Masters Of Reality

crysisAlthough the announcement and arrival of the Wii U marked the point when a new gaming generation started, the unveiling of the Playstation 4 and of the Xbox One, or at least the reveal of what they could do, felt like yet another beginning, for those were events that gave us the first glimpse at the maximum graphical capabilities of this current gaming era. As an organic function of this competitive and highly advanced age, it is only natural to expect that systems will be constantly taking steps forward in relation to the technology they carry in order to power both visuals and sound, and the early displays of those games confirmed that, in spite of the ever rising costs of production, the industry kept fearlessly betting on pushing hardware forward.

Bean counters will excitedly lean over the numbers and try to figure out the economical effects of that tendency, and while that does interest us and our wallets, there is an even more intriguing consequence to all of that, which is how games are getting progressively more realistic. Once upon a time, games were more about crafting brightly colored and wacky worlds than simulating the real world; whether that was a reaction to the constraints of the early machines or just a wish to create games based on fantasy, the fact is that at the turn of the century gaming store shelves were much more colorful and vivid than they are now, and the industry grew up supported by the outlandish and the ridiculous.

battlefrontWith the landing of technology that gives life to developers’ aspirations to build a very real world, most games – or, at least, most titles by companies that can afford the luxury – will move towards scenarios that are closer to reality. It is pretty obvious that gaming will not lose its magic even if it continues to march towards that direction, after all even if they do manage to, one day, perfectly emulate and represent the lights, dull colors and physics that our eyes perceive in the real world, the art of gaming design will still allow its artists to decorate that boring realism with items, behaviors and powers that are either non-existent or are hard to be achieved by a regular human being. We will still be able to pretend that we are secret agents, superheroes or other fascinating subjects. With the advent of unbelievable reality, games will become ever more reliable on developers’ ability to create interesting mechanics or dazzling scripts.

For those who can’t resist the charm of games that blend technology with the quirkiness and insanity of cartoons – such as Mario, Sonic, Donkey Kong, Zelda, Ratchet and Clank, Banjo, among others – the future could indeed hold some bad news. An industry that initially relied on the charm of platformers, which were a product of an era where processing power was very limited, has gone on to transform into an industry where shooters rule.

Some say it might be a sign of lack of creativity or laziness; others might point towards the strong sales of those titles, indicating that the market demand is what is moving the industry onto that path; but it is probably a combination of both of those factors that is pushing companies to that single-minded approach. Not only do simulators require less artistic prowess, something rarer to come by than technical proficiency, but they also tend to sell better, and that can be easily evidenced by the number of “fantasy” franchises that have come to life in recent years compared to the number of new series that go for simulation and realism.

shovel_knightIronically, the answer to that somehow worrisome trail might lie in another surging force of modern gaming: digital distribution and the power it places on the hands of small developers. Creating big blockbuster titles demands a whole lot of cash, because it invariably involves pushing the hardware as far as it can go and developing new complex engines, and, as a natural response to that obstacle, developers with unlimited talent and imagination, but with limited resources, have to go for the uncanny and unrealistic to call attention, since any attempt at realism would throw their titles on the shadow of the industry’s giants. In recent years, that dependence on being different and creative bore some incredible fruits like Bastion, Braid, Super Meat Boy, Limbo, Journey, Minecraft, Shovel Knight, and many others.

While the mainstream “fantasy” franchises seem to be mostly limited to those who appeared back in the 80s and early 90s, showing a clear lack of renovation, the amount of great indie titles with a ton of commercial potential keeps growing. It is from garage studios hidden in some small unknown cities that the humble defiance to the dictatorship of reality might come from.

4 thoughts on “Masters Of Reality

  1. Shooters pushing out all other creative avenues in video games? That sounds like sabotage! Then again, maybe I’m just being paranoid; that would be quite the wicked world if it were true.

    Anyway, the way I see it, both the nineties and this decade had ways in which they were good and ways in which they were not so good. While the nineties had tons of generic platformers, this decade has tons of generic shooters. I would say that a good chunk of the best platformers out there were indeed made in the nineties, but it’s easy to forget that there were a lot of abysmal games in that genre made during the same time. It’s because, outside of a few personal recollections, the bad games are forgotten with time and only the truly good works remain in the public consciousness. Then there are masterworks such as Earthbound that slip under the radar but ultimately prove influential in the long run. Naturally, the music equivalent would be the Velvet Underground (and, later, the Pixies).

    As for right now, I’d say one major problem the AAA industry has is that they feel they have to pack as much content as possible into a game, making the experience last anywhere from fifty to one-hundred hours. When a game is that long, you can be sure you’ll be hitting the same notes for roughly half of the experience (that’s not even factoring in the padding). That’s a major advantage indie games have; they leave just as much (if not more) of an impact in a fraction of the time (Undertale is a great example of this). In other words, they’ve effectively become the punk rock to the AAA industry’s prog.

    1. I love the musical parallels, and the comparison between indie games and punk rock is perfect.

      And you make a good point about the over-saturation of platformers in the 90s, I had not thought about it from that angle.

      1. Not to mention that if a game is bad, we’re more likely to know about that fact, making it seem like everything’s gotten worse when, in reality, we’re just better informed. I don’t know about you, but I don’t miss the days where we could potentially pick up a clunker just because the box art looked cool.

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