I like video games. So much so that I spend a disproportionate amount of my time arguing about them online, writing now-shelved dissertations about them and, obviously, playing them.
More to the point, I spend a lot of time reading about new games and enjoying the inevitable shit storms that are becoming common-place in the community, so I’ve decided to start a short series of articles regarding recurring phrases; explaining why they make no sense and why you are a fucking idiot if you ever use them.
This week, gamers need to shut the fuck up about…
“All games are the same now; there’s no variety like in the old days!”
Chest high walls. Space marines. Supercilious action girls. Gun-metal grey. QTE’s. If you have spent any amount of time reading the reams of text people vomit onto the internet regarding creativity in the industry today, I guarantee you’ll have seen at least one of these clichés get name-dropped.
The thinking behind this is that games nowadays are all carbon-copies of the latest big thing. If a game starts using cover-based shooting and goes on to shift millions of units then you can guarantee that every third-person shooter will follow this winning formula with gusto, even when it makes no sense and people start pulling levers that make chest-high walls appear instead of, say, releasing a wave of lava to wipe out the enemy.
You might recall the Wii rewarded Nintendo with a license to print money, (for the first couple of years, that is, before everyone realised the Wiimote amounted to little more than a slightly more functional Power Glove,) which left the remaining two console giants scrambling to foist their own ill-advised motion control gimmicks on a disinterested public. Although, to be fair, the Kinect does have some cool features, but the Playstation Move was an utterly laughable rip-off which Sony now seem to be hastily brushing under the carpet.
So, thus far, this argument actually appears to be fairly airtight, but I must be going somewhere with this, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered writing it, so bear with me.
First of all, let’s look at a couple of screenshots from the most popular shooters of this console generation:
Okay, those are all different games, but the majority of them could be screenshots from a panoramic view of the same level; I can even spot the same gun in at least three of the screens.
Let’s try third-person games instead:
Uh huh…at first glance there at least appears to be a bit more variety in the locations here, but the one thing they all have in common is a place for the player to velcro themselves to a wall; even in space where you could feasibly be floating through the air having zero-gravity battles and kicking people into the damn sun.
This isn’t looking good, at all…
Why it’s Bullshit
First of all, the games I showed above are, in no particular order, about: A clone and his ghost brother; a treasure-hunter fighting undead Nazis; a virus taking over London and wiping out most of the population; a video game character trapped in a video game fighting Neil Patrick Harris; humans fighting a fascist space-British regime; a merc being kept alive by an alien suit that might also possibly be killing him and, also, life after the apocalypse. Sure, a lot of the games might play the same, but that’s like saying, ‘pssh, another game you play with a controller, how original.’
The reason for this has less to do with laziness and more to do with the fact that game engines are immensely complex and can take years to put together. So, why then, when you find one that works well, (which people enjoy using to play games with,) would you spend time and money –two things which are in direly short supply in the current industry– researching and developing a new engine? Worst case scenario, it could either alienate your current fanbase, (because if there’s one thing gamers hate, it’s change; especially for no reason) or end up not working as well as the last one; making the game a clunky, buggy mess.
None of that has anything to do with the real point I’m trying to make, however, which has more to do with the second part of the sentence I mentioned some time ago: ‘there’s no variety like in the old days.’
Ahem, if I may…
That’s just what I came up with off the top of my head. If I could be bothered to go through the hundreds of games that came out for the SNES and Mega Drive, picking out all of the ones that were exactly the fucking same, I’d have a collage big enough to wallpaper and carpet my living room.
When Mario and Sonic were at the height of their popularity, it wasn’t just a cash cow for their respective creators, but also for every other hack developer because all they had to do was slap together a platformer with a colourful woodland creature as the lead and it was all but guaranteed to sell.
Some developers didn’t even bother with original ideas, and instead chose to simply steal from existing works (the little orange spiky turtle from Mario made an appearance in several games, including the video game release of Back to the Future.) This wasn’t a case of smaller developers with limited resources/talent, either: the American release of Super Mario Bros. 2 was originally a completely different game that Nintendo just copy-pasted their better known characters on top of; it was literally a copy of another game.
This, of course, wasn’t exclusive to colourful platformers, but I’m exhausted of Google images so I’ll just say that if you think shooters today are bland and uninspired, treat yourself to games like Doom, Hexen, Quake, Shadow Warrior, Blood and Duke Nukem. Some of the games had thoroughly original stories behind them, too: a space marine (WHAT?!) trapped in Hell on Mars; an undead cowboy who kills with voodoo and a misogynistic pig who catered to the busy fourteen-year old boy that didn’t have time to separate his main hobbies of video games and masturbation.
The problem, then, as that screenshot may have demonstrated, was that all the games looked like shit. It didn’t make a difference if you were fighting the armies of Hell or pigs dressed as policemen (subtle) because everything looked like heavily pixelated dog sick, and this is the point that I’m ultimately driving at, which can be summed up in a single screenshot:
If you don’t already know what that game is, I want you to try your absolute hardest to guess. Nothing? Okay, I’ll give you a clue: it’s based on a film. Still not got it? What if I told you that- oh forget it, it’s the Texas Chainsaw Massacre that is supposed to be a video game version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
I know it’s a bit unfair to pick on the graphical capability of the Atari, but it’s a great way to illustrate how, at one time, visual limitations were both a blessing and a curse. The downside was that you had games that looked like complete and utter arse, but, from a business point of view, you could potentially slap a movie license on any old piece of shit and it would still sell because people would associate it with something they enjoyed (although, as we’ve learned previously, sometimes, your game is shitty enough, you’ll still fail miserably.)
This was the reasoning behind the parade of colourful animals –looking just enough like Sonic to remind people of him, but not so much that the developer gets sued– jumping about jungle, desert and cave locales: if people make a positive association, for any reason, with your product then they’re more likely to buy it than if it’s something they know nothing about. It’s how movie tie-in games became synonymous with poor quality, (because all they had to do was slap a familiar character on the front and people who didn’t know any better would buy them assuming the game would be as good as the film,) and why games like Wolverine and Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay are described as ‘surprisingly good.’
Today, you may know this business plan better as the reason why Mario has had to retrain as a premiership footballer, rally driver, party-planner, MMA fighter, painter and doctor, though curiously has yet to do any actual plumbing. Mascots aren’t as easy to come up with anymore because the world of mainstream hi-res gaming makes anything other than highly detailed characters kind of funny to look at. Think about it: in a fully rendered 3-D world, how do you make a mouse in knight’s armour look normal? Or an earthworm in a supersuit? Or, to put this another way, name me some of the classic mascots the early days of 3-D yielded, when developers were still coming down off their world-beating idea of ‘any animal ever with the colour saturation doubled’. Crash Bandicoot and…I don’t know, Jersey Devil, maybe?
Modern graphics have, to some extent, rendered a lot of the old mascot tropes obsolete. It’s why Nintendo shamelessly whore out their existing IP’s and it’s the only reason Sonic the Hedgehog still exists, but it’s also a big reason for all games arguably being the same today: weird shit looks too weird when it’s rendered with current-gen technology. This is probably best illustrated by the fact that the fantastic Infamous series by developer Sucker Punch is, in essence, just a next-gen successor to their Sly Racoon series, only with all the cartoon animals swapped out for a baked potato in a lemon biker jacket.
The gameplay is largely unaltered from the Sly games but the solid, blocky colours wouldn’t suit a game with the scope of Infamous, so it makes a lot more sense to give it a more realistic feel; creating a world within which a raccoon in a hat, sadly, wouldn’t gel. It’s sort of similar to how a lot of games get stick for being dark and gritty, but the truth is that if they weren’t they would look utterly ridiculous.
The other problem people seem willingly oblivious to is that, as I mentioned before, game engines are tricky things, especially given how huge game worlds have become; it’s a far cry from the days of programming one character to run to the right, dodging or attacking a procession of suspiciously identical enemies who all have one attack (usually walking into you.) It’s hard enough just to get an engine running stable; nevermind take wild flights of fancy because someone on a forum thinks it would be fun, (the same person that will then piss and moan because you didn’t implement the feature to their exact yet indeterminate specifications.)
What to Say Instead
“Mainstream gaming is stuck in a limbo, where triple-A games have to sell millions to make money to make games look good enough to sell millions. Fortunately, there are now several other avenues available to us, as gamers, that allow smaller developers to get their ideas out and we should be embracing these and forcing a shift in the industry.”
The stupidest thing, to me, about the idea that all games are the same nowadays is that it’s not even remotely true. Almost all of the examples of current-gen games I used above were heavily-marketed triple-A titles specifically designed to shift as many units and be as popular as possible. Surprisingly enough, the thing about mass-market appeal is that some elements have to become standardised because a lot of gamers don’t have the time or inclination to learn a hundred new game mechanics every time they pick up a new title, and this will inevitably lead to some level of blandness across the board.
Here’s the thing, though: the triple-A market makes up a tiny portion of the video game industry today. Like I mentioned t’other week, there are several outlets for indie developers to publish their work, such as the Xbox Live Marketplace, PSN and Steam network, as well as just putting ideas out there on the internet and getting feedback, collaborating with other developers as well as concept artists, musicians, writers…everyone is out there, including, with the advent of sites like Kickstarter, people willing to fund your project, often for nothing more than to see it reach fruition. There has literally never been more creativity in the industry and, moreover, freedom to pursue your ideas.
When people complain about everything looking the same what they are really saying is ‘I am too lazy to see what else is out there, and as such I do not deserve to be rewarded with new and interesting games.’ Like I said before: the industry is changing, it has to, because the current model simply isn’t sustainable, when companies are living and dying on the success of their debut release.
Here’s an idea, though: maybe the next time you log on to complain about the next Call of Duty, head over to Kickstarter instead and throw five bucks at a project that interests you. I guarantee you’ll find something that tickles your pickle, even if it’s just a sequel to that game from the 90’s you totally loved which everyone should definitely drop money onto.