What is it we want from video games?

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Getting a bit older means that my taste in games has changed over time. I myself have gone though a great deal of changes on a personal level. I’ve also had a fun time pulling the curtain back, looking into the developer side of games and even the academic side of game studies to an extent as well. All of these factors, and surely more that I haven’t mentioned, provide me with a new tempering on games and I want to use this moment of repose to articulate my taste on games as it currently sits, and to put my thoughts onto page regarding games as a medium in general.

My first question is: Is there any sense of progress in game development outside of the technological? I say yes. Certainly some games have set a new bar for what can be done in the medium, making other games seem somewhat lesser. For me, as I’ve written before, Dark Souls did this to Skyrim. For me Inside has just done this to all puzzle-platformers, and probably even to other games beyond the genre. Dark Souls and Inside are qualitatively better than others of their genre. And I’m using genre pretty loosely here. There is, lurking in the shadow of the AAA gaming industry, a rich and beautiful artistic evolution unfolding in the world of video games.

From what stance am I appreciating these games from, to say they are better? If I had to put it into words, I’m looking for games that can provide unique and interesting experiences that build upon their predecessors. Really it isn’t a game, but software that I’m looking at. People get so hung up on the semantics of the word “game” that it’s barely worth the time to converse about it. I’m perfectly happy to play what some might call a ‘walking simulator’ as long as it provides an experience heretofore unimagined.  Journey was one of those on the cusp of what someone might call a walking simulator and a story game. I absolutely loved it, as I had written about before. I’m totally open to be blown away by something new and don’t really care where it comes from. I’m sure someone down the line will make an excel spreadsheet that will change the face of gaming, turning the most mundane of computer/human interaction into something touching and profound. Don’t get me wrong either, I’m not anti-technological progress, as for example I’m sure that VR can provide an entirely new realm of experience if it really catches on.

The industry of course is in a gold rush right now and everybody is jumping on board. Even casinos are trying to get their slice of the pie. Just go to the G2E website to see what they are up to.  Computer media software is the what the novel was to the 20th century, for the 21st century. It is the computer that is entirely shaping our society in a revolutionary way, throwing cable TV and the printing press (actually an Asian invention) to the wayside while literature professors are scrambling to keep people reading. As a brief aside, reading is a hard thing to get college students to do right now, if you didn’t know that. Seriously. Sustained time with a text as a practice is going extinct. If video and television put the text as medium to pasture, the computer is ruthlessly hunting it down.

But it isn’t clear that there is any qualitative progress happening unless you are paying much attention. This is because of the mountains of money to be made from games. I see video games making as a large field. One one side is a pyramid and the other a bunch of smaller artisan workshops. The AAA industry unsurprisingly is characterized a pyramid, a bloody one. It’s an ecosystem where people work horrible hours and where exist parasitic industries that are trying to create software that exploits people’s weaknesses. Little workshops dot the horizon on the other side of the field where. This is where software products that are beginning to impact us in ways that literature and film have been doing. Of course, historically the pyramid wasn’t always so tall, steep or bloody, and the workshops were really only what there was. Now, people come and go between the two worlds, and something great tends to happen in the middle really. The games that come from the pyramid, they’re more closely related to entertainment products, Hollywood stuff, but even then there can come something as jaw-dropping as a Bloodborne.

Each new and unique experience games-crafters put out pushes the envelope just a bit more, giving us just a bit more of a glimpse of what can be done, from Super Mario Bros. to Inside, from Zelda to Dark Souls, from Metroid to Axiom Verge. But still I don’t think we will hit the level of the text’s ubiquity until technology becomes even cheaper and more accessible. A book is so accessible that it is mind-boggling. They are cheap, and there are libraries everywhere. There is virtually no financial barrier between someone wanting to write a story down either. For film-making, it is much less democratic,  tool-wise. It takes a team of people, and requires access to good quality stuff to make a full-length feature film. A YouTube video isn’t too hard to make though, and to watch a tv-show or a film you don’t need to buy a console. You can go to the theater, turn on the TV, log in to the relatively cheap Netflix, at the library, etc. All of this is not the case with a medium that is sustained by expensive technological hardware and of which most often has a high spacial-reasoning bar. Expensive compared to paper, that is.

Most people in the world can’t play the majesty that is Bloodborne. It’s expensive and it’s console bound. Not to mention the fact that it’s a time-consuming and extremely difficult game, marginalizing any busy person or others who haven’t mastered twitch play. This lack of accessibility and the pyramid issue is surely slowing games from progressing as art. So although I see a great and exciting progress happening I still see games as art being rather niche when donning a broader historical and social perspective. On the bright side, I do think that it we will see more and more great ideas coming forth regardless. The technology is getting easier to access and some absolutely amazing games are being created that are able to strike a balance between being something meaningful and something that will sell on the market.

If I had to take a stab at computing’s future, with video games in tow, it is the mobile industry that will be the winner. Mobile ‘smart devices’ are more ubiquitous than PCs or consoles. I say this as someone who hates to play games on mobile devices and would rather this not be the case. They’re too tiny, too cramped, at least so far as it is being utilized, but everybody has them! I’m sure with Nintendo’s Switch, they are trying to be that middle point between console and mobile, the best of both worlds… with the price-tag of $300. It’s pretty clear that Nintendo is on the pyramid side of my poorly thought-out scheme. And that’s not to say that they aren’t making amazing stuff, but I don’t expect art. From Nintendo, I expect quality-crafted games that provide entertainment. But is that what I want? Not anymore really, as a self-stylized seasoned player of games, all I really want are unique and interesting experiences. Surprise me.

 

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7 thoughts on “What is it we want from video games?

  1. I’m inclined to agree with you: I think it’s the mobile industry that’s going to come out on top. Personally I dislike playing games on my phone, but my stepson and his friends are more likely to ask if they can borrow your mobile than turn on your console. It seems to be the way things are going.

    There’s a part of me that thinks it’s a shame because I haven’t yet been convinced that I can get get the same emotional impact from a mobile game. For example, something like Journey just wouldn’t be as powerful for me on a small screen and in a public place. But as you say, surprise me: I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. 🙂 If mobile wins, I think, hope, the home entertainment system (whether pc, console or whatever) will always be a close runner-up. I wonder if the next generations that grow up with mobile are going to pick up the legacy of gaming that we grew up with or if they will make their own little history based off of mobile gaming and that miasma of free-to-pay in-game currency junk.

      I can’t imagine playing Journey on mobile. I tried to replay FF6 on mobile for old times sake, as I had some credits for the apple store and… I got about 5 minutes realizing that it just doesn’t work for me that way. I was also not much of a fan of gameboys. There were games like metroid 2 and some even on the Game Gear that were great, but I found it incredibly claustrophobic to play them.

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      1. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how things are in ten years’ time! Although he’s more likely to play mobile games, my stepson always wants to know about the games my other half and I had when we were his age; so we’re using that as an opportunity to introduce him to things like The Legend of Zelda and Monkey Island. Hopefully the legacy will live on. 😉

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      2. Good to know that the mantle is being taken up by the younger generation 😉 I don’t have any kids myself, but a slew of nieces and nephews, and I enjoy getting them hooked to games despite their parents wishes. Last Summer I visited S. Korea to spend time with my wife’s family. Her brother has a couple of kids …and he has Overwatch. So what is a good uncle to do? Fire up the PC and have them both play in practice mode. Instantly hooked. They were both whining to play that game for days after and the mom was always furiously polite to me after that, if you know what I mean. Tee hee.

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