A Marriage of Extremes
Late last month IGN scooped new Revolution system specs through the tireless journalistic efforts and dogged tenacity for which they are known. What they found was a system that was not willing to pony up the horsepower (get it? Pony. Horsepower.) to compete graphically with Sony or Microsoft, but instead had the unmitigated gall to suggest a great gaming machine does not have to be financially crippling. Most forum going knuckle-draggers fell into the same tired ranks of blind criticism, defense, sarcasm, and trolling, or, perhaps trawling, that they always fall into when discussions of Nintendo arise. I don't really blame them. I find it hard not to say the same thing about Nintendo time and again either as though it were fresh material, like John Grisham writing about a plucky young lawyer who breaks all the rules. But, it finally occurs to me that maybe everyone's got it wrong. Maybe, the two approaches to design aren't mutually exclusive, which seems to be the prevailing rule in practice if not theory.
As I played Oblivion the other day on my rumbling powerhouse Xbox 360, I thought with a kind of mindless snobbery how very much the Nintendo crowd would be missing out in the next generation.
And then, with my next thought, I realized that I had fallen for an industry-wide hype about graphics that has very little to do with good games. I am a product of screenshot journalism and tech-specs lust. Part of me had, on some fundamental level, conceded that Nintendo owners would be short changed in the quality of their games because it could not render sword handles as well as the 360.
That kind of pervasive and infectious mentality is what permits developers and publishers to regurgitate the same game and the same franchises on a gaming consumer base that talks the talk, but virtually never walks the walk. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Oblivion, a graphically superior title, is an exception to the rule. It may also be the best, and only example we have for a while of what a truly visionary and dedicated company can do when it marries the two extremes of gaming.
Thinking back over the past year, and the games that I've played and enjoyed the most I, come up with the following list:
We Heart Katamari
World of Warcraft
Save one, we are not talking about a collection of graphical powerhouses here, and yet I keep seeing these titles on this kind of list. One might almost be able to make the dramatic and Xtreme logical leap to a conclusion that, and I realize I tread upon gaming's most holy dogma here, graphical superiority does not alone a good game make. While Oblivion is unquestionably an amazing game to look at, had Bethesda done nothing more than slap a new coat of paint on Morrowind, as some feared they might, the game would have been as disappointingly average as public school and radio stations owned by Clear Channel. Oblivion is not a great game because of the visuals, nor despite them. It is a great game regardless.
Are we supposed to care how realistic the physics of individual armpit hairs are on the units of the Mongolian Horde, if, by having realistic-armpit-technology, we have to sacrifice the ability to actually see a horde? Should we fascinate over how many bumpy textures adorn the cancerous wart on the nose of some FPS mercenary if we're shooting him with the same old weapons at the always familiar Boxes-O-Varying-Sizes Factory? Should we boggle at the realistic blood spray ejected from the stripper we just ran down with our stolen convertible, if we're playing in yet another gritty, urban, ultra-violent environment.
Judging by a recent trip to Gamestop, where I was berated no fewer than six times for not bringing my trades with me, I'd say yes. And, why? Because they are the games to which we are told to anticipate, and enough of us buy into that.
Part of the problem has to be that we are rarely given better information to digest. And, that's not as much a fault of the gaming media as it is the medium through which they work. Would a screenshot of Guitar Hero have managed to convey the Jimmy Page awesomeness of the game in a preview? Could a Civilization IV preview have convinced me that the dark, wicked soul of Civ III had been suitably banished by a cabal of powerful holy men? Could anyone ever have convinced me of the hours I would spend on my Xbox 360 playing Geometry Wars of all things?
No, as gaming media outlets spawn like salmon on Spanish Fly, and readers demand quick sneak-peeks over long and articulate missives, the screenshot becomes the necessary soup du jour. Compelling visuals are a key part of a marketing strategy in generating interest, because if you want your big game to get the exclusive cover of PC Gamer, then you better have amazing screenshots ready, even if the title is years from completion. Design law at some point changed to: Visuals first, then gameplay as an afterthought.
Abusing great visuals are, I suspect, like abusing narcotics. The first few times you enjoy the overwhelming visual high, all the other problems just fade away, but then the buzz wears off quicker, the problems start sneaking back in, and you need more texture passes just to feel anything at all. Where once realistic shadows alone could satisfy you through six hours of repetitive gameplay, now shadows do nothing for you, and you need a complete physics engine, ambient lighting, and realistic skin. Eventually you start plugging in games, and they throw every visual trick in the book at you, but the high just isn't there anymore, and so you get strung out after a disappointing night of FEAR and in a Mountain Dew and Pizza Hut haze of sugar and fury you hold up a liquor store for Halo money. Then the cops come to your house, find you rubbing new screenshots of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Vicks VapoRub on your chest, and haul your sorry tush off to the hoosegow for six month (out in 90 days on good behavior).
Consider, if you will, the interesting case of the PSP and the DS. The PSP strikes me as an attractive and visually compelling medium in which publishers dumped every cash-in franchise they could find. A whirlpool of bullet-points and market research that rejects daring and creativity as resoundingly as Claudia Schiffer would reject my suggestion that we totally start hanging out. There is nary a lawyer game, puppy simulator, or musical invertebrate to be found on the PSP.
And, the frustrating point is that the PSP and those developing for it could be making as interesting and unique games as are available on the DS. It's simply that somewhere along the line someone is choosing not to. They are investing money in taking the most advantage of the technical superiority of the system, and not in making a game with a unique experience and engaging style.
Nintendo, despite its many flaws, seems to be the only major player willing to go against the conventional thinking. In some ways, at the risk of going political, Nintendo is the George Bush of gaming, determined to do what they think is best despite and without any interest in what their critics might say. The more people tell Nintendo they can't be successful with an underpowered, dual-screen, stylus input, portable system the more Nintendo does whatever the hell they want to thank-you-very-much! Sony and Microsoft would have certainly abandoned the initial concept after the first focus group responded to such a system with the same kind of expression you might wear if your grandfather explained that he was a boxers man because briefs were too constricting for his unusual girth.
And clearly Nintendo's play is earning them a dominant place in the industry, great buzz, and strong sales. You see that, folks? That was sarcasm.
You see, Nintendo ultimately falls into the same traps as everyone else. In dramatically sacrificing technical proficiency they alienate a market that, despite its better angels, gives a serious damn about how what they're playing looks. The DS has some premier titles that demand to be played despite bland visuals, just like every other system, but for the average game for the gamer, visuals are relevant. Again, Nintendo, like Sony, is making a choice; one extreme for, and at the expense of, the other.
In the end, you can only buck the trends so far, before the market goes away. As long as the market thinks it needs fancy graphics for its games, then you have to make some effort to deliver. And as long as games featuring rap stars living out their snuff film fantasies to their own self-aggrandizing music sell a million copies, then those of us begging for change are going to look like the kind of idealistic, art-house miscreants you see attending film festivals in small mountain towns, drinking overpriced coffee and congratulating one another for having such a fine understanding of the craft.
But, consider this in closing. Imagine a company, for a moment, with a dedication to unique and playable games like Nintendo, with the technical strength of an Xbox 360 or PS3. Like the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup marriage of two great tastes that taste great together, what would gaming be like if we had more games that did both?