This past week saw the release of the two most high-profile games of 2009, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and New Super Mario Bros. Wii. One a gritty urban shooter and the other a whimsical side-scrolling platformer, these titles could not be any more dissimilar. Where they do find common ground is in how safe they are, guaranteed to provide entertainment to almost everyone who purchases them.
Not that there is anything wrong with being safe. These are the latest installment in two obscenely popular franchises. The money poured into their development ensured that neither would be lacking polish. Because of their sterling pedigree, potential buyers knew well in advance of the first official reviews to expect a high level of quality. It is comforting to be able to invest in a sure thing.
Still, it's disconcerting to watch as even the most enthusiastic of game consumers grow extremely risk averse. I can understand how mainstream consumers who don't feel the gaming itch more than a couple times a month would be less adventurous in their gameplay considerations. For us, the nigh obsessed techno junkies who take great pride in their storied gaming histories, I would expect a greater willingness to embrace the unknown.
Lately, there has been a fair share of games that receive the "Hollywood" treatment, pumped and primed to be the next grand-slam blockbuster. These games are paraded so lavishly because there is waning interest, even among the enthusiast community, in anything that is truly different or experimental. There's little room for sensibility, where excess is not a requirement and "average" does not translate to "less than average."
What are we saving up for? Aside from the aforementioned releases, we have Left 4 Dead 2, Assassin's Creed II, Borderlands, Final Fantasy XIII, Super Mario Galaxy 2, and so on. It's a decent wish list, no doubt, yet it lacks personal flair. We are being told what and when to buy and everything else is irrelevant. I can picture the prototype gamer gripping a neon green clipboard in one hand and a fat red Sharpie in the other, going down a chart and making broad check marks as if he were taking inventory. Where's the individuality?
This behavior applies towards not only big AAA software but also genres we play most often. If you are a JRPG nut then you probably swear by Namco and Atlus and Nippon Ichi. If you are big on racing and sports sims, you may not pay much heed to games with heavy fantasy elements. I personally have expressed disinterest in first-person shooters as well as most Western fare, and as such I may have developed some unfounded assumptions and outright dismissed titles I might have found appealing had I actually taken an interest.
I don't think any of us are immune to tunnel vision, filtering out anything that doesn't meet our specific set of criteria. It's the reason why HD console aficionados can look at the Wii's output and claim there is nothing worth their investment. It's the reason why the jaded classic crowd prefers to stick by releases that tickle their nostalgia bone. We like to be entirely in control of the media we consume and too many unknown variables will weaken and eliminate that control.
But what's the big deal, anyway? What's wrong with staying within your comfort zone boundaries? As long as you are having fun, there's no real incentive to branch out and sample games that have a greater probability of disappointing you. We all have our own tastes and preferences and thus it is only natural that we cater to them.
I've a couple problems with that. One, you can't know for certain that a particular game won't engage if you only adhere to self-imposed restrictions. It's a crying shame that there is a wealth of software on the market that we'll never experience because our attention is focused elsewhere.
Two, there's little room for surprise when have set expectations. When you anticipate a game, your excitement stems from the expectation that it will expand upon a template that you've visited and revisited countless times. When you finally get your hands on the game, either it fails to meet all your expectations or it satisfies them completely. If the former occurs, you'll either enjoy the game despite its flaws or despise it. If the latter occurs, the status quo is maintained. Very rarely will some new element radically change the way you perceive that brand of game.
Now, should you gamble on something foreign, you may regret that the time spent with it could have been better served by something tried-and-true. However, without any preconceived notions of what this alternative style of game entails, the potential gains are so much greater. You would be introduced to a whole new side of gaming and feel inspired to explore other similar games. You may discover that tactical RPGs are not that bad, that handheld gaming is every bit as satisfying or even more so than console gaming, or that games in bright and colorful packaging are not necessarily shovelware.
I think each of us understands the importance of branching out and trying new things. To be fair, we all make attempts, however weak, to broaden our horizons, but there's just so much more that can be done on an individual basis. The more chances you take, the bolder you'll become. I can't dictate line by line the steps you should follow, but I can offer some guidelines:
1. Don't be afraid to part with your money. Even if you are willing to try something new, you might not be so willing to drop fifty or sixty bones on a crapshoot. You'll promise to consider it after a heavy discount or when there is a store special, but by then it may have escaped your mind. When you see it on the shelf, you'll reach out your hand and withdraw it, holding off on that purchase indefinitely.
2. Let your instincts take over. No need to dive right in the deep end. Start simple by visiting your local used games retailer and start browsing. When a box draws your attention for more than a few seconds, pick it up and make a beeline for the register. Go to Wal-Mart or Best Buy and sift through the discount racks and baskets. Don't leave without something in your hand. As you feel more comfortable with small purchases, start working your way up the price ladder. Pretty soon, you could be making significant purchases on good faith.
3. Reprioritize your planned spending by buying the small-scale ahead of the big-name. Who here decided to pass on New Super Mario Bros. Wii in favor of, say, A Boy and His Blob? Who chose to set Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 on the backburner? This need not be a regular event, but do give the other guys special preference once in a while.
4. Check your expectations at the door. The thrill of pleasant surprise is effective only if your demands for a particular type of game don't carry over. If you are giving a $20 cartoon platformer a whirl, why would you expect online multiplayer, fully voiced cutscenes, and a host of increasingly irrelevant criteria? Judge the game on its own merits.
5. For that matter, games don't have to be the "whole package" to be enjoyable. Some games are more feature-rich and polished than others, but that doesn't mean that the only way to enjoy the latter is to lower your standards. Deny it if you so choose, but there is this skewed perception that "great" means "average" and "average" means "poor." It's folly to associate value with how many bullet points are listed on the back of the box. Don't confuse excess for necessity.
Beyond that, the journey is your own. Be daring. Be independent. Don't let multimillion dollar companies dictate exactly what you should play. Don't succumb to genre overload. If you usually go big, think small. If you usually think small, go big.
I am not excusing myself here. I generally avoid the big mainstream blockbusters, but enough people seem to enjoy them that I fear I may be doing myself a disservice by painting them with the same brush. Maybe when people warn me that I don't know what I'm missing, I should take their advice to heart.
The same goes for you guys. You may discover greater entertainment than you've known before. Maybe you'll be more appreciative of games that are rough around the edges but have their heart in the right place. Perhaps the next time someone lists their picks for a specific platform, you'll no longer feel the need to cut down each and every item for being beneath your consideration.
Where is the fun if we aren't a little bit uncomfortable now and then?