The (Unfulfilled) Potential of Video Games


jason tweeted this video

which is a pretty interesting and fair assessment of e3, but i wanted to talk about where i think the video is unfair and where the video hits on some solid points.

the first is that the main argument conflates two separate things:

  • popular games are violent
  • games could be so much more

i think it’s an unfair argument because it ignores what has set the current generation of games apart from prior generations.

  1. worlds that lend themselves to navigation
  2. consistent rules within the game world
  3. dynamic maps in multiplayer scenarios
  4. moore’s law and creative programming killing load screens

lots of these i would say fit into the overarching aegis of “immersion” but not in the dopey e3 sense: instead, what they do is the remove the number of times that hit the seams of the game world or its engine, and that, that flavor of immersive-ness is what i think sets the games apart from prior generations.

i think it’s fair to pick on games for being stuck on combat in much the same way it’s fair to pick on hollywood for “reboots” and “action/sci fi” movies. it’s a popular format but it’s not particularly inspiring or creative. But similarly, it’s much like calling tv an “idiot box” because all mass media inevitably panders to the lowest common denominator.

Instead, what’s interesting about the current crop of games is that their mechanics only work because so many of the hiccups from prior generations are no longer present and, to wit, they are able to use those new mechanics in ways that tell a sometimes interesting story about our current time.

So What

a series of more interesting questions that the video avoided:

  • has “the shooter” changed in any measurable way in the past n years
  • why is navigating so satisfying in current generation games?
  • how has overall narrative structure of games changed or evolved?
  • are games more “fun” now than they were before? (why?)
  • why are battle royale games so popular?

i’ll offer my own takes on some of this:

graphics don’t matter so much anymore

an interesting side-effect of the 1080->4k shift is that we no longer talk about graphics. Further, games no longer need to look like anything. We accept a wide range of visual aesthetics now from our games as long as they’re executed competently. Watching the video you see lots of ‘photorealistic’ games, but you also see a wide variety of other visual styles, from cell shaded to simple polygonal models.

Indie darlings like Tacoma and That Dragon Cancer show up and they’re sort of remarkable for establishing a consistent visual theme without needing to hew to photorealism, but so do AAA games like zelda or mario for the switch. It says a lot, i think that the analysis of games no longer focuses on this idea of pixels/fps/whatever. even the latest AAA blockbuster, god of war, flaunts a technical achievement that feels only curious but not Essential to its sales pitch: the camera almost never cuts away, there are almost no load screens and even the ones that do exist are fantastically masked behind other gameplay elements.

as worlds have gotten bigger, players are rewarded for exploring

this is a subtle point, but part of the massive win of open world games currently is that designers can make exploring the open map a rewarding act in itself. One of the zelda botw expansions is basically “find something of interest given this overhead satellite view of a piece of land.” zelda is a well architected game, but much of its novelty comes from the fact that the world is always interesting to explore even when it’s just boring. take for instance the hundreds of hidden korok seeds in breath of the wild.

this is partly, imo, why a games like gta 3+ had such resonance: not only was the world open, but there were things to do in many of the spots in it, there were many things to find, and you were rewarded for your curiosity. The rewards have gotten much better now, but so too have the worlds themselves: navigating Vice City pales in comparison to the the world of gta 5’s Los Santos where you basically do need to have a crucial understanding of side streets, major highways, significant landmarks, etc. on the one hand this is incredibly boring: our game worlds look more like our own worlds, but on the other hand, they allow us to roleplay in worlds which feel more like the worlds we currently live in.

creative decisions are enabled, not limited by the computing power of platforms

battle royale games are somewhat insulting from an initial perspective: they reuse lots of basic models from the unity asset store, they have a very simple mechanic (kill!), and they always reuse roughly the same map. So why does everyone love them so much?

i think part of their success comes from the fact that despite having a wide open map (whose repeated exploration you are rewarded for), the map contracts, forcing you to engage with a different region of space than before. whereas prior generation shooters forced you and 12 other people to duke it out in a small bounded space the size of a quake 3 map, you now start in a place significantly larger, you can go minutes before seeing somebody, but eventually you have to close in.

further, the ways to win the game are very different now. whereas in quake 3 arena, you were forced to rocket jump and frag your opponents, you can actually win in a game like Fortnite by trapping somebody in a fort you build while the map closes around them. you can still win by shooting people, but who could have foreseen that the most popular 100 player shooter on the market right now would have a massive improvisational building component.

not only that, games are willing to allow their rule systems to foster creative solutions to problems. the whole swath of videos where people “hacked” zelda’s temples using the in-game physics system are encouraging because they presented puzzles that were robust to creative attempts at solving them. that feels like a massive win to me.

stories are growing up

this is silly, but as the average single playeer campaign takes longer and longer, the stories that drive them have improved. even if the quality varies wildly, even games shown in the video like Detroit are trying to address the question of Android Agency using, of all things, a choose your own adventure mechanic while games like God of War try to ask the question of how something like Fatherhood affects the actions of a blood-drenched warmonger. It’s absurd, but it’s a start in any case.

the question of battle royale games like PUBG or Fortnite or Ring of Elysium narratively fit within our current political climate despite their apparent lack of story because they implicitly pose scenarios based around the ideas of survival, teamwork, and isolation. Even though the gameplay is shooting and even though the gameplay rewards headshots and “eliminations,” they are steeped in this scenario that is halfway between prepper fantasy and dystopian punishment.

is it any wonder that in an age of internet-created isolation twitch/youtube streams of battle royale games have incredibly wide reach and popularity?

the potential

i think until recently, we were stuck in gameplay world where video games always needed to but up against the limitations of their engines (or the fact that everyone was rolling their own engine). Now you can fully populate a room with objects that are interactive.

this generation, the ps4/xbox one generation, seems to be marked by the elimination of these somewhat arbitrary restrictions. instead, games now take advantage of their world to convincingly present various features rather than hiding them behind a menu.

take a game series like yakuza, it started off as an action rpg with comic head stomping, now it’s basically a grownup urban version of mario party. Fight people on the street sure, but also collect and befriend cats on the street, or if that’s not your thing, learn to play competitive mahjong, manage a baseball team, work at a ramen shop, play darts, become a baseball batting champ, or a disco dance hero, or a karaoke all star. it’s a weird evolution of the series, but it works because each facet is allowed to live in an appropriate locale: cat cafe is down the street from the karaoke bar, a few blocks over from the other bar that has a dart board, across the plaza from bowling alley, a block away from the batting cage near the underground betting parlor with high stakes mahjong, and so forth.

i used to tell people that red dead redemption was supremely indulgent because it combined an aspect of run and gun gameplay and mixed it with the most mundane sidequests, the things that jean luc picard craved. collect wildflowers, gather wild horses, stop the outlawns, oh yeah, also don’t forget the main story.

games like yakuza and breath of the wild let you almost indefinitely postpone the story in favor of completing side quests which to me marks a significant shift in what games are capable of: immersive worldbuilding through actions that fit within the context of that universe.

it feels remarkable that we’re at the point where a single player game can have an almost entirely elective campaign. to me that feels like a significant milestone in game potential, that we can build up a universe by simply exposing you to activities that characters in-game deal with all the time. it’s the ultimate “show, don’t tell”

i agree that games are focused too heavily on combat and “as a new parent” i’m sensitive to it more than i used to be, but i find it encouraging that games have seemingly doubled down on the importance of contrast between activities, between the ultra-mundane of “picking the right ingredients for your meal” in zelda to “finding the perfect 4 dish meal at a restaurant” in yakuza.

i guess i have to wonder why these boring elements didn’t surface in earlier games the way they do now. maybe it was a technical limitation, but more and more i think that game developers are coming to understand that the most immersive part of worldbuilding is building interesting enough worlds that can viably sustain the activities that purport to go on there.