Big-bucks game studios spend millions of dollars and deploy cutting-edge hardware and nifty programming techniques to make games look as “realistic” as possible. Yet whenever I see one of these titles my immediate reaction is: “I don’t believe this for a second.” What’s going on?
Last week, I was showing my PlayStation Vita to a gaming enthusiast friend. In truth, I haven’t touched the Vita much since Kotaku editor Mark and I had a slightly disappointed launch-day discussion of its merits (or more accurately, its lack thereof). But my friend was very keen to check out the handheld console, and particularly Uncharted: Golden Abyss. So I watched him play.
His complaints were along the lines of “using these ropes is too difficult”. That’s only to be expected on a newly-encountered device. My (largely unvoiced) objections were more fundamental.
“Why is it that every point on this cliff that you need to jump to is mysteriously lit up? How come you can fall down that abyss and then keep playing two seconds later? How is it you can shoot 17 guys from behind a pillar but they never hit you? Why does this game LOOK LIKE THE REAL WORLD AND YET IN NO WAY RESEMBLE IT, DAMMIT?” I had to pause and make myself a cup of green tea. It was an unexpectedly intense moment.
Those objections wouldn’t occur to me in a game that didn’t look somewhat like the world we know in the first place. I have no grounds to argue about the physics in a kart racer or the internal logic of Tetris, and I have never done so. But when the faces have been carefully chiselled and the dialogue endlessly scripted and the polygons re-sculpted for maximum gore and beauty, it’s evident that my demands for “reality” go right up. It looks like the real world, so I want it to act like the real world. One life, tough choices, actual pain, and a high chance of failure.
That doesn’t seem like a typical reaction; no-one hanging out for the next instalment of Call of Duty is thinking these thoughts. How did I get that way?
Maybe it’s my upbringing.
Bring me a helmet
The first computer game I ever played, more than three decades ago, was Helmet. This was a Game & Watch title from the dawn of Nintendo’s glory, and I only got to play it by accident: my schoolteacher stepmother confiscated it from one of her pupils in class, and the Kidman clan got the benefit until term ended.
Helmet‘s entire plotline is this. You’re an LCD man who has to cross from one door to the other, dodging an endless sequence of tools (hammers, spanners, screwdrivers) that fall from the sky from an unnamed source. Once you’ve crossed, you do it again, and again, and again. When you have died three times, the game ends. That’s it. Two buttons; no backstory; no motivation; no logic whatsoever. I loved it, and was hopelessly hooked from the first hammer to the cranium.
Beaten down by endless demands from myself and my siblings once Helmet went back to its owner, my father bought a copy of Octopus, an equally simple Game & Watch title. A little later, I invested a ludicrously large amount of pocket money in a handheld replica of Pac-man. I was addicted, and I never stopped to ask just why the yellow dude had to munch down all those pills.
In this era, nothing looked remotely photo-realistic; that era of gaming was at least 15 years away. Most of the Game & Watch titles featured human protagonists (if you ignore Donkey Kong II and Donkey Kong Jr and the rubbish Disney titles), albeit in monochrome. But the scenarios made no sense anyway. You endlessly gassed bugs away from plants. You collected oil in a bucket. You juggled until you died. You rescued hundreds of bouncing babies from a burning building. I was happy, and I didn’t question it.
Cauldrons, Clifford and Crash
Looking back, it’s evident that nearly every game franchise that has sucked up any meaningful chunk of my time throughout my life has been firmly based well away from reality. In high school, I distracted myself from studying with long bouts of Cauldron II on the Amstrad CPC6128 (if you don’t know it, there’s no point finding out now, frankly).
This game — in which you played a bouncing pumpkin collecting tools in a giant castle built from witches’ hats in order to escape — so occupied my psyche that years later, I went to the effort of mapping out the entire thing in an emulator. This made it very clear that the whole game was, in every meaningful sense, impossible and illogical and ridiculous. But I loved it regardless.
I used to write simple games as well, and these were equally unrealistic. One of my more notable creations was Mountain, where you had to fight your way across a single, largely-static screen while avoiding a single obstacle that was clearly visible. I still think Myst stole that idea. But you wouldn’t believe in either of them as instances of the real world.
At university, the only title I played (much — I spent a lot of time working on my slightly NSFW thesis) was Bubble Bobble on my brother’s Master System. I loved that game (the constant beer references undoubtedly helped), but it had even less connection to a recognisable world than the bouncing pumpkin.
Fast-forward to the PlayStation era, and I wasted a lot of time on kart racers. As well as developing an unexpected facility for Crash Team Racing, I became quite literally the world expert on Muppet Race Mania, a long-since-forgotten PlayStation Mario Kart clone where you can race the Muppets around a variety of courses based on their movies. It was indifferently reviewed and largely ignored. So, ever perverse, I wrote an in-depth guide to the whole shebang.
Yes, this was the man I had become. I would happily race in the guise of a puppet character in a racing car that looked like a plane against a fashion-obsessed pig and a paranoid frog, using chickens as weapons. But if you asked me to try out Grand Theft Auto, I’d immediately wonder why a conveniently-placed helicopter didn’t blow you up after you’d shot or run over the fifth innocent bystander.
And it seems the man is not for turning. I can remember, quite distinctly, someone from Microsoft showing me Halo on the original Xbox at the Australian press launch back in 2002. They wanted me to be thrilled; I was somewhere between indifferent and appalled. The rot had well and truly set in. Sure, it looked real enough in a cybernetically-enhanced way, I simply didn’t believe it for a second.
I’m a freak, I’m a weirdo
I know, I know: around these parts, this entire line of thinking makes me seem Neanderthal. Maybe it’s time for me to apply for my pension and start watching Antiques Roadshow, or collecting vintage Sega Master Systems.
I’m well aware that most Kotaku readers don’t feel this way. Many of you are so invested in specific franchises that your commenting fingers explode with rage if those franchises don’t deliver exactly what you expect (yes, I’m thinking of that much-disputed ending in Mass Effect 3 again). Whatever side of that particular debate you come down on, one thing is clear: these are not worlds which people find unconvincing or unimportant. I’m not experiencing a universal emotion. But I don’t think I’m experiencing a unique one either.
Now gaming is a mature environment, it’s only reasonable to expect that its audiences will diverge. The same is true of movies, which are more than a century old as a commercial medium. People who enjoy the Transformers series won’t get a kick out of The Iron Lady. Twilight fans aren’t queuing up for Prometheus. No-one over 12 wants to see Alvin & The Chipmunks 3. But titles in all those niches continue to appear.
That’s a good thing, as is the ability to recognise that your tastes are not universally mirrored. And maybe that’s what my counter-reaction to Uncharted: Golden Abyss and its predecessors really represents: a market where I can reject a title but still find plenty to play and enjoy.
So I’m not suggesting anyone should change their mind. Just remember that the disbelievers are out there too. We’re happy to enjoy a game featuring bouncing pumpkins, but when Nathan Drake or Master Chief strolls in, we’re strolling out. You can scorn us and pity us, but we’re not going away. At least not until hammers start falling from the sky.