We live in an age that’s simply wonderful. Technology is evolving each day at a vertiginous rate, up to the point where computers can simulate complex nature phenomena and astonish ourselves with lifelike images. But, at what risk should all that fancy stuff should be more important than the real matter, the core of the game: the mechanics and the user experience?
Videogames have grown in the last 40 years from simple, limited graphics and sounds, to being HD and having a full orchestra for a soundtrack. The industry has been pushing the bar, with each company trying to snatch some share of the market, sadly at the cost of a finer product. Videogames require a huge amount of work and are restricted to strict deadlines and budgets, which means that if they want to make a game that sales they’ll probably be aiming their efforts toward better graphics.
It’s a common critique nowadays that games tend to be shallow. Back in the day of the early consoles, designers had to maximize everything they could from the very few things that technology allowed. Most of the most succesful games series started as a very limited idea that exploited its mechanics. The Legend of Zelda is one of the most appraised franchises in the industry and such fame began in its early years without the need of outstanding graphics.
The same thing happens to the soundtracks. Modern day soundtracks seem generic, they have no soul or taste; on the other hand, in older games, musicians had to create appealing and distinctive sounds, because of the 8-bits limitations of the hardware. They were forced to exploit their potential by having tough limitations. The result is that older game soundtracks tend to be much more melodic than recent ones.
And now, of course, graphics. The reason behind Samus Aran having such distinctive visual armour is because when working on Metroid II, for the first Game Boy, the designers had to made clear to the user that Samus upgraded her suit and by having no colors to make such distinction, they settled on adding big shoulders to the Power Suit. What represented a little change back then, now became the image of Nintendo’s heroine.
But, back to narration. Recently, the Play Station 4 was announced and it surely created some expectations. Take a minute to watch this video:
There’s some urgent need in the AAA industry to create photorealistic games. Why? Sure, the game will look absolutely ASTONISHING, but at what cost? Developer’s will focus their attention on exploiting the PS4’s hardware, probably forgetting the rest of the experience. I’d love games in full HD, but not if that means a crappy gameplay and weak story. Seriously, I don’t dislike that much movie-like games, but only if that doesn’t ruin the rest of the experience.
With super graphics and cheap ways to narrate the stories, developers are taking away the most important part of the game: the user experience. The game occurs in our heads, not on the screen. When we play, we create a mental model of the game and act according to that. Our brains fill the details that we missed, to make sense of what it’s perceiving; and our brains love to do that. For instance, why would you ruin the narration of the story by explaining everything? Why not leave some things to the player interpretations?
Luckily, not everything is lost. Sure, the AAA companies focus on state of the art graphics and visual effects, but there’s a community that has no such resources nor the development team, to create such monsters; and they are the Indie developers.
Indie developers are in the same place the original AAA companies where. They have limitations and must maximize the most from the little they have. Games like Super Meat Boy, Minecraft and Braid are wonderful; they convey such an energy that most AAA games surely lost a while ago. I’d dare to say that currently, many of the most inspiring games around are indie games.
Take Minecraft. With graphics that seem more than 15 years old, the game became one of the greatest successes in video game history. It’s amazing how the power of simple graphics and the player’s imagination can make the difference.
Not all AAA games are bad. By any means. There are great examples out there that show us how powerful a solid mechanic and simple but effective techniques can yield great games. Wind Waker, looked than by many since its announcement, is, by far, one of the greatest experiences I’ve played (although a very looooong and sometimes annoying experience). Spec Ops: The Line, pretty good graphics and a twist on the narrative that hugely differentiates it from other war games, like CoD. Okami distinguished itself from other games with its unique visual style that, while not comparable (from a polygon count perspective) to a God of War, sure worked more than perfect.
Now, I’m not saying that games should not focus on the visual aspect, but there are things more important. Yes, videogame companies survive from good game sales, but at what cost?
We live in a capitalist society; hardware companies need to get new stuff into the market in order to maintain sales over the years, so it’s not surprise the bar gets pushed so quickly. I can understand the industry’s needs, but I can’t understand how there can be people who need the urge to make games seem like movies. I prefer a lo-def masterpiece than some crap in HD.
Want to know what makes people care about characters? Better characters. Better written characters. Characters with ambitions and flaws and indecision and all of the other weird intricacies that make humans human. You don’t need more RAM to get there.