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:
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.
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 ...
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 ...
Exposure for Indie Games Is Growing
If you'd asked my 10-year-old gaming self what his favorite indie games were, he'd probably tell you that
Greatest Adventures was OK, but Super Star Wars was a way better side-scroller. Because that stupid, ugly little bastard had no idea what an Indie developer was. If it wasn't in the glass case at the Fred Meyer, it didn't exist to him. But a 10-year-old gamer today has probably played -- and loved -- a pretty hefty handful of Indie games by now. Even if they don't recognize the scene for what it is, or care at all for the ideology, they're still supporting lesser known artists and rewarding innovation. Not because of any lofty principles, but because they think it's funny when Meat Boy hits the sawblades for the fiftieth time.
"I like to throw meat at saws!" -- The generation of psychopaths we're raising.
That's not even factoring in the (usually) lower cost of independent games. That certainly wasn't the case for prior generations: Nothing was "lower cost." Video games were "those things that are $40." Period. The end. No matter what, there was one price point entirely regardless of content or quality. Whereas now an attentive, frugal parent can drop 10 bucks on a Steam sale and have their kid's gaming booked up for months. Or just impulse-spend 10 bucks on a Live Arcade game, instead of bringing their screeching progeny to the game store to pick up a $60 major release. That means more instant gratification for the kid and less time spent for the parent, plus it's keeping children inside and out of society proper, where the rotten, disease-spreading little parasites belong. Everybody wins!
DLC Can Be Amazing
This is the fallacy I'm most guilty of, myself: Thinking DLC is going to ruin the next generation of gaming. I see stuff like
Arkham Asylum's Catwoman Bundle -- downloadable content that actually extracts one part of a whole game and sells it separately -- and I envision a dystopian nightmare-future where every level, character and piece of equipment is a la carte. Suddenly you're dying in firefights because you didn't buy enough ammunition before the round started, and your androgynous JRPG character stops mid-sentence while the Motherfish absorbs the Spirit World into her Soul Vagina, because you haven't purchased your next line of dialogue yet.
"The life spirit of your mother/father has mana-bonded with the ."
But again, this is just me seeing the shitty side of something and wrongfully assuming that's the way everything's going to be. But some of the most successful DLC is actually also the best:
Portal 2's Peer Review, Fallout: New Vegas' Old World Blues and Battlefield: Bad Company 2's Vietnam were all major successes, and they were entirely separate but equal experiences that did nothing but extend the playlife of your favorite game for dirt cheap. I would've loved that as a child gamer. If you'd asked me to fork over 5 bucks to play what Shadow did that time he mysteriously disappeared from
FFVI, I would have checked out some sex-ed books from the library, studied up on what an orgasm was and then creamed my Bermuda shorts over the idea. It's easy to forget what an amazing concept DLC is. Now we can buy a game, love it and then have it extended meaningfully while we wait for the sequel. In its ideal form, DLC can double the gameplay of our favorite properties, if not stretch them to infinity. And the developers
want to produce good DLC, for the very simple reason that it's what we're buying. That's basic capitalism at work. If you don't believe me, just look at the most famous DLC misstep of all: Oblivion's Horse Armor.
"For an extra 200 points you can buy ribbons to- OK, seriously, how are we not fired yet?" -- Bethesda's first DLC team.
We all pointed to that and foretold the end times, and rightfully so. It was a trivial, expensive, meaningless hunk of digital bullshit. If that was the inevitable future, we were all quitting this stupid hobby and learning how to knit or something.But let's look at another DLC that those same developers released for that same game:
. It was arguably one of the best, "most value for the money" DLC packs ever. The big publishers aren't going to ignore all of our pleas and ruin our favorite games, because they'd go bankrupt. If you insult a man, sure, he might turn the other cheek. But if you lift his wallet and start rifling through the bills, you're going to have his undivided attention right quick.
Online Multiplayer is a Godsend
I am not an online multiplayer gamer. At all. I hate it. I hate the mentality, I hate most of the other players and I almost always find the gameplay both confining and repetitive. I'll take story or atmosphere over mindless competition, every time. But that's just because I'm old and bitter. My 10-year-old self was all about multiplayer, whether it be the competitive gameplay of
Street Fighter, or the hardcore, PTSD-inducing co-op of Contra. As adults, we're all bemoaning the fact that we don't play games in person anymore -- consoles don't even give us that option! But all I did back in the "golden age of multiplayer" was bemoan the fact that my friends came over to play games so rarely. Even as a child with a to-do list whose most intensive items were "practice jumpkicks" and "learn how to masturbate," it was almost impossible to get everybody in one place for a gaming session, and certainly not with any kind of regularity. Back in the so-called golden age, we were so desperate that we
actually left the house to play video games with strangers in a dark room that smelled like Mountain Dew and feet.
I'm not saying child molestation went down proportionate to the fall of the arcades. I'm just saying that I'd like to see the statistics.
I would hit up the 7-Eleven after school every day to routinely get my ass beat by the Asian kids (who were
always there first. When is Asian school, you sons of bitches? Did the Koreans invent hover-bikes? Is there a goddamn wormhole behind the monkeybars that I don't know about?!) at Street Fighter II. And we didn't bond, or learn to respect other cultures, or build any character; we just silently hated each other while standing 6 inches apart, because this was the only way we could guarantee multiplayer gaming. And I did all of this despite owning the SNES version of SFII at home. I biked my chubby ass all the way to the convenience store, where I'd get yelled at by the constantly, inexplicably wet clerk, for the privilege of burning my allowance at the altar of the Asian pre-teen, despite having the same game for free in my living room, which was only like 10 feet from the box that dispensed free Hot Pockets. Outside of childhood parties and your college dorm mates, you were seriously lucky to get the whole gang together for games once every few months. Now you can hop online, check your friends list and be in a game with somebody halfway across the world within 5 seconds. Any kid playing the newest version of
Street Fighter will never, ever have to go without an opponent. As a gamer child, I would've killed for that ability. Literally. I would have butchered you without hesitation if it meant that your ghost would somehow be leashed to my SNES in the afterlife, doomed to play F-Zero with me on command.
"Boom! Into the wall, bitch! No, you can't say goodbye to your family; we're doing Mute City next."
And though I will say again and again that I despise online multiplayer, that's really only because I despise people in general. I can't stand the things. With their "wants" and "needs" and "opinions that aren't mine" -- quite frankly, it's disgusting. But that's not the fault of the game or the genre: Even I will play the hell out of online multiplayer if it's done right. Not to beat a dead whore, but let's revisit
GTA IV. Aside from Team Fortress 2, that was the last game that really got me into online play, and that was because of one simple thing: Free Mode. What a brilliant, amazing move that was. Finally somebody paid attention to what we, as gamers, really wanted to do ... which was apparently "nothing special." I once spent a whole night with some friends on Free Mode, just screwing around. While they were experimenting with the swing launcher, or playing Car Tag in the streets, or just good old fashioned gunfighting, I spent the entire time stealing helicopters, carefully hovering directly over the other players, then bailing out and sending the machine plummeting down on top of them while screaming, "HELLO-COPTER!"
For added horribleness, try doing it in a series of increasingly racist accents.
Sure, I lost some friends that night, but that may be the most fun I have ever had with a video game. ...I'm not saying that all of our complaints are invalid or unwarranted. I'm just saying that we're all so busy bitching about what this hobby should be, and what it's not doing quite yet, that we rarely look back and see how astoundingly far it's come, and all the amazing things that it is right now. My wildest dreams as a child gamer have been exceeded a thousandfold -- I literally would not have believed you if you'd shown me
Skyrim and told me that was only 20 years in the future of game development; I would have burned you as a time-witch (they were a serious problem back in the early '90s). And yet it seems that, whenever it's time to talk seriously about gaming, I invariably spend most of my time complaining. And honestly? I'll probably be doing it again in a week or two, because I'm a fickle bastard with attention deficit disorder. But not this week. This week I'm setting the controller down for a minute, turning to my 10-year-old self, and asking in reverently hushed tones: "Did you see that shit?!"...And he will answer: "Yeah, that was badical!"Because he's a fucking idiot.