I was nine when I got my first console and game; a Sony PlayStation and a copy of Disney’s Action Game Featuring Hercules (a bit of a mouthful). I had played games before but nothing like this with its delightful use of 2D and 3D; its colourful world of Herculades and impossible save points. I wasn’t on the forefront of gaming by any means. I make no claims to that. This was the 90’s.
I grew up with games. I spun crates as Crash Bandicoot, chanted as Abe in Abe’s Oddysee, and brandished a long sword as Cloud in Final Fantasy VII. I followed Naughty Dog from PlayStation to PlayStation. I expanded, bought different consoles, crossed different genres. I grew older. I reached my twenties and I started to play less, but my love for games never vanished. I am now 24 and more picky than ever regarding the games I choose to play. TV became my new escape because I began to realise games hadn’t changed all too much.
At the 2013 DICE Summit David Cage did a talk titled The Peter Pan Syndrome: The Industry That Refused to Grow Up. His point was we need to move the medium forward, to where we’re at today, to explore new themes and ideas – and I happen to agree with him. Please note that this doesn’t mean I want every game to be Heavy Rain. But something different would be nice. Ask a fellow non-gamer friend to take a look at the games lining store shelves and they’re likely to see a bunch of same looking boxes; shooters and sequels to shooters. It’s no wonder so many people still think of video games as a kid’s medium. We haven’t proven ourselves yet. Sure there’s the odd exception and I’ll cover some of those later, but we are still buying the same old crap. And so what do publishers do? Why, sell us more of it of course.
What I keep coming back to are stories. The basis for a game’s scenario, its world and its characters. How often do you see the same old stories happen in games?
Dude with a gun and a mission?
Rescue the damsel in distress?
Defeat the big boss?
A young hero learning to fight?
Like movies and books, games can literally be about anything. Why are we stuck repeating the same old thing? We play the same White male character (commonly voiced by Nolan North) as the lead in many games. He kills a bunch of dudes and then the credits roll. Even Nintendo lives off its successes of good times gone by with sequels and rehashes of its popular franchises.
Now there are games that buck the trend and these are the ones that capture my attention. Heavy Rain told the story of a father and his desperate search for his son. Grim Fandango; a skeleton salesman in the Land of the Dead uncovering a conspiracy. The Secret of Monkey Island; a goofy boy wanting to become a pirate for no other reason than, because he can.
Why are these games so far and few between? Why can’t this be the norm?
It can be done. We just need the conviction to go through with it. People do buy creative projects. Just look at Kickstarter.
And it’s not just the stories themselves but the way they are told. Today it’s still acceptable for you to play for a little bit until you reach a cut-scene that shows your character do something amazing while you sit back and watch, or a dose of exposition is hurled at you while the controller sits on your lap. A few games found a way around this, most notably Half-Life 2 and Bioshock, which keep you in the player’s shoes the whole way through. It’s jarring to say the least to go from a first person perspective to a cut-scene featuring your character.
Games have found ways of giving exposition while you play, and in an entertaining way through dynamic voice over; GLaDOS’ sardonic wise cracks in Portal, or the croaky Rucks in Bastion. And there’s games like The Walking Dead or Mass Effect where you’re not a straight faced mute and are actually involved in the conversation, picking dialogue options.
What Can You Do?
All of this has happened before and will happen again. We’re stuck in a vicious cycle of familiarity. When I say we I do mean the general game buying populace at large. We vote with our dollars for the kinds of stories we wish to play. It doesn’t help that the current best selling games of all time are first person military shooters. The solution for games to leave Neverland once and for all? Buy games that do new and interesting things — games that tell new stories. Fund indie Kickstarter campaigns. And for the love of Tim Schafer, stop buying god damn military shooters!