Thursday, 4 June 2009

The future of gaming?

This weekend I came across a feature in the paper headlined “The future of gaming is here”. You get inured to claims like that in the game industry press, but this was in the Telegraph. The “future of gaming”, judging by the examples given, is exactly like last year and the year before: same old same old, but with better technology and sweeter eye candy.

The game industry’s problem over the last decade has been its success. To clarify: the industry has done perfectly well by selling to a narrow, deep market so there hasn’t been much incentive to go looking outside the box. As home entertainment, you could compare it to porn – a big money-spinner, but relegated to the den rather than the living room, and always borrowing its ideas and imagery from TV and movies. (Usually the same movies, at that.)

Now games are finally changing. Thanks largely to Nintendo, games over the last year or two have been poking a wary snout out of the den. As a result, publishers are having to do more than pay lip service to the huge family/”casual” market. It’s like they’re having to throw away their porn collection and get to grips with a real live girlfriend instead. Take a look at Microsoft’s long-cherished idea of the entertainment hearth:

I’m all for it, though I am dubious about some of the content. Will mom, dad and the kids really all sit there while one person drives a racing car and occasionally somebody else gets to change the tyres? Even if they were racing each other, that’s still a “den” game; it doesn’t look like the interactive entertainment hearth of the future.

Among the games at E3 is
Heavy Rain, a successor to Quantic Dream’s earlier Fahrenheit. This is an adventure game, really, though no doubt tricked up with a whole lot of shooting and running and stabbing to disguise the fact. A “truly interactive story” is promised, the “revolutionary” feature being that there are four main characters, and if one dies you get to play on with one of the others.

Is that better than a regular story? Of course not. It’s a feature for the sake of being able to say something to journos and marketing dudes. Having four interchangeable heroes is not actually enhancing either the story or the gameplay. They’re blundering in the dark.

You could have interactive stories. Narratives where the interactivity actually enhances the experience rather than creating just a broken movie or a plot-overburdened game. Movie director Gore Verbinski shows that he understands this more than most game developers when
he said last week:
"Hollywood made a mistake to think it can enter the video game space and somehow provide better storytelling. Not only is that arrogant, but it hasn't worked. We start on a game with the way controlling it feels in your hands. Narrative has to be a byproduct of that in the same way story is a byproduct of character in films."
Come back another time and I’ll show you in detail how interactive stories could really work. But for now, I got to thinking how maybe you can steer a ship by looking at its wake. Because adventuring gaming, in the old Monkey Island sense, has been regarded for the last ten years as pretty much a moribund genre. And rightly so, in a way, because 9 out of 10 published adventure games were only enjoyable if you’re mildly autistic. You’d be in the middle of the story and suddenly there’d be some ridiculous puzzle to do with stacking crates or navigating a maze. It was entertainment by aliens for aliens.

And yet… if Microsoft and others really want to capture the family around that entertainment hearth, adventure games could be one way to do it. Not adventure games like they used to be, but a reboot of the whole genre. A lead character who asks for our help. Interaction by reaching “into the screen” to save him from a hidden assailant. Puzzles based on personality not logic. The ability to jump into the hero’s shoes at critical moments. You could really engage a sofa full of guardian angels with the life-or-death predicaments the hero is facing.

Sometimes, in ecosystems, evolution returns to a feature that had almost become obsolete - a dead end - but, as environmental conditions change, yesterday’s dead end can turn out to be today’s eight-lane freeway. One way to engage the broad market with games could be to look back at the kinds of games that never really got traction with the geek market. Not simply to resurrect those gaming genres, but to do a full reboot.

It’s not the really exciting future of gaming - we’ll talk about that another time. But it’s a start.

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