There are some games I like a lot. When you consider that I feel most games are bad, you may start to realise why this is a big deal. Yes, there are some games I enjoy but most I tolerate. I am inspired and awed by the potential of games but so few approach that, or even attempt to, that it’s difficult not to be cynical. So when a game really gets to me it’s a matter of personal significance.
Sadly very few games have ever affected me in this manner, those that do often achieve this in spite of their design rarely because of it. These games I profess to adore are not without their faults, I like to think I’m unbiased enough to be able identify these flaws; but this recognition does little to detract from my respect for these games. All that is necessary is a single moment, one small spark of imagination or intelligent that shows me a glimpse of that potential . What is any amount of design flaws or technical bugs compared to that?
Over the last few years I’ve been fortunate enough to play several such games. I’ve talked at length about some of them but still it’s difficult to describe the reason I hold these games in such esteem. I’ve described the fate of Frank Bilders but I fear in my attempt to personalise that account I may have sacrificed clarity. This was an event that actually caused me a moment of pause. I sat thinking, dwelling, on what had just happened. Through my actions I’d allowed another to die, somebody who had risked their life (albeit a virtual one) to save me on prior occasions. I felt something. I’m not trying to say I understand the pain of losing a friend (something I hope never to experience first hand), I imagine what I felt to be barely a shadow of that, a fleeting glimpse of a shadow of a concept of that. But it was enough. In that moment I saw the potential of what games could achieve. I’d been emotional affected by the game, something only a few works in other media have ever truly managed. It was different this time, stronger somehow for all it’s fleetingness; I’d witnessed the power and futility of my own agency.
Surely If I could get everybody else to play that game and experience a similar moment then that would put an end to the entire discussion of whether games could be art, whether they were interesting or worthy of study. If I could convince everybody else that for that briefest moment I had truly felt a pang of guilt for the consequences of my actions then I believe they would understand the power of games. I understand that such things are subjective and maybe Far Cry 2 isn’t the game for everybody, but I can only speak from my personal experience so I had to try and get people to play this game, and appreciate it as I do.
If a moment like that could be attained in a era when games are still so focused on the juvenile concepts of violence and direct action what could be accomplished in the years to come?
It might seems ridiculous, asinine, that I could make such claims about a game like Far Cry 2. But no matter how much I wanted to be engaged I was utterly unmoved by the death of Aeris, unable to understand the appeal of the Zelda or Metal Gear series and left feeling stupid and frustrated by Braid. Something about Far Cry 2 drew me, held me, engaged me like so few other games have ever do. So that it was able in that one moment of holistic purity to me cause me to stop and really reflect on my actions; to offer me a look some of potential of games. How could I not want to talk about it, not want everybody else to share that experience?
And then, it only went and did it again.
I want to scream it from the rooftops because I believe in the power of this medium and honestly think that if I can get others to have the same experience I had with this game then they’ll understand it too. I cannot always accurately describe what it is about a particular game that has such an affect on me, and the excitement I feel at having witnessed that moment of potentiality can make such critical thought even harder. I can explain the circumstances of the event and what I felt but even that is not always enough. I get frustrated and angry at my inability to make other people understand, I get emotional, irrational. I rant, I snap, I resort to childish insults. You don’t understand and I can’t make you, and that’s painful.
So with a fledgling critical language and incomplete vocabulary I strive to explain a moment that was at once precisely as simple as I’ve described yet orders of magnitude more complex. Out of context it is easy to explain but without the foundation of the rest of the game, the build up and the pay off can seem facile, meaningless; my reaction to it pretentious at best and comic at worst.
If I can seem overly intent in my praise or damning in my condemnations it’s born of frustration at my inability to get across how much of an impact something has had on me, or how close I feel it came to giving me one of those rare moments of clarity. I am a fanboy and I have something to really be a fan of. It’s is my privilege, it is also my curse.
The news that StarCraft II is to to be released as the first in a trilogy has caused some controversy. The variety and tone of comments on the matter has swayed from the conciliatory to the openly hostile, to the abusive. I have quoted an example of two such comments, culled from popular game industry news sites:
“Tip to Blizzard: Sell this to Korea only, America does not want your stupid, expensive, and uninventive sequel. Also – get some balls and come up with a new concept. Diablo + Warcraft + Starcraft are getting stale.”
“This is Blizzard fucking over people to make more money. I played SC for the multiplayer, but Single Player was still great. Now because some guy in some fucking suit over at Activison-Blizzard thought “how can we fucking milk this shit more?” we have to pay for 3 incomplete games. You thought EA is fucked up? this sets a new standard.”
With such comments as this often standard and not the exception is it any wonder gaming and gamers are considered juvnile?
StarCraft II is being released as three separate products with three different single-player campaigns included in each product; the release dates and pricing details have yet to be announced. The original StarCraft featured a single-player mode with three campaigns, one for each race, “out of the box”. Are potential consumers somehow entitled to a sequel that follows that trend and again includes three playable campaigns on initial release?
This is not the first time StarCraft II and Blizzard have provoked controversy. Ashley Cheng posted on his blog that he was disappointed that Blizzard were taking a conservative approach to the design of their sequels. I have no problem with this comment, and I agree with Steve Gaynor who described it as a “sad-ass day” when Ahsley felt compelled to apologise for holding an opinion. He was stating an opinion and in fact one I agree with, however I do question if whether the conservative nature of Blizzard’s design philosophy is inherently a bad thing.
The underlying issue seems to be how important innovation and originality are to a sequel or franchise title. Is there something inherently wrong with providing games that fans of the original will enjoy? It is all but impossible to create a sequel that is aesthetically or mechanically identical to the original, incremental changes occur all the time and together with new technology this means any sequel is automatically going to feel at least a little different to the original. Genre conventions (Whether you believe they should be kept to or not) change over time, is there anything wrong with a new game including those changes while keeping the core mechanics relatively unchanged?
Another question is who should the developers be making their sequel for? If hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people purchased your previous title how do you decide how far to change or innovate for the sequel? The answer to this question is made even more complicated when you start to look at the general reception of some titles that have sought to innovate. Warhammer 40K: Dawn Of War II is taking a different approach to its mechanics compared to the original Dawn Of War. There is a greater focus on individual squads and tactics over base building and resource management. This has caused consternation in some quarters as it no longer feels like the original title. So how much innovation is too much?
Is this a case of Goldilocks and the three sequels? This one is too different, this one is not different enough but this one is just right?
Too little change gives up Diablo III, too much gives us Deus Ex: Invisible War. But even in the case of the former the art style has provoked comment and controversy, because it has changed “too much” from that of Diablo II.
I can’t help but feel that sometimes “lack of originality” is the battle cry of those who feel their own pet projects are not getting the attention they deserve. Are games there to provide entertainment for consumers, or to gratify the artistic desire of their creators? Is it possible for them to be both?
Who are developers ultimately answerable too? Themselves, their publishers (And their shareholders) or their fans? Are their fans entitled to a sequel with the same art direction as the original, or the same style of single-player campaign? Or should they seek to innovate, and if so how much and in which areas?
There are far more questions than answers, yet reading comments to news posts regarding upcoming sequels it seems like everybody knows exactly what the right way to create a sequel is, and unsurprisingly only a few of them agree with each other.
Are consumers entitled to anything beyond products that function correctly? If you don’t like something you are not required to purchase it, no one is forcing that upon you. Is there a fear that with the release of a particular style of sequel what you might have enjoyed about the original will be ignore? It can often be difficult to get two people to agree on the strengths of an individual game let alone what they feel should be included in any sequel.
Is there a value in change for the sake of change? If it’s not broken why fix it? If you are providing entertainment for millions of people is there a reason to change what you are doing? Is the games industry a consumer driven industry or a product driven one? Which should it be?
Personally I know from experience that both StarCraft II and Diablo III will likely be high quality releases that will be consistently supported by Blizzard in the months and years following release. Beyond that I am happy to let them provide what they want to provide, if it’s a similar experience to what I’ve had before I see no problem with that if I still want that experience I will enjoy it, if I don’t I won’t purchase it. There are enough other titles released each year that I know I will find something to entertain and engage me somewhere.