Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Digital Sonnet: Why I Don't Connect To Modern Games

I've been thinking a lot as of late about how far videogames have come, and how as a child this was the future I had always dreamed of. Rather than having to hide your habit and have people look at you derisively and privately label you a child in their minds, a world where games could be shared as media just like film and books, as yet another wonderful place in which we can get lost.

And then games evolved, and somehow it happened, and now there is a new world for this long standing hobby, one where I can mention gaming to anyone from my best friend's niece to my grandmother and they all know what it is. Nintendo had the biggest hand in that, successfully accomplishing the homogenization of gamers and non-gamers by introducing a system that was aimed at all of them.

Graphics also ramped up as technology grew and changed. As a child I would peer hopefully at the pages of PC Gamer and PlayStation Magazine and tell my friends, "I can't wait until the whole game looks like the cutscenes", a tone of awe tingling behind the words as I spoke. I wanted a brave new world of gaming, where everything was new and modern and different and I could see my most far-fetched dreams become reality.

Here we are. But it doesn't quite look how I imagined.

Actually, to say I don't like it is a bit strong -- some of the advances have been so spectacular that any person who has been playing games for years would be considered a bit of a crackpot to say such a thing. I do love downloadable gaming, and even though I'm that type of nerd that will always love the physical presence of games and their lovely cover art on my shelf, I also love that I can settle down in the evening, browse a store and buy a new game without ever leaving my house. And the demos which allow us to play games for free, and wireless technology that allows us to play with our friends and loved ones no matter where we are ... it's great. What's not to like?

It's not any of the surrounding circumstances here, what's available to us, what technology has changed games into. It's that there is something about newer titles, high def graphic titles especially, that simply doesn't touch me. It isn't that they aren't well made -- quite the contrary, many of them are. It reminds me of Hollywood big budget films. Maybe it's the underlying emotion with which those films are created: gotta appeal to a large group of people, got to turn a profit, got to make something for everyone.

Sometimes, a thing with mass appeal is good.

And sometimes, there is something glimmering and fine to be found in the smaller efforts, the things less people look at. The games that don't have the mass appeal, which will never make "the big bucks", but are often something that developers simply feel the need to create. Of course, indie games fit this role perfectly, and they have filled this niche for years.

Are big budget titles "bad"?

Well, they can be. But as a whole, not at all. It depends on what you are seeking. Some people like to go to the movies, see something entertaining for a few hours, and promptly forget all about it afterwards. And some people long to see something that will etch itself on them for a long time to come. Being of the latter variety, I think the key that makes me less engaged with the current gen lies somewhere in this: it's become less popular to emotionally engage and more to entertain.

Can we have both?

I often talk about the NES and what a weird library it had. The cost of producing games was so low that a game about a ouija board or a gambling RPG was completely acceptable. However, games are big budget productions now. Your fever dream carnival simulator starring cats from space may not look like such a great prospect when it's going to cost you a ton of money to make and may not sell, so back to the indie pool with ya. Don't worry, there's plenty of company here.

I still deeply appreciate what's going on in the gaming world, even if I rarely connect to it. I see evolution, and I am excited to see what the next stages will be. However, beneath those adult hopes is a child that wants to be enthralled by a game again. Perhaps there was something to those older games less graphically sound but somehow more engaging, the ones we speak of in hushed tones in conversations with other gamers. Imperfect perhaps, blocky, difficult to control, and yet we played them with such dedication, such drive to get to the end and see all that they had to offer.

I'm always on the search for the next game like this. And I don't judge on looks. Sure, it'd be lovely if it was something I could play on my PS3, but I'd be just as happy to play it on Steam, in the form of Flash on your personal website, on an older console, even on a handheld. In the end, the platform and the way it looks hardly matters. How it feels is what matters, and if we are engaged the way we were as kids: when every bit of our attention was absolutely held in thrall by the characters and the worlds we had found.

These digital sonnets still emerge. And always, there will be gamers like me, waiting to find them and to connect in the way I most want to. Maybe older games had the advantage in that because they didn't possess the level of technology to make them photorealistic, we had to use our imaginations more. We embroidered parts of ourselves on those blocky sprites. We made them ours. Perhaps now, there is no room to imagine such a thing, because every line and detail is filled in for us.

And yet, there's still the excitement of the hunt for the next game that will matter. And no matter how long I go without finding one, eventually, something always comes along that does awe and inspire. Maybe it took years to find it, but there is the feeling that I had as a nine year old girl again, and it always comes back, and I'm so happy to have found it. Maybe the treasure itself, in the end, is not even the game, but the feeling: a beautiful sense of mystery and delight, the discovery of a world which must be explored at all costs, and characters to learn to know and find that we love.



simoncorry said...

Couldn't agree more; I plan to bring those games back!


Paula said...

That's something I DO love about self-published, downloadable games: it makes the process affordable, or at least within reach, again. Downloadable games have opened up a hole for everyone without that big budget to come streaming through. It allows developers to create niche games that don't have to be accepted by the wider market. And don't have to be about Afghanistan or MLB or whatever.

I really hear what you're saying though, and it makes me think of how much my husband (and really anyone who's played through) loves Earthbound. It's probably his favorite game of all time, and he'll talk about how it was released just before the NES became obsolete, so it made the most of the graphics, but when it comes down to it, people just LOVE this game. And continue to play it.

And continue to ask me if I've ever heard of it because of my name. :D

Sonic9jct said...

I've been replaying Bioshock again lately, and the comments of one of my friends got me thinking-- it's more than possible to play these games merely as games and take nothing away from it. As a player, you miss the beautiful and intricate details that make Rapture a REAL place and only see the somewhat mediocre gameplay that can encourage rushing forward without thinking (thanks to the Vita-Chambers). But these big name big budget games can still offer a very unique experience when they do take that chance and we're willing to reward the developers for that. The time and effort spent in making Rapture real with the art, the architecture, the music, everything is a culmination of where games have come today. Big budgets have given unique experiences that were only possible today like Bayonetta or Wind Waker, and will continue to do so with Bioshock Infinite and Journey, etc etc.

I think it says a lot about us, the people who play that games now, that we can pick up these mass appeal products and look past that to see the beauty of Rapture, the melancholiness of Shadow of the Colossus, the raw emotion of Metal Gear Solid 4. That we so hunger for these experiences that we'll always blindly support smaller indie titles just to see that happen.

I've been thinking about this same sort of thing lately, and I think we're only starting to see the beginning of the best age of video games. We're moving forward with expert technology, but (whether intentionally or as a fad) are staying in touch with the side of us that enjoys classic 8-bit gameplay. We're already seeing overnight success stories with underdogs like Bioshock, Portal, and Super Meat Boy, proving that it takes more than a million bucks from EA to make a game that players will notice and support. I think the next step is to move away from the monetization of games, and begin creating games for art's sake. And with games being more universally accepted than ever before and games being more nationally heralded as free speech and art, that day could soon be very close.

Tim Sheehy said...

I read an article the other week, and I can't remember who wrote it for the life of me, but it painted a very cynical picture of the industry as a whole. How almost every major game announced at E3 involved staring down the barrel of a gun and how each of those games lacked any sense of creativity.

The truth of the matter is that developers and publishers alike have become increasingly hesitant to risk their studios on original, unproven content. In a sense, it's become much like Hollywood in recent years.

At least in Hollywood they'll simply tack Spielberg's name on a project in order to overcome the perceived public opposition their unknown property would likely face -- TNT's Falling Skies, or J.J. Abram's Super 8 for example. The gaming industry seeming lacks an individual they can push as the messiah of creativity, though some might argue this isn't always the case.

You'll see names like Kojima, Miyamoto, and Molyneux touted, but the moment one of them have a misstep, their employers confidence seems to dwindle. Kojima recently had one of his projects canceled, no doubt due in part to the lackluster sales of his recent projects, and Molneux's E3 demonstration of Lionhead's upcoming Kinect venture has left many people scratching their heads.

When it comes down to it, the indie developers are all that's left. I've had some amazing experiences with indie titles in recent years and I expect that'll continue to be the case. At this point, the ball is in their court. How far they're willing to run with it remains to be seen.

Chris Pranger said...

I agree with a lot of the feelings there, but find a few ways around them. For the past few years I've been struggling with the same childhood desire for games to become mainstream, and now that they are I realized that the games I liked didn't become mainstream, so now I have all this experience but none of the FPS talent required to look competent.

My solution has been to focus almost exclusively on my backlog of games yet to play. Right now I'm blasting through Pikmin 2 and loving it immensely, then maybe I'll deal with Bioshock 2. I rely nearly exclusively on games I already own or games people lend me and thus far it's served me pretty well.