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Op-Ed: Bigger isn't Better

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Op-Ed: Bigger isn't Better

I am the night, I am looking for a good parking space.

I am the night, I am looking for a good parking space.

The other day, Warner Brothers announced that the next Batman game, Arkham Knight, was not going to be handled internally, like the tepidly received Arkham Origins, but instead returned the reins to the developers that made the series famous, Rocksteady.

Rocksteady, now the prodigal son of the Batman: Arkham Noun games, worked on Batman: Arkham Asylum, which was hailed as the best licensed game ever, and the the inventor of the coolest new genre: Batman Simulator. Their follow up, Batman: Arkham City was similarly well-received, though some fans found the new open world mechanics to miss the point of the fantastically well-directed, almost metroidvania style approach that Asylum took.

Origins, of course, upped the ante with a bigger world, but it was also a buggy mess, and now that there's a proper heir to the throne, people are beginning to toss out the now-evident pretender. So, what do Rocksteady and WB choose to highlight with their announcement? What does the prodigal son's return bring to the fans?

Asylum featured groundbreaking for the time advanced locker technology.

Asylum featured groundbreaking for the time advanced locker technology.

Well, a pretty slickly produced CG-trailer, which had to cost at least a million dollars, two and a half million, tops. They aren't messing around with this, Batman is their money maker. Which means they also have their pre-order DLC lined up in a row. "Buy early and you can play as Harley Quinn," they yell, like some sort of demented carny barker trying to fleece you out of your hard-earned dimes. "You've gotta pay extra if you buy the game used!"

Other than the fact that the game's budget is likely pretty high, when you factor in that trailer as indicative of their marketing budget, and the cost of the Batman license (if WB has to pay it at all). The game is expensive, is what I'm saying, to the point where they have to sell you a feature-missing version of the game if you buy it used. The only other thing we know about the game is that it will feature the "entirety of Gotham City."

Batman's looking for a good room for a good price.

Batman's looking for a good room for a good price.

Expanding the world is a logical choice, all things considered. Arkham Asylum featured a small island to explore, which was ramped up to a slice of walled-off Gotham in Arkham City, and now, finally, we get the full Batman experience, swinging across the rooftops of Gotham and driving down the streets in the Batmobile. The problem is that Arkham City was already sort of empty and boring at times, what happens if we make it even bigger?

You could almost think of "bigger is better" as the adage that drives AAA gaming these days. Assassin's Creed started with separate levels, then moved to an open world, each one having to be exponentially larger than the last in order to justify its existence. At a preview event, I played Assassin's Creed IV on a ludicrously sized television, and the map was still so huge it boggled my mind. Of course, it was mostly water, but that's still size. When you have an open world, the easiest way to tell consumers that your sequel is going to be better is to tell them the world is going to be bigger, and that's exactly what WB and Rocksteady are doing.

Arkham Originsfeatures some of Batman's most famous rogues! Like Black Mask, and uh...Copperhead! And....this guy in a hood.

Arkham Originsfeatures some of Batman's most famous rogues! Like Black Mask, and uh...Copperhead! And....this guy in a hood.

Far be it from me to throw them any shade on this though. I loved both of Rocksteady's Batman games, and even though I preferred Asylum, City's open world was a pretty cool idea to toss in. And, of course, "bigger" is what moves copies. I will throw shade on ALREADY having pre-order DLC, but that's an entirely different article. But, the bigger-is-better mentality behind Arkham Knight is not only worrying, but indicative of a larger problem in modern, AAA game making.

Every game features an open world these days, mostly because Grand Theft Auto sells well. Assassin's Creed went open world, Tomb Raider went open world, Saint's Row's entire existence is proof that "crime focused open world game" is a genre distinction now that GTA is the most popular thing going. In fact, it's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Grand Theft Auto sells well, thus more games feature open worlds, thus more open world games sell well, which makes publishers think that open world means good sales, thus more sequels with open worlds are developed and so on and so forth until the heat death of the universe.

A huge world of water. And more water. Didn't people hate this in Wind Waker like a decade ago? 

A huge world of water. And more water. Didn't people hate this in Wind Waker like a decade ago? 

Of course, that's not only true of open worlds, but when you make a game in the other most popular game genre going right now, first person shooters, you can't really rely on having "more guns" as your big sequel sales hook. A bigger world is a tangible thing people always want, without necessarily worrying about the consequences. If open worlds are your jam, then of course you want a bigger one. More places to explore, more ways to get around, more NPCs to brutalize in new, unexpected ways, it's pretty much everything you want from an open world sequel.

Look, if you just read that paragraph over there, this would make a lot more sense.

Look, if you just read that paragraph over there, this would make a lot more sense.

The problem is that most of the time, they just end up diluting the formula. If the core gameplay, the moment-to-moment things you're doing in a game is like chocolate syrup, you want a glass of chocolate milk. There needs to be some milk in there, so you aren't just pouring syrup into your mouth. Think of the milk as the world, the details that embellish a game. The game does need to be a little deeper than just a core idea, after all. But when you start adding too much milk, you start to lose the flavour. You can barely taste the chocolate syrup anymore, and all you really have is vaguely brown milk. Then you add even more milk and the cup overflows and you've just made a whole mess of the kitchen. Clean this up, right now.

I may have lost the thread at the end there, but the idea is, the bigger your world gets, the less likely it is to properly highlight the core gameplay of the world, and the more likely it is to feel bland and empty. When there’s so much negative space between missions and side quests, you find yourself just running between things, doing a whole lot of nothing for minutes at a time. The Batman games have a pretty neat grappling and gliding mechanic, but even that gets old. Saint’s Row IV let me leap over buildings, run faster than any car, and BASE jump to my targets from the top of the world, and I still got bored of getting from point A to point B. I suppose that it makes me appreciate it more when I’m actually playing the game, but that’s like saying it would be harder if you chopped off my thumbs, it’s illogical. The best excuse for an open world, in my mind, is atmosphere. I love Shadow of the Colossus’ big empty world because it’s so eerie and beautifully designed, not because I have to spend 10 minutes running from the central temple to the Colossus each time I’m itching for a fight. But, the bigger your world is, the less time and money you have for details. Saint’s Row IVs city is huge, but it’s also sterile. The same billboards show up again and again, building interiors, for the ones that even have such a thing, are bland and boring. Most of the skyscrapers and houses are the same stock model with slight alterations. You don’t notice it, because you don’t really slow down to look at the world at all, but take a look. It’s not because the developers are lazy, it’s just a symptom of having such a huge world to develop. They can’t make a million unique houses, they don’t have that kind of time or money. No one does.

It's a big city...

It's a big city...

...and a bigger world.

...and a bigger world.

Well, Rockstar does, considering GTA V took five years to make and cost more than $150 million after you deduct advertising costs from the budget. But they’re the glorious exception. They can have huge detailed worlds because they have both the time and the money that no one else could even dream of. Look at Shenmue. That game cost $47 million in 1999, making it the most expensive game ever developed at the time, and ninth on Wikipedia’s list of the most expensive games ever developed. Shenmue’s open world was tiny, but incredibly detailed, with little things like drawers you could open, and other tiny, almost unnoticeable background features. Of course, GTA III came out just a short while later and blew it out of the water with it’s comparatively massive world. It was cheaper, bigger, wasn’t delayed nearly as many times as Shenmue, and far more successful. Bigger is better. Detail is the enemy of budgets and release schedules.

But bigger isn’t better, is it? The world is big but empty and lifeless. The world takes hours to trek across, but those are hours you aren’t actually playing the game. The world is bigger than ever before, but every building looks the same, and the NPCs mull about pointlessly like they always have. A bigger world isn’t a bad idea per se, but if it’s your priority over actually making the gameplay more interesting, or the existing world more detailed and interesting to explore, you’re just feeding the problem. There’s no innovation in getting bigger, you’re just diluting the chocolate milk. And eventually, it’ll get to be so bland that no one’s going to want to drink it.


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OP-ED: Loathe to Love

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OP-ED: Loathe to Love

I think I hate games.

Not because I don’t like them, I’ve been playing games my whole life, and video games for longer than I remember at this point. I have a few moral objections to things in the gaming industry, but nothing that really makes me want to stop playing them forever. No, I think I hate games because I’m almost always destroying them.

HULK SMASH PUNY EMOTIONAL OPINIONS

HULK SMASH PUNY EMOTIONAL OPINIONS

Recently, I played last year’s Tomb Raider reboot. In it, Lara massacres the population of an entire island, almost single handedly. She kills an animal or two as the plot demands it, but most of her time is spent slaughtering the hundreds of beardy goons who get in her way. This is a far cry from the original Tomb Raider, where Lara was more interested in climbing and jumping around ancient ruins than fighting the four human enemies she comes across. Of course, the shift can be explained by realizing that modern Tomb Raider is inspired by Uncharted, which is in turn inspired by classic Tomb Raider, but I digress.

Take THAT, you beardy goon. 

Take THAT, you beardy goon. 

Tomb Raider has always featured that sort of destructive relationship with the world. The title even admits that Lara is a thief, a Tomb Raider, and, like Indiana Jones, she’s a scrupulous hero at best. You might ask why a name matters, but when you look at the titles of our most popular games today, you start to get a picture of the problem. Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, all of them pretty squarely place your relationship with the world as an antagonistic one. You are a soldier, at war, a career criminal, an assassin. These are the fantasies we want to play out. We want to destroy.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. People need release, power fantasies sell, and with good reason. It caters to our instinct to lash out, to get even with the world and work through our frustrations in a safe environment. It’s fun to crash a car into a pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto because you’ve been annoyed at pedestrians before. It’s fun to kill a cop because you get to thumb your nose at the authorities. You’re the underdog, using the game as a way to fight back .

But there is a severe imbalance.

Three beardy goons, one arrow, and a pocket full of napalm. What's a girl to do?

Three beardy goons, one arrow, and a pocket full of napalm. What's a girl to do?

Throughout my tenure as a person who plays video games, I’ve depopulated kingdoms, rendered entire races of mystical creatures extinct, and beaten the ever-loving crap about of Ken Masters like a thousand times.

TAKE THAT, MASTERS. EAT MY DUMB PLASMA FIST.

TAKE THAT, MASTERS. EAT MY DUMB PLASMA FIST.

But I can count on one hand the games where I feel like my love for existing in the world was proportional to my having a positive relationship with it. Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon come to mind, sure, but even generally family-friendly Nintendo games like Mario and Zelda are about nothing but destroying the world and its inhabitants. The plot of the first two Metroids is literally Samus committing genocide.

Seriously, Metroid II keeps track of how many Metroids you have left to kill until you've eradicated the species.

Seriously, Metroid II keeps track of how many Metroids you have left to kill until you've eradicated the species.

It’s not hard to see where this destructive impetus comes from. Games tend to have a winner and a loser, and the distinction usually involves the winner triumphing in some way over the loser. Winning makes us feel good, especially when it means we beat someone else. In this case, that someone else is the computer, or in a more immediate sense, the game world.

I’m not calling for an end to video game violence or something like that. Games have violence like movies have violence. The recent crusades against violent games are the same crusade waged against rap, cartoons, movies and rock and roll. And personally, I sort of like violent games. Not always, and not senselessly violent games, but I’m not above playing Saint’s Row and kicking someone so hard in the balls they fly across the street. I’m not above feeling satisfied that I got a really clean headshot in Uncharted. I’m not above feeling that adrenaline rush that comes when you’ve accomplished something challenging, even if it involves killing a few dozen fictional dudes. Because they’re just that: fictional.

Catharsis, in .gif form.

Catharsis, in .gif form.

Games come from a tradition of winning and losing, but their key strength over board, card or playground games is showing you your moment to moment progress. A video game can always make you feel like you’re getting better. The easiest way to do that is have you complete multiple tasks, or in the now-common gaming parlance, “beat them”.

You beat a game, you rarely finish it, and you never end it. You beat it.

You assert dominance over it by completing every task it asks you to accomplish. The simplest task for someone to understand is defeating someone else with similar tools. Think about football. The core actions you do in a game of football are easy to understand because they’re just basic actions. Throwing, catching, kicking. You’ve known how to do those things since you were a baby. Video games on the other hand require you to press certain buttons and move sticks around to manipulate a 2D or 3D plane. It’s hard enough wrapping your brain around the actions necessary to make your on-screen avatar do anything at all, let alone trying to explain some asinine set of rules you’ve layered over those actions. Imagine if football never existed as a sport, and only as a video game. A newcomer would have to not only figure out how to control the game and manipulate it as a player, but also figure out its many, many rules on top of that. It’s hard, and would make people stop playing pretty quickly- the last thing any developer wants.

So, our games give us tools, explain how to use them, and then ask us to beat someone up. That person is hurting you, use your tools to hurt them more. Use your tools in conjunction, develop strategies, but make sure you kill them before they kill you. It’s easy to understand, caters to our natural instincts, and best of all, it’s fun.

I am the cowlord, bow before your moo-ster.

I am the cowlord, bow before your moo-ster.

I love Harvest Moon, but it is an incredibly complicated game for being “just” about farming. Chulip, a game about love, suffers because its goals are poorly communicated and abstract. Visual novels and dating sims are derided because all you do is read. You can’t win. In order to make a complex goal, you need to simplify the game, which doesn’t sell. In order to have a complex enough game, you need to simplify the goal, which makes it easier to lean on destruction, because that does sell.

Love is complicated, love is hard, we’ve always known that. Which is why hate sells so well. We want to feel powerful, and it’s easy to feel powerful when you’re constantly proving yourself superior to everything else in the world. Eventually you become the most powerful thing in the world. Destructive power fantasy is easy. And though it’s hard for me to say it, I like it sometimes too. It’s fun to feel powerful.

To be fair, I can see how this might actually be a little destructive. But it's for the good of mankind!

To be fair, I can see how this might actually be a little destructive. But it's for the good of mankind!

But, It’s also fun to feel like I’m making a positive contribution to the world. It’s fun to feel like I’ve made people’s lives better in the Ace Attorney games, or changed the world a little bit in Harvest Moon, all without hurting anyone or destroying anything. Even destructive games that aren’t about violence, like Katamari Damacy or Portal are rare creatures these days.

After finishing Tomb Raider last month, I decided that I wasn’t going to play another game this year where I was doing nothing but shooting people. It’s a small gesture. I’m still going to end up playing things where I have a negative impact on the world, or primarily interact with things though violence, but I want to put down the guns at least Just as a symbolic move. I want more Harvest Moons, more Ace Attorneys, more Catherines. I don’t want to want to have to hurt a single digital soul to get them.

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