Going Up Against The Big Boys; And Why We’ll Win.

January 17, 2014 | By

[Editor’s Note:  This article is an opinion piece and the opinions and thoughts expressed, do not necessarily reflect those of Indielicious.com]

The Last of Us is sweeping up the awards as being the best game for 2014, up and down the country, on the radio, the television machine, everywhere, the marketing avalanche. This is what games could be, they say. The apex of gaming for the last generation. Bullshit.

At first blush The Last of Us is a tour de force of high production values. It’s all on show there, you can see what you’re paying for. Great graphics and compelling content, and a developer that has never really put a foot wrong. If you have a PS3, you most likely have this game in your collection.

Let’s get this out of the way because it is so very, very good in terms of story. It’s the best story that I’ve ever experienced in a game and, lets be frank, it really puts most of the TV shows that deal with this kind of subject to shame. It’s thoughtfully written and, at times, genuinely affecting. Story alone wouldn’t work, you have to sell the cinematic sequences, so to do this Naughty Dog have really pushed the boat out. The characters look great and the mocap and animation looks stunning. These are guys at the top of their game. Sound design and steering is also top notch. If ever there was a game that deserved awards for these things, it is surely this game. They have truly raised the bar.

Which makes what I have to say next so very sad. You see back in the day, story and narrative was often used to underline the game, to enhance emotional involvement and identification with the game world. Most stories in games have been piss poor, laughable, subject for ridicule. In the past ten years we’ve grown up as an industry and occasionally can tell some gripping yarns. The Last of Us is the first time in my experience where the story doesn’t match the game, and I would go so far as to say it detracts from it. It’s almost as if the game was an after thought, it’s as if the team came up the the concept and the story, and the game was largely an after thought. It is, in my mind, a wasted opportunity. When I play a game of this kind I don’t want gunplay that’s essentially cut and pasted out of Uncharted, with a side order of gore, four flavours of zombie fungus and a hunt for a car engine that just happens to be in three pieces, like it was a part of the triforce. The game, despite the high production values cannot mask the fact that the emperor has no clothes. After making such an effort on the rest of the game to drop the ball like this is nothing but tragic.

These guys really want to make a movie, the game itself is truly secondary. As a commercial enterprise, top marks, but for something that is saying something new it’s not great. I really doubt anyone will want to replay this after the game has ended, after the story has been told, because the game is really quite dull and often frustrating. Although at times it’s brilliant, to me it’s depressing, and not just because of the subject matter, the game offers very little that’s truly fun.

So, why the very conservative approach to gameplay, and how does this affect the indies? What I suspect is this: when there is this much money on the line, the last thing you want is innovation. The number of times as a designer I’ve been asked by a producer, “well this sounds good, you have thought it through, but show me it working on another game first”, is one of the reasons I gave up being a designer. It’s too risky a proposition for most companies to invest into something new, it’s costly and an enormous risk, so the money errs on the side of caution; what the market is deemed to want. In short whatever has made money in the past. As Henry Ford famously said, if I’d have asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses. That’s what we have here, faster horses. Slicker story, better graphics, stagnant gameplay. More of the same.

In short it’s that plague that was prevalent during the 90’s that was asked by studio chiefs. It’s a game for people who don’t like games, an interactive story. Anyone who has spent any time in production can tell you the game: pitch a product – marketing look at competitive products and run their sales projections based on the best performers and that informs the budget. As the diminishing returns kick in from countless sequels you see the pressure to broaden the tent, make the game easier (sometimes a good thing) and make it more like that other game that made a bunch of money. That’s why we’re in the mire we are right now. That’s why you see sequel after sequel from the majors. It’s a hit driven business, and the sums of money are so large that if you don’t have tens, no, hundreds of millions in the bank, ready to spooge on a bet then you might as well go home.

And that is where Indie games can truly shine. You don’t need a motion capture studio, great writers and world class modellers. What you have is something priceless, you have the freedom to innovate without interference. The real work on the future of games is not happening in the major studios with mega budgets, it’s happening in the artisans workshops where stratospherically high production values aren’t necessarily the be all and end all. They only need to lead the player into the world. These games work best when the player not only participates, but also projects a little of themselves on the game, there is no room for that in these larger budget games, and although there is a need for people to be passively entertained with a strong story, games in my opinion work just as well, if not better, when the player actively participates with their own imagination. Indie games can do that, they have to, and that is their strength. They can’t go toe to toe with the big boys and neither should they. For me the real games will be coming from people who want to make games, not just to make games to make money, although that’s nice, but also games that don’t want to be movies, but to involve the player in their world. Games that have something to say.

With all the awards that TLOU is getting, it looks like we’re going to get more of the same from the big studios, but increasingly there is a thirst for innovation and real games. That innovation is taking place in the indie space. The real action is where it’s always been, here in the kitchen. What are you waiting for?

Category: Editorial, Opinion

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