When gamers and publishers think alike – the death of creativity

August 7, 2010

It might only be the case for me and a a minority of gamers, but I can´t help but feel that the gaming industry has forsaken its creativity. When you take a look at current generation systems´ lineups, you´ll only find all the typical titles and types of games. Besides big, old franchises, there´s all these “Hollywood”-games, games that almost pull you through a level without any kind of self-thinking, of exploration, of sense of wonder. And then you have gamers claiming that there is creativity. But they will point towards simple, “small” games, mostly featuring 2D-gameplay or being flat out puzzle games. But creativity within 3D-games, games that feature an ingame-character that you can control? Nowhere to be found.

There is still no gaming-equivalent to a Ghibli-movie. And even the Ghibli-featured Ninokuni does nothing different in terms of gameplay.

Gaming has become predictable. Gaming, not games. When a big, hyped title is released nowadays, it´s not the gameplay that you´re wondering about, it´s the game´s story. And that´s exactly the industry´s problem. Instead of pressing forward within the possibilities of video games, developers and publishers AND gamers keep focusing on mimicking Hollywood. One of the highest selling “hardcore”-games is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, but in terms of gameplay, there is nothing that could explain its success. It is a plain, totally uncreative first-person shooter, completely linear, offering nothing that you hadn´t seen before. And yet, the media praises it, the gamers praise it, and the mainstream, obviously, praises it, too.

You could say, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is the ultimate evidence for the death of creativity within the industry, but there´s lots more of examples. Simply take a look at all the popular games: Alan Wake, Final Fantasy 13, Grand Theft Auto 4, God of War 3, StarCraft 2, or the upcoming Halo: Reach. None of these games offers a new kind of gameplay-style. Every single one of them is defined by its story, its visuals, or its fun factor (which is good, just not in the context of creativity). Where are these games that make me say “wow, that feels like nothing ever before!“?  These games did exist last generation, with games like Metroid Prime, the original Halo or ICO.

An endless list could be made about ideas that video games have not yet used. Having recently watched Nolan´s Inception makes me ask: Where is this high-budget game that features a concept like that? Putting the player inside a realistic looking world, but giving him the power to change everything! The hell, there has never even been a game that properly used the concept of the Matrix-movies. All we get are games that may use the theme of such concepts, but you never get to play it, you just see or hear of it in cutscenes. Where are high-quality third- or first-person shooters that treat human life as something important, giving each and every enemy a certain weight, and where killing is not a simple matter of crouching behind an object and waiting for the enemy to raise his head? Where are all the games that create an environment that makes me stop at a certain place and grant me enjoyment simply by watching and listening to the scene? But not by having some brain-fart scenery that makes some self-proclaimd art-experts say “oh, that was so beautiful, it made me stop playing“; but instead, making me stop because of a world that feels so incredibly alive! Where is the non-linear, super atmospheric space-adventure (not one where you only control a space ship, but a character, walking inside a space ship, flying it, leaving the space ship and climbing around on its outer surface) with a steady stream of DLC? Where the hell is a first-person shooter that finally properly captures the atmosphere of Aliens (the second movie)?! And don´t you dare bringing up one of these hectic, score-based co-op-shooters. Playing Alien Swarm currently is fine, but never will be able to immerse myself in a game with top-down-camera. Where is a game that lets the player take control over a character that can freely fly around in the sky, but actually making it so that the player can almost feel the wind? Where is the GTA-like game that includes a proper racing game? Where is the MMO-shooter that is happening in real-time, where you are part of a gigantic group of soldiers, and everything is happening in real-time, with every player having only one life. A real, virtual war. And so on, and so on.

There is so much that could be done within the world of video games. So much crazy stuff. I mean, it´s that reason why I love games, why so many of us fell in love with games. This limitless possibilities, opening up a world full of fantasy and craziness.  Instead, the industry, and I mean the whole thing, including gamers, seems to have settled with a certain base-level of gameplay, and the only sales-driving aspects are story and visuals. It is sad, because so much more would be possible. Someone just has to do it.

About Procedural Story-Telling

April 16, 2009

First of all, this topic ultimately ties into my blog entry about new concepts for video game systems, but unlike the concept mentioned in the other article, this here actually would be achievable, if someone did put the necessary effort into development. This is about procedural story-telling.

Unlike (unfortunately) a lot of gamers, i don´t like the emphasis on story that many nowadays games follow. Some more, some less, but when i read how gamers list story as an equal category to something like gameplay, i feel a little sad inside. BUT: It´s not really game stories that i dislike, it´s the way how they´re handled. You know, always following a tight script, basically playing a movie. Games that i like are no exception, even if you take a low-story game like Zelda, in the end you run from cutscene to cutscene. Shigeru Miyamoto once said in an interview that he doesn´t want to make games where cutscenes are used as a prize for getting so far, but that the active gaming experience itself is the prize. His games certainly feature that philosophy, just look at Mario64 or Mario Galaxy, playing was what brought fun, not reaching some cutscenes. In my opinion, it´s these premade cutscenes that ruin an active gaming experience. That is why i want to talk about something i made up myself, at least i never heard that term before:

Procedural Story-Telling

So what is that acutally? For me, i first heard the term “procedural” in context with Spore. Will Wright talked about how every creature that the player creates will adapt a natural, realistic kind of physical movement. He called the “Procedural Physics” or “Procedural Animations”. Procedural simply meant that whatever the player does, the game reacts accordingly. In Spore that was limited to the creature editor.

Now simply replace physics/animations with story, and most of you will already have got what i´m talking about. Simpley put, procedural story-telling is an organic story, a story that is not set in stone. Depending on what i do, the future story will change, reacting accordingly to my ingame-actions.

There already are games that do a little of that, for example Mass Effect. Though here, the pool of options is very limited. It´s still a preset story, just branched off into multiple alternatives. What i´d like to have is that those branches try to go towards infinity. Just whatever i do will have a smaller or bigger effect to the overall story. I know that this would be very ambitious and i´ll say it here that i would be content with at least more games trying to create multiple branches. For example, make the next Zelda so that you can do any dungeon in whatever order you like, but depending on the chosen order, the story will differ.

Procedural Story-Telling is the story-telling of the world of games. It takes the story-element and puts interactivity into it. That´s why i love the pure thought of it so much. People often say how games are just a combination of older entertainment media, but reality is that we simply haven´t done everything we can to put the one single most important part of games, interaction, into every part of a game. We have interactive gameplay, interactive visuals and interactive music. Now we´re ready for interactive stories. Well…i am.

Episodic narratives – Why not?

January 31, 2009

Before we start, please listen to this song: http://de.youtube.com/watch?v=5OueTGtbUyk

If you´ve done that, i have to ask you: What was the last game you played that had such a pull towards it, such an adventurous feeling? Personally, i can´t remember any such game at all. Of course, this is an opening song of a series and it´s supposed to hook the audience, but it reminds of something i´ve wanted for so long: Episodic stories.

Buy episodic stories i basically mean something like the Pokémon-anime…only times 1000 better. I´m talking about the structure. Modern games always focus on one main story, where anything that´s not part of that is a minor sidequest. Also, i hardly ever felt like taking part in one the adventures i´m playing. It´s always a very passive situation for me, the player. One game that did a great job in giving me the feeling of being part of the adventure was Baten Kaitos, where the player was directly talked to by ingame-characters.

I´d love to see this more advanced, though. I want that my fellow NPCs shout at me, not because of some mistake i made, but because they´re talking to or care about me. Like, i´m walking within the game world, and one of my party-members starts telling a little story or a joke. Or we´re in battle and i´m about to be attack from behind and a NPC-friend shouts “Watch out, behind you!”. Sure, some games to this, but it´s a very artifical way these games are doing that. I want it to feel more natural. I want…to CARE about the NPCs that are following me. I don´t need shallow zombies that do whatever i want them to do.

And i want all that to happen within a story that´s not so ultimately straight forward. Go there, do that, go there, do that, and each time giving me the feeling of having experienced a great little adventure. Not “go there, do that, go there, do that” and then saying “uh, finally i can proceed with the main quest”.

I don´t know if it´s just me who´d like something like that to happen, but i think i would combine both lenghty adventures AND appeal to gamers without much time, as those could finish many little adventures and not forget something, which could happen in one big adventure.