Lately I've been feeling as though my attitude towards gaming has changed. Not so much that I feel as though I want to stop playing games in general but enough to make me feel as though my gaming tastes may be changing, if only ever so slightly. I'm starting to question again what it is I want from a game and whether or not the types of games the mainstream offers really give me that.
Once upon a time – perhaps 3 or 4 years ago I was a keen proponent of mainstream gaming, the PS3, the 360, the Wii - and the titles that also crossed over to the PC - gave me all I needed in terms of gameplay, plot and visuals. I wasn't too picky, the occasional game with an interesting or novel concept was good enough to keep my imagination sated – Mirror's Edge, and I really enjoyed a lot of the big titles that came out – Gears of War, Modern Warfare, Mass Effect.
Now though, I'm not so sure. In many respects I feel as though nothing's really changed in the last few years and that irks me – the industry feels as though its stuck making the same types of games over and over again, and I'm getting bored of those types of games. Don't get me wrong, I'd still love to play Halo 4
or even 5, and maybe the next Modern Warfare will be fun to play (if there is one), it's just that now I find that those types of games no longer capture my imagination the way they used to, they no longer innovate in the way I want a game to. I want something new, something challenging.
I find my eye caught by a number of quite small but original projects, games that mostly haven't even be completed yet but seem to tickle an itch I've had for a long time now, one that the biggest games never catered to: that of engaging intellectual challenge.
It seems like these days much of mainstream gaming seems to revolve more around trophy whoring, button-bashing reflex challenges and limited-edition in-game bling than actually engaging experiences. A couple of years back I wasn't so bothered about this, it was there but games were still fun enough for it not to matter. Now I feel a little differently, games seem to have moved more and more towards that end of the spectrum and it's putting me off, but perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself though, I should probably talk a little about why I feel as though the intellectual challenge aspect of games is important, and that involves something of a trip down memory lane...
[You can wave your hands at the side of your monitor now]
I started gaming at about the age of 5. In the early nineties, in the UK. In our house we had a Megadrive and a kinda crappy PC that my brothers wouldn't let me use all that often, because I was a dumb kid who broke stuff lots, and also kind of an ass.
I remember the Megadrive having a lot of platformers, a few racing games, a few FPSs and the odd RPG in general. We didn't have too many games, I mostly remember the Sonic series, a few FMV games like Night Trap and Ground Zero Texas; Revenge of Shinobi being a pain in the arse and Admiral Ackbar telling me to go blow up TIE fighters in the 32X Star Wars game. The games were simple but engaging, with attractive graphics and usually a steep difficulty curve, making what was in essence a two-hour experience a month-long one.
Games on the PC I found harder to get into, I vividly remember trying to play the demo for X-Com Terror from the Deep... at age 8 or 9, which, sufficed to say, did not end well. I was terrible with those sorts of games, but the visual style and general plot stuck with me as interesting.
Eventually I settled into my own little niche, with games like System Shock 2, Undying, and the Bullfrog strategy games – Syndicate (Wars), Populous: the Beginning, Dungeon Keeper, Theme Hospital, etc, aswell as a few FPSs on the PC; and games like Resident Evil 2 and Silent Hill on the PSX.
These games stuck with me because at the time they felt as though they stood out from the crowd, they were innovative experiences, they were challenging but reasonably fair (atleast for the time) but they were also engaging – they had a good story, interesting characters and wanted you to have fun playing them.
I think it's this aspect that has stuck with me the most.
The idea that a game could be challenging but also fun, and not have to squeeze itself into a particular style of play or genre aslong as it did what it did well is something I've felt keenly for a long time. Games like that may not ever sell in the millions but they do provide an engaging and original experience – they're fun, basically. The original Syndicate for example, wasn't really like anything else out at the time but it wasn't like real-time games or strategy hadn't been done before. Syndicate just did it differently. Much like with film it's often the small games from the small studios that have nothing to lose if they take chances on game design, it's also usually where the most passion is – probably because when your project is that close to failure you have to be passionate about it to go on.
It's this I miss to some extent, it's not so much that I think mainstream games are completely devoid of passion – I'm pretty sure most AAA developers love the games they make - so much as the feeling as though I'm playing somebody's idea is missing a lot these days, that feeling as though I'm being challenged to solve somebody else's puzzle. And with it too has disappeared the sense of games as a sort of intellectual diversion, being able to explore unique worlds and have unique experiences. Games are about fun, and that fun is now more about repetition, competition and reflexes rather than making you think.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the gradual decline of puzzle standards within AAA games. I remember a time as a kid when I thought the puzzles in Resident Evil 2 were dumb but challenging enough for even an adult to stop and ponder for a moment. I expected them to get more challenging in the years to come (as gaming developed as a medium.)
Unfortunately things went the other way in the long run.
I think the point at which I realised puzzles weren't going to get any smarter was playing through Doom 3. Now, Doom 3 isn't really meant to tax your mind, it's dumb fun, but it was the fact they opted for 3 digit codes for the lockers that really made me facepalm. If you had to remember the digit strings for a long time then yeah maybe a 4, 5 or 6 string code would be something of a challenge, but you literally have to look at a PDA, close the PDA, then tap it in. It felt as though they wanted you to have to fiddle around with codes, but at the last minute they decided they really didn't want those codes to involve ANY sort of challenge so opted for 3 digits.
And don't get me started on the Dead Space series. Dead Space 1 had some reasonably engaging but still pretty simple puzzles; Dead Space 2 had you 'hack' consoles, which amounted to you wiggling your analogue stick till it hit a barely visible marker and pressing a button, doing this three times apparently allowed you to 'hack' consoles and terminals to get them working ...what that has in any way to do with actual hacking I have no idea, and it certainly wasn't challenging!
I really miss that challenge aspect of games, where you had to think and put the pieces of a puzzle together to proceed, and where the puzzles made sense in the context of the type of game you were playing. I remember access codes in System Shock 2, for example, really feeling like somebody's security code, I remember having to seek out clues to a puzzle, having to listen to the advice given to me to proceed. Silent Hill 1 and 2 were a lot like this, and to a lesser extent the early Resident Evils, you had to think a lot, especially on the harder puzzle difficulty levels in the Silent Hill games. You had to be observant, you had to know what you were looking for, otherwise you were lost.
Puzzles had very little sign-posting, a lot was inference from what you were given, or just blind searching. Granted, I get that that means your game has to be written well-enough for everybody to be able to follow the bread crumbs, and it's often easier to just give the player the answer but it really takes the fun away from games when your puzzles are so ridiculously simple.
In many respects the early PC games I played, like X-Com and the Bullfrog games echoed this mentality, they were thoughtful, well-made games, but were challenging at the same time. They weren't just a thing being sold to you but somebody's idea, somebody's passion wrapped up as a commercial product.
I miss that in games, especially mainstream games, I think the PS2 era was probably the last time the mainstream really tried to satisfy that itch for original ideas done in original ways, since then it seems as though slowly but surely things have homogenised in the mainstream, and not wholly for the better. Like I say, I was ok with that for awhile, but I'm started to feel differently now.
Now I find my tastes shifting, I'm gradually drifting away from the mainstream and moving more towards smaller projects, with a stronger sense of purpose and more importantly a sense of passion in what they're doing. It also helps a lot of those games pay homage to things I love :D
I feel now more than ever that I have a clearer picture of what I want from a game.
I want innovation.
I want good gameplay.
I want a unique art style.
But most of all I want something engaging.
Do I think I'll stop playing mainstream games completely? No, but I feel as though my willingness to spend upwards of £30-40 for the same sort of experience over and over again with slightly better graphics each time is decreasing. I'd rather spend that money on having an engaging experience, one that caters more specifically to the experience I want, than a generic one, and I'm willing to sacrifice graphics and AAA standards for it.
Aswell as this though I do feel as though the 'industry' as a whole has a specific culture, that everybody seems to adhere to, whether for good or bad – things like oversexualised male and female characters, oodles of white people everywhere, guns always being uber-important, not to mention the way character roles and plot points are almost always pre-decided and hardly ever deviated from, and this too makes games a little bit duller I think.
I like the idea that a lot of these new projects, whether on kickstarter or wherever, are essentially insiders stepping outside the industry, using what they've learnt from the system to do something different, to do something original, to create some unique and engaging experiences whilst sidestepping a lot of the more unpleasant aspects of industry culture.
I doubt I'll ever have complete faith in any new project, indie or AAA; afterall games are still made by people and people can still screw up regardless of how much money is behind them. Any of the games I'm looking forward to could fail completely or just suck in terms of gameplay, but the fact we're actually seeing some original and interesting ideas being put forward is something I'm willing to take a chance on.
Also, I like that a lot of the developers are British! :D
Note: For anybody interested the games I cited as piquing my interest (and also where the screenshots came from) are Xenonauts, Maia, and Prison Architect, all of which are either part of a buy-in alpha or on kickstarter atm. A google search of the names should get you there if you're interested.