With the release of DmC a few months behind us, and its sales pitiful, I believe it's time for a little reflection.
I know I shouldn't be upset. Good games fail all the time. It's easily more likely that a good game will fail than a mediocre, catch-all big budget title, right? Not any-fucking-more. Dead Space 3 clears millions of sales and it doesn't matter. Tomb Raider, Hitman, and Sleeping Dogs for Squeenix? Same thing. I wish I had a better understanding of the disease, rather than just numerous examples of its symptoms. We're getting more and more bloated titles as publishers try to claw their way out of a grave dug by their shareholders. We're getting less and less subtlety, nuance, and innovation.
That's why I'd rather talk about Ninja Theory, and why they're doing it right. In terms of game design anyway. They couldn't make their money back on DmC, and I don't even think Enslaved or Heavenly Sword was much of a financial success either. Come to think of it, how the hell are people still paying them to make games? Whatever the reason, I'm incredibly grateful.
I've often described games as whack-a-mole with a beautiful canvas oil painting wrapped around it. Every game essentially transitions between those two mediums. Sometimes, we're admiring the beauty of its art and composition. Then, suddenly, we're asked to ignore all of that and shoot people in the head or chop monsters to death with medieval weaponry. I think only a very few IPs have managed to transcend this property into an experience in which the fact that it's a VIDEOGAME truly enriches the artistic experience, rather than just diverting our attention to it and then away from it. Half Life is one such IP, as do I believe to be Bioshock. I notice they're both first person shooters, and I wish I could easily call an example from another genre, but it isn't coming to me.
However, that isn't what I'd like to talk about. I'm not interested, today, in which IPs are pushing the boundaries of what our new, infantile medium can accomplish. I'm interested in which IPs are the best paintings wrapped around whack-a-moles.
Perhaps I'm biased. I favor good writing over a lot of other qualities in videogames. This makes me somewhat of a minority. People talk and talk about the importance of "gameplay", and it all sounds pretty silly to me. I've played a lot of games. I'm good at a lot of games. Jumping around Mushroom Kingdom, killing people in God of War, playing multiplayer in Black Ops, setting up raids and dungeons in World of Warcraft, organizing my battle plans in Dragon Age: Origins, adventuring through Midgar and whatever the hell the names of the worlds of all the Tales Of games are. Sure, all of that stuff is fun, but MAN oh MAN does it not mean a single thing of emotional relevance. It's me pressing square over and over. And over. Sure, my input is more favorably rewarded when I press square twice, pause, press square twice again and then hold triangle. But what does this add to the artistic experience? It is almost like the videogame equivalent of death metal or prog rock -- a lot of math, but a little soul. It's about the power of input, and the way our brains interpret that as power. Input and output, that's the essence of anything we do. These games I'm describing are artistic in a mechanical sense -- the beauty of intellect based competition against another real, human opponent is a vastly rewarding thing (a multiplayer shooter), or the satisfaction in rounding up a great group of enemies and pinning every single one with your fire magic (God of War). Those are artistic experiences, because I've had to manipulate and calculate the system in a human, emotional way. It's by default; every room in a videogame is essentially a small brain teaser: how do I get to the next room? Yes, it's fun. Yes, I want games like this to exist and continue to exist. But I want them to have good writing. In a great novel or film (even the mediocre ones, really), there is contextualization to every bit of violence and every dramatic development. Not so in videogames. In videogames, you kill things because there has to be things for you to kill. In videogames, you progress through the plot because there is something you need to acquire or kill before you can acquire or kill the thing you really need to acquire or kill.
This is also why I think the recent debate about Bioshock Infinite's level of violence is utterly, completely, ridiculous. Not necessarily because I disagree with the notion that videogame violence is hyperbolized to a senseless degree -- quite the opposite -- but to argue that about such a brilliant game when literally every other game ever made suffers from the same dissonance is ludicrous.
Ninja Theory does its absolute damndest to break that trend, and they never, ever have. But that's not what is important -- what's important is the ambition and the effort, and the ways in which those pay off. Yes, their games are action games. Yes, you are forced to intermittently pause in every corridor or open space and fight five or six mechs/demons/ancient swordsmen. Yes, their games are nothing more than whack-a-mole with a beautiful canvas oil painting wrapped around it, but damn it, they write them so well and give such care to contextualizing where the player is in the story, and why he should care about it, that it makes for such a greater experience. Enslaved is a soft, beautifully told story about the nature of technological advancement and its role in free will. DmC is a slick action/horror adventure in which the hero must wade through Limbo to discover the truth about his past. The latter still sounds a bit generic, but in the presentation, visuals, and characters, DmC knocks it out of the park.
I would assume Alex Garland's influence over the studio has had a big hand in its consistent care towards its stories. He wrote Heavenly Sword, Enslaved, and was "story supervisor" for DmC, whatever the hell that means. He's also written some of my favorite films, so again, I could be biased. What's clear is that he has a strong mind for action-heavy, character focused adventure stories, and if you haven't noticed, most videogames fall straight into that category.
Anyway, Ninja Theory rules. Buy their FUCKING GAME NEXT TIME.