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Last week, I wrote a blog about why we shouldn’t attempt to compare AAA and indie games. In my assessment, I reached the conclusion that because AAA games attempt to perfect (or at least be proficient in) so many elements of game design, whereas indies only try to conquer a few, the two types of game shouldn’t be compared for overall quality. While I do stand by this assessment, posting said thoughts led to some further pondering. In my earlier blog, I mentioned that indie games oftentimes feel more polished due to a lack of scope (or rather, a lack of things to achieve) when compared to AAAs. However, I never stopped to wonder whether the “all-in-one” mentality of AAAs could be done away with (and whether they would feel more focused and polished as a result), or if crafting games with multiple focuses is staple of the industry that simply needs time and practice to be improved.
I started by taking a look at some of the biggest AAA releases from the past year or so, including titles such as The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider, Borderlands 2, Spec Ops: The Line, Dishonored, Devil May Cry, Dead Space 3, Hitman: Absolution, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Assassin’s Creed 3, and various others. Most of these titles have received moderate to universal critical acclaim, although not usually for similar reasons. Some of the titles, such as Bioshock Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line, are praised primarily (although not exclusively) for their strong plots, but aren’t as heavily lauded for the moment-to-moment gameplay. Others, such as Dishonored and Devil May Cry, receive lots of love for their innovative and engaging gameplay, but aren’t necessarily as well remembered for possessing a whirlwind story.
Why force this…. into this? (and vice versa)
Critics will oftentimes (and rightfully so) condemn developers for attempting to incorporate elements into their games, such as intriguing stories, and then failing to deliver on the potential of said aspect. Typically, these flawed additions are a secondary focus, incorporated and designed to give variety to the primary goal of the game (be that strong mechanics, characters, or something else entirely), but can end up feeling half-baked as a result. A perfect example of this “half-quality” comes in the form of Spec Ops: The Line, which told a story that was both grounded in reality and full of emotional punch, but failed to deliver in the game’s other aspects, including frantic gunplay and intelligent AI.
A similar example can be found in Dishonored, a stealth action developed by Arkane Studios. Most who played the game were fans of its open-ended nature, allowing players to navigate and complete sections in various ways, each tailored for a completely different play style. Combat (or lack thereof) was satisfying, and the variety in levels kept staleness at bay. However, even if the story was not actively hated by many, it was widely considered predictable and did little to grab the player. The world-building was well done, and gave hints to an entire globe of interesting prospects, but the moment-to-moment plot was only serviceable.
There’s a story behind his mask...but I don’t care to hear it.
One might argue that, with these and other examples, the developers only inserted either certain story or gameplay elements in order to have an excuse for inserting facets from the other side of the spectrum. For instance, one could argue that, in the case of Dishonored, Arkane only inserted the whole “You framed me, and now I’m gonna kick your ass” element as an excuse to have the player murder many, many people over the course of the game. Or, in the case of Spec Ops: The Line, developer Yager Developments only had the player shooting people so that an intense story about the horrors of war could be presented.
But here’s the thing: that’s not why these elements are present. If Arkane used the vengeance subplot purely as an excuse to pull out their knives, then we wouldn’t have spent the rest of the game listening to the droning of various resistance members about political mumbo jumbo. We *SPOILERS* wouldn’t have been betrayed a second time, and *END SPOILERS* we wouldn’t have had an entire wealth of journals to read. No, the reason that Dishonored had a long, drawn out plot (that ended up being widely considered serviceable in most parts, and only proficient in a few) wasn’t because the developers needed an avenue to present their gameplay, but because they considered it a large part of their game.
Don’t waste it on the stuff you don’t care about.
And that is the heart of the issue. It is wonderful, brilliant, and fantastic that developers are going further with their games. They are attempting to include and perfect all aspects of game design in their one, singular package. However, an unwillingness to focus on a few key strengths often leads to a lack in quality/feeling of polish that is disheartening. With the growth of technology and the ability of games to be larger productions all the time, it feels natural that we should be attempting to tackle more. We should be able to create games that accomplish more than just a few goals with somewhat more consistency, but we haven’t as of yet. I am confident that time, practice, and technological growth will fix the problem. But, for now, I just want to see more games that know what they want to be, pursue that above all else, and end up coming out stronger as a result.