Looking back at the games I’ve completed (or even played) over the last two months and I come up with a list that I can count on one hand. Maybe it’s me. I don’t know. I’ve certainly had fun playing games but it has been some time since I’ve truly played something that has really gripped me. The number of A-list games that have crossed my path and left me wanting is rather impressive. I can’t help but feel it isn’t just me though. Looking at lists of upcoming titles there seems to be a growing identity crisis in the video game industry and perhaps among the community as well. I’m not talking about the whole bullshit casual versus hardcore discussion. It seems to me that both the industry and the gaming public are torn over how they view the definition of what a game should be.
I recently finished playing Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and I think that game is the perfect example of that confusion. If you’ve played a Star Wars game I’m guessing the reason you picked it up was because it presented an opportunity to immerse yourself in a world that you were familiar with, and on some level, a world you cared about. The draw of a Star Wars game (or any licensed game) wasn’t so much the draw of a discrete experience but the idea that you would be contributing something bigger that single disc you slipped into your platform of choice. The best games in the Star Wars universe managed to provide both an exciting and entertaining discrete experience that managed to engender a sense of contribution and discovery in an imaginary world.
If you’re a Star Wars fan you can probably name the games that don’t follow that trend. Games like X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter or *shudder* Pod Racer stripped story the game and left hollow experience that, while entertaining as a diversion, never managed to capture the imagination. The games that succeed at finding that near perfect balance between story and game: Jedi Knight, Knights of the Old Republic, etc. are the ones that stick in our heads, that capture our imaginations and leave us wanting more. It is arguable both schools of design: the more arcade-like isolated experience and the story heavy varied experience have their place. I certainly have many fond memories of heated dogfights in X-wing vs. Tie Fighter or enjoying the arcade version of Pod Racer. But neither engender the sense of accomplishment or emotional attachment as the Jedi Knight series, or Knights of the Old Republic.
The Force Unleashed is an interesting example because it tries so hard to walk a line between both. It is a game that is an ecapsulation of the ass-kicking Jedi experience. At the same time it tries to use the rich history of the Star Wars universe to create, or at least attemp, an engaging story. Now, depending on the type of game you prefer one of two things probably happened. If you’re like me you blasted through mostly unoriginal gameplay (except for that Star Destroyer scene which, while frustrating, was pretty cool) in order to get to the story. Or, you suffered through the story in order to crawl your way though each level trying to discover or unluck any and all secrets. The game’s pace affords little time for character development and while the story is certainly entertaining it has a somewhat shallow feeling. Both story and game seem to live in different worlds a fact that, for me at least, makes the game mostly forgettable and, in my opinion, is a fairly poor design choice.
With the exception of the Bioware (and Obsidian) devloped KOTOR series, The Force Unleashed, is perfectly in line with LucasArt’s games starting as early as the Nintendo 64’s Rogue Squadron. There are a few high points along that path, the decidedly different Republic Commando for example, but LucasArts has gone from expanding and adding to the Star Wars universe to simply capitalizing on the franchise without any sort of lasting or truly epic contribution. The Force Unleashed is very obviously an attempt to rectify this but the divorce between story and game is so obvious that if you took the cinematics out of the game you would have no idea that was going on. The opposite is true as well: absent of the cutscenes you’d have a fairly entertaining, though ultimatley shallow, Jedi hack n’slash/beat ’em up.
How does this relate to the rest of the game industry? There is a lot of bandying about of the hardcore and casual titles. I’m not quite sure what either means. Everyone interacts with different media in different ways and video games are no different in that regard. The advent of the Wii has cast a spotlight on the class of gamers who enjoy video games as games in the most literal definition of the word (” activity engaged in for diversion or amusement “). The advent of services like X-Box Live have solidified a core group of gamers who enjoy video games as games in another sense of the word: ” a physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other.” It seems to me that discussion of the hadcore/casual divide is focused more or less on those two visions of gaming. As such it seems to me that the video game industry has refocused their marketing to target gamers who fall under either of those ideaologies. Unforunatley neither are a label I would attribute to myself and I am left feeling like the industry has left a huge contingent of gamers in the dark.
The 2nd and 3rd laws of Ranganathan’s 5 Laws of Library Science state respectively “Every Reader His Book” and “Every Book Its Reader.” Whether you view fiction as a high Art or as merely entertainment you are equally correct. Gaming is no different. It is unfortunate then that the publishers of video games do not always seem understand that fact. Maybe it’s just that marketing gets in the way of innovation…I don’t really know. But I do know that every game, released by every major publisher regardless of genre has a decided familiar feel. Then again maybe it’s just me. I haven’t really explored the “indie” game scene but I have to wonder if it would be so terrible a thing if more major publishers were willing to take a risk on something different (I know that didn’t work too great re: Mirror’s Edge but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth trying).
Well, that’s just my $00.02