Monday, January 25, 2010

Times are Changing

The problem is that people seem to see videogames as an ever-growing and expanding medium that must consistently change to meet the desires of it’s audience. I find that to be very false. Videogames are like books. They are not a medium that needs a different form to be better in any way, a videogame is a videogame, just as a book is a book. The true essence and quality of a videogame comes from the people who develop the game and how they execute the game itself, just as a book relies on the words of the author.

The way I see it is that developers nowadays see videogames as something to be “mastered”, like there is a goal videogame development is working towards. Well, this “goal” does not exist, for there is no such thing as a perfect videogame, nor a perfect story, perfect graphics, perfect music, or anything like that.

A videogame’s true excellence relies upon it’s execution. When the developers have a set goal in mind for what they want to create, and when the creator is given a blank canvas to paint their masterpiece, they do so with the utmost passion.

Developers nowadays try to put every single aspect of modern technology into their videogames, specifically, they are trying to take the powerful aspects of Hollywood and put them into videogames. Putting the benefits of modern technology into a videogame isn’t a bad thing, what is bad is when the videogame forgets what it is: a videogame. Videogames are interactive experiences that we play. How the player interacts with that experience is up to the developer, but the fact that the videogame is a videogame is something that should never be forgotten. This was my biggest problem with MGS4, there were so many cut scenes that gameplay time practically matched cutscene time; furthermore, the interaction of the gameplay was severely lowered in comparison to MGS3; making gameplay feel like less of an experience and more of a chore to reach the next portion of the story. The only exception being the final boss battle, which was excellent.

A contrast to MGS4’s lack of strong interaction is another cinematic masterpiece: Shadow of the Colossus. There are virtually no cut scenes in the game whatsoever, yet Team ICO created such a dramatic experience by sucking the player into the game with simple yet strong gameplay elements, alongside great camera angles that made the battles almost cinematic in presence. Furthermore, the game creates a dynamic story out of it’s gameplay alone. Very little text is shown in the game, yet the story is so powerful simply through superb execution of gameplay, music, and artistic direction.

Another example is the Mother series of games from Nintendo. An incredible series that touches the player on a psychological level through the everyday feeling that we experience every day: laughter, anger, fear, happiness, and sadness. One can argue, well if it’s simply the story that is so good then it should’ve just been a book, what makes it a great videogame. It is because games with excellent storylines that offer the level of interactivity that the Mother series offers can only be experienced to their full potential through the interactivity that videogames provide. This is what is so vital about the RPG genre in games, they rely heavily on story, so to be truly excellent, the developers must execute the interactive with said story to be truly legendary. For example, (WARNING: SPOILERS for Mother 3), in Mother 3 you got to name your entire family, and in the story your mother is killed and your brother lost forever, the player is unaware that this is going to happen, thus making the loss extremely painful, and perhaps even reflect on the player’s own relationship with his/her family.(END SPOILERS).

So much excellence in videogames have come from the past generations. A time before touch screens, motion controllers, and HD graphics. Legends such as Chrono Trigger, Super Metroid, Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Goldeneye, Megaman X, Sonic 3, Final Fantasy VI, Super Mario 64, StarCraft, and many more. What made these games fantastic weren’t any types of gimmicks or “flavors of the month”, just excellent execution. It didn’t take much to be an excellent videogame in the past, just a creative mind, proper knowledge of how to execute one’s creative ideas, and the passion to develop it all into a final product.

Yet, here were are in the present day. Natal is going to be released at the end of the year, as is Sony’s motion controller. The world is obsessed with ‘casual gaming’ and the Wii, and several masterpieces are being over-looked because they are played like games of a dead age, an age that existed only 10 years ago. I find that this “evolution of technology” is not expanding game development, rather it is simply opening one door and closing another. If developers continue to step in this direction, game development is going to be extremely limited. Natal is by far the most restrictive, for it throws away buttons entirely for a camera controller. Natal has a lot of possibilities with it, but it cannot be seen as the future of gaming, for it is simply an accessory. Games such as Final Fantasy XIII and Bayonetta could never be played on Natal. So are developers supposed to throw away the action and RPG genre all together to compromise with this “future”?

Then there is this changing gaming market that we live in, where innovation has gone from different gameplay systems, such as Chrono Trigger multiple endings and team attacks, to clever use of gimmicks, such as utilizing a remote to match a person’s hand gestures so they can play table tennis in a videogame. This is where innovation now lies: utilizing technology to fool a player into thinking they playing something that it incredible, but it is simply something hollow. Uncharted 2 may have incredible graphics, top-class voice acting, and great cinematics, but it is still a simple 3rd person shooter, the same that we played 3 years ago with the first Uncharted, and even before that with Gear of War.

Innovation doesn’t come from technology, rather it comes from excellent ideas and proper execution of technology. Playing a game online is not innovation, but utilizing the internet to create mass communication within a single-player quest is innovative. Of course, I speak of Demon’s Souls very clever use of online functionality to allow player to communicate and help each other in the main quest by giving each other messages and loot. Furthermore, innovation doesn’t require technology, not at all. A great example is a game many are now becoming familiar with: Bayonetta. Bayonetta provides innovation in it’s superb gameplay, which revolves around utilizing two weapon sets at one time, as well as many accessories, techniques, and transformations; which can all be utilized in a wide variety of manner; thereby creating a very unique experience for players. While many developers brag about how one can make several story decisions to change the outcome of a game’s story, Team Little Angels brings that aspect to the gameplay itself, creating a great feeling of individuality and freedom to what the player ‘feels’ the most in videogames: the gameplay. This feeling of freedom in gameplay is usually exclusive to the RPG genre, but now falls into the action genre. An excellent achievement in my eyes.

Bayonetta is a fantastic example of an incredible gaming experience on the current generation of consoles; yet, what is so excellent is how it is not at all reliant upon the technology of this age, for the gameplay ideas it has could have been utilized in past console generations, it is simply that they have only come to existence now. It makes me wonder what the 3D action genre could have been if the ideas utilized in Bayonetta were done 10 years ago.

What truly is the saddest thing about videogames in this present time is how there is a severe lack of passion in game development as opposed to past generations. Not to say that there is no passion in videogames anymore, games like Bayonetta, The World End With You, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, No More Heroes, and Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep show a lot of passion from their developers. It is simply that there is far less passion shown by game developers these days. I believe it is that developers want too much to utilize the technology they have that the ‘essence’ of their vision is lost among the millions of polygons.

What I find myself in now is a videogame slump, where I am simply finding myself playing the same games over and over again, but not nearly as excellent as they were in the past. This is not simply a matter of nostalgia blocking my vision of incredible games, rather it is simply me not having my vision clouded by the powers of technology.

The RPG genre is one that has been criticized most as deteriorating. This is, in a few ways, very true. However, this is mainly due to a lack of courage from developers to truly take risks and spark innovation in this current age. An excellent modern RPG is Persona 4, easily one of the best RPGS of the past recent years, and this is mainly due to it’s excellent execution and innovation in gameplay systems. The result being an RPG that goes far deeper than most RPGs in the past have ever gone, resulting in an RPG that required time and effort, rather than being ‘accessible’ like most RPGs in the past have been. It’s not as though games need to change drastically, it is simply that games need to become more experiences rather than simple ’press a button to do this action’ games. That’s just what Persona 4 was: an experience. It’s use of the color yellow, a small cast of great characters, and the emotions and problems within those characters was what made the game so enjoyable, but what made it even more enjoyable was the fact that you as the player were interacting and controlling said characters. The art style, the music, the gameplay challenge; everything just came together to create one form: the experience that is Persona 4. There are, of course, many other game experiences, and it’s these games that become legendary.

Two games that come to mind when I think of a game experience are: The World Ends With You and the Kingdom Hearts series. TWEWY was a game that brought you into the modern world of Shibuya in Japan. The excellent art style portrayed everything from the buildings that stand in Shibuya in this very day to the graffiti on the streets; then the incredible soundtrack brought the emotions of the streets into the game itself. Everything from the dialogue to the clothes the characters wore; it all worked towards making one definitive experience that was The World Ends With You. The Kingdom Hearts series is a series that has created it’s own identity. Everything from it’s characters, it’s art style, it’s storyline, it’s gameplay, to Yoko Shimomura’s incredible soundtrack all belong to Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts alone. Individuality is a key component of both of these games, making them both games I have a lot of respect for, and for their creative developers.

So much is possible with videogames these days. No, it is not because of advancing technology. Videogames have always had boundless potential. It is simply up to the developers to grasp that potential and make the videogame experience they want to make. Perhaps I am wrong about technology closing doors for developers, perhaps it will greatly benefit games in the future. However, until I am proven wrong, I will stand by the games that I treasure most as the true icons of gaming. Games should not be viewed in cycles of generations. Each generation has it’s own legends that must always be remembered. If we forget about the teachings of the past we are only taking steps backwards. Developers shouldn’t look to the past as something that cannot be surpassed either. Saying that a game cannot surpass The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as a 3D adventure is foolish, because thinking like that will only limit the potential of a developers game. Surpassing the gems of the past is what all developers should aim for, for the developers of the past cannot make games forever, young blood needs to arise to provide new better experiences. The torch must be passed; however, this new generation needs to prove itself worthy first.

While I still remain hesitant, I look forward to what the future brings.

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