#4. Refusing to Tell Serious Stories
"Bullshit!" says 53,273 of you at once at the sight of that headline. "The Last of Us had all sorts of serious, emotional moments between Joel and Ellie! I cried like a baby when [spoiler removed] got eaten by those giraffes."
Sure, but those powerful themes of sacrifice and loss still had to be hidden inside a thick wad of "Grizzled White Male Slaughtering Zombies in a Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland," like how you have to hide a pill in a hunk of hamburger to get a dog to swallow it. We once did a joke Photoshop contest asking fans to imagine how ridiculous it would be if classic movies got video game adaptations. Like To Kill a Mockingbird:
Or even Pulp Fiction:
I mean, the whole idea is ludicrous, right? Turning an Oscar-winning movie into a video game? Hell, can you even imagine a video game version of 12 Years a Slave or Schindler's List? Even the concept of a Breaking Bad video game was ridiculous enough for a College Humor parody. I mean, to actually deal with a heavy subject like slavery or the Holocaust in a video game -- how dare you cheapen it that way?
But ... why would that be cheapening it?
If I'm an artist and I want to deal with a weighty subject like genocide, child abuse, or racism, I can write a novel, record a song, paint a painting, sculpt a statue, film a movie/TV show/YouTube vlog ... and as long as it's done well, everyone will applaud, with tears in their eyes. So why do we cringe or laugh the moment we imagine a video game done from, say, the point of view of a concentration camp inmate?
If your answer is that it's hard to turn a real tragic, somber event into an Uncharted-style shooter/platformer without it being horribly tasteless, let me stop you right there -- you've read the previous entry. Why does it have to be that? I mean, is that what the industry is saying -- that it can only convey stories via constant combat or puzzle solving (as is the case even in the shockingly original dating game Catherine)?
If so, then I guess that's that. As I mentioned in Part 1, I've always had this stupid dream about video games being the future of storytelling. I've been gaming for 34 of my 39 years, and while Pong was amusing as a toddler, The Legend of Zelda set my little brain on fire. Fuck movies and books -- when I was 12, that was where I wanted to live. But I guess this is as far as the medium can go, just shooting and/or jumping over obstacles? Sure, on PC, you have games like Dear Esther ...
... which is really just a short story that you "read" by wandering around an island, unlocking passages along the way. It's apparently pretty cool, but there's barely any game there. The second best iPhone game I've played in the last year is Device 6 (the best is Calculords), but at best it has Myst-like interactivity -- it's just a clever short story with five complex puzzles embedded throughout.
And again, those are zero-budget indie titles that no studio was willing to take a risk on -- to find a movie that breaks the action mold, I don't have to go looking for something made in a basement. Gravity had a $100 million budget, made back seven times that much, and won almost all the Oscars. Shit, even 12 Years a Slave had $20 million behind it.
And in the Future ...
Well, there's Ori and the Blind Forest, an indie side-scroller (aren't they all?) that says it's a "coming of age" tale, though that story seems to be expressed via Metroid-style fighting and jumping:
And then there's Night in the Woods, which seems to be the gold standard of what I'm talking about -- young people (well, animals) living in a crumbling mining town who have an encounter with the unknown:
The game industry believes so strongly in that kind of non-violent, character-driven story that the creators had to get their funding off Kickstarter. And that ... pretty much says it all. I also have high hopes for Bullet Girls, the upcoming PS Vita game that provides an unflinching historical look at Japan's brutal Panty Wars (NSFW):
#3. Game Mechanics That Remind You It's a Game
That up there is The Division -- a game with utterly lifelike graphics, right up until the point you shoot someone and make numbers fly out of their head. And I know that's just a minor thing, but it makes my point: Games are in a weird tug-of-war between visuals that suck you into the universe and mechanics that yank you out of it. Little arbitrary rules that only make sense because it's a "game."
For example, like a lot of you, I like to fly into a rage at the slightest provocation if things don't go exactly my way. I therefore don't have a lot of tolerance for doing the same shit over and over with no progress, and as such, video game difficulty is something of a sore subject with me. My gaming time is very limited, and I want to progress to the next thing. But I'm fine with a game beating me, as long as A) it's fair and B) it makes some kind of logical sense.
For the record, forcing you to buy power-ups is neither of these things.
After all, it's not repetition if I'm trying new strategies to accomplish the same thing -- there were levels in both of the good Arkham games that probably took me more than a dozen tries before I finally figured out the right combination of sneaking and punching needed to take down a tower full of gun-toting bad guys who could shred my bat-shaped ass with one well-targeted burst. That fits into the world of the story, because that's what Batman would do. But most games just crank up the difficulty with pure, mindless tedium, with no creativity or internal logic. For example, "bullet sponge" enemies.
These are enemies like the Juggernaut in the Modern Warfare games (an armored bad guy who takes 80 fucking shots to kill). There's no strategy, and he doesn't react to your shots -- you just stand there and shoot and shoot until he falls over. You may have also seen this in most Halo games and with virtually every enemy in the Gears of War franchise. And there's rarely any logic to it -- occasionally a game will give you a visual representation of what you're doing (i.e., you have to blow off each of the monster's limbs, like in the Dead Space games), but usually you just pour lead into them until they topple over. Even if it's an Uncharted bad guy protected by nothing but a T-shirt, he's still going to soak up a Terminator's worth of bullets before succumbing, because the game says so.
Sony Computer Entertainment
And to be clear, I'm not complaining about enemies being too difficult -- hell, give me a monster that can't be hurt by guns at all, and make me devise a clever strategy for blowing him up some other way -- I love that shit. Because at least then there's some kind of logic to why I have to do it that way, a connection between what I see and what I do. That's no small thing when it comes to immersion (and if you've been playing the drinking game I mentioned in Part 1, call an ambulance).
And yes, I get that these are games, and that games have arbitrary rules by definition. But that's the point I keep coming back to again and again -- I can download some stupid shooting gallery app for my iPhone if I just want to play a game. If I'm firing up Uncharted, it's because I want to go live in that world for a while. It's not just a game, goddamnit, I actually think it cheapens it to call it that.
Sony Computer Entertainment
In fact, I'd say it's this "just a game" mentality that makes them think it's OK to throw in these arbitrary rules that take you out of the fantasy. Am I facing a door that only opens if I first kill all of the enemies in the room? Why does it work that way? Or maybe there's a guard at the city gate who will only open the path after I complete some other, totally unrelated task -- so what's his reasoning for doing that in the universe of that story? Is there some actual reason why the pieces of the doomsday weapon I'm to assemble are scattered all across the map so that I have to slowly trudge from one to the next, killing crowds of enemy cannon fodder every step of the way?
If your only answer is "Because we programmed it that way," you've lost me. You've woken me up from the fantasy by slapping me in the face with a stark reminder that this isn't really an adventure meant to capture my imagination. It's just a computer program designed to keep me pushing buttons for 12 hours.
Am I being melodramatic here? Is it weird that I'm writing, like, a billion words about this? If so, I apologize, but I grew up thinking that video games were the future of the culture, that they could be important. I guess the market says otherwise -- Valve used to make Half-Life, and now they just make multiplayer shooters because there's no money in crafting new and better single-player epics -- hell, even BioShock: Infinite failed so hard that its studio got shut down.
And in the Future ...
"Well, if you're so big into immersion, drama queen, you'll love the new virtual reality headsets like Oculus Rift and PlayStation Morpheus! You put that shit on your head, you'll think you're in the game world!"
No. Just ... no. Immersion is not about the hardware. I've gotten immersed in text-only mobile games, I've even seen people print them out and get immersed that way. It's not going to matter if you've got a true-to-life digital simulation strapped to your head if every five minutes something pops up to remind you that it's a game. "Pay $1.99 to fall in love with the princess, and be sure to share your purchase on UbiBook!"