The lights are on
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Adrenaline-pumping, nonstop action is the fastest selling ticket these days for billion-dollar franchises, whether on our silver screen or our game-screens. In an era where FPSs like Call of Duty make millions in a matter of hours and blockbusters like the Avengers are the hottest superheroes in town, the “thrill-ride” is the easiest avenue to excite an audience for developers and directors alike. No matter how well they sell or how critically acclaimed, there’s a question that still lingers in this writer’s mind: is the thrill ride always the best ride?
I can say that the primary inspiration for this blog comes straight off of my screening of Gravity earlier this week. In the absence of a full review, I can simply say that it was one of the most visually and emotionally spectacular experiences I’ve had in the theater in quite a long while. It’s surely a testament to some of the best special effects that Hollywood has ever produced and that mere hour and-a-half I spent with it clocked by fast. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney surprised me a bit with their performances, but director Alfonso Cuaron’s depiction of Earth from space is probably the real star of the show. That’s all the details I’m willing to give away for now, but if it’s still playing in a theater near you, see it now. The living room would not do it justice compared to the immense spectacle of the big-screen. The incredible time I had with the film not withstanding, the moment I walked out of my seat I felt the twinge of sadness to through me. Having already seen the film and knowing now how it ends, I wasn’t sure if I could ever, ever experience it that spectacularly again.
With the increasing popularity of cinematically driven game narratives, more games are inspired by and rely one film technique to tell their stories, whether they be monumental set pieces or the subtle dash of plot twists. Naughty Dog has already set quite the cinematic flair to their gaming repertoire with Uncharted and especially with The Last of Us. Like the rest of the industry has aimed for, they’ve done a consistent job at crafting the hardest hitting, most emotional roller-coasters around in nearly every possible way. From moment to moment, their games rely on blowing your mind with whatever explosive vehicle or heartbreaking revelation is being told onscreen, respectively. Similarly told games like Bayonetta and Bioshock are likewise reliant on the same elements: action fueled gameplay and engaging character dynamics, humorous (darkly so) or somber. The point remains that no matter how immersive and effective they are the first time, there’s a certain emptiness I feel after finally completing stories like theirs. I’ve seen all the secrets and surprises they have to offer, even if enjoying them immensely. Why go back?
Perhaps its the newfound foreknowledge that I have with even the most cherished thrill rides from my list of the best of this generation. Despite my desire for farming a few quick trophies, I felt that my love for games like Uncharted progressively decreased each time I replayed it on a higher difficulty or trying to relive a particularly fun spectacle. The shock is gone from it and, knowing what’s coming at me, I’m still as impressed at it intellectually but no longer invested in it emotionally. Even quieter, yet still as immersive games, like this year’s Gone Home relied on some particularly momentous spoilers for the majority of its shock value to carry its impact. I would have to admit that my appreciation of Fullbright’s story would be the same as it was in the end even if knowing those spoilers would have ruined my time with it. I’d say the same thing about going into Telltale’s Walking Dead and Mass Effect not knowing any of the choices I would have to face just to enjoy watching my own reactions of responding instinctively in the moment. Many more can recall the terror of this year’s earlier Twitter terror of Bioshock Infinite spoilers after all. . .
I will be clear, it’s not repetition that I fear. The blog you’re reading comes from the boy that watched Star Wars: Episode IV And Home Alone about as many times as some people buy socks. Then again, I don’t know how often you go through socks, so let’s just leave it at “a lot.” I can still say that the inherent pleasure of shooting a billion dudes in the face or playing detective and solving a case doesn’t wear thin on me at all. Done with quality it can be replicated ten-fold with as much beauty as the last. It’s simply the loss of complexity that I fear from completing them. I know the same thing can be said of my afore mentioned film favorites. Apart from simply being the habits of a child viewer long since changed, maybe there’s a difference to be said from surprise and suspense.
In so many of my favorite films and games, I can say that both these elements complement one another perfectly yet differently. They may seem like the same thing to people, and correct me if I’m wrong, but with surprise and suspense you have two aspects, one likened to an aftertaste and the other consumption, if one were to think of food. Your initial reaction to a new dish, good or bad, can only be gauged once via your first bite and swallowing it. You’ll never go back to imagining the mystery behind the food, true, but you might always enjoy eating it again and again for the taste alone if it’s attractive. I find the same to be applicable to games. Games like The Last of Us and Uncharted, in my mind, relied on surprise more than they did suspense and past experiencing their initial thrills and chills, there wasn’t enough to them to go back repeatedly. Others like most any Legend of Zelda had an impossibly great level of suspense behind them rather than just surprise. Boss battles like Aganim and Girahim had satisfying combat and tricks to best no matter what you already expect. Maybe that’s why the worst horror films are notoriously criticized for their over-reliance on jump scares. Thus, the matter in question is which best appeals to your willpower. One relies on the purity of your suspension of disbelief while the other is fueled by a more self-aware desire of pleasurable familiarity.
More than anything, I suppose it’s an issue of replayability I have with even my favorite games. While some may be purely level-based and story-driven without much to experience post-game, others are worlds built around revisiting. Assassin’s Creeds and Grand Theft Autos can be best described as “create your own thrills at your own pace.” Outside of the main story guiding your characters, you’re often free to engage in whatever debauchery you see fit before you’re half-way through and more people aren’t finishing the story because of the addicting collectibles and secrets to unlock. Others, of course, like X-Com and Civilization are made like chessboards to be played match after match. Select others like Dishonored and Mass Effect are possible to go back to simply to challenge yourself to make difference choices.
Whatever the case, replayability can be an element that goes deeper than on a technical level for gaming. Like Star Wars or Final Fantasy, I find that I can play them over and over again based on the complexity of the journeys that they set me on. If there’s a timeless quality about their worlds, their characters, their stories, that somehow transcends going through the onscreen motions, that is what resonates enough to make me revisit them. Contemplating ideas like the Force or Vivi’s self-identity are simply what they are, ideas, more than actions being displayed as effects. Those only exist in my mind and make me want to obsessively play them again because of their intangibility that eludes me.
As much as I loved Gravity, I sadly doubt that I’ll ever watch it again simply compared to something like Star Wars. While I love both, the former had the amazing adventure, but the latter had the spirit that I connected to a bit more. I guess I can summarize this bloated piece as I simply enjoy some games more than others, it’s only because some give me longer lasting thrills.
What are thrill rides to you? What games can you not put down and never really "finish?" Sound off in the comments below and thanks for reading.