It’s amazing sometimes the memories, or a place in time, that a particular song, or a distinct smell can bring a person back to. And just now I got hit with a one-two punch from my music player, armed and loaded with over twenty-four thousand tracks, and set to shuffle. And just like that – epiphany. Just now (actually a week ago today, as of this posting) I was listening to Jonathan Coultan/Ellen McLain’s Still Alive, followed by Godley & Creme’s Cry, and a thought that has been brewing in the back of my mind for sometime now, finally bubbled up to the top – and then as I said before, epiphany; sad, sad epiphany actually. The best gaming moments of this console generation, have very likely already come and gone . . . years ago.
When I think about the most inspirational gaming highlights of the past generation, not necessarily the biggest selling games, but the games with the biggest impact, I think about instant classics like Resident Evil 4, Shadow of the Colossus, Chaos Theory, Half Life 2, Ōkami, and God of War. All games that were released within the final two years of the past generation. There is almost a perceptible delineation, where you can see that almost every the game from last gen leading up to the last few years, were just beta tests to get developers to the point where they could produce truly astounding masterpieces of interactive work. Even early classics like Combat Evolved, Splinter Cell, Prince of Persia, Knights of the Old Republic, and Ico, ultimately serve to play their parts in being the foundation for even greater classics by generation’s end.
But this generation, it has been the exact opposite. The most inspirational, the true classic games of this generation, have invariably come and gone years ago. I mean think about it – really look into your hearts as gamers and think about it. Multiplayer withstanding, when you think about your absolute favorite moments in gaming this gen, I think most gamers fall in a similar boat as myself, and our minds invariably drift back to pretty much the earlier years in this generation.
And 2010 in particular, almost serves as a cutoff date of sorts. Before 2010, almost anything seemed possible in games. We were getting everything from Red Dead Redemption, to Heavy Rain. Vastly differing styles of gaming, that only speaks to the width and breath that developers were willing to go to, to bring their inspirations to life, and expand the boundaries of gaming. With very few exceptions (Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, L.A. Noire) after 2010, almost everything released, and almost everything on the horizon, seems to have either been cookie-cuttered, or focus tested to death. The real spark that spoke to the imagination in us all, you know that spark that has the potential to inspire gamers to actually become developers, after 2010, that spark seems to simply be refined out of almost every game. Matter of fact, most of the best games from 2010, games like Alan Wake, Splinter Cell: Conviction, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and dare I say even Saints Row 2 (which unknown to most, is actually much better than the far more popular, Saints Row: The Third), most gamers never even played. So you get this moment in time, The Bizarro Year, I should call it, where even gaming fans turned their backs on the most fresh and innovative games of the year. So maybe there should be very little wonder why developers are not putting their best foot forward more often following 2010. Publishers already feel that innovation and pushing boundaries = very high risk to be avoided at all costs. So if you get an entire year where even the gaming fans are too busy playing higher profile (spelled: better marketed; or sequels) games, and willing to overlook the more innovative titles in the process, that’s only going to add up as a big win for publishers looking to reduce risk (innovation, taking chances, and pushing boundaries). Which may have done more to lead to the way the rest of this generation is shaking out, than anything.
Mind you, there are a handful of games left on the horizon that truly look to bring some of the joy back, and be something more than just cash cows for game publishers. Games like Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us, and The Last Guardian (if this one is even still in development), but unlike last gen which had more of these stacked toward the end of the generation, this gen there simply are fewer. And no I am not saying there are not any GOOD games coming for the rest of the generation. Games like Tomb Raider (2013), Hitman: Absolution, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, and Grand Theft Auto V, are all most certainly going to be fun as all get out to play. But the next step forward in gaming, or even in their respective genres, I highly doubt it. The first three are more of the tried and true, moving from set piece to set piece style of play personified by the Call of Duty franchise (an IP that got it’s start at the end of last gen, I might add), and the fourth (so far) looks little more than the logical extension of what has already been accomplished in the GTA IV trilogy. All of these games no doubt will exhibit a level of polish so high, that in the moment, most gamers will quickly forget that it has all been done before (which is probably why the Call of Duty series does so well) – exactly the same way before, by games earlier in the generation. Games that had less polish, but in turn were more inspired.
Matter of fact, I think the Mass Effect trilogy seems to sum up this trend succinctly. The very first game in 2007, had a lot less polish, but a lot more heart, a helluva a lot more ambition, and a willingness to truly attempt to try new things and popularize the Western style of RPG. By the time you get to the final game in the trilogy released earlier this year (2012), well you most certainly get a lot more polish – a hell of a lot more polish, even. And no one can say it is a bad game, because most certainly it is a very good game. But you also get an RPG that is almost indistinguishable from a 3rd-person shooter. And what about the ambition of the original? Completely deleted. In many respects one could say that the Mass Effect trilogy devolved, as it got ‘better’. And that sentiment pretty much sums up this entire generation. Games have gotten better overall. And by better, I mean higher production values, and more accessible to larger audiences. But at the same time, the games themselves have devolved. This is almost the exact opposite trend of the previous generation. Last gen games got better (higher production values, greater accessibility), and evolved at the same time. Culminating into some of the greatest video games ever made toward the end of last gen, and the start of the current generation.
Ultimately this means, that despite the fact games are generally getting better overall, the number of instances in gaming that are truly memorable forever, you know, moments like Nei’s death in Phantasy Star II, forever, are getting fewer. That happened over twenty years ago, and there is not a single gamer who played that moment, who did not feel a sudden emotional twinge when I brought it up just now. Those kinds of moments. At the start of this generation, gaming was magically full of those kinds of moments: flying over Liberty City by chopper, tuned to your favorite radio favorite station, at sunset; the first time you see Rapture; nuking Megaton; the battle on Virmire; meeting Andrew Ryan; every time you solved an ‘impossible’ puzzle in Portal; the first time you are so dialed into the controls in that you perform the absolute most impossible, unbelievable, piss your pants, actually stop breathing while you are playing, chain of parkour stunts with Faith . . . and then after you take your time to physically catch your breath at the end of that sequence of events, you and Faith do something even more over-the-top, and balls-to-the-walls insane; et al. Those are the moments in gaming that you will remember forever. And sadly, this generation, these kinds of moments are becoming the rarity; no longer the norm. Yeah, games are getting better. But these days it seems they are doing so at the expense of the shared inspiration between the game developers and the gamers.