[In this opinion piece, originally published in the March 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine, EIC Brandon Sheffield warns against letting games becoming too ambitious at the expense of gameplay.]
In a number of recent columns, I've written about the potential of games to expand, and the need for the medium to evolve and mature. I've talked about how dialog and story should be more integrated into the development process, and how many lessons games could still learn from more traditional entertainment media.
I do believe in all of that -- but not at the expense of making good games. Before tackling any high-falutin' artistic ideals, games have to first be good at being games.
Faster Than A Speeding Bullet Point
Consider Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the Genesis as a very simple example. There's no denying that it's "just" a game -- all you do is run, jump, and collect rings and powerups. And yet, this game affected a number of people. From the iconic music, to the slightly animated backgrounds, to the little birds you free when you defeat enemies, Sonic's world felt alive.
These little flourishes help the game to really reach the player, but only because they're laid on top of such a solid structure. If the action of running and jumping weren't so smooth and fun, the extra graphical touches and music wouldn't have carried it through (search YouTube for "Sonic 2 early prototype" if you don't believe me).
Then consider the modern Sonic games for current-gen consoles, which try to add combat, open worlds, sweeping story, and multiple characters, all in the name of filling bullet points, and turning Sonic into an "experience" rather than just a game.
A lot of modern games seem to want to be something they're not. A game shouldn't aspire to be a movie, or a novel, or a comic book; it should be a game, unless the aim is pure experimentation.
That we are still using cutscenes, and not letting the player tell the story as they play is very frustrating to me, as it takes away the interactivity, which is the ultimate potential of games. (I should note that almost every game I've worked on has done the same, so I'm not innocent -- it is very difficult to get out of the traditional structures in a time crunch.)
There is a lot that games can learn from movies in terms of lighting, pacing, and editing. But these lessons should be applied to making better games, not to making games more like movies. The recent Tomb Raider Underworld, for example, has some lovely moments in it, from impressive set pieces to clever puzzles.
But it also wrests control from the player at regular intervals, to tell a story (through cutscenes) that I couldn't begin to parse, and which I eventually tried to find ways to skip. As Cliff Bleszinski said when I interviewed him about the first Gears of War, "I'm of the mind that you play games because you want to play, not because you want to watch."
As the game industry grows, and is lauded as a multi-billion dollar entertainment powerhouse, it can be easy -- especially for publishers -- to try to make more of games than what they are.
At the core, are video games not meant to entertain interactively above all? Earth Defense Force 2017 is an example of a game that ignores any sort of pretension and goes straight for the gameplay. It won't win any awards for its story, lack of bugs, or its camera use, but if you want to just blow up some giant monsters, you couldn't do much better.
I like games that are fun to play above all else, and I don't think I'm alone in that. If a game can provide an engaging narrative or smooth, bug-free play on top of this, then that will pretty much knock me out, icing-on-the-cake-wise. My old standbys here are Portal and Call of Duty 4.
They get the gameplay right first and foremost, and add a compelling narrative into the mix. Without that precision and visceral fun of play, nobody but the academics would be talking about a game like Portal, Ico, Flower, or any other game with an unconventional narrative or play style.
When I mentioned the subject of my editorial to production editor Jeffrey Fleming, he said it sounded like the anti-"games as art" manifesto, but that's not quite my intention. I believe that games can have artistry and be enjoyable and entertaining both.
Subtractive design (see the article in the March 2009 edition of Game Developer magazine) may be one method of achieving this, and certainly iterative playtest cycles from an early stage have a tendency to polish games to a chrome finish.
My point is simply this: The enormous potential of games can only be fully realized when we are layering narrative, artistry, and thoughtful worldviews on top of games that are already fun without any of those things.