Gaming is so much more complex these days than it was when I was a kid. It used to be that you would go to your local toy store, pick out a game because the box looked cool or because you’d been swayed by the loud, fast, adrenaline filled advertising that felt like Red Bull on steroids (you know, before Red Bull existed), go home with it, and pop it in your system for days of enjoyment. That was it. Your biggest concern, outside of the minute-by-minute charge you would incur to your parents’ phone bill by calling the Nintendo Hotline when you were stuck on a particularly difficult level, was whether the game required one of your patented “dust blows” to get it working again. Prices were the same, cartridges were plastic and sturdy, and games were allowed to be hard. As in, you could die in a game and not respawn in that exact same location. All of this was accepted as par for the course, and for the most part, gamers were ok with it.
Fast forward twenty years and billions of dollars later (though I can’t speak for how much the rest of you spent on staying current with new and improved technology), and the gaming industry has morphed into something my sixteen year old self never would have imagined. Games aren’t just “games” anymore, they are experiences. They provide us with cinema-quality graphics, true surround sound audio and storylines that make us wonder whether the writers have Oscar statues staring at them from their desks as they write. We have swapped our eight bit heroes of the past for protagonists with back stories, emotions, and wit (think Nathan Drake in…well, anything). We have swapped the possibility of—gasp—never, ever beating a game with concepts like completion percentage and trophy counts. In fact, we don’t really even use the phrase “beating a game” anymore because in truth, games don’t really need to be beaten now. They just need to be finished. In short, we have traded up into the world that only our wildest dreams could have anticipated all those years ago.
And with this exponential explosion of data includes an equal explosion in expectations of what we will receive for our money. Not just the chance to battle the newest incantation of Doctor Eggman or Bowser and call it a day, but rather the opportunity to become rock stars, or dancing champions, to train our way into military hero status, or lead our spaceship of ragtag defenders on a quest to save the universe. And in one sense, while all of this is similar to cartridge crusades we took on in the past, now we have gotten to the point where the presentation of our current adventures is so utterly real that we can almost believe we are genuinely a part of what is taking place on screen. Like it or not, video games have become one of the arts.
Which leads me to my question for the day: What expectations should we have for games today, especially those produced by independent developers on shoestring budgets and sold to us, the consuming public, at a fraction of the cost of our favorite AAA titles? Keeping in mind that, when adjusting for inflation, games across the board are actually a substantial percentage less expensive than those produced twenty years ago, is it really fair of us to criticize a game for a “shortcoming”—like play through length or multiplayer options—that in other contexts never would be viewed as criteria for review?
Take, for instance, one of my new personal favorites of the downloadable network-style games, Child of Light. Here we have a game, developed by Ubisoft Montreal, that is not only sold for approximately 25% of the cost of a new AAA game at $14.99, but includes some of the most beautiful graphics in modern gaming, along with a wonderfully simple but accessible storyline (child wishes to return home to her father) and surprisingly deep turn-based battle system and platforming world. Again, all for $14.99! Now, the game obviously is not without its flaws (the rhyming dialogue, for instance, becomes pretty annoying after a while), as is the case with most games, but if you look at some of the criticisms offered particularly by the user community on review sites, you will find countless knocks on the game for being “far too short” at 8-10 hours of initial storyline, and “light on multiplayer.”
Both of these strike me as odd when taken in context of other kinds of art produced for the enjoyment of others. When, for example, will you see a movie criticized for being too short? If anything, movies are generally lauded for their ability to maintain concision and edit out the unnecessary parts that would drag everything out too long. And to come down on a game like Child of Light for not having adequate multiplayer seems analogous to condemning an Adam Sandler movie for not offering enough serious political commentary. Games, like movies, are best when they stick to the creator’s goals, and not when they slap on extra unnecessary stuff just for the sake of having it.
What does all of this mean? Well, I think it shows that today’s gaming community has been spoiled with what has been given over the last decade or so, especially with the advent and enhancement of online and downloadable gaming. Now it has become possible (and in some cases even recommended) to do everything from purchase, to installation, to initial setup and gameplay without ever getting up from the couch. I don’t know about you, but when I think about this in comparison to the lines I waited in with my parents to spend the equivalent of $110 modern U.S. dollars for a game where the only difference between level one and level six was the color scheme in the castle tapestries, I feel really, really privileged to have what I have now.