E3 2013 has come and gone and the future of gaming has been unveiled and my god is the future bright. From the PS4 to the Xbox One and the Oculus Rift HD, gaming is soaring to heights unimaginable even by the brightest gaming minds. With this new wave of machines, boasting unprecedented levels of computing power, game developers are pushing the envelope like never before. Game characters move like humans, their skin takes in and reflects light like humans, and finally there is life in those eyes. What does this really mean for us gamers though? Sure things will get prettier, but that’s expected. What the next generation also delivers is ability to craft deeper narrative experiences. We have seen in this generation an explosion of games with rich and engaging narratives. Developers like Naughty Dog, Quantic Dream, Bungie, and Infinity Ward have answered the bell, bringing the flair of Hollywood from the Silver Screen to the TV Screen. Video games’ position in the hierarchy of narrative mediums is growing. They are no longer being looked at as kids fodder and that’s because the once gamer kids are now gamer adults. Our youngest generation is the most exposed generation in gaming’s history. What 2-year-old privileged kid doesn’t know about Angry Birds? Distracted parents using phones to silence excited children are gaming’s best friend. We are creating a world full of gamers and we don’t even realize it.
The important side effect of this trend is that it is changing individuals expectations of narrative experiences. As Hollywood puts all its money in the blockbuster bucket, churning out franchises at a rapid rate, games like Bioshock Infinite are delivering blockbuster quality experiences in art house wrapping paper. Developers are trying to prove that they can deliver INCEPTION quality experiences, merging intelligent narrative design with fun and engaging gameplay mechanics. You don’t have to sacrifice one or the other. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was really the first game to crack this nugget this nugget in a big way. Uncharted 2 definitely pushed the bounds to new heights, but COD4 was the hit and system seller. It was an interactive Michael Bay movie and coupled with the addictive multiplayer, it was an experience that could last you seemingly forever. It was one of gaming’s first real steps towards mainstream legitimacy selling over 16 million copies globally (according to VGChartz). Modern Warfare highlighted gaming’s greatest advantage, it makes you the creator of the moment. We’ve seen Arnold and Sly and Willis storm the room and take out all the bad guys in glorious slow motion, Call of Duty says “Hey, now YOU’RE that guy” and that’s powerful. This is a generation that favors immediacy and choice. Movies are passive by their very nature and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just not a new thing. Movies are just a skin over the same old existing method of taking in narrative. It combines the greatest of arts into one package which is great, but you still interact with it the same way as other narrative mediums which is, you don’t interact with it. The great Roger Ebert believed that interactivity was what held gaming back from ever being true art, I argue that’s what makes it the finest art of them all.
A tailor comes in and sows a great narrative. It is sewn with branching paths and seemingly endless possibilities, then he hands it off to his audience to take it to the next level. Gaming’s rise is systemic of a culture that starves for a sense of involvement. Look at the rise of mashup music genres. One artist creates something and shares it with the world, where it then transforms into something entirely different. Auteur theory is dead (and in the case of movies shouldn’t have really existed to begin with). Doulgas Rushkoff, an American Media theorist and professor at the New School University, wrote about the change in narrative and it’s effect on culture. He spoke specifically about the rise of non-linear storytelling and it’s effects on the arts, here is a snippet from his book Present Tense: When Everything Happens Now: “Mashup is to culture as genetic engineering is to biological evolution. Instead of waiting to see how genres merge and interact as cultures over time, the artist cuts and pastes the cultural strains together…instead of sharing one moment from multiple perspectives it brings multiple moments into a single whole.” In a society where no one has patience and wants to put their own stamp on everything–it’s never been more popular to “be unique”–games and their “30-seconds of fun” have prospered.
David Cage, director of titles such as Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, understands the power of choice. He gets what makes gaming different, but is also watching the industry struggle to provide its single greatest commodity to the consumer. When speaking to GI.Biz Cage had this to say “It’s great that you can shoot at monsters, and that’s great and it will always be there and it will always be successful, but at the same time, what about giving the choice to people? Give them different options. So if they like that they find it, but if they want something deeper and interactive, they can find that too.” The market has become over saturated with things that have proven to be successful, but much like the film industry–though not to the same extent– it is very hesitant to take risks. Heavy Rain isn’t your typical third person adventure game. It’s QTE based mechanics are a bit out there to say the least. It’s a very contextual and organic system which has the player mimicking the moves of in-game characters with the analog sticks. It’s an acquired taste, but not without merit and it certainly is different from what we are used to playing. The game is also well renowned for its emphasis on choice and crafting a narrative that has so many branching paths and potential outcomes. This leads to water cooler style discussion with everyone sharing what happened in their version of the story. This is something simply not possible in any other art form. Sure a group of folks stand around a piece of abstract art and see all sorts of different things, but this is different. This is a smarter art form, a more malleable, and ever-changing animal.
Douglas Rushkoff raises the stakes even further writing that narrative as we know it has collapsed not just in the film industry, but as a whole in society. Rushkoff believes games represent our first real coping response in dealing with the trauma of such a collapse. “Computer games may, in fact, be popular cultures’ first satisfactory answer to the collapse of narrative. Believe what we may about their role in destroying everything from attention spans and eyesight to social interactions and interest in reading, video games do come to the rescue of a society for whom books, TV, and movies no longer function as well as they used to.” Audience members seeking interesting stories or new ways to experience them turn to things like the web and gaming. For as rapid today’s youth diverts their attention between interests, they do yearn for a deep and fulfilling experience. They are constantly searching for something that isn’t so vapid and empty. They are looking for something with a pulse. Gaming is the most alive art form in existence, it is constantly zapping the player with something new to let us know it’s still listening, waiting for us to make it go.
The industry is not without its own troubles however. It is constantly under attack from uninformed parents and politicians looking for an easy explanation to our nation’s violent tendencies. ‘Games are corrupting our children and pushes them to commit atrocities in elementary schools!’ Of course it’s complete and utter nonsense, but this wouldn’t be America if people in power weren’t running about spewing lies to the vegetables watching at home. These are more growing pains than actual fundamental issues within the industry. Movies have faced harsh criticism, comic books, and rap music, it’s practically like fraternity hazing at this point. Guess we all have to earn our stripes. Back to the actual point of this paragraph, games do have a few legitimate concerns most stem from what many have called an unsustainable business model. When a critical darling like Tomb Raider (2013) comes out and ships 3.5 million units and is deemed a failure you know something is broken. Not only are game prices too high, they also seem to be not high enough to keep developers in business. You would think at $60 dollars a pop and often times more (look what you started with those bloody Limited Editions Bungie!) these games would more than cover their development and marketing costs.
Cliff Blezinski seems to think its used games & piracy that are holding the industry back. The always controversial Cliffy B had this to say on Twitter: “You cannot have game and marketing budgets this high while also having used and rental games existing…The numbers do NOT work people.” Now Cliff may be right, but here is my response: Not my fucking problem. It’s not the consumers problem. You don’t hear Hollywood bitching and moaning to audiences that the budgets are too high and that people should pay more. They get that if the budgets are high you either make things you KNOW people are going to like (pre awareness is key) or you slash the budget. We have determined already that people are not willing to drop $100 dollars on every title. When the placeholder prices for PS4/Xbox One games went up with a $99.95 price tag, NeoGaf went nuts. Used game markets have boomed because the price tag for games is already a bit questionable, especially when it comes to digital sales.
I will admit that I am far from an expert on game development, I hope to be, but until then I am completely ignorant to how the system works. As an ignorant observer, I’m kind of confused as to how games can cost anywhere in the vicinity of films. Average salary in the game industry has been quoted at around $84k according to Game Developer Magazine. Voice actors don’t command nearly as much as actors. You don’t have to do any location/night work. The technology costs are a wash compared to cinema which will employ much of the same tools for post and a whole new suite during production. Where is this cost coming from? Why did Grand Theft Auto IV reportedly cost $100 million to make? Since getting gamers to pay more seems out of the question, how do we minimize costs while still delivering the AAA experience? Hollywood has decided it’s only going to make sequels and adaptations of already successful properties, is gaming going to milk Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed until the end of time? It sure as hell seems so.
But let’s end things on a high note! Doom and gloom reports on implosions and unsustainable business models is so Hollywood. I want to leave you all with what I thought was the most impressive demo at E3, The Dark Sorcerer running in real-time on Playstation 4. David Cage and his team of wizards over at Quantic Dream cooked up this hilariously funny 12 minute tech demo to show gamers what is possible with the next generation of hardware. The level of detail in the player models, which each boast around 1,000,000 polygons (to put that into perspective the models in Uncharted 3 and Last of us, arguably the two best looking PS3 games, boast around 30-45,000) is staggering. We are finally staring into the screen at digital creations and seeing humanity staring back at us. The skin, eye movement, facial muscle and bone recreation is overwhelmingly realistic. Cage says that this is only the surface of what is possible on the next generation. If so, we are in for one hell of a console generation.