Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Square Pegs and Round Holes

It's always a bit disheartening to see a game's potential held back by what I like to call a mismatch of genre and setting.  Case in point Battleship, the video game adaptation of the summer popcorn flick of the same name, was a FPS that had very little to do with its nautical namesake.  Granted, even if it had been more focused on naval warfare there's no telling if it would have escaped the jaws of mediocrity.  That said there are some games out there that are pretty good, but could have been even better.  To illustrate this kind of wasted potential let me present three examples.

Bioshock Infinite initially got rave reviews from most major outlets, but as the excitement died down post-launch there was a significant backlash centered around the interesting setting being wasted on bland FPS mechanics.  Critical consensus eventually reached the notion that all the shooting in the game prevented players from really appreciating the unique and beautifully crafted environments.  Areas that could have been filled by detailed interactions with characters and objects instead became little more than loot spots or (worse still) flat backdrops for running and gunning.  Of course the perception at the time was that had it been an adventure game or puzzle platformer it wouldn't have sold in sufficient numbers to justify the development budget.

Reading quite a few of The Witcher novels has given me a deep appreciation for the complex characters and inventive lore of the setting.  The constant deconstruction of tired fantasy tropes only reinforces the overall quality of the storytelling.  The games do a good job of preserving the narrative strengths of the series, but I feel like the writing is burdened by shallow RPG elements.  There's not a whole lot of role-playing that can be done since Geralt of Rivia is already a fully fleshed out character with his own distinct personality traits.  His status as a witcher also lends to a very specific kind of gameplay that limits how much players can customize their experience (particularly with regards to appearance and abilities).  While the basic real-time combat is fine, I think it would have been a lot less obtrusive if it had been more The Last of Us than say Dark Souls with less variety.

There's no questioning the impressiveness of the visuals in Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak.  Unfortunately, most players won't have very many chances to enjoy all the meticulously crafted scenery outside of cutscenes.  There are LPs of this game on Youtube in which every single level is played all the way zoomed out.  From the sensors manager screen the gameplay visuals are reduced further to lots of red and green geometric shapes dancing around each other.  It's a common problem with RTS games exacerbated by the evermore frantic and intense school of design that dominates the genre.  Simply put, it's not a good way to enjoy the setting.  The plot also lends itself to a character focused adventure game rather than an emotionally detached RTS.  This isn't the empty vastness of outer space here, Kharak is a living, breathing world that deserves to be seen up close and personal (if only the game would give players a chance for them do so).

 There are other examples out there, but I think I've made my point; uniquely artistic settings frittered away in order to satisfy business marketing needs.  I don't say that simply to bash corporate culture.  Rather, I'm trying to encourage developers to maximize the potential of their ideas instead of letting them become marred by the false assumption that homogenization is what gamers really want.

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