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Player Choice: My Benchmark For Next-Gen Games

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 gameplay.

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.

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