Sunday, September 16, 2007

Pixelated Liberation

There’s a lot of bullshit in the computer games industry. Technology, capabilities and modes of expression in games are evolving faster than a baby in a reactor, way beyond the other entertainment mediums which advance at a snail’s pace in comparison. Each year brings promises of brand new ideas and concepts for games, ways of doing things never before thought possible before by these maverick developers pioneering on into the dark frontier of cutting edge gaming.

Developers such as Peter Molyneux are renowned for the exaggeration and hype they create around their games. If you believed an iota of the sheer amount of bovine faeces that spilled out of his mouth over Black & White and Fable then you were inevitably going to feel slightly let down by the end game. He’s not alone though, every slightly interesting game can be spun into sounding like the next big hairy mutt’s testicles.

By far the biggest offender in this category is this vague concept of freedom that everyone seems to be masturbating over. Where the gamer creates the world around them, where they are free to do what they want when they want, to tackle things as they see fit and create their own unique adventure. The idea is that by giving the gamer ultimate choice in their actions and what they do and by placing them in this hyper-realistic world, it will make the game more immersive, believable and enjoyable.

At the moment these attempts to create a sense of real life and freedom are nothing more than gimmicky and cosmetic and make it clear just how far from genuine choice and freedom they are. Oblivion, there’s one. Left alone in the middle of this vast landscape to do exactly what you want to do when you want to do it. You can be whatever you want! As long as you choose a pre-determined path. Doing pre-determined quests to achieve whatever pre-determined thing it is you’re attempting. It’s an illusion of freedom. An impressive illusion, but one in which you’re still jumping through the same ol’ hoops as ever, albeit in the order you choose.

That’s all computer gaming is and it’s what undermines these games. For the gamer it’s all about finding the best strategy to win. The right choices, the right combination, the right rubber chicken, whatever it may be in order to beat the game and finish. So you can sleep in Oblivion. So what? It’s not actually sleeping, it’s just a handy way to wait around until the right time, meanwhile people still seem happy repeating the same routine time after time. It’s not a problem in a more linear game where there is no apparent concept of freedom, you simply complete the tasks in the order they’re set out so that you can follow the story through to its conclusion.

The story’s another thing that seriously suffers, mainly because it’s too bloody complicated to have the story and environment adapt to the exact order you do things, leading to the rather comical situation of having the main storyline where you urgently have to rescue the kingdom and save the world, but can spend countless weeks fulfilling menial tasks and becoming an expert alchemist before returning. You’d expect to get a full bollocking and be told that they’ve sorted it all out while you were away pissing about. Instead everyone’s still standing where you left them, patiently waiting for you to return. It makes everything seem so hideously fake and minus any sense of urgency or character that comes with a more linear game.

The times this increased freedom works is in games like Bioshock, where the story and game and reasonably linear but the variety of means and methods available for taking out enemies has greatly increased. There are a million and one ways to approach every combat situation and it’s one of the many factors that makes it such a great game.

The concept of freedom and its potential applications are incredibly exciting, but developers need to let the games do the talking, not their dreams, and apply the technology in a focused, believable and enjoyable way. Sans bullshit.

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