Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Wii U launch, and why I'm not bothered

Today the Wii U launched in America, and aside from the usual shortages disappointing customers, and a few hardware issues, things appear to be going well for the fledgling console. Retailers everywhere are selling out and it seems people can't get enough of the new console. While I have never bough a console at launch, this would normally be a very exciting time for me. I have owned a Nintendo console in every console generation since the SNES. The day I first got a SNES, and the day I discovered I was going to own a Nintendo 64 were among the happiest of my childhood, the latter sending my childhood self into a rapturous headspin of surprise and joy. And although age has weathered my enthusiasm somewhat, I still looked forward to owning a Gamecube and a Wii. So why do I feel very little about the launch of the Wii U? Where there once would have been excitement, there is instead a calm disinterest. So what is to blame?

The truth is, nintendo has changed in many ways. Their refusal to get involved in the arms race of console power was a stroke of marketing genius, as was a controller that allows anyone to play simple games without having to master a complex set of controls. And the Wii had no shortage of inspired and brilliant titles, with Mario Galaxy and it's sequel ranking up there with the greatest games of the current generation. But Nintendo have lost a certain special magic that they once had. Nintendo games have always been quirky and odd, they celebrated the bizarre and the niche, and still managed to achieve mainstream success. This backfired horribly with the Gamecube, which failed to make a dent in the dominance of Playstation. Nintendo failed to produce a proper Mario game on launch, and as good as Luigi's Mansion was, staking a console launch on a game where Mario's kid brother sucks up ghosts with a vacuum cleaner was horribly misguided. If they had accompanied it with a true Mario platformer, it would have been seen as a great and quirky title to complement a strong launch title, but releasing it on it's own as the only first party title inspired the ire of many a gamer.

So where was Nintendo to go next? They decided to court a new audience, instead of the old gamers. And who can blame them? The gamers who grew up with the NES had mostly jumped ship and gone to Sony's Playstation, with it's stellar lineup of third party titles. The few gamers who stayed loyal and supported Nintendo's quirky titles were not enough to support the flagging Gamecube. It's the same story suffered by the Dreamcast- a console made for core gamers that attracted a loyal (some might even say fanatical) fanbase, but for gamers using the more grown up Playstation, it looked like nothing more than a stupid child's toy.

So they did the sensible thing, they made a console not just with mainstream appeal, but with appeal to people who normally wouldn't think twice about video games. The kind of people who might have played Pac Man and Pong in the 80's, and never bothered with the hobby since then. And it was a masterstroke, singlehandedly turning Nintendo from a slipping former giant, into an industry leader. But there was a price for this. Nintendo had to divide time between it's old stalwarts, Mario, Zelda, Starfox and the like, and it's new, casual friendly Mii based games. And while there were some great games on the console, as time wore on the release list began to look very dismal. Nintendo abandoned it's previously stringent quality controls, leading to a slew of terrible shovelware titles, like the dismal "I'm a celebrity, get me out of here", and the rancid "ninjabread man". There have always been bad games on nintendo consoles, but these games had the pure stink of no effort being put into them.

Even Nintendo's own stalwart franchises began to suffer, Metroid being the first casualty with Other M, which to me is so basic that it is barely a game, and that's not to mention the horribly misjudged portrayal of it's heroine Samus. Even Nintendo's crowning jewel, The Legend of Zelda, suffered a half arsed port from the Gamecube, and then the downright dull Skyward Sword. A game which I really wanted to like, but just couldn't get into. All this negativity towards the console might be seen by some as entitled whining, but the fact is that Nintendo have achieved big success in the industry, but at the cost of what made them special. That spark, that special inspiration that made Nintendo unique in a sea of violent and grotty "adult" games seems to have lost it's luster.

I wish Nintendo the best of luck in the future. And I hope that all of you that purchased a Wii U have a lot of fun with the console. I shall be watching the reviews and opinions closely to see what the consensus is on the new system. But for me, there is very little reason to buy it. Perhaps somewhere down the line I will be tempted by future Zelda games if they bring back the glory days, but for now, it's a future that I won't be taking part in.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Is imagination dead in games?

Most of us crusty old gaming farts started out with very simple games. Those that began their gaming careers with the Atari 2600 had to content themselves with a few simple shapes and some blobs to represent anything from a spaceship blasting through an asteroid field to a terrifying fight for survival in a haunted dungeon. Heroes were a lot less charismatic, usually being made up several blocks and being about as expressive as a comatose llama. Those of us who began with the NES or Master System were a little more fortunate, having graphics that at least somewhat resembled what they represented. Mario looks like Mario, even in those humble blocky origins. But regardless of power, 80's systems were limited at best. Instruction manuals and other materials were used to flesh out the worlds and the creatures that populated them, simply because there wasn't enough space to make detailed images or descriptions within the game. Koopas were Koopas because we read about it in the instruction manuals, or saw them in cartoons, otherwise they would simply be known as "turtle guys" and "that big spiky turtle guy".

Games were limited, but the limitations inspired a generation to create their own stories and situations within the game, since the story for most of them could be written on a box of matches. Why does Link fight to save a kingdom he's never been to, and a princess he's never met? Why does Pitfall Harry lust after those treasures? We filled in the gaps ourselves and made our own stories. Now, the internet is full of essays on how games have changed, and spell out stories and game mechanics rather than letting the player learn by themselves. It sounds very much like the scaremongering that occurred when Television and Film were becoming popular, and intellectuals and writers bemoaned the lack of intellectual stimulation in those mediums compared to books. Games have changed, for better or worse, and while your AAA blockbuster games are all fine and dandy if that's what you like, and I love your epic stories as much as the next punter, but I can't help but feel that something has been lost somewhere down the line. Games do not stimulate the imagination as they once did, instead every enemy, every plot point is fully explained and de-mystified. There is no room to invent your own backstory for Master Chief, we already know his backstory.

Gaming is a very diverse hobby and there is room for a great many different styles. Storytelling can take the form of well written dialogue and cutscenes. But it can also be something that grows organically from the game mechanics. In Dwarf Fortress, there is no pre-written story. You simply guide a group of Dwarven settlers trying to establish a new settlement. The graphics are very basic indeed, and the controls are so complex that even learning very basic tasks can be a huge challenge. It’s one of the steepest learning curves I’ve ever seen, and the complete lack of visual representation of what’s occurring in the game can make it hard to even make sense of what is happening. But once you learn the system, Dwarf Fortress is one of the most compelling experiences. Dwarves live, they die, they have dreams, they have their own distinct personalities. They sometimes have fits of artistic inspiration and lose their minds, and they need a constant supply of alcohol otherwise they become depressed. Goblins can invade, sometimes kidnapping dwarven babies to be raised in their goblin lairs, a terrible fate for any child. Animals can stampede and kill unsuspecting Dwarves. Elves arrive and chastise the Dwarves for felling too many trees, threatening war unless they cut back their destructive ways. All of these events are not scripted, pre-ordained events, they occur organically and change depending on the player. All represented by nothing more than symbols on a grid, and text. This is where the very real, and untapped potential of the power of imagination can be seen. It’s a combination of an incredibly complex program, all brought to life by a simple screen and interface and a hapless player.

Having come from playing video games, and recently branched out into tabletop Role Playing Games, I know what a huge difference the power of imagination can make. The freedom to tell your own story and develop your own characters without the restrictions that a game imposes is very liberating. A tabletop RPG looks as good as you can imagine it looks. Obviously the “video” part of video games denotes that it is a visual medium, so it will always need a visual representation of the game on screen, but there is a lot to be said for leaving things to the players imagination and allowing them to fill in the blanks. As the creative writing cliché goes, less is more, and show, don’t tell.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Musings on 2011 and the years action RPGs

What an incredible year for games 2011 was. It will take me some time to catch up with all the great games that were released, I still haven't even played L.A. Noire, Skyward Sword, and Arkham City. However for many folks 2011 will be most notable for the latest release in Bethesda Softworks long running RPG series, The Elder Scrolls. Skyrim was without a doubt one of the finest releases of the year, however It was not the only sprawling action RPG released this year. Early in the year we were treated to the stunning Witcher 2, unforgiving in it's game design and refreshingly mature in it's writing, and Dark Souls, an even more unforgiving beast, which told a story through it's envoronments and atmosphere rather than through dialogue. It's atmosphere so filled with dread and death that it can begin to encroach on your mental wellbeing. Just thinking of the catacombs and the tomb of giants fills me with genuine dread even now. Three very different approaches to action RPGs to be sure.

Skyrim itself was a technical triumph. At first it seems to do everything that Oblivion did, but better. Dungeons each had something of interest, sometimes a quest, sometimes a story, and were far more interesting than oblivion's bland caves and ruins. Characters seemed more lifelike and diverse, and magic effects ranged from simple blasts of fire to giant beams of lightning that make short work of the games giants. However these advances came at a cost. In order to make the sprawling world of Skyrim more accessible to those uninitiated in role playing games, Bethesda removed much of the complexity and depth which has characterised the Elder Scrolls series. So character stats are gone, as are spellmaking and a number of different effects the player can cast or mix into their potions. While Oblivion and Morrowinds system of levelling might have been complex and baffling at first, they each rewarded time and investment with a character that the player could feel they had crafted themselves. In Skyrim, the players character simply progresses along a set path, and the player has only very limited input on which perks to choose, and which attributes to increase. While no doubt many players will rejoice in this, I cant help but feel that something has been lost here. Being able to spend hours thinking about how to build my character, which build to use, which combination of skills to and slowly deciphering a complex system is one of my favorite ways to waste my time, and having more of this control taken away from me saddens me a little. These kinds of RPG's have always been complex, and having the complexity replaced with accessibility takes away some of the thrill of forging my own path through the game.

This stands in stark contrast to Dark Souls and The Witcher 2. While they are both radically different in their style and approach, both have one thing in common, which is that they will not hold the players hand and spoon feed them information on how to play. Once you progress past their breif tutorials you are on your own. In Dark Souls, players have practially limitless options at to how they will level their character, and what kinds of weapons, armour, and spells they will use. Character concepts and archetypes are much stronger and more diverse then the bland warrior/mage/theif characters of Skyrim. And even though players can make mistakes with character progression, the fact that we are even allowed to make these mistakes and learn from them, shows a respect and faith in the player to figure things out for themselves, which Skyrim seems to lack. Although Skyrim allows the player to forge their own path through the world and define the pace of the adventure for themselves, it rarely throws anything truly challenging the players way. It is all about soaking up the experience and the adventure, but lacks the sense of danger that a more challenging game has.

It's not my intention to bash Skyrim. Quite the opposite in fact, I think it is a huge improvememnt over previous elder scrolls titles. I have sunk over 100 hours into the game, and any game that can keep me hooked for that long is surely worth the £30 I paid for it, and more. But for the reasons I've mentioned here, it does not feel quite as memorable or as engrossing as either the Witcher 2 or Dark Souls. The argument of complexity versus accesibility is a difficult and subjective issue, but in a time where games seem to be more simplified every year, Dark Souls and The Witcher 2 were refreshing reminders that not every game has to treat the player as if they have the attention span of a goldfish.