The medium that is gaming is growing. In one of my earlier articles, I talked about how the big developers and publishers roll out more and more generic games. Everything is becoming bigger, more spectacular, but not necessarily better. In part, this is due to gaming’s ever growing audience. Games used to be viewed as childish and nerdy — I remember girls in high school used to shoot my friends and me these looks of utter disgust whenever we talked about it. It almost became like a private matter. Playing games was bad.
Nowadays, everyone generally accepts games. I won’t say we’re all the way there, but we’ve come a long way. Now there are games for you, your parents and even your grandparents. Games have become an incredibly potent opportunity for profit. And this is a problem. Why make games for a sub-culture, when you can make games for everyone? The moment games became generally accepted, big dollar signs started glistening in the publishers’ eyes. Don’t get me wrong; making games that everyone can play isn’t a bad thing. What makes it bad is that people do it to make more money. Now that gaming has transcended the hardcore gamers, it has entered the big bad world, where almost everything is about money.
An often-used example of how games are adjusted to a bigger audience is the decreasing difficulty. Remember when games used to be really hard? When you would spend hours and many in-game lives on that one level? When Quick-save didn’t exist and Game Over meant Game-the fuck-Over? It’s a valid observation. Most games are easier today.
A while ago, I was at a conference called Gamelab. Present were two gentlemen from Vlambeer, a Dutch indie developer responsible for Super Crate Box. They started their presentation by saying what I had observed myself: “Games are becoming generic.” But instead of adding some nuance, they proceeded by saying that big developers are all copying each other and that the indie scene is forcing innovation. That inherently reveals that they believe themselves to be above all that. No humility here. Not only that: they also said that developers shouldn’t look to other media, at all. They urged developers to work on gameplay, and only gameplay. No story, no artsy visuals. Pure gameplay. “Games should be games again!”
Oh, isn’t that a lovely, simple, quotable one-liner? Isn’t that something you can put on the cover of a magazine? Too bad it’s grossly oversimplified! Now let me add: what they probably mean to say is correct: that we shouldn’t try to imitate other media. But every time they say stuff like this, they push it to the extreme. Of course games shouldn’t imitate other media, but we shouldn’t ignore them either. Progress is only possible when we evaluate past efforts. Furthermore, it is my belief that great things are possible when you let yourself be inspired by things outside of the genre.
I have recently become addicted to the shows on URealms.com. Roleplay, Super Minecraft, but specifically: Two Player. In this hilarious show, two guys play oldskool games like Super Mario World and Donkey Kong: Country. The games everyone played. The games everyone loved. The games we shouldn’t be trying to recreate. Fanboys, avert your eyes to the following statements: your memories of how fun these games were have been heavily distorted over time. You forgot the bad parts and remembered only the good parts. I watched Rob and Roamin play through the entirety of Super Mario World, and I was surprised by all the crappy design that I didn’t remember. Mario has the overpowered feather, cheap dead-ends and impossible jumps. And Donkey Kong is even worse, with its horrible camera zooming/panning. Today, gamers and game makers would consider this bad game design. Fact.
Now before you send a load of hate mail my way: it’s not fair to compare these games to the games of today, I agree. But I’m doing it to illustrate a point: we don’t want to go back. A lot of things that made these games hard were based on simple frustration, coming from bad design. They were awesome, but not perfect. We learned from their flaws. We balanced our game experience between fun and frustration.
Vlambeer’s Super Crate Box is an ode to the games of yore. Like oldskool games, it offers up frustration and randomness as a way to make things more difficult. And like the oldskool games, it’s quick, simple fun. And that would be fine, if it were not pretending to be something else. If it were not pretending to be a step forward. I played Super Crate Box. I liked it. It’s something new, and it took my mind of things for about 10 minutes. But that’s all it did. As soon as I clicked Exit, my mind was elsewhere.
They shoot down things like storytelling so easily. Leave it to the movies — who needs emotional depth when you have gameplay? Here’s the kicker: like the big developers, who dumb down games to reach a bigger audience, people like Vlambeer dumb down games by spewing (and basing their games on) simple statements. It’s fun, but it does nothing for me. Games like Mass Effect 2, Half-Life 2, and Bioshock might not have innovative gameplay, but unlike Super Crate Box, they get me to think about stuff, long after I click Exit. Well, I guess Super Crate Box did trigger me to write this article… But that’s cheating.
It seems like most of my articles are turning out as cries for balance. In this case, I call for balanced statements and balanced gamedesign. Just because games are reaching a bigger audience, doesn’t mean we should dumb the games down to make them more accessible. And just because that is exactly what’s happening, doesn’t mean we should go back to how things were in the time of Super Mario. We shouldn’t ignore the past, we shouldn’t ignore other media. We must blend. Blend our experience and knowledge from the past, with our ideas for the present and the future. We need games that are emotionally satisfying, as well as games that are just fun. Game that are epic, games that are simple. We need games for everyone, without trying to satisfy everyone with one game.
Oh, and we need less simplified statements.
- Press to Play © 2010