atari home console, I imagine there was a similar sentiment. Video games are a gimmick. Nothing more. I mean look at it! It’s just moving two paddles and bouncing a ball between them. And yet, Ashley Johnson, voice/motion capture actress for the character Ellie in The Last of Us won TWO BAFTA awards for her role in the game and it’s DLC. She earned two of the most coveted awards in acting for her role in a video game.

This is the level gaming has evolved to. More than forty years separates the release of Pong, and the release of The Last of Us. Gaming has evolved by quantum leaps in that time. And the leaps have almost always involved narratively pushing the hardware you’re telling a story on. Hideo Kojima did this every time he released a game. He did it first with the 1987 release of Metal Gear on the MSX2. And later on in 1999 with the release of Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation One.

We have yet to see that innovation in VR gaming. That’s not to say we won’t; actual VR gaming is relatively young and we have yet to meet the inventors that are going to take VR and make it something worth paying attention to. But for the moment, it remains unimpressive.

What about the rest, though? There’s a surge in popularity for open-world games on the scale of The Witcher 3. First things first, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is one of the best games I’ve ever played. Narratively, it’s fascinating. Visually, the spectacle is almost incomprehensible and when encountering monsters, often terrifying. The sound design is equally brilliant and the music is haunting and evocative. It is worthy of the almost obscene number awards heaped upon it. It’s not without faults, however; a game that features such a diversely imagined bestiary can’t seem to invent a fantasy world with people of color in any role.

But the success of the game has led to emulation. It’s almost inevitable. We’re still inundated with Call of Duty 4 impersonators, and that came out ten years ago at this point.

The problem is; when a game succeeds, those trying to mimic the game to replicate its success often mimic the wrong parts.
The Witcher 3 would have been a poorer game if it had been made by Ubisoft on the production deadline of an Assassin’s Creed game. Which is to say, an open world game is not just about the size of the sandbox, it’s what you do in that sandbox. And climbing towers to unlock vantage points doesn’t keep me wanting to play for 100+ hours. Sooner or later, you’re gonna run out of towers.

Fallout 4, dodgy story, bugs, and all, fills its world with interesting things to do and encounter as you explore. Which is the point of an open world game. It’s about inhabiting the world. Any world. Even quasi-linear games like Dishonored 2 and Prey, both created by Arkane Studios, are brilliantly rich and dive deep into the mythos of their chosen worlds. Because immersion isn’t necessarily connected to how detailed or photorealistic your graphics are. Journey and Azul are two other games that are fascinating and invoke great emotion when played. And they can’t technically hold a candle to the graphical fidelity of Batman: Arkham Knight (post patches.)

Which leads me to the point. Eventually, the purpose of games isn’t to maximize the number of polygons in a character model. We will eventually hit a technical wall where we can’t make something any more realistic. And that’s okay. The entire Borderlands franchise remains graphically interesting despite its age because it is stylized. Call of Duty 4, on the other hand, showed its age within a year.

Firewatch would have been a poorer game if it had tried for outright realism instead of building around its own stylization. Because even stylized, it is beautiful to look at. The sunsets gave me moments of pause to simply stare at the visual of it.
The whole point of this is to demonstrate one thing: gaming is not a one-size-fits-all market. And what was interesting once, ten years ago, may not be what’s interesting now.

Games like The Witcher 3, Journey, Azul, Dishonored 2, Prey, XCOM 2, Fallout 4, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and even Overwatch, demonstrates that the one-size-fits-all philosophy of the biggest publishers is outdated at best and outright ignorant at worst.
And while I haven’t mentioned all the best high-points in the 8th generation, this goes to illustrate a singular point: we, as gamers, want more. And the companies that provide it—Arkane, Naughty Dog, Guerilla Games, Ninja Theory, CD Projekt Red, among others—are going to be more successful than the Ubisofts and Activisions and the Electronic Arts that rehash the same games with improved graphics and expect us to be impressed.

Because we’re not. And the diminishing returns of each consecutive CoD reflect that.

*Editor’s Note: Earlier drafts of this article incorrectly listed the name of Ninja Theory, Ltd as Ninja Studios.


Image Courtesy of Activision

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    a novel- and essay-ist interested in gaming, genre fiction, and better queer representation

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