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Digital Depth: Jim Sterling is onto Something

by Tubatic   //   11:23 PM on 08.11.2011



For the past few weeks, Jim Sterling has taken on the Xbox Live Summer of Arcade entry for the week, and each has come in disappointing in his opinion. This has come as a surprise, as many of the games show an overwhelming amount of promise and skill in some area. Bastion with its unique approach to narrative, From Dust with it's manipulation of physical elements and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet with it's gorgeous artstyle: these little download games are presenting players with some of the absolutely highest quality components that are sorely lacking in some games that are made by teams of people for many hundreds of thousands of dollars. At any sectional slice, you would be forgiven for thinking you're having a go at a highly crafted work of AAA gamecraft.

But as Jim sums up, something has mackered the final project into palpable dissatisfaction. For all of Bastion's narrative prowess, a shallowness was evident and unpalatable for Sterling. As deft and lush as the element manipulation and physics may be, the game turns out to have little in the way of god-game depth. Even the down right beautiful ITSP tops off as a merely adequate rum through a not very developed tunnel of straight forward adventure gameplay. All amazing and promising games, all suffering from a similar malady: a general lack of full-on depth and substance. It's to be expected that not every game will be awesome. But, how is it that these three games in particular are weighing in as ornate jugs half full of delicious libation?



An easy solution would be to blame Jim Sterling for being tired of his work or some other ridiculous accusation. He's an easy target, because he's so fat. Fat with the presence he maintains on Destructoid, not only as a reviewer, but as a regular news and feature writer on the site. Couple that with the love these games are getting from several other outlets, and one might think he's just having a sad faced go at Microsoft's summer push. However, a look at those other outlets will reveal that the flaws Jim points out are echoed, but overall downplayed. They are there, but discounted in favor of praise and the will to endure the faults to enjoy these games.

So look then to the developers. What's creating this viscious strain of substandard games wrapped in wondrous coating? Theories are numerous, but I think the realities of these games' creation and existence are the ultimate culprit: a small scope game can excel in brilliant ideas, but its in danger of simply not having the key resources (time, people, money to sustain the project) to create the well tempered game that satisfies that deep gamer-thirst for long-lasting game sustenance. This is going to be the defining trait of this era of indie gamecraft at the dawn of digital distribution platforms and services: great ideas, truncated scope.



Greg Kasavin of Bastion's SuperGiantGames, has said that his studio simply wouldn't exist if not for digital distribution slashing the cost of delivering a game to the masses. They can't afford to put Bastion in a box and put it on store shelves. However, Bastion exists in a world where the game can be downloaded to a gameplayer. Similarly, I'm sure, From Dust as it exists today would never be a big enough idea or experience for Ubisoft to greenlight mass production, let alone greenlight the resources for developing the idea from the basic game it is now into a boxed product. These ideas and games thrive off of their smaller scope and are meeting with success and life outside of their creator's minds. This is great.

What isn't great is the loss of well developed, deeply explored games. The digital indie space thrives on the short experience. Indie game ideas bloom at the lower $0.99 to $15.99 price range, but you're not going to find the exhaustive and awe inspiring depth of SimCity, The Sims or Civ. A proper edition of those franchises, mind you: their iOS counterparts lack the depth and gusto of their originals without much room for argument.



Not to say depth can't be achieved in the indie space. Super Meat Boy is a thorough and shining study in pure run and jump. And even now, Jim is working on a review for E.Y.E, an apparently super detailed mash of an indie title built on top of the Source Engine. Hack anything, play how you want, and experience a world of details. Glaring issues aside, it sounds like its providing him with some level of real joy and contentment. But this depth is the exception in the digital indie space.

I've gone on about this whole thing about depth before, but its an item that rarely comes up as a solid point in the "Casual/Hardcore" or "Indie/Corporate" argument space. What do you think Destructoid? Are we losing depth in our games in this digital indie age? What sort of deep and detailed experiences are you finding on digital platforms? Or am I just barking up a dead horse? What's your take on this?Photo Photo Photo view gallery
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