Hey, video game industry, what are you going to do when you can't make any more meaningful advances in graphics? I've been asking you this for like seven years now, because we're pretty much there. The next generation of game hardware will be all about taking us through that last 1 percent of photorealism, and I have to tell you, it's a gap that's not worth filling.
Remember, you need to keep at least a little bit of uncanny valley in your video games. I need to still feel good about shooting these dudes on the screen. I want the enemy soldiers to look like real video game people, not real people people. I don't want to look into the face of a victim and see their hopes and dreams die, the light going out of their eyes as they realize they will never again hug their wife and kids on Christmas. So, yeah, you can pretty much stop where you are.
You know this already -- that's why we're still playing our 6-year-old Xbox 360s with no end in sight, when video game consoles used to only last five years (the SNES came out in 1991 and the N64 in 1996; the PlayStation debuted in 1995, the PlayStation 2 in 2000). So what are you going to do to take things to the next level?
Well, video game industry, I want to introduce you to a little group of people I like to call writers. With Hollywood trying hard to transition to a model where movie scripts can be written by a committee involving the star, the marketing team and the special effects supervisor (even comedies are heavily improvised now), there are some great writers out there looking for work. Men and women with stories to tell, experts at pulling the strings of human emotion. Hollywood is getting out of the human emotion business; it's time for you to get in.
Let me pick a random game to demonstrate what I mean: Rage, the huge-budget, heavily promoted shooting game made by the legends who gave us Doom and Quake. Here's a screen shot of the scenery in Rage, next to a real photo of Death Valley. You tell me which one is real and which is video game:
The game is the one on the right. That is, the one that's prettier than real life. It's evident from the first moments that no expense was spared in this production -- they even hired John Goodman to be the voice of your best friend.
Yet I played it for two hours before giving up and taking it back to Blockbuster out of boredom. Why? Because the game begins with you waking up and immediately encountering Goodman's character, who says, "Go kill this entire building full of guys for me and I'll give you some items when you get back."
And that's it; that's your motivation for playing. A favor you're doing for this stranger, with no context. There is nothing pushing you forward: no promise of discovery, no sympathy with some good guys in peril or a princess who needs rescuing. Goodman's role in the game is apparently to just blandly give you instructions about your next task. Go retrieve this, go deliver this item to here, go kill these dudes. You are expected to do it, because it's a video game and that's what you do in games (and you paid hard-earned money for it). But as motivation goes, it doesn't even rise to the level of rescuing the princess from the monkey at the top of the scaffolds.
A little writing could have saved it.
I'm not demanding that games be Moby-Dick. I'm not hard to please -- even Modern Warfare's story, delivered entirely via the Sergeant shouting at me to go defend Burger Town over and over again, was enough to make me see it through to the end. There was a clear forward thrust in the narrative -- it was obvious that Burger Town was really important to him. Most games don't even manage that.
And when games attempt comedy, it almost always just makes me sad. Clips of Duke Nukem Forever and its '80s-era "guy" humor convinced me to not even rent it (but I'll let Kristi elaborate on that).
Which brings me to the Portal series. The first game introduced a great new game play mechanic that, on its own, could have made for a nice little downloadable Xbox Live Arcade title. But the writing team (including Internet comedy great Erik Wolpaw) added a flavor to the game that had every gamer in the world quoting lines from it for the next two years.
The sequel (written with the help of former Cracked editor Jay Pinkerton) built on that, introducing a simple but compelling story structure that was merged perfectly with game play. Early on, the game sends you deep into a sub-basement of the test facility. As you puzzle your way back up level after level, you pass long-abandoned areas of the structure, proceeding across time periods in a way that lets the back story unfold on the fly. Not through stiffly acted cut scenes, but through everything the player sees and interacts with -- the decor of the buildings, conversations with other characters and automated PA announcements made by the long-gone proprietor of the lab.
Writers. That's what that magic is called. Hey, did you like Batman: Arkham Asylum? With its rich library of character back stories stored in interview tapes and old man Arkham's scrawled diaries scattered around the island? That game was written by Paul Dini, who wrote for the excellent Batman: The Animated Series.
Here you go, game industry. You hate being second fiddle to Hollywood? Hate how nobody thinks your games are culturally relevant, and how you haven't yet created a game that will still be touching people's lives 75 years from now? Well, here's your opportunity. Because Hollywood is clearly moving away from a writer model, satisfied to grab characters from other properties, storyboard a bunch of action sequences and give some poor guy a couple of weeks to pound out a bunch of shit to fill in the pages in between.
Go steal their writers, and offer them the power to create games that resonate on a human level in a way that blockbuster movies don't anymore. Do it now, you'll find them at Starbucks.
Skyrim is not a game.
It is a fully realized virtual place, neatly situated northwest of Morrowind and due south of the ruins of what was once my productive membership in actual human society. I may be technically typing at a computer right now, but in my head, I'm just marking time, keystroke by keystroke (also we get paid by the word grapefruit Washington catfish). In my real life, my TRUE life, I'm a few feet over that way, inside the TV, sun glinting off of my Dwemer helm as I approach Dawnstar Hold, leg armor clanging loudly enough to make my own actual leg muscles twitch in dusty, atrophied protest. I mean seriously, I'm level 22 and I've only been to two holds ... how goddamn immersive can you get? The world of Skyrim is so vast and satisfying, some humorous comparison could be made between it and my penis. That's the girth and breadth of throbbing detail that Bethesda has provided here.
For some reason, I end up here a lot.
Which brings us to the reason Skyrim is my pick for this article, and not just for concubine, jester, best friend and eventual killer. This is the first game I've played that I can imagine becoming dangerously absorbed by, Matrix-style. I have a friend who was heavily into EverQuest in a big, debilitating way, and this could very well be that for me. Heck, it could be that for all of us! I often find myself walking somewhere in Skyrim that I could easily teleport to, just to take time wondering at the natural beauty around me: Glacial peaks dusted with wind-blown snow, birch trees shaking lemon-yellow leaves at a starry sky, dragons gently gliding over -- OH FUCK KILLITKILLIT! "CAN'T FAST TRAVEL WHEN ENEMIES ARE WHAT?!" AAAAH WHERE DID ALL THESE WOLVES COME FROM?! AIEEEEEE!
Screaming like a little girl is not a recognized dragon shout, unbelievably.
The point being, I used to have to go outside to see that shit, and if I got attacked by wolves, I couldn't just unplug the game, call my mom crying and then plug it back in half an hour later, good as new. As climate change, American economic decline and a rise in retro kitsch push us further and further down the road toward Fallout: New Vegas, virtual worlds like Skyrim's -- which mimic the actual, natural Earth of the past -- will become all the more appealing. For example, I recently blew off my weekly hike up a nearby mountain to hike up a mountain in Skyrim. The only difference being that in the game, when I got to the top of the mountain I learned how to run 100 mph and force-push people with the sound of my voice, whereas in the real world I'd just get imperceptibly stronger and extend my life expectancy slightly, so as to have more time to spend with loved ones ... SNORE.
You're my only friend now, disemboweled guy!
Skyrim already allows me to smith weapons and armor, cook meat I hunted, tan hide into leather strips and talk to people about absolutely nothing for hours. It's only a matter of time before the technology is available and someone releases the game where you can do literally anything. You'll finally have a fully real CG world, with infinite potential and freedom of choice, indistinguishable from our own, where natural beauty provides spiritual succor and life is a never-ending wade through equal parts mundanity and divinity.
So just like the real world now, but functioning properly! Until it glitches, which it tends to do whenever you tax the system too much, or fire too many arrows, or turn right. Seriously, if the Matrix were as glitchy as Bethesda games, Neo never would have been able to pull all that shit off. He'd try to leave a room, get stuck in a never-ending load screen and play with the rotating shield model until the Architect got sick of waiting and reset the system.
"We're keeping the face-arrows. It makes watching your futile lives less depressing."
If you learn one thing from my entries here today, it should be that the apocalypse is coming very very soon. Human history has been defined by self-fulfilling prophecy, and our doom-obsessed culture is all but assuring the end of the world, just as me typing "I will die buried in the writhing flesh of the Swedish Olympic Women's Nude Writhing Team" and thousands of you reading it basically ensures that it will happen. That's how prayer works, people. So strap into Skyrim and start acquainting yourself, because soon enough your options are going to be uploading your consciousness into it or facing the bombed-out wasteland that was once the sandbox RPG we call life.
Now pardon me, while I go rim the sky.
The last time it took me 14 years to accomplish something, I got a woman's body out of the wait. Here's what else I've gotten done in the time it took to finish making Duke Nukem Forever:
I didn't actually use them for Christmas. I just hate trees.
I'm not going to lie, I know nothing about video games. I've decided everyone needs a quirk, and the fact that I don't enjoy video games is mine. So I picked Duke Nukem Forever as my game of the year for a few reasons. One, I knew my coworkers were going to pick awesome games. They play video games (all day long) and they know what they're talking about.
Two, even a Luddite like me has heard of Duke Nukem. That's a joke I can get in on. And then I actually watched a few minutes of the game. I guess it's a game. It's either a game or a hate crime against 2011. Yes, the hero shoots pregnant women and holds feces in his hands like some kind of monkey man. That's not even the weird part. The weird part is how not cool it is. I'm trying to imagine guys who I know for a fact are smarter than me, better educated than me and have more common sense than me sitting down and writing dialogue like:
"Oh yeah! I'm bringing sexy back."
"Bonjour, le hot stuff."
"I'm gonna rip your eye out and piss on your brain, you alien dirtbag!"
Is this where we congratulate him? I mean, this is what a toddler does, right?
If that's 2011 in a nutshell, I'm pretty sad about it.
On second thought, I change my mind. I'm going with Portal 2.
Skyrim. My choice was going to be Skyrim. This entry was going to be about Skyrim, and this entry was going to be the one point of optimism and hope in this otherwise cynical wasteland of bitterness and profanity. But you know what happened?
Michael Swaim is way better about checking his email, so he got to pick it first. Therefore, for game of 2011, I choose Diablo III, which isn't even coming out this year. Why? Let's run down some of its killer new features:
*Always-on DRM means you can play the game anywhere there's an Internet connection! And nowhere there isn't.
*Sick of the pressure that customizing, improving and personalizing PC games comes with? Diablo III's got your back: New security measures prevent all modding!
*Tired of real-world problems breaking the flow and action of game play? Not anymore: Diablo III does away with that horrible pause function. Now nothing's going to stop you from gaming -- even your own wants and needs!
*Tired of multiplayer games hogging all the server issues and connectivity problems? Don't worry! Diablo III requires a working Internet connection ... even for single-player games!
*Want added adventure, excitement and intrigue? If Blizzard servers crash during game play, you can lose all of your progress! Real action requires real consequences. You want to be real, don't you?
So real you put your fist through the monitor and throw your mouse at the kids.
If somebody wants to call shenanigans on me for griping about a game that hasn't even been released yet, that's fine. You can mentally change my pick to Driver: San Francisco, or literally any other Ubisoft game. They all have pretty much the same "features" this year. My general point doesn't change with the specific property chosen to represent it. I'm just saying that the publishers are pushing a new theme for 2011 PC games, and that theme is:
Hey, why don't you stop playing PC games?