Saturday, February 6, 2010

No Innovation /= A Bad Anything

I, as most regular readers of this site know, really enjoyed Uncharted 2. I've read a handful reviews by people who didn't like the game, and most of their complaints I can understand, even if I don't quite agree with them. These complaints range from: the game took to long to get going, it's difficult sometimes to know what to do or where to jump, and then you have people that were rubbed wrong by the games action-movie style and story. I can understand all these complaints. One complaint, however, constantly rubs me the wrong way, and that is that Uncharted 2 isn't innovative.

So what?

Everyone's entitled to their own opinions, and everyone is drawn to gaming by their own specific tastes. I myself much prefer transparent linear stories to those 'good or evil' games that pretend like your decisions matter--like Mass Effect. I enjoyed that game, but the decisions it imposed felt cheap and only affect how people talk to you (sometimes). No matter what you do, the game ends relatively the same way. I mean, no matter what you do in Mass Effect, you're fighting Saren. You can't become so evil you team up with him. You can't kill him halfway through and take his place.

The point is, I tell some people my preferences towards linear games and they look at me like I'm crazy. Non-linear gameplay is the best thing to happen in gaming ever! How can I hate it? You know at the end of Metroid games, when it tells you what percent you've completed? I strive for 100%. I know it's a flaw if it prevents me from enjoying other games, I just want to absorb everything. Just like with "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, I always read every possibility that was offered.

Even though I can't understand the complaints that a game isn't innovative, I don't hold it against anybody. People want what they want, and I can't hold that against them.

But why should innovation be so important? Why does a game have to be innovative?

It seems like every few years there is a new game that re-defines FPS, or RPG, or whatever. Other similar games are referred to as "'defining game' clones," such as "Doom clone." This is a term that used to be simply descriptive. Software hobbyists used to make 'Pac-Man clones' and 'Asteroids clones'. It wasn't insulting, that's what they were intended to be. It was an exercise in programming and a way for people to download popular game knock-offs for free from bulletin boards. After a while "clone" became an insult you direct at a game that's too similar to a popular game without adding anything unique.

It's funny to point out that, amidst all the cries for innovation, many things the first few FPSs brought out still haven't been improved to a degree that it's indistinguishable from that feature from the earliest games. HUDs have existed since the first FPSs, and even before, in platformers. Deathmatch? Midi Maze. Co-op? Doom. Getting keys or hitting switches to open doors, big bosses, weapons upgrades, these things have been around nearly as long as gaming itself.

So what's being innovated? Better graphics, better controls, better AI. Cover systems. Better voice acting. Cutscenes. Actual stories. Increased interactivity.

When's the last time someone's read a book and said, "This author isn't innovating anything. He's still wrapping speech in quotations! What is this, 1509? Why are all the paragraphs indented? Did my great-grandma typeset this book?"

Such talk would be missing the point. People look for all different things in a book--good storytelling, good writing, escapism, a guidebook for life, comedy, drama, whatever. This goes for music, movies, television, and even games. People will always be innovating whatever forms they work in. Good innovation should be applauded, but it shouldn't be confused with good craftsmanship. Kane and Lynch had a lot of innovation, that still left it pretty far from being 'Game of the Year', or even 'Fun Game to Play'.

When I play a videogame, I want a fun experience. I know that's very broad, let me distill that down. I like some puzzles, but I don't like wall-to-wall puzzles. I like the ability to do things I can't or won't do in real life, whether it's something in Batman Arkham Asylum or something in Grand Theft Auto 4. I like a distinct style, perhaps a mood, like you would find in Max Payne 1 or 2. I like the level of concentration and even memorization games like Wipeout and F-Zero require. Some people want a good scare, like Dead Space seems to have provided (I haven't played it yet). Some people want a good story, like Uncharted 2.

Occasionally you have games like the Half Life series where they're able to manipulate the mood and keep you guessing. The juggling act between zombies and militia men in Half Life 1 is still some of the most fun I've had in a game, something they managed to keep going in Half Life 2 and it's episodes.

It is just so foreign to me that if I asked someone what they looked for in games, they'd say 'innovation'. That's such an abstract concept removed from anything I look for in games. Is it enjoyable? Did you "lose time," as I have frequently with select games, books, movies and tv shows? Do you keep saying "one more level" until you look out your window to see hours have passed and the sun has now risen? If so then why?

I like improvement and innovation. Max Payne 2 fixed all my problems with Max Payne 1. It is the better game, in my opinion. Crysis brought with it more realistic enemy AI than I was used to and made me rise to it's level. I was used to games where, if you see someone taking cover, you can shoot the bit of their arm sticking out and they for some reason would step out of cover to shoot at you. No no no, not in Crysis. You shoot their arm in Crysis, they get deeper in cover, because that's what you would do, stupid.

Here's my pet invalid belief: After Batman: Arkham Asylum, Prototype and Infamous, there should be no more "bad" superhero games, like *ugh* Superman 64, or those terrible platformers that we've suffered through for decades. I'm sure there will still be many terrible superhero games, but there shouldn't be. There is a template now, the bar has been raised. Just drop your comic book character into "clones" of any of those three games, and at least it won't be terrible. It can be repetitious, it can be too short, too long, it can have bad acting, it can be too hard or too easy, or have a shitty story, but it should at the very least be playable. The controls are done for you. The graphics should at least be passable.

Uncharted 2 didn't innovate anything. Motion capture has been used in game cut scenes before, there have been climbing sequences in games, and puzzle-driven treasure hunting games wherein people raid tombs. Other games have used arcs to show you where thrown items would go, other games have used a run 'n gun style, hand-to-hand combat, and stealth options as well as a cover system.

What makes Uncharted 2 so fun for me is first, that it's story driven. The game doesn't get in the way of the story, and I also never found myself saying, "Yes, this cutscene is cool and all but I'd like to play now, please!" You have a story-driven objective, you reach a point where you have or haven't achieved that objective, which leads to more story and another objective. What's more, the design team seemed to work very hard on taking things that normally would be relegated to a cutscene, say moving forward on a moving train while a helicopter is firing at you, and making it playable. And fun.

They didn't need to re-write the video game. They didn't need to invent anything, all the tools they needed were in place. They did have a lot of strong writing and design. For example, now that I'm playing Crushing mode I'm starting to notice that they almost always give you a way to take out your opponents in a stealthy way. In some places it's obvious and the story relies on it, later it's just there as another option you can exercise if you choose.

We're at the point now where games can be elegant and even intuitive simply using the framework other games have established. Anything a comic book, tv show or movie can do, a video game can do, developers just need to start realizing that. Sure there will still be innovation. Uncharted 2 may some day seem horribly dated. Talk of innovation fades out in time. People born today won't care in 20 years if Uncharted, Half Life, or Dragon Age were innovative or not. They'll just care if they're good.

You can try to argue with them, 'Oh, but Half Life invented this...' and in the same way it won't matter to them, it doesn't matter now. A game isn't good based on how much it innovates. It's good based on how it made you feel as you played it. Joy or frustration? Concentration or boredom? Why would Uncharted 2's developers go out and look for new tools to aid in providing the experience they want to if it was possible with all the tools available to them from day 1? To satisfy the smattering of people who think, for some reason, that 'good /= gameplay, good = innovation'?


PS - You might have gathered by now that I include games in with all other art forms, because I do in fact think video games can be art. There's a line to draw. Solitaire isn't an art, and it's hard to say, for example, that Doom is art, but it's equally as hard to say that the earliest, clunky silent films are art, too. Just like the silent films begot the amazingly capable art form of cinema, and poems read to lyre accompaniment eventually led to songs as we know them, Doom and Rogue eventually begot current state of games. And come on, if you think any horror films are art, then why isn't Dead Space art? If you think any of the Indiana Jones movies are art, why not the Uncharted games? They're all creative re-constructions of reality that make a point or tell a story.

No comments:

Post a Comment