Meaningful Content

In the last generation, we saw games getting bigger and bigger and budgets ballooning out of control. As publishers were looking to get as much return as possible, games became bloated with side-quests that had little to no relevance to the main story mode.

Just this year, we have been given three games that do away with such fluff. Bloodborne, The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid V. In each game, every bit of content feels just. You never waste your time in areas that plaster up invisible walls or grant absolutely no benefit; if you undertake a side-quest, the reward is readily apparent.

Take MGS V for example. At the very beginning of the game, you are unable to understand the soldiers in Afghanistan. This pretty much makes getting information a pointless endeavor. After finishing the first mission, you are informed of translators in the area that can be rescued. Doing so grants you the ability to understand the language in that area.

It’s an immediate payoff that gives the player a sense of accomplishment. Instead of including an activity because it’s cool, the developers thought to award some palpable sense of achievement within the game itself.

The Witcher basically has stronger plot points in the side missions then the main quest itself. One very early side quest has you tackling the mystery of a man’s wife who has gone disappearing. You get to be a detective and figure out what occurred and the impact this has had on the man’s life.

Did you take her?

It is supremely rewarding to dig into such a rich story. Most side quests can be boiled down to a few simple points; the game needs to be longer and the player can skip these. Since developers don’t want the player to “miss” any important content, one can reasonably skip the side stuff and still get the entire story.

Even before Wild Hunt, The Witcher 2 had an entirely different second act based on some decisions you made at the end of the first. It was a radical departure from what mainstream, triple A gaming was doing. That is getting a bit side tracked from my point, though.

With Bloodborne, while the world may not be entirely open as in Witcher and MGS, you can tackle most of the boss creatures in an order of your choosing. There are even a great few that you can entirely skip. A lot of the work in getting to them is shrouded in obscurity and requires one to think outside the box.

This leads to optional areas that are just as thrilling, frightening and meticulously detailed as the main game. More so, with the narrative being ambiguous and vague, the game encourages you to seek out as much information as possible. Without being told to, you are actively pushed to see the full picture.

This subtlety to approaching story in a game makes Bloodborne utterly captivating. Coupled with the brutal combat mechanics and steep difficulty and Bloodborne becomes a game that can consume your life for a good month or two.

Ah, yes, a good month or two….where is my cranberry juice?

I do remember games being like this in my heyday. Games on the NES, SNES and even PS1 were more about creating experiences that rewarded player skill and investment. Not every game was supremely long, but every bit of content was worthwhile.

I can’t think of a Mario game where I would want to skip levels (other then 8-3 in the original being a bitch). Shooters like Quake were so morbid, dark and terrifying that I was compelled to press on to see the corridors that lie ahead.

Then you look back at the last few years of gaming and you see pointless padding. Watch_Dogs, Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider; newer entries in these series had so much pointless content that gamers gave up caring. Why do I want to climb towers in every city just to spot “important” locations? What benefit does collecting feathers or journals or hidden packages have for me?

I was amazed when playing Sleeping Dogs and found out that a lot of the side quests have a tangible benefit to the player. Finding the hidden shrines would increase your maximum health. Getting all of the statues in the story missions unlocked extra finishing moves for your combos. It was wild to think that side content could actually mean something in the modern era.

Then you look at inFamous: Second Son and all of the side stuff does basically nothing. Sure, you can level up your skills, but the game is so easy that nothing else over your starting arsenal is really required.

It seems that for as big as we can make game worlds, there is some nagging need to include as much stuff as possible. It’s as if the game isn’t engaging enough, so developers have a desire to distract you from how mediocre it is.

“You’re right! I don’t even care!”

There are some complaints that MGS V is devoid of life (something lobbied at Ocarina of Time as well), but that doesn’t even hold water. When I actively want to explore the game world, I don’t care if hundreds of things are crawling around. I like exploring landscapes and seeing nature in a natural state.

Taking a hike through a forest doesn’t bring you to a lost tribe or hidden tomb (unless you happen to be lucky); one takes a walk through nature to escape the fast paced nature of their lives. It’s a form of escapism that brings you back to reality and the purity of nature.

It’s also not a waste of time. Even though you aren’t technically accomplishing anything, you are freeing your mind of the bullshit from your daily life. Your problems disappear for a few hours in a safe, fun and refreshing manner.

Where are all the damn side quests?

When a video game so perfectly encapsulates that (such as MGS V), why am I going to complain about a lack of visible life? I don’t want more stuff in my games, I want my games to feel more complete.

I just wonder why it took so long for developers to finally get around to making completely worthwhile experiences. I think that, in the years coming up, we’ll see more and more games that cut out all of the trappings and stick to gameplay and extra missions that actually matter.

That, or we can just look at Super Mario Maker and make our own stuff. I wish Project Spark were as open-ended as Mario Maker, because I would love to get in on manipulating my childhood memories.

I Need a Bigger Gun

As we progress into the future, games become more and more limitless. When hardware or storage capacity used to hinder developers, new formats and emerging cloud gaming have basically done away with old constraints.

Have you ever noticed how most newer games lack unique or memorable arsenals? With all the power at their fingertips, developers still rely on the tried and true Doom arsenal to pepper their games with variety. Nothing against Doom or iD Software, but that was 1994.

We are in the year 2015. The fact that I couldn’t recall any weapons from the latest Call of Duty is a tremendous problem. Even if the first game relied on period accurate weaponry, the series was known more for how it changed the way we utilize the guns more then the guns themselves.

Yes! That gun I’ve used in every game for the past 4 years!

Even with that, Call of Duty is eternally boring with it’s selection of firearms. You have the general ”Weapon” category and then everything to broken into sub-catregories. Rifles, Machine Guns, SMGs, Snipers; you name a real life gun, Call of Duty has it.

While this may make sense for a Tom Clancy game with it’s focus on realism, Call of Duty should be pushing the boundaries of the genre. The games are the most popular thing in the medium and collect ridiculous amounts of money every year. You’d think Activision would want to spice things up a bit.

To lay off that franchise, what about any other games? Grand Theft Auto is guilty of phoning in the weapons. I remember the stupid glee I had when I first obtained the chainsaw in GTA: Vice City. About the coolest weapon I found in Grand Theft Auto V was a golf club.

Even Assassin’s Creed has basically stopped innovating in terms of arsenals. Since Ezio introduced the dual hidden blade, every subsequent game has contained it. Ubisoft then started throwing in items that took away from the idea of stealth (who the hell wanted bombs?).

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate looks to remedy this problem, but I don’t know if one game series is enough. As popular as those games may be, shooters still reign supreme and have been stagnant for a long time. I don’t want to always rely on an M4 or ACR in my games.

I used to love old-school shooters with their insane, unrealistic and creative weapons. I loved how, when Half-Life took a turn for a more realistic style, the weapons remained unconventional. I truly love how Unreal introduced two firing modes.

Even their “real” guns had different modes.

Painkiller, a game which was seen as a bit vapid back in the day, has probably the best arsenal of any shooter around. There are only 6 weapons, but each gun has an alternate mode that is basically a new gun. It doubles the arsenal without bombarding the player with different models or information.

To that effect, Halo has always been fairly inventive with it’s guns. While some are basically analogues for genre staples, the Needler and the Plasma pistol are wholly unique. The pistol is also god damned incredible with how well it balances the multi-player (as far as the first game is concerned).

Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 Arena never had issues with balance as their arsenals were diverse and different. Obviously a rocket launcher was in both, but each game had a different feel and different fire rate. The rail-gun was a much faster sniper, while UT’s plasma rifle and ripper have never been replicated.

You can dig through iD Software’s past and find plenty of different guns. Quake had the lightning gun, Heretic had a damned staff and Doom introduced the world to the BFG 9000 (later upgraded to the BFG 10k for Quake 3).

And all was right with the world.

Then I go to my PS4, boot up Killzone: Shadow Fall and see weapons that can be replaced with any real world equivalent. It really makes newer games feel completely dated. What about when future warfare becomes a reality? Now these weapons will be old-school and worthless.

With the likes of old-school shooters, most of those weapons will never exist. Even if you could produce a facsimile, the game’s weapon would remain an entity unto itself. The fun wouldn’t be lost or feel lazy.

I would just like to see shooters try harder. The genre used to be a trailblazer for graphical technologies and creativity. Now, we pretty much have a paint by numbers system for creating first-person games. I don’t want that to be the standard.

The End of an Era

As the curtains closed on “Assassin’s Creed: Revelations” for me, one thing struck me; I really love Ezio. The stories of his games have gotten progressively more convoluted and incomprehensible, but he is such a shining example of a great character.

The man is flawed, but intelligent. He is willing to admit mistakes and learn from them. He was brash in his youth, but we’ve seen him grow to being wise and powerful. He is a masterful leader and excellent assassin. It’s touching to see his life close out.

The same goes for Altair, despite how annoying and underdeveloped he was in the first “Assassin’s Creed” game. Seeing the later parts of his life and coming to terms with knowing that he is gone was actually kind of difficult for me.

It’s shocking to deal with death. I’ve had to do it in the past for two family members and they’ve stirred me to my very core. Seeing them one day and then knowing they have faded forever is terrible. Not knowing the reason why or contemplating how just makes it worse.

I obviously knew Altair died, otherwise Ezio couldn’t exist. Ezio had to have passed at one point, too, as Desmond is the modern day equivalent of him. Still, just witnessing their final moments and knowing their ambitions make those scenes very poignant.

When Altair speaks with his family before finally saying goodbye, I just think of how my grandmother or aunt might have taken my final words to them. While Altair knew he was heading for death and his son probably could have guessed it, I never knew when my family was going to pass.

Soon at work, one of my co-workers will be leaving. I’ve only known her for the better part of a year, but just as I was getting friendlier, she is leaving. I’m not blaming her (as the matter is far more complex than just quitting), but I do wish I could hold onto the atmosphere we’ve cultivated.

Still, I’m hopeful for her future. My current job isn’t what you’d call a beacon of dreams. The company is mainly where people go to die, or distract themselves over the summer between classes. That I am there and toiling away just makes me remorseful of my past.

The two might not even be closely related in terms of severity or gravity, but losing anyone is just hard. As sad as it might seem, I really didn’t want to lose Ezio. Seeing a new Assassin’s Creed title with him might have been groan inducing, but it always left me hopeful for his charming demeanor.

The end of Altair and Ezio, though, gives me reason to believe in the future of Assassin’s Creed. I’m truly hoping Ubisoft is listening to the fans, because I do not want to see Desmond in any first-person style crap again.

What I feel is that we are moving on to something new and fresh. The few previews for “Assassin’s Creed III” show that combat is getting revamped and exploration seems to be in a massive open world. That’s about all I’ve read.

Still, life moves on. We can’t always hold onto the past, other than our memories. While I try to avoid being nostalgic and always attempt to look at things for what they are, maybe it’s time for me to employ some sympathy to my memories.

I’ve dwelled long enough on the passing of my grandmother and aunt. Reliving those moments I learned of their deaths hasn’t done me favors for the past two years. I know all the lessons associated with those events and it’s high time I applied them to my life.

Ezio’s final words echo within me. “When I was a young man, I had liberty, but I did not see it. I had time, but I did not know it. And I had love, but I did not feel it.” My life is essentially this.

So instead of repeating the mistakes of Ezio, I believe I shall change, It may not be soon or very noticeable, but it will occur. This is the end of era, both for me and for Assassin’s Creed. Here’s to the future!

Freedom: What’s The Whole Story, Again?

Freedom is something we all strive to obtain. Whether it is freedom from our parents, freedom from paying bills or even just psychological freedom, most humans take great efforts to be on their own. The topic, alone, is ripe with opportunities for deep storytelling. Why is it, then, that most open-world games lack any kind of proper narrative?

I’ve played a huge chunk of the free roaming titles out there; Assassin’s Creed, Fallout 3, Oblivion, Dead Rising, inFamous, Prototype, Red Faction: Guerilla, Grand Theft Auto 3/4. I’ve enjoyed some more than others, but I almost never have any idea about what is going on.

Assassin’s Creed is one of the few to include a very thought-provoking story. Other than that, though, I really have no idea what the “vault” is or how the hell Alex Mercer created the demon within. Even when cutscenes are sprinkled in the mix, I still can’t figure out what’s happening.

The game that started this craze, Grand Theft Auto 3, doesn’t even really have a coherent plotline. It begins with a failed bank robbery and the main character getting gunned down. He then turns to the mob to find the girl who betrayed him and I get lost. How do you go from the mob to random drug dealers and then back?

Grand Theft Auto 4 made huge strides in the presentation of a narrative, but even that failed due to rudimentary mission structure. Niko Bellic would often talk about how he didn’t like killing people and that he needed more money to live, but the missions would make you murder upwards of 100 bad guys and give payouts of around $40,000. Why would you even continue at that point?

Red Faction: Guerilla starts off as a fairly interesting take on terrorist actions, but then it devolves into something involving native Martians and how some woman was hiding amongst the Red Faction for years. I don’t even know the characters names, but the writers were definitely pulling at threads when they through that mid-game twist into the mix.

inFamous takes the cake for the worst story, however. Not only do I have no idea whom Sasha is, but the whole duality system the game plays up with differing moralities amounts to nothing. Regardless of what action you pick, the outcome of every event is the same. If you stop the train or blow it up, everyone hates you. If you save the group of people or the single person, your girl friend dies. What is the purpose of choice, then?

Easily the best plot line I’ve seen in any of these games comes from Assassin’s Creed 2. While there are some bits that I don’t understand (mainly the entire middle segment), the way the game follows Ezio’s growth from a headstrong young adult to a combat hardened assassin is fairly breath taking. Not only is it epic in scope, but it almost acts as a character study. Hell, it even brings to light how people take advantage of their every day possessions (such as family).

I’m not sure what the problem is with writing a story for open-world games. Maybe it has to do with player freedom? The Zelda series still offers a fairly in-depth plot, but allows players to explore the world at will. Maybe it’s with character customization? If that’s the case, then how do you explain Rainbow Six: Vegas 2? (Even if that plot has little cohesion).

Where I think the problem lies is with the increasing trend of shooters becoming the dominant genre in the industry. Everyone sees that Call of Duty sells by the bucket load, so developers are trying their best to offer different gameplay experiences first before worrying about plot lines. It shows with linear games, too.

Rockstar had to restrict the freedom of players for L.A. Noire’s story to even work. That just goes to show you how far scripted events and plotting can go to make a narrative effective. You don’t often see films taking non-linear paths, but they usually don’t work (Crash is a prime example).

Do I have any solutions to the problem? I think hiring more unknown writers would do the trick. Recently, F.E.A.R. 3 came out and boasted a script helmed by John Carpenter. It stands as one of the worst examples of story in a videogame that I’ve ever played through. If you give some lesser known person the ability to weave a tale, I’m sure they would try their best to make it special.

My other solution would be to completely strip plot out of free-roam games, though that seems incredibly drastic. Not every single title in the genre is awful (especially not Assassin’s Creed), but developers just seem to start off with bangs and then fizzle out over the course of the game.

Whatever the future holds for soapbox/free roam/open-world games, I’m honestly not very eager to keep going. I like sitting down and getting my mind wrapped around the experience. It’s hard to keep me intrigued when the most introspective and in-depth thing going on is an explosion.