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.