Sunday Thoughts: 17/01/10

Those of you that have been reading my Sunday rants for the year or so we’ve been doing Sunday Thoughts will be well aware that I have a huge interest in older games.  It’s not that I don’t like the whizz-bang of HD gaming, because I do (and it gives us all something to write about every day) but when my head’s not in the mood for the current generation I’m more than happy to fire up the Spectrum (or, of course, an emulator) and spend a completely happy couple of hours with eight colours, two dimensions and one channel of sound.

Why?  It’s not just strictly rose-tinted glasses and wishing I was six again, it’s actually mainly that games back then were simpler, with a more focused attitude and seemingly every big game did something revolutionary, whether it was the birth of isometric visuals with Ant Attack, the double jump of Mario, or the ability to race your mates in another room with Microprose Grand Prix or Stunt Car Simulator.  Naturally, I’m well aware that not every game can innovate, but just now I can’t help shake the feeling that most games are happy enough to just copy.

But that’s for another day, and I have enough feelings on that subject to fill up many a Sunday Thoughts.  What I want from a game when I switch it on, and what appears to be mostly lacking these days in the current AAA big blockbusting line-up of the chart-topping titles is the requirement for the player to think for themselves.  Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 actively invites you to disengage your brain completely during its single player rush, for example, because its ridiculous pacing requires a movie-like structure that would be ruined if you had to stop for second.

I can concede that much of my feelings on this matter comes from me having grown up with text-only adventure games and games with basic graphics, of course, and a gamer born in the last 20 years or so will no doubt scoff at what I’m saying, but games today, in the most part, don’t seem to let gamers use their own imagination and instead ensure that every last detail is pushed right into our faces.  There are exceptions: Katamari Forever rarely completes the picture visually, for example, but 99% of games feel the need to remove the need for the individual to think for themselves.

It’s the nature of the beast, of course, and with big budgets come big expectations and the requirement for screenshots to impress immediately and trailers to precisely portray the game as an aesthetic masterpiece.  But this doesn’t always have to be the way: take Scribblenauts – a recent DS game that completely left the player to their own devices.  There were levels, and puzzles, but chances are no two players would ever use exactly the same methods to get through the game because doing so required what most games rarely do: your imagination.

Challenged with an end result but letting the gamer loose with a keyboard that would produce whatever you typed meant almost infinite possibilities – would you use a ladder to climb a tree to get an orange, or would you draw a stone and throw it at the tree to dislodge it?  Or get a skateboard and a ramp, or a rope, or a big lorry to jump off?  Sure, it’s a different notion when the game engine can draw everything you need but you do still need to think for yourself rather than the game’s developers having already laid out a specific linear path.

There’s two issues here: one is that developers (and their publishers) want every last frame of a game to be beautiful and complete, and the second is that to do so requires the player to switch off and just crash through the game like a bull in a china shop.  Seldom are you expected to stop and think, and even less common are you asked to complete the dots and use your imagination.   Naturally, we’re never going to get the same game designs filling the shelves as we did in the early 80’s, but it would be nice, every once in a while, to be asked to engage my brain when playing a game.