Op-Ed: The Lost Art of “Simple” Video Games

by in General | Jun, 6th 2020

Simple video games don’t necessarily have to be plain, straightforward, or devoid of depth. There’s beauty in simplicity, and in today’s hectic world, they shouldn’t be such a rarity. Sometimes you just want a linear experience, but one that isn’t shallow. A story that will function as a cathartic experience and deepen our understanding of a particular topic — a layered experience that we’ll potentially carry with us for the rest of our lives. Or, you know, for a couple of years.

We all have our favorites. For me, the most recent example has to be God of War. I beat the third installment in the series just a couple of days before picking up the latest one. I was by no means a God of War fanatic, but I understood the formula and was pretty confident in what I was getting myself into.

What ensued, however, was better than my wildest dreams. I was taken aback by the beauty, depth, and intelligence that GoW brought to the table. I wasn’t expecting such a thing, especially not after mindlessly plowing through NPCs en route to destroying Olympus mere days prior.

This was not a game, but rather a labor of love. A product that was made possible only because of the long and storied multi-year-long journey players and Santa Monica Studio took with Kratos. After so many years, Cory Barlog and his talented team of writers took the Greek demigod where no one ever expected him to end up: middle age. Here was a deity forced to bond with his son. Hardly as spectacular as taking down Poseidon or Zeus, but every bit as mesmerizing.

I devoured through the game in three to four days, working by day, playing by night. I engaged in it religiously, eagerly anticipating what the next day would bring in terms of narrative and action. I held those moments sacred.

All of this came as a surprise seeing how I took a long hiatus from single-player games to focus solely on esports. I felt that triple A games had plateaued in regards to storylines and sense of scale — they were products, engineered to appease to the widest possible audience, recreated and recycled in an attempt to rake in as much revenue as humanly possible.

As someone who prefers profound experiences and complex narratives to mindless button mashing, that was a realm that no longer held my interest.

When I came back, however, I was stunned by the progress that was made in just a couple of years. The textures, volumetric lighting, many different anti-aliasing methods which made everything seem a bit more realistic. Technical wizardry like dynamic resolution, realistic weather changes, and so forth.

Anything that could be categorized under “visual fidelity” was improved tenfold. The games I once played paled in comparison. These were worlds brimming with life, endlessly fascinating in nature and brought into existence with breathtaking detail.

It’s hard not to stand in awe after witnessing such a thing. I often found myself just wandering and exploring the banalest things — tables, bookshelves, sheds, examining how light refracted and how realistic the dust speck seemed while I was right next to a light source. It was and still is, profoundly mind-blowing.

But the visual side of things is just one half of the equation. The second half, perhaps even more important, is the design of it all. Most of today’s triple A titles use the same world-building tools and narrative devices that have been commonplace in the film industry for decades. Video games have always been moving towards such a place, and once the technology caught up, it didn’t take long for game developers to fully utilize said tools to create stunning worlds that require our undivided attention.

Today, the line between a full-fledged film and a big-budget video game is blurred, in no small part due to motion capturing, orchestral scoring, and fleshed-out characters. We’re talking about two entirely different mediums that have a fairly similar result.

The first provides you with a multi-media multi-sensory experience, one which you intake passively. The other, however, requires action, although not always in big ways. You can feel the patience and care that goes into titles like God of War, The Last of Us, Red Dead Redemption 2, and so on. The best developers in the world are cognizant of the fact that no breathtaking graphical wizardry will make their game feel more real than an ensemble of true-to-life characters, all with their peculiar virtues, faults, idiosyncrasies and the like.

But as these elements improved and became more complex, so did the games themselves, some of which became centered around tropes and clichés. Many developers started incorporating various elements from other successful titles (and genres) even though there was no valid reason to do so. This, by proxy, led to a baffling number of games that look and play the same way.

Any time I start playing a new game, I’m often overwhelmed by the amount of information that I have to process right from the very get-go. I recently finished Respawn Entertainment’s surprisingly solid Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order, but it certainly didn’t start well.

Just ten minutes in, I had to learn to move, attack, parry, roll, jump, use the Force, reflect, use an overcomplicated multi-layered map, use my lightsaber as a fleshlight, use it for a heavy slicing over-the-top attack, and probably five more things I forgot to mention. It’s Uncharted, Dark Souls and Assassin’s Creed all rolled into one.

It felt like every button on the keyboard had a function. This wasn’t true, of course, but that was the subjective feeling — and that’s the only thing that matters.

The deep skill tree — though beautiful and well-designed — added yet another unnecessary layer of complexity. Now sure, by the end of the game, the story forces you (no pun intended) to learn the many tips and tricks that are at your disposal to progress, but it’s still a lot to intake.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Astral Chain are pretty much the same. I started playing the latter and enjoyed it immensely. It was fast-paced, and surprisingly entertaining. But after I came back to it after a week, I realized that I had forgotten a good chunk of the control scheme. Now, I am by no means Albert Einstein, but I’m not dense either.

Instead, I was simply overwhelmed by the amount of information that was presented in the game’s very first hour. You have to go through a “short” training session during which you feel like there’s an endless number of buttons and combinations on the controller. The challenges I faced that early in the game were by no means monumental, so I really couldn’t understand why I was being forced to master so many controls.

You go through a simple fight or two, ride your bike and walk around. For that kind of thing, I feel like the basics would suffice.

This raises a key question. Do I need all of this? Do these elements enhance the game in any way, or are they just superficial, convoluted layers imposed on the player in an attempt to prolong the campaign and create an illusion of depth?

I don’t have the time or energy to indulge in today’s games for a hundred hours, to read through all the lore, theorize on the best possible builds and so on. To me, and millions of others across the globe, that’s a luxury that is seldom attainable.

Instead, I want a game to engage me through its story, character development and creative gameplay — not through sheer complexity.

MOBA games are, in a way, well-known for their immense depth. Mastering the many layers and nuances of League of Legends or DOTA requires a ton of time and dedication, but it’s worth it in the long run because you can play the game for thousands of hours and still be entertained.

Their replay value is infinite.

Single-player games, on the other hand, don’t have that kind of long-term allure. They make you inhabit a fascinating world for up to twenty hours (unless it’s something like The Witcher) and then it’s over. So what’s the use of in-depth skill trees that often don’t enhance the gameplay and overly complex controls? The average campaign is less than fifteen hours long — I don’t want to spend half of that scrolling through text and deciding whether to use a wooden shield with pointy edges or a rounded one that’s a bit worn out.

Of course, everyone is different. Someone might love getting immersed in the game’s many mechanics and deep and fascinating lore even though the campaign lasts for ten or twenty hours; sometimes the worlds we inhabit as players have a staggering amount of depth making it impossible not to lose oneself in the process.

Still, such a thing should be optional, rather than mandatory.

A Homogenized Output

Tropes and clichés aren’t always a bad thing, but it feels like most of today’s triple A titles look and play the same. Most developers take, copy, and imitate from well-established IPs which means there’s a very small chance you’ll play something that’ll provide you with a unique experience.

Most games these days are a copy of a copy of a copy.

Even when a breakthrough happens, it quickly becomes a cliché because everyone is so eager to replicate its success. This means that, in a way, we’re constantly getting the same games over and over — they’re just “re-skinned” variants that are re-shaped and slightly tweaked to justify the full asking price. This is why most triple A titles these days feel strangely similar. That’s because they were designed around much of the same ideas and, therefore, share the same DNA.

Those of us who yearn for original, exciting, and engaging experiences are mostly “sentenced” to indie games. That, in itself, is far from a bad thing; what is unfortunate, however, is that we are seldom challenged (emotionally and intellectually) by contemporary big-budget titles. Even when that does happen (with something like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice), it’s an exception rather than the rule. Unfortunately, many indie games often lack the budget and/or polish that comes with your run-of-the-mill triple A title, although the gap between the two did shrink over the years.

In the right hands, video games can broaden our horizons and affect us on a visceral level — they can be an art form. Unfortunately, this is still a business first and foremost, which means we’re bound to get an endless stream of Battlefields, Assassin’s Creeds, and Watch Dogs, all designed on the same foundation, all built on the same formula; a tried and true recipe that will always deliver the bare minimum.

Profit always reigns supreme in big, lucrative industries, and gaming is no exception. Even the biggest studios around can’t afford to experiment and deviate from the norm as they would expose themselves to financial loss. Simple video games just aren’t as lucrative in comparison.

Creating slightly altered carbon copies might rake in a lot of money in the short term, but it’s an unsustainable model overall. Players are fairly forgiving in that sense, but everyone has a tipping point. In five years, you won’t remember the moment you landed a perfect parry. But you will remember the twist at the end, or the prologue, or the way certain characters developed — their story arcs and narratives. Those are the things that stay with you.

We’ll all remember how The Last of Us began, the way we felt when paragliding in Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or the vivid and lifelike American frontier in Red Dead Redemption 2. That’s why each one of these titles is a masterpiece. Even if they did rehash an old trope they did it in a unique, refreshing way and brought a lot of originality to the table as well.

Hopefully, there’s a shift on the horizon. Those looking to blow off some steam will always have a haven in the Call of Duties of the world. The rest of us, however, are in desperate need of something different. Something that will challenge and engage us on a much deeper level.


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