I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and played games like Mario Brothers, Double Dragons, Zelda, Doom, and Sonic the Hedgehog. They were simple in concept; beat the boss and save the girl or the world. As I grew up, I watched platforms and game graphics became more sophisticated. No more pixels running around as Mario or Link. No more overheated Segas and Nintendos.
While the platforms today seem more like computers than consoles, the games for these platforms have taken a big jump back.
Look at Capcom’s Dead Rising, Techland’s Dead Island, and Bethesda’s Skyrim and Fallout. Players usually talk to Character One, go to the other side of World One, get Item One, and go back to Character One. Then repeat. And repeat.
Today’s video games still have a core story—defeat the Big Bad Dragon and save the world—but it’s forgotten somewhere between Character Eighty-Seven and Item Five Hundred. Sure, players get to kill zombies, mutants, and gods, but that’s all there is to it. Mindless killing. Mindless Retrieving.
Don’t get me wrong. The visuals are great and the gameplay is smooth. Even the loading time is forgivable (save for Dead Rising and Fallout) compared to the older consoles. Still, the formula is the same: talk, kill, retrieve, and return. Game developers have dropped the controller on recent games just to make sales. I understand that business can’t be business without money, but if I pay fifty bucks for one game, I want my money’s worth or at least have something fun to play.
Games today leave me with one question: what happened to video games between the 1980’s and the 2000’s? It could be that the gamers themselves have changed and the game developers are trying to appeal to that change. In the 1980’s, it was cool to be anyone. Androgenism, nerds, and Flocks of Seagulls haircuts were cool. In the 1990’s, it was cool to be aware of deep issues like education, racism, drugs, poverty, pollution. In the 2000’s, people hated people. The Rise of Fear and Haterism came up and squashed the open-minded, experimental, fun-loving 80’s and 90’s attitude to a pulp. Many products followed suit, and video games weren’t immune to the haterism. Some of the most marketable games, namely Call of Duty and Dead Island, are racist, war-supporting games OK with murdering Afghanistan or Iraqi people and depicting black and Mexican people as gun-toting thugs and drug-dealers. Not cool or fun anymore. No more hard-boiled, take-no-shit characters. Just emotional train wrecks with guns and a sore spot for colored people.
Game developers didn’t ask for this paradigm shift. They’re regular folks who grew up with the same games I did, maybe dreamed of developing the same fun games. Between their creative minds and their investors, something’s gotta give, and that would be the fun and the story. Those are the two things that keep gamers gaming. I’d rather play Tetris all day than play five minutes of trying to find a saving point in Dead Rising or facing a million of the same zombie in Dead Island or picking up one more useless item on the way to delivering another useless item in Skyrim or Fallout. It’s not my idea of a good time.
The recent video games that are exciting with a polished story are few and far between, but they do exist. PopCap Games’s Peggle, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II, Telltales Games’s The Walking Dead, Vogster Entertainment’s Unbound Saga, Capcom’s Devil May Cry, Konami’s re-released Castlevania, and id Software’s Rage are reminiscent of the 80’s and 90’s optimistic attitude, only with today’s graphics and gameplay. Their core stories and uncompromising characters make up a fun world. In Assassin’s Creed II, players bring conspiracies to light while free-running in Renaissance Italy. The Walking Dead’s in-depth character and story development keep gamers coming back. Unbound Saga embodies Double Dragons’ and Streets of Rage’s linear game play while the hard-boiled main character remains hard-boiled. Rage gives players everything Skyrim and Fallout couldn’t: a small yet interesting world, cool cars and weapons, unique personalities, and fast loading times.
What makes these games memorable and re-playable? These games are reduced to a condensed but polished arena. People have short attention spans, and making the world too big means pushing that attention span to its limit. Rage understood this by taking the player to a different world before the game began to feel repetitive. Players want realism in their games, but games like Skyrim and Fallout abuse it by making everything interactive. Who wants to carry around a billion flowers? The Walking Dead, Assassin’s Creed II, and Rage limited the interactivity to the core stories. Even something as basic as letting players save whenever and wherever they want keeps players happy (Dead Rising, ahem). And the hard stages are beatable—without the help of Google.
Let’s remember: gamers play games to get away from reality. If games are created to frustrate the player with overly-vast worlds, repetitive characters and missions, excessive interactivity, slow loading times, insensible saving controls, war-supporting and racist undertones, and complicated bosses, what’s the point of escaping reality?