Are You Game: Part I

With video game graphics at their most impressive ever, and technology constantly improving, are game companies paying too little attention to other aspects? If graphics have been pushed to the very best they will be for the next few years, will game developers concentrate on story and character to ensure their games stand out in the ocean of mediocrity?

Let’s face it, in games like Call of Duty or Battlefield, plot isn’t the first thing which springs to mind. I’ve played several of them, and honestly, I couldn’t tell you the story. Go to location x. Shoot some enemies. Every now and then I may be graced with an escort mission, a vehicle section or a secondary objective to blow something up or retrieve intelligence. Yes the graphics are usually top notch, and the gameplay is smooth and easy, but the story, and anything that could make me empathize with the protagonist, is non-existent. And yet for their failings in story, these are two of the best-selling modern game franchises. So what makes them so popular?

Expectation

To answer that you’d have to first answer what makes any game “good”. This ultimately boils down to the expectations of each individual. Do they want to play alone, online multiplayer offline with family? What do they look for in a game before they purchase it?

For example, the Wii console caters more to social gamers. People who prefer to have a console which is fun for lots of people or younger children to play all at once. An Xbox 360 or a PlayStation on the other hand, are considered more serious consoles. The majority of all games are brought out for these platforms, and are the consoles most professional gamers will use. Those who prefer online multiplayer to single-player campaign would be less interested in the story more concerned with the gameplay mechanics.

I play games for the characters and story as much as for escapism and enjoyment. However, there will be others who only play for the fun of it, rather than any cathartic experience they may glean.

I asked several of my friends what they look for in games. The answers were more varied than I had been expecting, but the general consensus was much the same. Their favourite games all have:

  • Character-driven plot – player actions directly affect the world around them;
  • Detailed worlds which are fully discoverable;
  • Gameplay mechanics which encourage re-playing; and
  • Plot focused on atmosphere.

Ben Croshaw of The Escapist says this about the Resident Evil series:

…despite Resident Evil 6‘s best efforts to blow up the world for our amusement, it fails to unseat Resident Evil 4 from its position as The Only Good One. And part of why I like RE4, besides the gameplay shift and its campier approach, is that the story actually gets a whole lot narrower in scope than its predecessors. No fighting massive nebulous global corporations through entire zombified cities – Leon’s in the middle of bumfuck nowhere rescuing one girl from a nutty Lovecraftian cult run by a handful of kooky personalities. And the cult are trying so hard, God bless ’em. They’re working out of garden sheds and dressing up in burlap sacks and the leaders keep turning themselves into giant monsters out of desperation. Albert Wesker never looked like he was exerting himself at all and that’s why he’s a boring c*nt. The point is, the characters never got lost in the action.

Resident Evil 4 is one of my all-time favourite games, for exactly the reasons Croshaw points out. The characters are stronger than the action. The basic plot is simple enough to be understood, but the history and backstory of the series is still referenced, which allows for a deeper experience. It also helps that Leon, the protagonist, cracks jokes in all the right places, and the atmosphere of the game is genuinely scary in places.

Genre

Shooters are probably the most popular genre of games. Partly because friends will have heard about a game or own it already and recommend it. Partly because the gameplay mechanics are simple and the graphics are usually very strong. Shooters have seemingly become the staple of gamers of my generation. Sure, there will be games like Mario Kart or Wii Sports, but the vast majority of games belched from the corporate production lines are shooters.

Very few of these games have solid and engaging plots or characters whose flaws genuinely make gamers care about them. But they almost all have an online multiplayer system, which seems to be more and more important to gamers. Where once a game was judged solely upon its single-player campaign, it is increasingly the norm for games to be reviewed for both multiplayer and single-player.

The ability to play against another human, rather than an AI which can sometimes be as thick as two planks, is obviously an important one. Players can enjoy the challenge and judge themselves against strangers. Some games in recent years, to varying degrees of success, have tried to mix both multiplayer and single-player. Gamers can play through the campaign online with others, rather than alone.

While the latest games will always have a surge in their multiplayer traffic, big name shooters like COD, Halo and Battlefield have had fewer players on their online multiplayers in recent times. I think there is something of a chain-reaction behind this. Updated shooters are released. Players notice the lower numbers of competitors online and decide to change to a more popular game. Repeat with each new game that is released.

But these aren’t the only reasons. Perhaps gamers are growing tired of multiplayers being so similar. Perhaps we’re finally reaching the point where gamers will demand games, and shooters in particular, with engaging plot and characters with whom we can empathize.

Of course, that isn’t to say that games with a good writing are always more popular. One of the most popular games around, both single-player and online multiplayer, is Minecraft – a game with no backstory, characters, dialogue or conflict. You simply build whatever you wish.

Essentially, my point is this.

Are shooters, and the increasing focus on multiplayers, damaging our expectations of games by not providing us games with enough quality plot or characters?

NK

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