Let me start with one comment about what this article is NOT trying to say. Nowhere in here will you see a defense of the argument that gaming makes people less passionate across the board. You know how I know? At no point in my admittedly brief career as a gaming journalist have I been surprised to get some derivation of “Wow, you’re an idiot!” from a reader who has found a flaw in my article. Whether pointing out that Indiana Jones indeed was a video game (I should have mentioned that I was talking about creating a newer iteration for those that had older ones already, but I digress…) to accusing me of being nothing but a fanboy with a keyboard, gamers have made it clear to me that regardless of how they are in other contexts, they aren’t going to take any garbage when they are reading about their beloved video games. And that’s just fine by me—keep it coming.
But turning now to the topic at hand, I want to focus on a subject that has spanned literally generations of (predominately younger) gamers as they fought the good fight against their parents who thought that video games would have a similar effect on their brains as television: namely, destruction. The concept that video games could have an effect—for better or worse—on those who play them is clearly not a new one, but I believe it has changed in recent times as gaming itself has progressed into something more, shall we say, sophisticated than it was during the reign of its 8 and 16 bit ancestry. Advancements in technology have made many games virtually indistinguishable at times from other forms of media, to the point that I often have to let my wife know whether I am watching or playing the NBA game on the screen when she walks in the living room (yes, I’m pretty damn excited for NBA 2K15 to drop). But where people have justifiably argued that some movies, television shows, and the like have become intelligent enough to require viewers to actually think through the various subtleties and nuances present in order to understand what is going on overall, it is not as clear whether these graphically and otherwise upgraded games are providing gamers with the same opportunities to use their creative powers.
Here’s the thing about gaming these days. With all the glitz and glamour and frames per second that can be rendered in 1080p and yada yada yada, a lot of times all of this is accomplished without a comparable enhancement in things like story, character development, gameplay, and difficulty. I’m trying to hold myself back from likening games like Murdered: Soul Suspect to some of the participants in the Miss America pageant every year, but then again, screw it. All the beauty in the world, but nothing behind it to make you want to spend any real time with it. And just to avoid the cries of misogyny, I could easily point out many truly great looking guys who I would rather take a hammer to my head than hang out with for more than a minute and a half.
To be fair, I’m not at all trying to say that things like graphical improvements should be avoided by developers. Far from it. In fact, I am one of the biggest fans of improved graphics in FPS and sports titles where detail truly enhances the gaming experience. What I am concerned about, however, is that the so-called “sophistication” we as a gaming community have identified in modern games may have come at the expense of the things that really made games great prior to all of the model-esque improvements recently. And because of this, it would be difficult to argue that modern gamers are given any real chance to exhibit creativity in many of the games they play these days.
And it isn’t just games like Murdered: Soul Suspect that were universally panned by critics in spite of their solid visuals. Consider, for instance, your average Call of Duty or Uncharted title that not only sells a bazillion copies at launch, but also gets comparably solid reviews from the same critics who wrote off Murdered. Here we have games that are both popular and respected by critics, so you would think it would be a perfect candidate for generating creativity in the gamer who plays it. Right?
Well, not necessarily. Because what appears to have happened in the last few years, along with the technical improvements we’ve seen, has been a drop in the expectations developers have for gamers when they release new titles. As I’ve written elsewhere, it is no longer the case that people concern themselves with whether they will be able to “beat a game.” Likewise, we don’t even consider the possibility of death, at least without an almost instantaneous respawn at a recent checkpoint spot. Instead, gamers have become more interested in things like completion time and percentage as replacements for those previous burdens. And the main reason for this, at least in my experience, has been a transition in many games from a, “Can you beat me?” feel to a more hand-holding, “Let me show you the way” mentality.
This relatively new tutorial model for gaming essentially eliminates any need for the gamer to use their creative minds to figure out a way to “beat the game,” and rather allows the gamer to sit back and marvel in the experience being presented before them as the game walks them through to the end. Sure, there are decisions to make and buttons to be pressed along the way, but only in order to keep the gamer interested and with an adequate sense of ownership and control over the experience being had.
Don’t believe me? Try popping in, if you still have them available to you, some of your favorite SNES or Genesis titles of the past, and see how easy it is for you to get to the finish line without some serious skill and consideration as to how you’re going to pull it off. Exceptions aside, my guess is that the majority of people who try this at best will be surprised at how difficult these once “mindless” games feel today, and at worst will turn off the system and throw their controller at the wall or floor in disgust.
Before I wrap this up, let me reiterate that this discussion only applied to a lot of newer games, but certainly not all. There still remain a fair amount of indie titles, like Minecraft and some of the Sims games, where it is absolutely essential that the player exhibit some sense of creativity if they wish to be successful. The same could be said for games like Little Big Planet and Sound Shapes, where a player’s ability to create definitely helps make the platforming experience richer and more fun. And from the standpoint of difficulty, there is no shortage of games that continue to be released for those who are gluttons for punishment. Whether with retro titles like Shovel Knight or newer, AAA games like Dark Souls, gamers are still afforded the chance to open up their minds and figure out how to get past the enemies that just keep beating the living hell out of them. And at the end of the day, the continued popularity of games like these shows us that while we indeed welcome the chance to sit back and “play” as Nathan Drake makes his way from one adventure and treasure to another, some of us still relish the opportunity to put our game faces on and kick it old school—at least until we get our asses kicked first.