News & Commentary, Screen, Video Games

Blockbuster Game developers just don’t get it

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Next week, Sony and Naughty Dog will release what will effortlessly become the biggest blockbuster of the year. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a game that is guaranteed to boost the already robust sales of the PlayStation 4. It’s a lavish game, with exceedingly high production values, and it will almost certainly be a critical darling. Uncharted 4 is destined to be in the running for, if not win, many game of the year awards.

But as I was playing Uncharted 4, I was left with a very hollow feeling — the same feeling I’ve been left with after playing quite a few blockbuster titles now. The reason is fairly simple; for all the thrills that these games offer, they fail to truly reflect the unique characteristics that make games different to other media.

Say what you want about blockbusters in other media, but even the most populist, popcorn-friendly examples of them remain true to the ideology of the platform. The Marvel films or Fifty Shades of Grey, for instance, have nowhere near the same disconnect as blockbuster games do between what they offer audiences, and what their platform is meant to stand for.

Film, for example, was conceived as a kinetic art form of tricks and spectacle. The pioneering work of the likes of Georges Méliès took viewers to the moon.

Even the darker side of cinema, such as the propaganda work of Leni Riefenstahl, is so effective because it brings imagery that into space that other performance arts, such as theatre, could never hope to achieve.

Irrespective of what you think of the massive, kinetic action sequences of an Avengers film, or the thrill of watching giant robots beat up on one another in Transformers, these films engage with the spirit — and capabilities — of why film was conceived.

Meanwhile, the novel is designed to engage the imagination and take readers to a world created in collaboration with the author. It’s why so many people are concerned that the film adaptation of their favourite book will fail to match up with what they dreamt up as they read. Fifty Shades of Grey, as a blockbuster novel certainly does — even if it’s not a vision that you necessarily wanted to see.

But when we look the modern blockbuster game, there is a hostility between what a game as a piece of media is meant to offer and what the developer is actually creating.

Games were created with the explicit intention to make player action critical to what happens in the game. If you don’t move the paddle in Pong, the little ball glides on by you. If you don’t time that jump in Mario right, it’s game over.

Somewhere along the way the idea that games could be used as a storytelling medium was introduced, and that certainly deepened the experience of many games. Their makers began introducing literary or cinematic qualities to the medium, but ultimately the ability to make progress through those games was still left in to the decisions that players made.

The modern blockbuster forgets a lot of this. In the Uncharted, Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises (to name three), the developer deliberately withholds control from you. You’re set on very linear paths between plot points, with virtually no room to explore. You’re never given a decision over how you progress; there is one specific ‘correct’ path to navigate through to solve each game’s puzzles and traps, and no room to deviate.

To use Uncharted 4 as an example, it tasks players with stealing an artefact from an auction at one particular critical plot point. But, rather than then allow players to figure out how to achieve that themselves, the game drags them through the nose as and forces players to take a specific path through the mansion where the auction is taking place, in order to shut off a power switch so an ally you can grab the artefact in the dark. There’s no room to come up with a different strategy, even though the mansion is massive and, in theory, it could have been a playground for a burglar.

There’s also no consequence in the game at all. Fall off a cliff that you’re climbing over and, in a worst case scenario, you’ll be moved back 20 seconds of gameplay and then able to try again without consequence. Those early Mario games were certainly linear, but the burden of success was placed squarely on the player’s shoulders – play badly and it’s back to the start with you. Uncharted 4 has no such burden because the greatest challenges are a few painless retries away.

The developer of Uncharted 4, Naughty Dog, has done all of this in the name of accessibility. Punish players for making mistakes and a percentage of them will not enjoy the game. Give them the opportunity to get lost and they might get bored. Neither scenarios are conducive to the development of a game that needs to appeal to millions in order to be considered a marginal success.

There are certainly games that do stay true to games’ unique feature as an art form –interactivity. In the blockbuster space titles such as last year’s The Witcher 3 and Grand Theft Auto 5 from 2013 made player-responsive freedom core to the experience. And in the independent or art games space there are some very exciting things happening with regards to interactivity.

It’s not a criticism of the quality of Uncharted 4 to say that it offers an illusionary level of interactivity in a best-case scenario. The game offers nearly unparalleled production values, a fun, Indiana Jones-style narrative, and spectacular action. This game will be popular for a good reason. It is, however, interesting that ultimately the unique qualities that are meant to distinguish games from other forms of entertainment don’t seem to matter to most players.

[box]Image from Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End[/box]

3 responses to “Blockbuster Game developers just don’t get it

    1. Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for the comment – glad you enjoyed the piece. It’s truly amazing what The Witcher 3 was able to achieve. With any luck it remains an influential game in the blockbuster space for many years to come.

  1. Hey Matt – (I hope you are doing well!)

    They do play up to what games are all about; they’re just catering to a different strength of what medium stands for; which is to playact the active hero of the story unfolding before them, instead of experiencing it as a passive viewer. To me that’s the ultimate form of escapism.

    I haven’t played the latest Uncharted; but games do bring us much closer to what it feels like to be the character in the story, and that is principally what Naughty Dog excels at. Movies perfected storytelling, but they will never make you feel despicable for the actions you’ve taken (facing the music about sisters in the original Bioshock), or develop a sense of attachment for a character that you have actively worked so hard to keep alive (the Last of Us).

    Good stories have a place in games, and I agree they should be orchestrated in a way that lets us experience them in a way that plays to the strength of the medium. Sometimes that means interactivity and choice; but at other times, it may just mean eliciting powerful feelings of guilt, betrayal, love, or passion in an way that are effective mostly because you – the player – feel responsible for them unfolding.


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