And now read on for my take on the subject matter! –Phill
You open your library. The number beside the ‘Games’ category is embarrassingly large; if that number were multiplied through the plastic ROM cartridges of your first console, they would have filled your bedroom. Twice. But everything is 1s and 0s now, even though sometimes it seems like they’re mostly 0s. You scroll through the list of games, feeling for that small spurt of dopamine that might spur you to dive in with a double-click. You haven’t got everything actually installed, but thanks to how cheap hard-drive space is these days it’s a pretty high fraction. There are names you don’t even recognise, feeder fish clinging to the sharks of a past, self-deprecating deal. When the scroll bar hits the bottom for the third time, you close your library.
You open your library. The ritual begins again, except this time you’ve been paid. When the scroll bar strikes three, the store page beckons. You start filtering everything that isn’t accompanied by a small, green percentage tag. A new cycle begins: top sellers, specials, recommended for you. Curators, wishlist, discovery queue. Om. But there hasn’t been something that’s piqued your interest for months now. Even the stuff that’s meant to be different, that’s voted in by the community, seems to be moving towards a dull default. Top sellers, specials, recommended for…you close your library.
You open your library. You aren’t even sure what you’re looking for any more. Something fresh, something that doesn’t feel safe. That doesn’t feel like a prettier version of the same games you’ve played dozens of times already. Something that doesn’t leave you frustrated, holding your hand through the first half-hour of gameplay just in case you’ve lost the ability to reason and explore the way, y’know, humans evolved to do over millions of years. That doesn’t have NPCs talking to you as if you’re a child, when you’ve got a clocked games list with more lines than the code that allows them to do so. That doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re the protagonist in a New Game+. You close your library.
Alright, so that’s probably a little dramatic for the feeling I’m trying to express, but I think it still holds up 24 hours after I wrote it. I’ve read Critical Distance for a while now, but never thought to contribute (thanks to the usual ego/fear balance), but the “New Game+” topic really struck a thought loose that I’ve been having a lot lately. That thought being that a lot of the games I play now feel as though I’ve walked straight from the campaign of one game, through a multiverse wormhole, and am starting a new game+ in the next world over. These multiverses are generally limited to genre stereotypes, and some are more closely carbon-copied than others. FPSs, for example, aren’t exactly a quantum leap away from each other. But even more complicated genres such as ARPGs (or even the recent resurgence in CRPGs) feel similar when you get past the superficial variations. It’s the symptom of every gamer who’s been playing a lot of games for a long time: eventually the weight of experience overcomes that of any new gameplay or graphics or story, and the scales of enjoyment thud to one side. It’s at this point that you either search for that dense gem of a game that will tip the scales back again (an endless, fruitless search a la the above dramatic retelling of my almost-daily Steam interaction) or find some way of altering their calibration. To the latter, how?
The feeling I’ve described is not unfamiliar to anyone who has consumed a lot of any other traditional media, and the solution has been presented in those others before now. Don’t like mainstream literature? Go read some experimental poetry. Yawning through the latest blockbuster sequels from Hollywood? Plenty of foreign language features or short film experiments that you can explore. The same advice is applicable to video games: look to the indie movement. Search for more than two minutes in the corners of the Internet dedicated to those exploring the form of video games and you’ll find something that you’ve never seen before (one recent example of this for me was strangethink’s Secret Habitat). And it’s not slowing down. There are gamejams practically every week; the evolution is becoming faster, and we are seeing more and more interesting experiments come out of them. It’s an exciting time for video games, so don’t let the well-trod halls of your digital library fool you into thinking there’s nothing much happening out there.
Everyone’s a critic, so try and be a critic with some chops. There are plenty of free programs that will let you put together your own
shitty amateur video game: Construct2, GameMaker: Studio, and Unity2d all have some kind of free version to download and play around with. I’m part of a very new, very hobby-based gamedev team at the moment consisting of three of my mates, and even we have already seen massive misunderstandings about what our game vision is. Seeing how much work it took to put a basic, one-room arena shooter together provided me with newfound respect for game developers and how difficult it is to take the leap to invest in developing something new (though not necessarily any less cynicism towards rehashes). Unless you have a very strong personality leading the charge, I can understand why parsing an idea through a company of hundreds might lead to an ‘averaged’ version of what might have been an initially exciting gameplay idea.
It’s not all the gamers’ fault though. Many developers could justifiably be accused of being lazy for quite some time now. There are many great examples of writing on this, including CD’s own ‘Art of Level Design Analysis’ which preaches a variety of articles that provide a better ways of introducing and guiding new and experienced players through levels without assuming a complete lack of intuitive reasoning capability. Failing to take on the advice of these articles often results in a game that introduces the ‘Yeah, I get it, let’s go” attitude that is often the first sign of a new game+-type reaction for me.
These are just a couple of suggestions. I’m sure there are other ways of alleviating the sameness of games. If any readers had any others I’d be totally interested in hearing them. As the constant refrain goes, ‘You can never go home’. I wouldn’t want to wipe the slate clean in order to experience these genres and gameplay tropes for the first time, because really that’s just a bandaid. Instead, it’s a matter of trying to view games in a more critical light, to seek out those games that challenge me, and try and refine my perception of the craft of games so that I might appreciate them more.
Easy as smashing Gato with the Masamune, right?