Sometimes I think that feeling nostalgic is all I do when it comes to drawing verdicts on modern games. Sure, there have been tremendous leaps in several areas where graphics, scale, AI and assorted production values are concerned, but it's hard to shake the feeling that some of the soul has been eroded from the activity over time.
For example, in the early games, you needed very little in the way of a carrot to motivate players to keep on gaming. Just the desire to see what came next, or the intent to create a new high score was enough to keep people glued to the screen.
Nowadays, especially since the open-world sandbox genre has become so prevalent in the AAA games industry, it seems that all your objectives can be boiled down to materialistic items instead. The story may have some staying power, but ultimately it’s about collecting more stuff. I mean, most of us are never going to be able to afford a single supercar in our lifetime, so having a garage full of them in GTA V or Sleeping Dogs has a cheap thrill to it. But if you pull back a bit and look at it, it’s a bit pathetic that we’re falling back on the same narrow system of rewards that we use in real life, in spite of the fact that in the realm of games they should be able to offer us much more — a sense of adventure, where how rich you are is down to the experiences you had, not the virtual cash in your virtual bank account.
There’s a bit of hypocrisy here, since I do enjoy the occasional wealth stockpiling in games, but I’m still grateful for exceptions like Just Cause 2, which have a unique flavour thanks to their direction. There may be cash involved, but you don’t really feel attached to any of your in-game possessions. Rather, it’s about getting out there and seeing what kind of crazy over-the-top encounters you can get involved in. Which is really where I think games are the most effective, anyway.
Now take the racing genre for example. I’m in two minds here, because on the one hand, the practice of licensing real cars has resulted in some great titles and fond personal memories for me — from the original The Need for Speed to Hot Pursuit 2 to Midnight Club 2 — there have been some corkers out there. But at the same time, we’ve seen hiccups like manufacturers not wanting their in-game cars to get too damaged, lest it negatively affect their brand's image. With that kind of restriction, you’re never going to have moments like in Carmageddon 2, where you could be limping across the finish line in only a chassis and steering wheel if you were beaten up enough. When we romanticise the real-life car brands and put them up on pedestals, we end up stifling our own options as to how they can be used in entertainment.
The most recent example is when Bugbear Entertainment, developers of the ramshackle destruction derby Flatout series, pitched their follow-up project, on Kickstarter and only managed to muster a fraction of their asking budget, despite having some impressive damage modelling that promised many raucous fender-benders if the game were to come to fruition. It would seem that the writing’s on the tarmac — people want to pretend they’re driving a Veyron down an expressway; sitting behind the wheel of a rust bucket kicking up dust on a dirt road doesn’t cut it.
I’ll admit there’s a certain charm about starting out with nothing and working your way up to dizzy heights. It’s the whole zero-to-hero power fantasy that’s almost synonymous with RPGs and the like. But after playing one rags-to-riches experience after another, I suspect that soon enough, I’m going to start feeling like Sisyphus rolling the stone up the mountain for eternity. Here’s hoping for a few more breaths of fresh air to keep me optimistic.