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Déjà doo-doo: Charting the chronic familiarity of video game landscapes

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Had I been born in another age, chances are that I would have been an explorer. Once upon a time, our world was wrapped in magic and wonder. Nowadays, an airplane ticket and a few hours time can span oceans. And, if you’re really ambitious, you might venture a mouse click and a keystroke or two to reveal the particulars of your destination on the flight over.

Perhaps, then, it stands to reason that the biggest draw of video games has been very much the urge and challenge to unravel the mystery of what waits behind the next door, inside of locked chests, or beyond distant mountaintops – a sort of surrogate thrill in a world divested of secrets.

This seduction of exploration — if only virtual — caused me to slip out of bed at 4 a.m. on school days to sneak in a few extra hours of the original Zelda while my need to chart the unknown came up during parent-teacher conferences in the form of maps I had sketched of Metroid’s long shafts in the margins of my math homework. I doubt I’m alone here.

Clearly, games scratch a deep itch for adventure and discovery in an world now containing little opportunity for either. But what happens when the vistas and environments of video games become more familiar than the scenery outside our front door?

 

One might expect the opposite to have happened. Considering the technical limitations and relative poverty of viable platforms of the mid-to-late '80s — coupled with the publishing strictures put forth by the market-share leader of this period, Nintendo — the Nintendo Entertainment Systen library fares comparatively well against modern releases. Best sellers like Metroid, Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden, Dragon Quest, and Kid Icarus (to name but a few) offer an impressive breadth of surroundings each distinct from the other.

Even between releases of first-party mainstays, such as the Super Mario and Zelda series, each sequel has a look and and feel all its own. There’s no mistaking the dreamy otherworldliness of Super Mario Bros. 2 from the imaginative and unpredictable domains of an updated Mushroom Kingdom while traversing the third iteration. 

Likewise, at the risk of alienating fans of the first Legend of Zelda, developers threw Link into a reconfigured Hyrule in which players spent most of their adventure scrolling sideways through a world altered so vastly as to seem a new franchise entirely.

zelda1_2comp
How many modern sequels would risk such a shift?
 

By contrast, today’s software sales leader, the Xbox 360, has hosted little more than a series of brown-and-gray routes through near-identical landscapes lacking both personality and the ability to surprise. More often than not, what exploration does exist begins and ends looking down the ever-present barrel of an assault rifle – a perspective that presents little nuance or range in its method of interaction.

To the uninitiated, or even many longtime fans, there is very little to distinguish one Call of Duty or Halo from the next. You’re either on a battlefield from World War II; in a steroid-amped modern time; or within some remote yet usually hackneyed, off-world future, depending on the trend du jour. 

Further, most of these games do little in the way of encouraging exploration, instead leaning heavily on their multiplayer modes at the expense of underdeveloped single-player missions. And as enjoyable as those online modes can be, they are no substitute for the gratification of an engrossing journey through truly original, wide-open lands and a field of interactions just as vast.

Of course, gamers seeking more variety may seek the slightly greener (or, at least, less brown and gray) pastures of the PlayStation 3. In fact, it’s my system of choice due in large part to a more diverse first-party library partly fostered by Sony Computer Entertainment Japan Studio as well as the ingenious work of Thatgamecompany, Q-Games, and others.

As we turn our attention to the best sellers on Sony’s console, however, we’re presented with an almost mirror image of their competitor's calling cards. Three COD’s make the top five, while the likes of Resistance and its sequel, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Killzone 2 — none of which stray much from the same dull, rubble-strewn terrains — round out the top 20.

Whatever happened to the impetus to build worlds using a full box of crayons and prodding the player to step beyond the lines? Is it that open, colorful environments have become less compelling today than they were 30 years ago? Or have habit and a sad lack of alternatives simply forced us to line up for the same old roller coaster no matter how diminished its thrills or memorized its twists and turns?

The myth of an 8-Bit Eden

Plenty will share these thoughts, maybe even accusing me of beating a dead horse. On the other hand, I know that many other readers will feel the opposite, saying the only problem lies in my examples.

For instance, to address the latter, yes, one might assert that the 8-bit era was saturated with Mario clones. This is largely true. Yet, whereas the side-scrolling platformer was a new genre in those early days, the current console cycle is swamped with a game-style that was born in the '90s. And as NES developers, both first and third party, turned the genre that Mario made famous on its head, side, and back again, getting the most out of every vibrant pixel, today’s polygonal worlds are stuck in neutral.

The ability to render such a close approximation of reality seems to not only have fenced off the boundaries of modern game worlds but seems to have numbed our craving for departures from them in the process. Limitations are often said to stimulate creativity, and that was clearly the case in the early days, where the artistry of developers in turn sparked the imaginations of their audience.

Today, however, we’ve witnessed a reversal — the limitations of current video game environments have dulled rather than goaded the desires of modern adventurers.

Mostly charted, completely scripted

That said, I’ll volunteer my own hypocrisy. I’m certainly part of the problem, having played and enjoyed many of the above games. Nevertheless, the titles that I typically gravitate toward hold another promise. Take, for example, a game like Uncharted: Drakes Fortune. On the surface, this game would seem the antidote to all that ails our industry. The very title evokes a quest to exotic locales in search of trials and treasures.

Uncharted_enticing_view
Too bad so much of Uncharted is unchartable.
 

However, the actual gameplay does little to fulfill this promise. Instead of a wide-open adventure full of danger and reward, the game shepherds the player along a tightly scripted path, muting the menace of pitfalls with simple redos and rigid handholding.

While the environments are wonderfully detailed and — at least with latter entries in the series –splashed with some color, they are no less than mirages. Their very existence makes the rigorous tunnel-vision of the gameplay all the more painful. The desire to open that door or climb that mountain is worthless unless it’s the door or the mountain dictated by the game’s script. And despite all of the production values and graphical panache, for those in search of so heavily scripted a journey, any one of the Indiana Jones films offer a better — not to mention more original — story.

Perhaps it’s this very ability for modern games to resemble movies that has caused the experiences they present to also mimic cinema. Neglecting the interactivity of games renders moot the medium’s greatest strength.

While, yes, there is a vicarious, if more voyeuristic, delight in filmgoing, it’s the draw of filling the shoes of the hero and making choices with real weight that give video games their advantage if not their central raison d'être. One might go so far as to blame this tendency to funnel players along a predetermined course as one reason for so much topographical retreading. Why construct unique worlds if they can’t be fully combed and conquered?

Perhaps this is the reason — despite the comparative limitlessness of modern storage formats — that the experience of too many of today’s games is akin to those chase scenes in old cartoons with the same backdrop playing in a loop. Did they think we would be so hypnotized by the clichéd narratives and so distracted by our itchy trigger fingers as to quell that urge to burst through the repetitive artifice?

Late for the sky

Enter Skyrim. Here is a game with virtually limitless horizons and the unshackled freedom to discover them. For an adult gamer with many things more crucial than math homework to ignore (or deface), games in The Elder Scrolls series can be daunting in their scope and autonomy. To a great extent, these adventures are the culmination of early infatuations with The Legend of Zelda and its ilk.

skyrim_golden_nes
A modern classic … with a touch too much of both. [Source: 72 Pins]
 

As the NES gave way to the 16-bit era, and the 16-bit to the 3D dominions of the PlayStation and N64, gamers had tangible – if shoddily textured – fodder with which to begin fathoming the arrival of an adventure of this magnitude. Skyrim is a landmark success for us would-be explorers.

But, as much as I adore developer Bethesda’s magnum opus, it can’t be given a free pass, either. In many ways, it violates the core principle of this article. Various shades of manure continue to be the palette from which Skyrim’s graphical style is drawn. Of course, the landscape’s pervasive blanketing of snow conceals much of the standard browns and grays. This element, however, only further robs the game of color.

Fans may argue that the desolation of Skyrim is dictated by its location on the Tamriel atlas. Conceding this point does nothing to elevate the game’s aesthetic above its contemporaries, however, as the look of every title should more or less match its setting. The pervasive ugliness resulting from these choices is in large part what we’re protesting. Whatever the reason, the end result is a game that – while vast and free – strictly adheres to the monochromatic trend.

Stepping away from Skyrim’s drabness, the visual nods to Norse mythology do help the game stand slightly above the threadbare façade of most examples in the genre. Yet, when it comes down to it, the game does too little to distance itself from its sword and sorcery heritage to truly feel fresh or mysterious.

And while this thematic baggage wouldn’t have given that pie-in-the-sky lover of Link’s first outing the slightest qualms, his spoiled and jaded descendant has had the misfortune of 25 years of déjà vu to color his views. These quibbles notwithstanding, our world is truly a better place with Skyrim than without.

Is our die irretrievably cast?

So here we approach what may be the crux of the argument. Does the heart of the problem lie more in an inability of the medium to transcend its roots? The traditions of comics, sci-fi, and Dungeons and Dragons have stamped an indelible mark upon the look and feel of video games. Of course, those hallmarks may have appeared somewhat fresh during gaming’s formative years, but they have since become increasingly humdrum.

gamings_d&d_roots
Do the hang-ups of modern games stem from the sins of our fathers?
 

Regardless of age, it’s an aesthetic with a loyal band of adherents. Having grown up on Tolkien myself, I admit to a weak spot for castles, magic, dragons, orcs, elves, and all the tropes of his worlds and their descendants even if they wear their influences too baldly, displaying little inventiveness of their own. Nor is it a milieu I would wish to disappear entirely. A twinge of nostalgia still hits home no matter how many fire, water, or ice terrains I traverse. 

At the same time, this decades old recipe has become both a crutch and a roadblock for the creation of more imaginative and original worlds. This, of course, applies to other overly familiar settings. Be they your garden-variety battlegrounds and post-apocalyptic wastelands or the trappings of the latest outerspace adventure — whether featuring a Star Wars or Star Trek skin or some drab mishmash of the two — these are bankable landscapes ground into staid similitude by too many years of repetition.

To some extent, any game in a given category has become more like a sequel or side story of its genre-mate, visually speaking, and, too often, in its fundamental mechanic. By this estimation, Skyrim, a high-water mark in the series, would make sword-and-sorcery, high fantasy-themed adventure part 20XX. Overly reductive? Definitely. But less and less so as we descend further into these cut-and-paste times.

Horse (and buggy) power

Yes, today’s popular genres are covered with the fingerprints of gaming’s forebears. This is a conclusion few would deny. Whether or not that is such a bad thing is another question. Putting that debate aside for a moment, let's return to the brown-and-gray issue, a problem that some would blame on a lack of computational horsepower.

At first blush, this seems to be an odd scapegoat. Isn’t the thrust of this article founded on the assumed (and untapped) limitless of current technologies? Eight-bit darlings aside, have we ever seen a console generation so blanched of color as the present? Even looking at the previous cycle, the libraries of the PlayStation 2 and the original Xbox display a rainbow-like richness contrasted against today’s grayscale slogs.

Phil Ra, however, in his tech-minded gamasutra article on the topic, points his finger squarely at what he deems current consoles’ most glaring deficiency: lighting. Or, more specifically, real-time indirect lighting. In short, Ra cites the very ability of modern landscapes to approach photorealism that means any defect, no matter how slight, can throw things askew.

fable_askew
Has graphical horsepower led us down this road?
 

Think of this effect as the environmental equivalent of the “uncanny valley.” Due to this shortcoming, the “mere presence of saturated colors” destabilizes the image and “shatters immersion.” Consequently, developers lean heavily on washed-out tones and textures to suppress or airbrush over these lapses in verisimilitude.

Still, we have reason to hope, according to Ra. He notes the introduction of a wider palette in Uncharted 2 resulting from programming workarounds. And, of course, with the next console generation nearly upon us, we’ll soon see just how much slack we can cut current titles.

While looking ahead, it’s easy to imagine one unintended consequence of this brown-and-gray band-aid: Its success may signal its cementing. The gritty, dishwater look of modern games may become a preferred aesthetic or, at least, an acceptable one. Just as the 8-bit past has etched itself in the hearts of the old-school crowd so to may today's youngsters cling to the spectra of their formative years.

Whether or not these muddy earmarks find a longterm following, any shortcut to profits that publishers can latch on to will remain on the table. If they see dollar signs with this aesthetic, both in streamlining art and asset production, by tapping a proven market to its fullest, they’ll milk it 'til it’s dry. No one in the boardrooms of today’s major game companies wants to be the one to slaughter a cash cow. The one thing that does the most to keep them in the gray is the fear of falling into the red.

Are non-rose-colored glasses forever destined to be gray?

Maybe it’s always been this way to some degree. There were extensive periods of cinematic history wherein a few genres dominated, such as westerns, musicals, and film noir in the '40s. English literature has had similar spells. There were decades during the 1800s, for instance, when few popular tales ventured outside melodramatic territory involving marriage and family.

Whether stemming from technological flaws, a development community creatively bankrupt, or the tether of thematic roots, the relative youth of our hobby means that the video game history books of 100 years from now will feature an index of fads and flavors as varied and undulating as those of other mediums.

earthbound_bones
Can nostalgia taint our enjoyment of the present?
 

More fundamentally, is the essence of what I’m wishing for even ultimately possible? Is it a question hinging on longstanding philosophical chasms rather than the simple willingness or inability of game developers to plot another course?

To wit, could mine be simply a manifestation of the overfamiliarity with the world in general one sees during the journey into adulthood? The ennui of a longtime gamer passing through a landscape, physical and social, that has been fully ferreted and trampled by routine and made stale through jaundiced eyes? A pinning for a return to the wonder inherent in youth?

Or, have we only scratched the surface of a slow and intractable shift in the aims of this industry and the expectations of its audience? Has ours become a lockstep downward spiral? The internal echo of a round of Simon Says becoming so tangled to as make the source not only untraceable but moot?

To even attempt to get to the bottom of these questions, we’ll need to examine the lives of games that boldly deviate from the redundancy.


Stay tuned for part two of "Déjà doo-doo: Charting the chronic familiarity of video game landscapes."


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