Monday, November 16, 2009

Enough Gimmicks Part Deux.

Yesterday I wrote a little about how the comics industry seems to be far more concerned with gimmicks that with telling good stories. Today I want to talk about a different genre of gimmicks: Gimmicks in video games.

Up until very recently, the console wars were decided by one thing: Whichever system had the best graphics sold the most units.

However, processing power is subject to the law of diminishing returns. As gaming systems get more and more powerful, the smaller the noticeable improvements are.

Basically, the difference between the NES and the SNES was an absolute quantum leap in graphics quality. The difference between the 2D based SNES and the 3D based Playstation was just as obvious. However, compare and Playstation 1 to a Playstation 2, and you can definitely see that the PS2 is the superior console, but it's just an improvement… there isn't that massive gulf between the new and the old that there used to be.

Plus, visuals have reached a point where it's impossible to make that big leap any more. For a lot of today's games, the jump from current gen graphics quality to photorealism isn't all that massive. There's a reason to make the jump from the Xbox to the Xbox 360…but even with massive graphical improvements, to the average gamer, the differences in visuals between current gen consoles and next gen consoles are going to be far more subtle than ever before.

Basically, would you spend seven hundred dollars on a new console if the only difference is that the light kicks off the surface of the water look slightly more realistic? That if you get up really close to a wall you can see that the texture of the bricks is actual geometry instead of a painted on texture?

Now, for me personally, I thought that this was an opportunity for gaming to come into its own and take its place as a legitimate artform. You see, if we compare video games to movies, up until relatively recently, gaming technology was on a par with a hand-cranked cine-camera. No matter how much imagination creators had, they didn't have the tools to bring those ideas to life. It would be like trying to shoot the Lord of the Rings trilogy on a hand cranked camera with only four cast members and a budget of a buck-fifty.

However, it feels to me as though gaming skipped most of its creative phase and went straight into boring 'effects movie' territory. Games went from silent black and white shorts projected on an old bedsheet to 'The Day After Tomorrow': Little or no actual story, but some awesome special effects. Basically, the gimmicks should be there to embellish the movie…the movie shouldn't just be a vehicle for the gimmicks

Unfortunately, this is exactly the path that the vast majority of the gaming industry took. The gimmick came first and they shoe-horned a game in around it…rather than creating a game and organically creating a gimmick to service the game.

Let's look at 'Dead Space', one of the best games to come out this year.

Now, on the one hand, Dead Space fills the vast majority of my personal criteria for what a game should be. While it has a pretty clich├ęd sci-fi story, it's handled extremely well. The game is atmospheric, the art direction is gorgeous and it manages to be genuinely suspenseful and creepy…as well as being 'jump out of your skin' scary at times.

(I just want to point out here that there's a huge difference between art direction and 'good graphics'. Good graphics is just making things look realistic and shiny. Good art direction is just like designing, building, dressing and lighting a movie set.)

Now, if it had been left to me to market this game, that's what I would have focused on. The mystery at the game's core, the art direction and how the game manages to makes you feel vulnerable and exposed throughout the entire game. I would have marketed the experience that this game offers.

However, if you look up any of the marketing hype leading up to the release of Dead Space, all you'll read about is the 'dismemberment combat system'. Basically, you can't kill the monsters in Dead Space by just shooting at them. Using the various weapons at your disposal you have to dismember them in order to kill them. Instead of shooting them in the head or body, you shoot their arms and legs off…that's the whole gimmick.

I have to ask, why? In a game that is so good, a game that has so much to offer, why are you focusing on this totally irrelevant gimmick that you barely even think about after playing for more than fifteen minutes?

For me, this is the equivalent of marketing the original 'Aliens' movie on the fact that they used a technique that allowed for the most realistic looking starfields to date.

In a nutshell, games designers are constantly searching for the next gimmick, the next toy that's going to set their game apart from everyone else's…and they make that gimmick, no matter how insignificant, the focus of the game.

Why is this a bad thing?

Well, firstly, they're doing themselves a disservice. For example, I didn't buy Dead Space when it first came out because I played the demo which was simply the main character locked in a room with lots of monsters so you could see how the 'dismemberment combat system' worked. I played it for a few minutes and was completely unimpressed. I figured it was just another bog-standard sci-fi survival horror game. However, after buying it from the pre-owned rack months later (meaning my cash went to the owners of my local gamestop instead of the game's creators) I played it through…and if the demo had just consisted of the opening cinematic then the first five minutes of gameplay…I'd have been completely and instantly sold on the game and would have bought it on release day.

Ok, I admit that the demo and focus on gimmicks didn't hurt Dead Space's sales very much, and maybe this is me just being a curmudgeon, but personally I feel it's time for games to evolve. When I turn on my Xbox I want one of two things: Simple, fun gameplay, or a good story or experience to enjoy.

To go back to my movie analogy, I'm sure there was a film technology arms race just as much as there is a gaming technology arms race right now, but the movie industry matured (mostly) and actually used what they had to tell stories and give viewers an experience rather that just show off that they can do films in color or with sound now…I think it's time for gaming to make that same leap.

Games no longer have to be about the latest and greatest gimmicks, or about getting the highest score. While the CD-ROM era completely ruined the term 'interactive movie', I feel that we're at the point now where we can make true interactive movies. Not the crappy full-motion video interspersed with quick-time events that they used to be…but games like Dead Space with its amazing art direction, production values and interesting, well acted characters that actually makes you feel like you're playing the main character in a movie.

Basically, games are no longer just toys or 'kids stuff'. They can cast the player in the main role in an interesting and sophisticated narrative.

Why, when we have this amazing 'holodeck through a window' technology are we focusing on stupid gameplay gimmicks that really make no difference anyway?

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