There is a new trend in gaming that has been growing over the last few years, festering and breeding with itself like some sort of disgusting toxic bacteria that has somehow managed to take control of people’s minds and convince them it’s actually something wonderful and innovative. I am of course referring to the trend of skimping on gameplay and content in favour of pretty (yet ultimately pointless) scenery and set-pieces.
Many game studios have adopted this trait in their recent titles, yet the focus here will be on Naughty Dog, developers of the Uncharted series, due to their persistent forgetfulness in how they’re supposed to be making video-games and not interactive films. Now before you skip the rest of the article and start complaining, tell me if this sounds familiar:
You stand on a mountain road looking out over a vast landscape. It’s beautiful, divine, full of detail and life and excitement, somewhere you’d give anything to explore, to experience the glorious treasures it has to offer. You then look back at the playable area. It’s a five foot wide path that you have to follow in a straight line (or in the more interesting sections, a slightly curvy line) before reaching a climbing section identical to all the other 15,000 climbing sections in the game, excluding the differing pretty backgrounds. You complete that, massacre a group of faceless soldiers, then walk in another straight line until you get to another climbing section or massacre spot, maybe passing another awe inspiring background as you go.
This, my friend, is not the mark of a good game. All these pretty backdrops work as no more than extremely expensive wallpaper, providing the illusion that you are playing in an intricate world while you are in fact repeating the same three or four repetitive tasks over and over again. The second two Uncharted games, along with EA’s Dead Space 3, lack original plot, likable characters, and diversity in their gameplay, yet the developers expect to get away with it because of they’ve included attractive scenery in the distance. And you know what’s the most depressing part about it? They do.
Now, you may not see any problem with using flashy scenery to get people interested, and you’re right, there’s no problem with that at all. If you’re making a film! In films the key component is how everything looks, with the details being necessary to convince us the characters are part of a fluid world we only get a taster of in our 90 minutes spent with them. In video-games, which can come in anywhere between six and 100 hours, that is not the case.
Players have control of the lead character, they are not simply watching someone go about their business with no influence over their actions. When a background shows the image of a great big world we’re not allowed to explore it can only harm immersion, pointing out to intelligent players that their character’s world is but a mirage, as the area they’re physically capable of accessing is an exiguous woodlouse compared to the provocative dragon that is land portrayed beyond. This reminds players that they are playing a tech boy’s creation and not taking part in the world of an explorer, a realisation capable of ruining even the greatest gaming experience.
This is less of an issue with Dead Space 3, as Isaac’s exploration of space at the games beginning does make players feel like they are part of a huge galaxy rather than just a man stood looking at a massive green screen. However, there is another problem caused by this environmental showboating that is far more severe.
Although the budgets of AAA games are well into the millions, rendering extravagant and meaningless backdrops is a huge waste of money, money that could be spent on improving the player’s experience. The only way developers can then justify the amount of cash they’ve spent on these metaphorically cheap aesthetics is by shoving them down our throats, taking the camera out of our control to focus in on an exploding bridge seventy feet away or, in the case of GOW Ascension, zooming out two and a half miles to show us all the pretty details we might have otherwise missed.
It might be justifiable to do this once in a game when nothing’s going on, but Ascension is happy to do it even when players are in the middle of a fight, making it nigh on impossible to even see what the character being controlled is doing. Similarly I have very distinct memories from Uncharted 2 of climbing up an enormous dagger before having to move along a very thin walkway and jump onto a giant face (sounds much more surreal that it is). The problem was that, as Drake (the lead) approaches the area where the jump needs to be made, the camera goes above his head to show you the room below, forcing you to take the jump blindly as the face disappears from sight, with each miss resulting in death and another long climb up the phallic blade.
When a feature of a game stops being interesting and starts becoming an active hindrance to gameplay, should it not be removed? There is no reason to add extravagances like these into any game, with the success of titles like the outstanding Portal 2, a game set almost exclusively in a series of grey rooms, proving how just one witty line or fun game mechanic is worth more to enjoyment than ninety of Uncharted’s collapsing buildings.
This isn’t the fashion industry, Naughty Dog, you can’t just turn up looking all nice and automatically get a big well done and a smiley face sticker despite not actually doing anything. If you want to create pretty scenery then go work on a James Cameron film, at least there you won’t be distracting from the positive points about your product.
Saying that, Naughty Dog’s latest video-game equivalent of fire-works, The Last Of Us, seems to be exciting many idiots with its shiny colours and loud noises, so the market for these sorts of games will probably be sticking around for at least a few more years (or until we remove all the warning labels from things and they all poison themselves by drinking bleach).
Perhaps I’m being too harsh there, but it is concerning just how popular Uncharted has become. With studios struggling to make money it is a very real fear that quality could soon be sacrificed across the board in an attempt to make games more cinematic, as going ‘main-stream’ and ‘appealing to a broader audience’ is how many scared companies think they will survive. EA recently showed this not to be true with Dead Space 3, abandoning their core audience for a more action like feel and effectively killing the franchise with reduced sales figures, but fear is not a rational emotion and whether the industry will learn from this mistake is yet to be made clear.
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This article was first posted on April 11, 2013