Guns. Not So Many Guns.

Futurism is a dangerous science, but here’s an interesting experiment at Pointless Waste of Time – the 12 best games of 2010.

While the list is an admirable attempt to expand the imaginations of developers, it does raise some questions about what we really want from games. Although some of the games on the list are pure genius (especially Hard Cell, which would redefine how we think about our in-game avatars), a full third of the ideas are based on the premise of blowing up ever-larger stuff.

For all its good intentions, the list betrays a train of thought that is much too prevalent in the games industry – that the primary use of new technology is for more eye-candy, bigger crashes, more dazzling explosions. If you thought our explosions looked good before, wait ’til you see the new explosions we have lined up for you!

How games in the future are going to amaze us is not through ever-greater chaos. Indeed, the more games that use the potential of the 360 and PS3, the more likely it is that eye-candy will fail to impress at all.

Look at how CGI in movies has gone from something used sparingly to jaw-dropping effect to being an overused bore. Tron, Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park were all amazing, but the last time CGI really impressed me in a movie was in The Matrix which, amazingly, was almost a decade ago now. The Matrix sequels were textbook cases in how not to use CGI – quality sacrificed in favor of quantity, and a few perfectly-timed uses of effects ditched in favor of daft cartoonish fights with meaningless enemies.

Every two-bit movie related to fantasy or history now wants to outdo The Lord of the Rings, with ever-larger opposing armies of computer-generated soldiers. Far from being jaw-dropping, the huge-scale fights in movies like Troy and Kingdom of Heaven were simply dull. Hollywood always seems to think that bigger is better, and in doing so makes what was once stunning merely ordinary, or worse, tedious.

Now considering that movies with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars fail to impress very much anymore, games are going to have to try quite hard indeed.

As with Hollywood, games have very little idea of subtlety, and similarly, every new idea in gaming is immediately shoved into every available game until it’s so commonplace as to be tedious.

The stealth fad of the late 1990s, pioneered by games like GoldenEye, Metal Gear Solid and Thief, was soon aped in ever more bizarre genres, even finding its way into such games as Banjo-Kazooie and Zelda. And then, like a tropical storm, the stealth fad passed on – without ever having been exploited to its full potential, that is, as anything more than an on/off, seen/not seen device.

Suggestions for specific games may be best left to the professionals. Instead, here is the first of a few simple ideas I’ll be looking at over the next few months in an attempt to challenge the way we think about progress in gaming. They might be better, they might even be worse, but the central theme of these suggestions is that none of them require any changes in technology – merely changes in thinking.

Less is More
Guns are cool. Yes, it’s not big and it’s not clever, but there you have it. Fascination or revulsion, it’s only the totally cold-blooded psychos who have no reaction to them at all.

It’s this thought that has put games like Gears of War and Halo at the forefront of gaming, making “things with guns” more recognizable to the general public than any remaining game genre (the number of people who think Gears of War is an FPS is truly frightening).

But right now, these games are like the pulp sci-fi of the 1920s – flashy but shallow, a genre with almost no limitations inexplicably cannibalizing its greatest hits over and over again. When the only requirements for being an FPS are a gun and a first-person view, every FPS still feels the need to ape what Doom was. Shooting games are still waiting for the Asimovs and its Heinleins to expand the boundaries, to raise it from pulp to art.

One way to go about this is to rethink what makes FPS games interesting. What almost every FPS fails to realize is that guns are cool precisely because of their mystique. They’re something you can’t normally have, and killing is something you can’t normally do.

Shooting is a shallow but delicious pleasure, like chocolate. One chocolate is divine. 30 chocolates make you sick. And firing guns every moment for 20 hours loses its mystique pretty damn quickly, which is one of the reasons every single-player FPS is a lot more fun at the start than at the end.

Movies and TV know this, which is why the good ones pace out their action. 24 has, on average, one 10-minute shoot-out every two or three hours, but because the stakes are so high – having been developed by a plot given equal time as the action – they’re breathtaking. Bad action movies, like Van Damme and Segal flicks, begin blasting and keep that up right ’til the end. Sound familiar?

Why not, then, an FPS that learns from the lessons taught by bad action movies? An FPS that is Black‘s evil twin – one where you almost never fire a gun. An FPS where you kill someone perhaps once every few hours, but each of those kills means something.

An FPS where, when you face the bad guy, you can’t just draw your gun and shoot him. You have to smile and make polite conversation. An FPS where, instead of tediously building up from the pistol up to the SuperDuperBigGunExplosionimo!, each time you drew your pistol, you’d get the same feeling of power as you would in real life.

Of course, this needn’t apply to just FPSs. It has already been applied (in a very limited extent) in games in other genres, like Hitman. But as with stealth, our in-game actions have failed to move beyond a binary caught/not caught, fail/succeed stage.

Restraining Order
To make a labored comparison, the most popular manga of recent years in Japan is a dark suspense called Death Note. In it, the main character holds that same power of life and death, in the form of an otherworldly notebook. Armed with a given person’s real name and face, once he writes their name in the notebook, they die.

The reason the series is so compelling is not because he goes around killing willy-nilly, but because of the constraints he faces. He can’t just kill his enemies straight off, sometimes because that would expose him, sometimes because he doesn’t know their name, or their face, or both.

Instead, the whole affair becomes a chess game, with the anti-hero and his enemies each thinking multiple moves ahead in order to try and outsmart and reveal the other; but rarely, if ever, is the anti-hero able to resort to his incredible power. And then, when he succeeds, the sense of satisfaction is immense. As a result, the whole series is piano-wire tense, with the anti-hero holding an incredible power, but continually unable to resort to it.

The lesson here is that unlimited power bores absolutely. The most boring superhero was always Superman, the super-strong guy who could fly, had frickin’ lasers in his eyes, and couldn’t be killed; and the most interesting were always the relatively constrained; Batman, who had no powers, or Spiderman, who had no money.

Indeed, Spiderman’s philosophy of “with great power comes great responsibility” could teach developers a few lessons. Freedom is great. Arbitrary constraints are bad. But sometimes you have to make the gamer work for their pleasure.

And incidentally, while we’re constraining things, if developers of FPSs and action games could constrain the use of the following for the next five years, it would be interesting to see what else they could come up with to replace them: aliens, lasers, marines, space marines, anything even remotely related to World War II, health packs, a plot which involves the destruction of humanity, macho dialogue that really, really wants to be like Cameron’s Aliens, and any more than ten separate corridors in any one game. Thanks.

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