The lights are on
As the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 creep towards retirement,
gamers have started partaking in that age-old tradition of dreaming about the
possibilities of next-gen gaming. Occasional demos for Unreal Engine 4 and "platform
TBA" titles feed our fantasies of how advanced next-gen titles might be
compared to the current offerings of our aged consoles.
In the past, nex-gen advancements have been judged by
polygon counts and display resolutions, but the increasing complexity of technology
is rendering these measures irrelevant (I don't know – nor do I care to learn –
what the hell a "teraflop" is). When it comes to judging the evolving quality
of next-gen games, I'm less interested in technical achievements, and more
interested in what kind of gameplay advancements embrace player choice.
Not all games need to tell a story, but those that do tend
to stick to linear narratives, aping movies and television. This is more than a
missed opportunity. Fixed stories run contrary to the basic foundation of video
games: player interaction. Some developers have done a great job entertaining
us with interesting characters and finely crafted story arcs within this
framework. But if I have absolutely no impact on said characters or plot, then
the story is its own separate entity; I might as well be buying a tie-in comic
or straight-to-DVD movie to supplement the gameplay, since my performance and
choices make no difference anyway. While elements like FMV cutscenes and Quick
Time Events were revolutionary when they were introduced, gamers have come to
see them as cheap workarounds to the problem of melding story and gameplay;
condemning the underlying issue of non-interactive narratives seems inevitable.
Gamers are already demanding more interaction from video
game stories, and rewarding those that provide it. The Mass Effect series has
been lauded this generation for its player-driven narrative – the furor over
the Mass Effect 3's similar endings provides another, less desirable example of
its importance (as well as a lesson on the fickle nature of hardcore gamers).
If you need further proof, consider Telltale's handling of
The Walking Dead. The episodic series has enjoyed both critical and commercial
success, despite not being much of a "game" – even for the adventure genre, The
Walking Dead has little in the way of gameplay or puzzles. It does, however,
allow you to shape the story at every turn, constantly tasking you with life-and-death
decisions, and gamers can't seem to get enough of the series.
Games don't need engrossing stories to make player choice
matter. Giving players the power to choose where they go and what they do when
they get there instills a similar sense of ownership over the experience. I
can't tell you the first thing about Skyrim's story, other than that there are
some mean old dragons causing trouble in the countryside – that's about as far
as I got in the main story before I wandered off and started exploring
Bethesda's incredibly detailed world in my own way. This generation, open-world
games have made great strides in providing players this type of freedom, but
linear games are also attempting to accommodate a wider variety of gameplay
styles, which makes the sting of rigidly scripted storylines more bearable. Even
series like Phoenix Wright and Final Fantasy, where rigidly scripted storylines
are kind of the point, could be improved by offering more freedom during
Demos for early next-gen engines show there are still plenty
of visual advancements being made, and triple-A studios are leading the charge.
As I start the next generation of gaming, however, I'll be less concerned with
how my games look, and what they allow me to do. Can I shape my own story, or
am I merely an actor trying to hit my mark? Am I in a living, breathing virtual
world, or do things fall apart beyond the edges of the corridor I'm confined to?
These are the questions I'll be patiently waiting for answers to when the next
generation of consoles finally arrive.
Email the author Jeff Marchiafava, or follow on Google+, Twitter, and Game Informer.