6Better 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.
5Massive, 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 ...