The reign of the launch-day killer app is over.
The launch line-ups for the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, both due out by month’s end in North America, include no game-changers, no Halos or Mario 64s. New consoles are now sold more on the promise of innovation and multimedia integration than they are on a single game any self-respecting manchild simply must own by Christmas Day. Perhaps that’s for the best, the thrill of the console launch replaced with appreciation for the medium’s continual evolution. Yet here we are, weeks away from newer, more powerful gaming devices, and I’m still not sure what gamemakers hope to achieve with them beyond making things bigger and shinier. Perhaps we’re at the point where games are a robust and diverse enough medium that console generations are no longer indicative of their evolution. Perhaps AAA developers just didn’t have an innovative way to shoot people in the face ready for launch day. Whatever the case, new tech and rapidly changing distribution methods will undoubtedly alter the games industry; here are a handful of ways I think those changes could be for the better.
BETTER CHARACTER ANIMATION
Look, I get it: animation is hard. That old saying about how filmmaking is like trying to play the piano with boxing gloves on? I imagine with computer animation, it’s as if those boxing gloves were cast in cement bricks. Transfer that to animation within a game engine, with its billion other seen and unseen functions whirring and clicking along just so, and yes, it’s a modern miracle that a video game character has ever made anything approaching a recognizable facial expression.
But you know what? Half-Life 2 is almost ten years old, and even within its stripped-down dystopia, I to this day believe its characters have emotions and inner lives. Portal 2‘s Wheatley doesn’t even have a face, but his subtle tics and nervous energy always inform me of what he’s thinking. Valve understands how important recognizably human animation and expressions are to a player’s connection to a game world, so they designed the Source engine with special focus on in-game animation. They brought in an ex-Henson, ex-Pixar animator to nail Wheatley’s comic physicality. Character animation within a game engine is a tough but not impossible dream. (Even with its eye on character, the Source engine doesn’t have to skimp on excellent physics, so allocation of resources is no excuse.) A new console generation means new engines, which will hopefully allow developers to improve their animation techniques without sacrificing the scope and graphical fidelity they often put first. A sweeping, gorgeous game world is a fine thing to create, but meaningless if I don’t believe its inhabitants exist beyond the pixels of which they consist. Perhaps games like Telltale’s graphic-novel-like adventure titles sacrifice some scope for a more expressive aesthetic, but I’ll take actually giving a shit over bigness every time. Which brings me to my next concern…
SHORTER, MORE CONTAINED EXPERIENCES
I played about three hours of Bioshock last night, and while the game has plenty of commendable ideas, it already feels padded. Can this be the console generation where we finally do away with the arbitrary time minimums for “full-length” games?
New tech usually first and foremost means bigger worlds and better graphics, but it can also be used to refine ideas and mechanics. The processing power of the Playstation 2 allowed the roll-up-the-world wonder of Katamari Damacy to reach its logical conclusion, and the increased online presence of the last console generation transformed Journey from a linear adventure game into a comment on human interaction and friendship. Both of these examples are games that even the busiest players could probably beat in a day or two. I love games and I love being transported to distant fantasy lands, but my patience for the repetitive tasks and meaningless quest lines in most longform titles diminishes by the day. Most of the best games I’ve experienced attempt to do a handful of things very well, and spend their entire playthroughs perfecting those mechanical and aesthetic concerns. With these new machines, I hope developers will remember they can not only go bigger and prettier, but deeper, too.
A MORE OPEN GARDEN FOR INDIE GAMES
With the advent of digital distribution, consoles have slowly stopped treating small, independent titles as something nasty to be swept under the rug. While consoles are a long way off from offering the breadth of strange and innovative titles found on PC, Sony and — much more reticently — Microsoft appear ready to pledge some support to the underdogs. Yet I worry that console gamers will still get the impression that indie games are largely retro platformers and simple, cutesy puzzle games, with no in-roads made to bring the truly offbeat stuff to the TV set. Fortunately, Sony’s blossoming relationship with developers like The Witness’ Jonathan Blow could help expand the Playstation Store’s indie horizons. Blow is an outspoken critic of the current state of mainstream video games, and my ideal solution to his concerns would be for Sony to let him put his money where his mouth is. Allow Blow and a few other developers to curate an experimental wing of the company’s online store; give them a small fund to port games they find interesting to the Playstation. These games could even be sold in bundles to tempt adventurous gamers unwilling to take the plunge on a single title. The indie scene often paints console gaming as its hulking, dumb adversary, and obviously many of its critiques of the big guys hold water. Sony and Microsoft would not only do their own images a lot of good by reaching out to diverse indie upstarts like Anna Anthropy and Brendon Chung, but they could help expand the definition and artistic reach of video games the world over.
A NINTENDO RENAISSANCE
Call it fanboyism, but I hate seeing Nintendo fade more and more into the background of the games scene. It feels like leaving your beloved childhood dog at the pound just because he got a little old and worn out. Not that I want to give Nintendo a free pass: if they want back into our good graces, they have to earn it. For the first time in years, they might just be hungry enough to take a shot at the gold. The newest Legend of Zelda is the first since the original NES titles that can be tackled in a non-linear fashion, a promising sign that Nintendo took the criticism of Skyward Sword‘s rote breadcrumb trail to heart. And the previews for Super Mario 3D World have me more excited than any game trailers in recent memory. The sheer amount of inventiveness on-screen is astounding but never overwhelming or jumbled; if all goes well, it looks like it could be to the 3D Mario titles what Super Mario Bros. 3 is to the sidescrollers. Nintendo is still the console developer most willing to forge its own path and take big risks. If they can implement that inventiveness in their actual games again, perhaps they can push the creative vision of gamemakers forward this generation as they’ve done in decades past.