Excuse me for the odd title but I couldn't think of any better way to word it. This is something I've been subconsciously thinking about for months now, but jumping back for a listen to this soundtrack made me want to share my thoughts about this.
I absolutely love this suite - the first 30 seconds of the music bring back a flood of memories and emotions that had been built during a journey many of us took over half a decade. This is the reason I love video games, and if ever a non - gamer friend called games a waste of time or something childish, I'd laugh and think about experiences such as these.
But recently, when playing the latest AAA games, I have had the nagging feeling in the back of my head that I actually am wasting my time. Now this is not to say that video games that focus on something other than emotional resonance are "bad" or shouldn't be played, (I play a huge amount of FIFA with my friends) but when considering single player experiences that focus on world, atmosphere, story, emotion or characters, something feels off when playing games of this generation (post 2012/ 13)
Even as I write this though, I feel what I'm saying is not entirely correct. More games than ever are now being released, and many of them fully embrace the aspects I just listed. Walking simulators are a respected genre now, and point and click adventure games have made a great comeback. There are tons of games experimenting with different ideas and narrative structures. So then why do I feel like something's off?
I guess the answer would just be that the balance has shifted. Much of the good stuff in the departments I mentioned is being done by smaller, indie studios. I think my problem is, as many have already experienced by now, is fatigue with the formulaic, open world, crafting based, filler quest laden AAA games. I guess what I'm saying is thank god for indie games, but AAA games need to do some soul searching.
I really enjoyed the opening few hours of Horizon Zero Dawn - the setup and the story satisfied me in a way that games haven't for years. After the world opened up though, I can't bring myself to go out there and carry the weight of the world on Aloy's shoulders. The thought of firing up that game is a little tiring. Along with real world responsibilities, it makes me feel a little guilty or worried about spending time playing that. (Though I've heard the story is really good, so I'll definitely finish this game... someday)
On the other hand, if the game offers me value in terms of affecting me emotionally, I feel that's time well spent. Watching a movie that can affect your life, for instance, feels justified even when you're pressed for time.
Funnily enough, I've been catching up on the Uncharted series (on 3 now) and I'm having a blast. And even though that's basically equal to a hollywood action popcorn flick, what I do appreciate about that game is that it maintains its focus. It kinda makes me miss linear games! I bought Rise of the Tomb Raider as it's similar to the Uncharted games, and I loved the first hour or so. But as soon as the world opened up, with the crafting and everything, I kinda lost my enthusiasm.
It's funny - many of us used to ask the question "how long before the world opens up?" and now I kinda dread that moment. But I might not be crazy, I think the problem is that AAA games went to far in the other direction, and this began somewhere around Dragon Age Inquisition taking a leaf from the Assassin's Creed/ Far Cry games of that time. Map filled with meaningless clutter to do. Yeah you could ignore those activities, but when the developers focus on those parts, the other aspects suffer. The seamless, quick, action packed combat didn't help either.
As beautiful H:ZD's open world is, I still treasure my time with games like Gothic 3 and Oblivion more (I know Oblivion gets a lot of shit for basically just being rocks grass and trees, but I found it pretty beautiful and immersive) These worlds inspired me to create art - draw, write etc. Maybe that's because they felt more real (despite the graphics) because they didn't have ridiculous "stuff" to do? List of similar things spread across the world to collect, gamified patterns that would scream at me everytime I'd come across them? Sometimes a hut would just be a hut, with nothing of note in it. That makes the world a lot more immersive. Open worlds where things exist (or don't) for reasons other than player interactivity. I'm hoping the upcoming Kingdom Come: Deliverance can... well, deliver on this front (hehe) I think it might. I also love the open world in the GTA series. I love a detailed open world where activities and just existing feel natural. Rockstar are great at making lived in, immersive worlds where you can just exist.
But as I said, there are plenty of (relatively) smaller indie games doing good things too. I was really impressed by the Quick Look for Observer, for instance. Only yesterday I finished the first episode for Life is Strange: Before the Storm, and felt quite involved in that game world. I enjoyed my time with it and felt it gave me some value for the time it took. Now I'm looking to jump into a recent game called The Last Day of June. I've played these two games on my 4-5 year old laptop, while I see less of my new PS4 - which can play all those powerful new games - without feeling a tinge of guilt about spending my time on something non - fulfilling.
And at the same time, despite the indies, I'd love for the big AAA experiences to deliver those kinds of experiences that maybe only big budgets can. Sweeping epics like the Mass Effect series (we're not gonna talk about 4) can maybe only be delivered by bigger studios.
Ironically, my blog post probably lacked focus and my thoughts might be a little scattered (and at times possibly self contradictory) What I mainly mean is, though, that there's something missing from the bigger games nowadays, and they feel a little hollow. Maybe it's just me growing older, or maybe we need a big game to buck the formulaic trend. What do you think?
Edit: I should add, other features that make all these games feel similar and fatiguing would be quest markers, quest trails, and the worst of all, the variations on the "detective vision" that many games have. Detective vision works for some games like Hitman, but others don't need it at all. That's a feature that needs to be phased out slowly. For example, Rise of the Tomb Raider could completely do without it. The shapes of objects you can interact with are enough to give you an idea of what you should do. The Uncharted series doesn't use it, and is so much better for it. Instead it uses clever level design tricks to guide you.
Edit 2/ tl;dr:
To clarify, I'm not saying that video games that focus on something other than emotional resonance are "bad" or shouldn't be played, I'm only talking about a recent trend in single player story driven games. What you may call "open world fatigue" and discussing that the previous approach these types of games used to take seemed to work better than the approach that many games take now (everything placed in the open world for gameplay reasons, a predictable, formulaic feel, quest markers/ trackers, detective vision)
As pointed out by me saying something feels off, I don't have answers. I've just felt something and I'm trying to figure out what that may be through discussion.
It's not like I hate video games or I'm complaining. I love the medium and I'm pretty grateful for the progress we've made! But I also feel it's good to continuously judge and discuss what doesn't work in something you love, to avoid stagnation. In terms of design, the aspects I mentioned have become somewhat predictable.
This guy's video touches upon similar sentiments but explains it far better than I could!