I have a GameFly account. It has served me well. It has allowed me to spend less than the price of a single AAA retail release per month to play as much as I want of practically whatever I want. And what I want usually ends up being the first four or five hours of several much larger fourteen-hour or even forty-hour experiences. That sounds like it should be a comfortable sample platter of the industry, an ADD fantasy of constantly-shifting and continually-expanding experiences. So why instead does it feel like being strung up and force fed the same meal for months or even years on end? Well, as you might have guessed from the title, I have some thoughts on that.
1. The Vertical Slice Has Got to Go
If you’re not familiar with the term, the “vertical slice” is a method taken from product design. It’s a way of avoiding what’s known as “feature creep”, the unfortunate tendency of people who are equal parts creative and bored to keep tossing new ideas at the wall instead of spending time developing the ideas that they’ve already got. Because in pretty much every case, thinking up the nifty stuff you could invent is much more entertaining than actually doing the very strenuous and dull work of inventing things.
So, in order to keep their people on track, managers demand at the outset of a project that they have a list of the exact things which their nifty new gadget will be able to do. And progress is tracked by the gadget’s ability to perform these essential functions and, inevitably, its inability to do anything else at all.
Which is all well and fine in, say, packaged goods (where most of the suits working at western publishers now come from) but is absolutely death in art.
And you can see that right away in the amount of games which show you the entirety of themselves in their tutorials and then demand that you play through another twelve or so hours of the same repetitive actions, which are made all the more repetitive by the fact that they’ve been modeled after some other and much more popular game from five years ago that everyone has been copying since then. If you’ve been gaming at all in the past ten years, I can hand you an Xbox controller and you’ll likely be able to tell me exactly which button shoots, which button zooms down the scope and which button lobs your (yawn) exactly three or five grenades. Never four grenades, mind you. That’s the devil’s number.
By the way, how many grunts in the field are actually allowed to handle grenades? I’m really curious about that.
Regardless, if you want a great example of how terrible this is, look no further than open-world gaming. Look at all of the unnecessary collectables used for padding, the copy-paste level design, the “crafting” systems which are typically just another little dance with the bland U.I. to do the same exact thing you could have done by simply picking up an object in the world because there’s zero freedom or options to be had there.
Look and behold the terror of a ledger with boxes being mechanically checked. And if you want a vision of the future, imagine a forced stealth section stomping on a human face forever.
2. Intuitive Controls are Inherently a Bad Idea
Okay, hear me out on this one: I hate intuitive controls. I absolutely loathe being able to pick up a controller and immediately knowing what each button does. Every time that I do, I can feel another knife being stabbed into the heart of gaming.
I have strong emotions on this is what I am saying here.
The really beautiful thing about video games as an artistic medium is that they’re the only one that demands something of the person engaging with them. Film is a passive experience. Reading is technically more active but once you’re literate it’s basically automatic. Paintings hang on walls and look pretty, which is very nice of them but maybe isn’t so indicative of a growth experience.
Only gaming really makes you work for the next bit of story or emotion or what-have-you. And maybe it’s something as simple as muscle memory. Maybe the characters and the plot and all of the more traditional stuff aren’t perfectly blended into the more interactive bits and so you get lots of odd stuff like health packs and quicktime events and all of the other tropes that are sort of laughable from any given distance besides right in the heat of the moment. But there’s still a magic there that’s particular to this medium.
And when you try to flatten those experiences and make them rote and predictable so that you can try to engage with non-gamers, especially the people who will never play your product in a million years anyways, then you dilute that magic.
And then all you’ve got is a whole lot of misspelled, one-word title games like “Phayze” and “FaylState” and “Fallohcentryke” that all play the same and feature what I believe to be the exact same burly, white man on the cover looking vaguely militaristic and also annoyed at how close the photographer has gotten to his face. Are these all part of a series? Really, I can’t even tell anymore.
3. New IP is for New Ideas
You know what? I’m fine with all of the sequels in gaming. Because really, gaming doesn’t quite do sequels like other mediums do. Or at least it doesn’t do sequels like film does (look up the “alphabet mystery” series if you want some examples of ridiculous sequeling in literature) — or, I suppose film does sort of do long-form storytelling with multiple iterations at times (there’s always the “Up” series, of course) but it’s usually not in genre work? Except when it is?
Okay, okay, so the nature of sequels is a complicated beast wherever they’re done. And with series like “Assassin’s Creed” out there in which they’ve just gone ahead and given up their meta-story in favor of doing different historical epics with similar gameplay, it is perhaps more strange and convoluted than ever.
“What? You come up with a murder-y word that starts with a ‘q’!”
But we as a community spend a lot of time complaining about them regardless because quite a lot of them are seen as cheap and easy cash-ins. Even if the process by which they were made is most certainly neither. For my part, though, I’m more concerned with the glut of same-but-with-a-different-name rip-off titles that now make up the bulk of even AAA gaming. By now, we must have reached the point that there are more “Call of Duty” rip-offs than there are actual sequels. I mean, at least Activision has the kindness to only release one entry in the franchise a year.
Whereas practically every month sees at least two or three of pretty much that exact same game made by different and ultimately far less talented teams. Ones without the budget to topple the king and without the vision to stake a claim on their own territory somewhere else.
And what’s the point, really? Nobody ever says, “why buy the best when I could buy the rest at the exact same price and be woefully unfulfilled in life?”. Even the “Call of Duty” games didn’t hit upon mega-success until they quit aping “Medal of Honor” and started doing their own thing with the “Modern Warfare” titles.
Learn that lesson while you’re ripping off Activision, fly-by-night publishers.
4. Sometimes a Toy is Better than a Game
If anything, I’ve been arguing against convention here. And, sadly, there’s now nothing more conventional in gaming than handing the player an awesome tool and then forcing them to use it in one of several pre-arranged sequences.
Honestly, it would probably be easier just to avoid all of the extra work that goes into designing perfectly manufactured hallways with just the right enemy placement and instead toss us into big, open areas with lots of fun stuff to play around with and neat ways to play around with it. Why isn’t EA making its own Goat Simulator or Octodad?
And if you think that’s crazy, then why did we throw so much time and money at Minecraft? Hell, QWOP probably has a better ROI based purely on advertising revenue than most mid-range shooter titles that were released on the PS3 and Xbox360.
Remember that this is how we play. So give us a real playground. Don’t be afraid to be aimless.
5. But if Not then Give me an Experience
Of course, if you’ve got a great story to tell then that’s fine but be sure to make it a journey. Not just a series of the same few encounters over and over again until you get to the next dramatic beat. The interactive portion of your big, artistic statement on life shouldn’t be a chore to get through.
Maybe the best recent example of how to go wrong with this is “The Last of Us”. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love this game. I love its environments, I love its sound design, I love its characters and the feel of its controls once you do eventually end up in combat.
But what I don’t love are the sectioned-off enemy encounters that make stealth pointless, the anemic crafting system, the tacked-on puzzle elements (look Ellie, another pallet for you to stand on!), or the generally uninspired and straight-forward level design. Once you’ve murdered everything in sight, humans and zombies alike, then you do get to wander around and look at all of the very carefully constructed environments which is a wonderful time all on its own. Some of the most endearing and even affecting moments in the game actually come from these joyous little moments of exploration.
But you don’t spend much time talking to people. You never come across any other survivors that aren’t bandits. You rarely interact with anyone in any way that isn’t just them trying to murder you. And it’s not that I have a problem with the violence, like a lot of contemporary reviewers seemed to. I love violence! The more stomach-churning the better!
“I shall bathe in the sweet entrails of my enemies!”
But when the best moments in the game are all, every single one of them, outside of the combat and yet the combat makes up ninety percent of the experience as a whole then, yeah, something is clearly wrong. Imagine a sequence in which you and Ellie wander into an abandoned building and scavenge for supplies and other people are also there, cautious but minding their own business. Imagine grabbing what you need but not saying a word to these people as you gradually fill up your pack and move along.
It’s the tension of not knowing how something’s going to turn out that makes that scenario interesting. Maybe they will just turn on you. Maybe they won’t. What if they also have guns? Will you shoot first and ask questions later?
Now imagine if that only happened once in the whole game. If other encounters worked in other ways, violent or not. See, it’s not about the bloodshed. It’s about the novelty. It’s about the difference between exploring a deliberately crafted world in which a group of creative people have touched every aspect and being pounded upside the head by a few core systems that can be iterated on ad nauseam because the latter just happens to be way cheaper and require a lot less effort.
If you’re going to make your epic then make it count. What distinguishes the great Hollywood epics, for example, is their bloat of spectacular stuff. They’re gloriously messy.
Think “Lord of the Rings”. It’s essentially a hero’s journey but we’re not there to see Frodo drop the ring into Mordor. We’re there for all of the fantastic lands and larger-than-life characters that we can meet along the way. If instead the series had been nine hours of Frodo smacking goblins upside the face with the same pre-rendered moves and hearing the same twelve to fifteen death gurgles then it would have been an abysmal slog.
Just because you’re building a game doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be building a world.
Or, hey, maybe just continue about your business while your business slowly dies around you. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here giving serious consideration to just cancelling my GameFly subscription.