Harder, better, faster, stronger.
The work is never over. Or at least, that’s the attitude we’re supposed to have in this industry. Every year brings faster games, more advanced gameplay mechanics, more detailed graphics. Never mind that we still can’t get some things correct -- women do not move like a ritalin-deprived adolescent in a bouncy castle.
And yet, despite all the clever math behind all of this, I can’t think of much to be excited about this year. Video games have stagnated.
Maybe I’m getting old.
I’m tired of the killing, the destruction, the inherent obsession this industry has with damaging and dismantling coded forms of living beings. Or undead beings, if the game in question is zombie-themed.
We are a culture of sequels. Take a look at the major games this year, and you will know what I say is true:
"GTA V." "Saints Row 4." "Battlefield 4." "Assassin’s Creed IV." "Call of Duty: Ghosts." "Bioshock: Infinite." "Dead Rising 3."
All of which have predecessors or prequels in the same line.
The problem is twofold: We buy into death, and we do not demand originality.
Violence has captivated us. Admittedly, none of those games are bad -- but at their core, the main gameplay mechanics revolve around violence. And there will always be a place for violence in artistic expression and entertainment. It’s not a new theme or a breakdown of society, regardless of what Tipper Gore might think.
But I see no reason to get excited about any of this anymore. Sure, when I was in college I did the whole “Bro, let’s get the new CoD, bro!” thing for a bit. Every year, we get a new "Call of Duty" -- and they’re all the same damn thing, no matter how reviewers praise the iterations’ graphical advances. Big deal, I can see the blood of the guy I just shot a little more clearly than last year. The stains are a bit more crimson.
Or in the case of "GTA V" (which I guess is my game of the year, if only for the amount of exploration you can do and the attention to detail in the landscape), the heists are more complicated, the vehicles you can use are more varied, and the locales you can blow up are more numerous. A meth house, you say? Leave a flammable trail of gasoline to ignite, you say? Oh, okay. I’ll go blow it up, I guess...kind of like how I’ve blown stuff up in the previous "GTA" titles.
The explosions just look and sound better in the newest installment. They’re not any more fun, and neither is shooting, stabbing, or anything like that.
“Alright, Mr. Critic, so what do you like?” That’s a fair question. What was the last game I was really happy to be playing?
Yes, it was rage-inducingly difficult. But it was original. And it didn’t center around violence. If you took any of the police on in a straight fight, you would get beaten worse than Rob Ford in the 100m sprint.
Faith, the game’s female protagonist, does not rely on sex appeal to sell the title. She doesn’t have gigantic space satellites strapped to her chest, unlike the "Dead Or Alive" girls. Faith is lithe, lightweight and small. Like a gymnast. Which is the closest thing to a freerunner, the kind of person Faith is supposed to be. She doesn’t have superpowers, doesn’t carry a weapon, and sure as hell can’t call in a nuke to take out all of her enemies on the map.
"Mirror’s Edge" is first-person and a bit disorienting to get used to, considering the odd camera angle FPSs have trained us to recognize. You can’t play it on a small TV, unless you want to limit your only real tool in the game -- your vision. Hearing plays a supplemental role, but Faith can’t hide from footsteps for long. She has to keep moving.
You have to keep her going, or she will die. There’s no health bar, no powerups -- you’re just thrown in as the runner, and all you get are your eyes and decision-making ability. Mess up, and down Faith goes. The game draws you in, making you feel as hopeless and repressed as Faith is -- she’s alone on the run. So the tension brings you in, and you find yourself angry and frustrated in the moment, not sure which path will lead you to escape -- and to life. And all the while, you witness a beautifully rendered, high-contrast Orwellian dystopia that can stand against any 2013 release.
"Mirror’s Edge" was released in 2008. Yeah, the same year GM and Chrysler rabbit-eared their pockets in front of Congress. That’s a big gap, and I can count the number of games I really enjoyed since then on two hands:
"Tropico 4" (a city sim), "Mass Effect 2," "Left 4 Dead 2" (still the best co-op multiplayer game I’ve played), "Xenoblade Chronicles," "Mario Kart Wii."
Uh. Make that one hand.
Granted, if I owned a PS3 I could likely add "Heavy Rain" and "The Last of Us" to the list. But that would still be fewer than 10 console games in five years. A paltry amount.
Of course, I don’t expect every game to be great, or to at least catch my attention. But I do worry that the market is supersaturated with clones, sequels, and bullets. We can’t see the forest for the trees - we’re buying the same games, over and over again. Just with higher frame rates and better anti-aliasing.
Perhaps this is all a part of the general cynicism toward the media: “Hollywood has no new ideas.” More likely, I think, is that there are plenty of new game ideas.
But they know you’ll buy "Call of Duty." Every time.