Thursday, June 12, 2014

Making Wishes

Console-based video game fans are in a strange state right now.  In the virtual vacuum between console generations and good games, we tend to become very loud in our uneasiness.  When Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles––the Playstation 4 and XBox One, respectively––hit the market last November, the reigning console generation––being comprised of Sony’s Playstation 3 (PS3), Microsoft’s XBox 360, and Nintendo’s Wii––had lasted eight years, the longest console cycle modern gaming had seen.  The previous generation’s viability is unprecedented, though, because amazing games that pushed unforeseen limits of these machines were being released right up to the end.  The PS3 and 360’s long lifespan consistently upended modern console gaming by setting new standards and growing despite being, ostensibly, the same hardware throughout that time.  Everything from the rise of the first-person shooter (FPS) and the open world to the necessity of on-line multiplayer, from cover systems and branching trees of “morality” to the acceptance of smaller, independent games––the definition of modern gaming kept getting re-written despite the technology staying the same.  What’s important is that this redefinition happened organically over time; certain games, for some reason, were able to pierce the walls of expectations and technological limitations and forced everybody else to jump onto that train.  Before this generation, the defining moments were limited to perhaps one or two major upheavals per console.  By virtue of the fact that this generation lasted so long is impressive in its own right, but it does set a precedent that game-changers (pun intended) need to happen often.

The console gaming culture endured so many sea changes during the previous generation that when the new consoles were announced an interesting phenomenon occurred; the community began trying to codify what “next gen” gaming was, a tendency that became amplified after their release.  This tends to center around the tired “which console is better” debate, and people who have already picked sides end up just yelling at each other.  Some of this discussion focuses around technical aspects of the new consoles––that is, what’s under the hood and how games perform in terms of frame rate and resolution.  Microsoft itself tried to define the future by incorporating a gordian-like integration with a customer’s cable tv into the XBox One.  All of this empty rhetoric feels about as respectable and respectful as a dogfight because frame rate does not make a good game, neither does resolution, or graphics, or the controller, or the manufacturer.  What’s ignored in all of this is the emotional and cultural resonance the experience of a truly revolutionary game has when it hits the community.  Think of Super Mario Bros., or Sonic the Hedgehog, or Metal Gear Solid, or Shadow of the Colossus, or Halo.  These games are among the pantheon of gaming experiences and industry turning points because they felt like they mattered.

Combine those expectations with the first round of games that the new consoles are seeing: most are just higher resolution versions of games that are also available for the previous generation; the exclusive new console games seem to be merely more powerful iterations of games that could be released on the older consoles, though, obviously, not as impressive.  Many are sequels in franchises started in the previous generation.  Aside from barely exploiting the technical advances, these games––so far––are offering nothing truly new.  But I don’t think that’s a problem.  As with any generation, innovation comes with comfort.  The new consoles are just that, and the frames needs to settle before they feel like home for developers and players.  However, the question is continually asked:  when are we going to see some next gen games?

I think that’s the wrong question, however.  It’s short-sighted and hubristic.  It’s not a matter of when they are released––it’s not like they’re being hoarded.  The question to ask is, “what are next gen games?”  The best and scariest part is that we won’t really be able to answer that question until this young generation of consoles ages and is ready to be put to pasture.  No matter how much a person can learn about the technology or study the past, the simple truth is that we don’t know what will come to define this generation of gaming because the needs of gamers change with the society that they live in.  Making predictions is just making wishes.

The defining characteristics will come with time, out of the blue, and will change the scene around them.  It’ll do what Gears of War, Uncharted, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Assassin’s Creed, Portal, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Braid (among many, many others) did for this generation.  Trying to assert what “next gen” gaming is now is like proclaiming that a baby is going to be president.  More disturbingly, if you are trying accurately to define what next gen gaming is right now, then you are depriving yourself of the most enjoyable part of playing games: discovery.

As gamers, we need to let ourselves be surprised again, to allow ourselves to walk into the future blind and just play games that developers want to make.  To force definitions on the industry only creates undue pressure; that’s why we get an Assassin’s Creed game and a Call of Duty game every year.  That’s why Rock Band and Guitar Hero don’t exist anymore.  They became exhausted properties because they gave us what we thought we wanted, and they thought what we wanted was not innovation and progress.  But then a LIMBO, Brothers, or The Last of Us shows up and proves that we don’t know anything.  And then, for a few brief moments, the yelling stops because we’re too busy having fun again.

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