I'm worried. About videogames, two in particular, that haven't even been released yet. One's a sequel, one's a second sequel and both follow up on groundbreaking titles that hold very special places in my heart, not just because they were great games - although they were - but because they impacted with a weight well beyond that of mere videogames.
BioShock 2 and Max Payne 3 are both scheduled for release at the end of the year. But for the fact that they're shooters, there's little to connect them except that they both rely heavily for their success on storytelling and characterization. My Max Payne fanboyishness is no secret so I won't spend too much time dwelling on it; BioShock, while obviously more fantastic and with less clearly-defined characters, was able to pull off a similar effect by spinning a tale that wasn't just a "farted-it-out-over-lunch" nonsensical excuse to shoot stuff but was actually an integral part of the experience.
F.E.A.R., Quake, Wolfenstein and the like are great fun but they're really just dude-murderin' all gussied up for a night on the town. There are precious few games, particularly in the shooter genre, that can be bothered to take matters beyond that most elementary level, so when it happens I take notice and form attachments. Hence my concern: In an era in which mainstream releases are considered disappointments if they're not all-out hits, the quest to create commercially successful games tends toward generic formula rather than artistic risk-taking. Games have essentially become Hollywood summer blockbusters, full of sound and fury, signifying doltishness.
And why not, I suppose. Consider the case of Transformers 2: Despite critical reaction that's ranged from tepid to outright hostile, the thing raked in over $200 million in five days. Five frikkin' days. It's no wonder game developers are dancing to the same tune and, unfortunately, it's also no surprise that when a company does have success releasing a game that dares to push the creative envelope a bit, the first question asked is how to turn the sequel into an even greater - i.e., more mainstream - success next time around. Because appalling though it may be, the formula works.
BioShock was a run-of-the-mill FPS that excelled on the strength of its setting, story and the questions it posed to gamers; massive, running gun battles are commonplace in videogames but pathetic, desperately broken heroes like Max Payne most definitely are not. Yet it was precisely by challenging the norms of the genre that these games established themselves as a cut above.
Or was it?