One of the more disappointing facets of the modern gaming landscape, besides the existence of sports games —a fact that in my book is so dreadful that it surely counts as one of the signs for the coming of the antichrist— is that most games are bland.
If that last sentence sounded a bit abrupt it’s because that’s all that needs to be said; they’re just boilerplate, run-of-the-mill, average. But perhaps an illustration would help. Look at Skyrim, for example. Sure, it’s a good game, hell, it might even be a great game, but the actual theme can be put into a nutshell as follows; ‘epic open-world fantasy adventure.’ And under such a theme can be added WoW, Dragon’s Dogma, the Witcher, and a whole other host of sub-par fantasy RPGs whose very names are so dull that they elude me.
Or again, there’s my favourite two whipping-boys; Call of Duty and Battlefield. What we have here is the good old ‘military fps’, a title that could practically cover half the games industry. It’s not that any of these games are necessarily bad; they’re just generic.
It’s become especially egregious latterly, with the fact that for each innovation —the cover-based shooting of Gears of War, for example— there’ll be a bunch of shoddy knock-offs that simply repeat the formula without doing anything new except perhaps token gimmicks. I’m thinking of games like Inversion here.
I’m not sure of this, though I’d guess it would have to do with the fact that games require more investment these days, what with graphics the way they are, which means fewer risks can be taken if companies want to see a return of profit.
Regardless, it seems as though we just don’t get the kind of ‘out-there’ games that we got on the old PS2-era of consoles. These were the B-games; the games that could be expected to do well-ish without needing the sort of resources it takes to render a single high-definition bead of sweat on the grimacing face of a single generic space marine, and which could instead afford to do their own thing and not have to worry overly about diluting themselves to appeal to the broadest market.
And some of favourite games come from the B-list; there’s Darkwatch, for example, a ridiculously fun FPS set in a steampunk wild-west overrun with vampires and the hordes of the undead. At any point in that game I could be jumping fifteen feet in the air —which is one of the perks of being a vampire, I guess— into a corpse-strewn saloon to give a banshee a face full of buckshot from my four barrelled shotgun. Alternatively, there’s Fatal Frame 2, where you play as a girl and her sister stuck in a cursed town with only a magic camera to defend yourself against the ghostly inhabitants.
And what do we get now? We get cover-based shooting and grizzly men shooting other grizzly men, and perhaps the occasional needlessly overblown cinematic moment where the player does nothing but watch the action unfold. It’s disappointing to think that games like Darkwatch wouldn’t be made today, probably on the grounds that they wouldn’t appeal to a large enough audience; in other words, that they weren’t bland enough.
What we end up with is a disparity between the games with a lot of ideas but with no budget. Those would be your indie games on Steam, which I don’t play because 1. I don’t have a PC, and 2. Anything with “indie” in its title is generally warning enough that I should avoid it; and big budget games which daren’t do a single thing differently.
The only light on the horizon is if game developers open up to the notion that doing things differently may in fact be the way to catch the ever-elusive buck. And so long as games like Dishonoured and Bioshock —both of which can be considered pretty “out there” by triple A standards— carry on doing exactly this, then there may yet be hope.
James Dyson, Games columnist
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