Gamers tend to complain a lot about the state of modern gaming. I'm no exception to the rule: I look around me and see naught but the endless, flaming plains of Pre-Order Bonus DLC and the crumbling towers of Always Online DRM, and lo, I despair. Why do they have to keep segmenting, expanding or otherwise screwing with the formats of our games? Jesus, can't they see all this technology is ruining our technology?! But then I stopped and realized: We have all of these amazing, fantastic, borderline magical creations in our hands that, in many ways, dwarf all the wildest predictions of yesteryear -- and we've got the balls to stand around and bitch that they're taking too long to load. So I thought we could all stop the hate-coaster for a moment, and take a minute to reflect on what modern gaming is doing right:
#6. Better Visuals Can Mean Better Stories
Game worlds today are staggering in their depth and integrity. For example:
I've been playing Skyrim for the past few months and I know now, by sheer muscle reflex, the exact timing and sequence of controls required to vault the second story railing on my house in Whiterun, turn, and land at the bottom of the stairs facing the door, so as to get to the exit fastest. I used to do the exact same thing in my real house as a child -- hand on the railing, jump at the third post, twist and hit the floor facing the front door. Identical behavioral patterns, developing naturally in both reality and gaming.
That's a world. That is an honest to god virtual world.
I know the more pretentious gamers (myself included) loudly complain that the focus on graphics and technological benchmarks is killing the soul of the industry. "This is gold-embossed crap!" we'll say, flipping the CoD display at the local GameStop. "They're gift-wrapping our own feces and selling it back to us! Wake up you GODDAMN SHEEP! CAN'T YOU TASTE THE SHIT IN YOUR MOUTHS?!"
God, if I had a nickel for every time I'd been arrested at GameStop, I'd throw nickels at the GameStop until they arrested me.
And we'll keep alternately screaming and bleating at the customers until the police come drag us away to file the world's least impressive incident report, because we know there's truth to the complaint. If you focus on pretty explosions instead of storytelling, you're producing an inferior product.
But we don't always stop to appreciate what better graphics, higher resolutions and larger storage capacities are actually adding to the stories that our games tell. The Portal series managed to tell a couple of pretty great tales, and they did so without any clunky dialogue or awkward exposition: They told their stories through a series of carefully placed props, compelling tableaus, graffitied walls, dated office decor, fake product posters and some notes left behind by the long-gone workers. Hell, even Left 4 Dead manages to relay a pretty compelling apocalyptic tale, and the only dialogue in that game is "I hear a Smoker" and "My face! There is a now a Smoker on my face!" But there's a whole story there if you look for it -- on the walls, in the gutters, in the dining rooms of houses and on the counters of businesses. That was all made possible exclusively by better graphics, and the more powerful hardware that can render so many objects in such fine detail.
#5. Massive, Open Worlds to Explore
Grand Theft Auto IVmay have had its shortcomings, but the size and density of that world told a million little tales the developers never meant it to. If you put enough hours into that game, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Everybody has an anecdote:
One time I was passing by a fast food restaurant, and stopped in to watch the workers. A young man stepped out to clean the windows -- such a superfluous, compelling little detail! It blew my mind that they'd thought to include it -- so I walked up to watch him from the other side of the glass. Just then, an ambulance came careening around the corner and flattened him. He was crushed to death inches in front of me, while doing another meaningless task in this dead end job. The accident wasn't part of any pre-programmed mission or set series of events -- it was just a random occurrence in a massive, living world. This small, but effective little drama that would've unfolded totally unseen if I hadn't been in the right place at the right time.
"All right, somebody die to amuse me."
Intrigued, I followed the ambulance down the block. When I caught up with it, the paramedics were reviving a guy with the exact same character model (different clothes, of course, but the same body and face). I looked around to see if this model was common in that part of town, but I didn't see a single other one in the crowd gathering around the scene.
So the ambulance drivers accidentally killed a nameless fast food worker, on the way to save his identical twin brother. Nobody wrote that. It just happened.
The world of GTA IV (or Fallout 3, or Just Cause 2, take your pick) would've made my 10-year-old child gamer heart stop, because part of what I loved best about the hobby was the exploration and potentiality that a good game presents. And yes, of course it's valid to critique the lackluster script or shoddy storytelling in some open world environments, but maybe sometimes it's just a different, more organic kind of story that we're not recognizing. But then again, it's not like the writing in games has gotten worse. In fact ...
#4. The Writing Is Getting Better
I just got done writing three paragraphs about the "alternative storytelling" in Grand Theft Auto, which could very well be a pretentious bullshit justification on the part of somebody who really just liked smashing fire trucks into hookers. But GTA IV still involved more writing than basically any other game in history. Here, check out the difference in the size of the scripts between GTA III and GTA IV:
That growth is just over one console generation. And considering that the script of GTA III was "some people are shitty; hit them with your car," this seems to be more of a trend than an isolated incident. Look at that picture again: If you left subtitles on and hit 100 percent completion in GTA IV, you just read something roughly the size of War and Peace. But hold on: Quantity does not equal quality. Let's not confuse the two.
If you give me the chance, I'll talk at length -- through repressed tears and whitened fists -- of the injustices that Writing suffers in modern gaming. Poor, poor Writing was beaten and left bleeding in a ditch while those sociopaths, Graphics and Gimmicks, banged its girlfriend and signed it up for junkmail catalogs. But is that really the case? Was every property you loved as a kid really a masterpiece of storytelling? Or are we collectively forgetting that for every Earthbound there was a game about sentient unicycles doing loop-de-loops on the loop-de-loop planet?
That's not fair. There was a really moving storyline about the blue unicycle's unrequited love for jumping and going fast.
Yes, quality writing in games is exceedingly rare, but that's no different from literally any medium. Blockbuster movies have always been more 2 Fast 2 Furious than Blade Runner. TV Shows are more CSI than The Wire and even books are more Rapture Untamed than Anna Karenina. Good writing is rare, because good writing is hard. That's no different today than it was at any other point in history. Games aren't getting dumber because they're going more mainstream. In fact, I'd argue that because games are getting more prolific (and are therefore becoming more profitable), their writing is actually getting better. They have the funds to pay actual writers now, instead of saddling those boring script-duties on whichever intern pulled the short straw in the pre-development meeting. I'll put the ingenuity and raw creativity of Bioshock, the black humor of Portal 2 or even the simple, heartbreaking brevity of Limbo up against any property from any previous generation, and they'll hold their own. Of course, the fact that I even mentioned something like Limbo is a prime indicator that ...