Last week in Extra Punch-Your-Face-On I aired that old cliché “he who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it,” and it seems there is nothing that forgets the past quicker than the film industry. The random chaos of existence doesn’t often form regular patterns, but a remarkably obvious one has arisen with regards to Hollywood embracing 3D. It was tried first in the 1950’s, then again in the 1980’s, and now in the 2010’s. That’s a clear thirty-year cycle, less than a generation, and still no-one wants to be the guy to bring up that it never fucking works out.
The important thing to note about the thirty-year 3D cycle is that it always bobs to the surface when cinemas can smell their death in the air. What cinema has over home entertainment is that it’s “event” film-going, everything’s so much bigger and louder. 3D is traditionally perceived as something that adds to the – for want of term that doesn’t make me want to retch – “wow” factor. And this aspect is always played up when cinema feels it’s in competition with some new-fangled form of stay-at-home entertainment. In the 50s it was television. In the 80s it was home video. And in the 2010s, the brash new fighter in the ring is videogaming.
But it disappoints me that the handsome and strapping Sir Games seems to be more willing than ever to aid and champion the ways of the bloated and ailing King Films, when what he should be doing is cutting that stubborn old bastard’s throat, claiming the throne and getting his leg over Queen General Public. Despite the ever improving technology and creative potential available to interactive media, Sir Games is allowing himself to become fat off King Films’ royal pies. Allow me to explain.
I mentioned in the Call of Juarez video that I feel triple-A console games are devolving (indies aren’t, indies are fine). This devolution is partly as a consequence of reaching a practical limit for third party development and the desire to be more “cinematic.” Sure, graphics technology is all very impressive and can make some very pretty skyboxes, but taking the experiences as a whole, games are shorter, smaller and shallower than they were in the previous console generation. It’s especially true of narrative-driven games that gameplay has become less and less organic and more and more confined to rigid structures in which the player is just a pinball to be shunted from place to place rather than anything with ideas of its own.
Let me give you an example from Call of Juarez: The Cartel, which brought this issue to light for me. Occasionally the standard shooter template of moving from one chest high wall cluster to another is broken by a sequence where your teammates hold position and provide covering fire while you move from cover to cover to outflank a row of entrenched enemies. And that’s the only way it is allowed to happen. Your allies and the enemies alternate between shooting and ducking into cover and a big caption on your screen comes up saying saying “Wait for the covering fire!” or “Move up now you pussy!” like a set of fucking traffic lights, and the next cover position you need to run to is highlighted with a big glowing representation of you. “This is where good boys crouch,” it seems to say. “You’re a good boy, aren’t you?”
What this is, is a totally inorganic step-by-step hand-holding that represents another string of interactivity being plucked away. Strategic gun fighting is usually one of the few opportunities for organic gameplay cover-based shooters still have. It’s not too hard to simply make both allies and enemies duck when they’re being shot at and return fire when their sparring partners have to reload, and then an outflanking strategy could unfold naturally through that if the players were so inclined. But no, we have a very clear vision for how this moment is going to play out and you will toe the line if you want to play this game, motherfucker.
Sometimes it seems like the player is some necessary nuisance the game feels it has to put up with rather than work together with to create an experience. Not content with the endemic cut scenes, the interactivity of even the gameplay sections is being plucked away piece by piece, and I see it everywhere now. Games used to let you jump over or crawl under things yourself, but now they’ll just let you press one contextual button when you approach an obstacle and activate some pre-baked animation that shows your character navigating it. They used to let you figure stuff out for yourself, not wrench the camera away and point it squarely at the next contextual button press like some humorless preschool teacher commanding a toddler.
Speaking of patterns in the random flow of existence, it seems like a lot of my favorite games from the last few years have been sandbox titles. And I think the reason for that is because the sandbox style (in most cases) tends to lend itself better to free-flowing gameplay – usually, anyway. The counterpoint is LA Noire, or half the missions in GTA 4 where you just follow a sequence of instructional captions from checkpoint to checkpoint. But I’m not saying every game should be a sandbox to avoid this issue, I’ve never had a problem with linearity (indeed, there’s no such thing as a non-linear narrative-driven game) but you can be linear and organic. It’s the difference between flowing like a dangerous river and flowing like a length of surgical tubing.
Look at action-adventure climbing sections such as in Tomb Raider or Uncharted. There’s usually a fixed path, but you’re free to let go or jump in the wrong direction. Maybe you’ll find a secret. More likely you’ll die a hideous splattery death, but at least your fate is in your own hands. Compare that to the climbing from Enslaved, which doesn’t even let you jump or fall off a ledge unless you’re aimed squarely at the next designated climbing spot. This is just another way of walking down a corridor, except there’s a big fat dude walking along behind you who keeps shoving you in the back if you try to stop and look at one of the pictures on the wall.
If interactive media is to evolve then developers need to embrace the notion that the player is a participant in the story, not some inconveniently self-aware aspect of it that has to be herded into line. Because honestly, if you feel you can’t trust the player enough to create their own spectacular set pieces then maybe you should just be making films.
What happened to the trust between player and designer? To the thrill a developer used to feel when players came up with a solution they didn’t think of? Are they laboring under the impression that we’ve all become too dumb to play games by ourselves? Just because there are people who have bought 3D TVs? Like me?
Huh. That’s a point. Fine, forget I said anything. Herd my dumb ass.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.