Don’t worry, I’m not one of those sour-faced geezers who start each conversation with „In my days…”. I still love games and I mostly like where they’re going.
I’ve had a blast with the recent Spider-Man, despite also having a few qualms about it. If you showed me this game in the PlayStation 1 era, my brains would probably – and literally – explode. This is something we haven’t dreamt of back then. Maybe this is the reason why I have a childlike sense of wonder when playing new titles despite my ripe old age (of 33). But there’s always a ‘but’.
My inspiration for this blognote was what my wife has said to me a couple of days ago, while I was chilling with Nathan Drake: „Why do you even have all these games if the only one you play is Uncharted?”
„Do I?”, I asked myself, but yeah, the Uncharted series is what I’ve been playing the most in the past 10 years.
Which is surprising, because I don’t even like the gameplay that much.
The level design is extremely linear, cover shooting is tedious, platforming is automatic and braindead, and boy, even after finishing these games for the umpteenth time I still get killed in relatively straightforward sections because controls are so imprecise. Yet at the same time, I love this series – because it’s bigger than the sum of its parts. Now this might sound cheesy, but I sincerely think that Uncharted is more than a game. It’s an experience.
The Uncharteds and the Tomb Raiders are very similar in essence: they are interactive adventures in the vein of Indiana Jones. Their approach to the subject is what makes them different.
Tomb Raider is about freedom: here’s a level, it probably ends somewhere, go figure it out. You don’t even learn all the controls. Experiment and see what happens. In my school days, that one guy who knew how to do the handstand move was the man, his knowledge was gold.
Meanwhile, Uncharted is about scripted set pieces with a sprinkle of openness here and there.
Tomb Raider is about freedom: here’s a level, it probably ends somewhere, go figure it out.
One could argue these are completely different genres, but considering that the new incarnation of Tomb Raider is pretty much a reskin of Uncharted, I’d argue this is the same genre evolved.
If you need more proof, look at shooters.
We don’t hunt for key cards and navigate mazes anymore. We follow a dot. Call of Duty campaigns took it to the extreme, but even roguelike FPS games aren’t exactly brain-teasing. You don’t need to discover a way to open the next area, you just have to find it. Rarely there are multi-layered challenges that require you to perform a chain of logically connected actions.
In the first Tomb Raider, there was an area where, if I remember correctly, you could see a path high above – in a seemingly unreachable place. Also present at the scene were a crane and some boxes. You weren’t told what to do, but it was self-explanatory: use the crane to stack the boxes, climb them, get out. But first you had to find out how to get to the crane, then how to start it. The solution came in an organic way.
In the new Tomb Raiders, even when you come across an occasional puzzle, and even if it’s a good one, hesitate for a moment and Lara will explicitly tell you what to do.
Or take Duke Nukem 3D for example. You see a window and a room behind it, with some items and enemies. It’s obvious you can access it, but the door won’t open. You know you need to find another way, and even though you aren’t told how to do that, the surroundings suggest a couple of possible approaches. Take a second, look around, maybe try thinking out of the box and you’ll get there.
This is the kind of design I haven’t seen in gaming since forever.
And you know the reason: games became casual entertainment and thus have to be more accessible. I don’t have a problem with this – hey, I’m the guy who likes Uncharted! I love how modern games can engulf you in the story, the atmosphere, the lore, and how you can just pick them up for a quick spin. But in the process of streamlining games have lost something that I miss very much: precision.
By ‘precision’ I mean two things: the precision of design and the precision of control. Let’s start with the latter.
Say what you want about the old Tomb Raiders, but in these games controls were tight. They felt rigid and slow, but you knew exactly what was going to happen if you pressed a button: how far you were going to jump, whether you could grab this or climb that. This rule applied to most action games: the player knew the boundaries of his or her character.
Nowadays I usually don’t get that feeling – because the action button has been replaced with the ‘Action!’ button. It’s not a jump – it’s the action of getting from one surface to another, which may be presented as a long jump, a short jump, a dash or something else. It’s entirely contextual, and perhaps I’m just unlucky but often games misread the context and throw me into a chasm.
The action button has been replaced with the ‘Action!’ button.
I’ve stumbled across this problem in Assassin’s Creeds, in various cover shooters that arbitrarily decide which cover I should stick to, and even in Dying Light, which I’d say is one of the most polished action games out there. I’m never sure if I can do what I intend to do, because the character movement is ever-changing.
It’s a paradox: games are easier to control, but I don’t feel I actually have the control anymore. I guess it’s the price we have to pay for fluid, lifelike animation.
In so many games you have redundant HUD elements: a minimap, a crumb trail, an objective dot, a compass – all of them serving the same function. They’re there because the developers weren’t sure if the interactive elements would stand out enough for you to notice. Cluttered graphics are at fault here: you cannot make a realistic-looking environment and distinguish an interactive door from a background one.
Or can you? Left 4 Dead has managed to pull it off beautifully, directing players with strategically positioned light sources. But then, not many games are as well-designed as Left 4 Dead.
I get it, it’s evolution. You lose something in order to gain something else. The result of doing away with 100% functional simplicity are experiences so immersive that they hold up perfectly despite tons of minor flaws – ones that you wouldn’t come across in the olden times. I accept it, I can look past it, but I don’t have to love it.
I have this dream that one day a triple-A game is made that combines modern narration with old school level design and 100% predictable controls. A game that’s not just a throwback stylized to look like what’s already been done, but something new made with old principles in mind. I know this is doable. Dark Souls is pretty much just that, but it would be nice to have something more than Souls and their clones.
Anyway, let me know when it happens. Until then, I’ll probably keep playing Uncharted.