We all play video games for different reasons. Some play as a route of escape, for a break from the monotony of the daily routine; others to feed a relentless, competitive nature. Some may even play for nothing more complicated than the eternal pursuit of fleeting fun. I’d venture a guess that for most people, the reason for playing is some combination of the above. But do you ever turn on a PC or PlayStation and expect to exercise your brain? The good news is that it’s certainly possible; the bad news is that it’s not nearly as commonplace in the modern gaming world as you might like or hope. Do you even remember the time when such a thing was possible? Fear not, for at the bottom of the polluted sea of movie-license games and behind the cloning machine that spits out eerily similar shoot-‘em-ups, you can still find a lode runner or two.
I’ve been playing video games since I developed the requisite motor skills, and though only a self-appointed authority on the matter (if such a thing exists), I feel comfortable speaking as a representative of the common gamer denominator and the games I always enjoyed most were those that are both infectiously fun and intellectually challenging. It’s a tricky balance to strike—a game that will keep players on their toes and constantly thinking without being so hard as to remove the element of fun. And this latter ingredient, fun, is the most important of all. It must always be the foundation. It is the base of the pyramid. It is Chemical X. Without fun, who cares?
Fun is why all of the classics—the games that have withstood the relative test of time—are unanimously dubbed classics. Even if they’re not especially challenging (Super Mario Bros. 3 comes to mind), they make up for it with fun, and not only is that acceptable, it is a thing to be emulated and encouraged. But as new games are developed, there is also a need for growth and innovation. And in recent years, it seems as though the mainstream gaming industry has, in many ways, lost sight of need to create fun games.
The Final Fantasy franchise is perhaps the best example. A series of games that started in the form of a humble one-off RPG —good, but certainly humble in relation to its successors—has gradually climbed to the peak of innovation and creativity, teetered precariously, then tumbled into the bottomless chasm of shameless, soul-bereft production value. Final Fantasy IV and VI seamlessly blended entertaining game-play with interesting plot. Regardless of your opinion of Final Fantasy VII, it cannot be accused of forgoing innovation and complexity in an attempt to appeal to the masses. And what of Final Fantasy X? It was a great movie with a compelling plot, and I really enjoyed watching it.
Aside from the Final Fantasy franchise, other early Squaresoft games were excellent. Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana are the two standout examples. But Squaresoft / Square Enix has slowly moved its focus from game-play (who would argue that this is not ideal?) to characterization (who can deny the merits of this?) to the best graphics in the industry (who benefits from these bragging rights other than the developers themselves?) and letting its previous foci and achievements fade to the periphery. And it’s really a damned shame. At least it’s an attractive shame.
What of a franchise such as The Legend of Zelda, then? Well, our tireless, ageless elf in green has been spared the worst of it for sure. He’s been left to repeatedly save the princess, slay the pig (who inexplicably evolved into a really ugly man at some point), and fulfill the prophecy of the golden triangles in relative peace. Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, the two most recent major installments in the saga, are fun games— good game-play, good plot (if a bit formulaic in places), and yes, yes, good graphics. The important part is that playing them all the way to the end didn’t once feel like a chore. (And to harp on the previous issue for just another moment: this time I am looking at you, Final Fantasy XII, yes, you, all glitz and no guts, all sex and no soul, empty shell destroyed by proverbial kryptonite, you.)
But even though I am a dedicated Zelda fan, I still see the recurring flaws and weaknesses. Every game follows roughly the same pattern. Get a sword and shield, get a boomerang, use the boomerang to get out of the room you’re trapped in, use it to beat the boss, rinse and repeat for the hookshot, bow and arrows, et cetera. Each game introduces a few new items to shake it up a little (how awesome was that spinner in Twilight Princess?). But the basics are forever and ever the same, and it doesn’t quite take a genius to realize that once again, just like in every other game, you have to hit the target with an arrow to open the blockaded door. Is it still fun? I’d argue yes, but it is also a prime example of the mainstream industry not pushing itself to grow. There is clearly much money to be made off the formula. People know exactly what they are buying. And they know they can win, that it won’t be too hard. Not too much will be asked of them. And we all like knowing that we can win. Since there isn’t much use in criticizing universal human nature (or economics), I’ll leave Zelda be and look elsewhere for that elusive innovation.
I can’t talk about Zelda without mentioning another familiar giant in the gaming universe. I don’t have any major complaints about the mustachioed plumber brothers. You’d think that all the fame would have gone to their heads and ruined their games by now, but I have been consistently impressed with nearly every installment in the franchise. Unlike Zelda, not every Mario game follows the same formula. Sometimes he hits coin blocks and shoots fireballs like we expect him to, certainly. But sometimes he races go-karts. Sometimes he travels around the perimeter of a board game and plays surprisingly varied mini-games with his friends. Sometimes he gets into inexplicable brawls with Pikachu and Kirby. Sometimes he goes golfing. Sometimes he destroys viruses. And sometimes he’s made of paper! There’s really something for everyone. The reason I think these games continue to be so good is because they are always fun.
Unfortunately, the consistently high quality of Mario cannot single-handedly sustain a strong defense of the state of modern game development. And Square Enix’s obsessively single-minded focus on top-notch graphics is only one of the crimes being committed against games these days. Other well-known offenders are Harmonix / Neversoft and their Guitar Hero / Rock Band series. These games can try to hide behind my “fun is the most important” clause, but they have nothing else going for them. What is creative and challenging about re-releasing the exact same game over and over and over? Well, this time, we get to beat our hands into muscle memory submission to the tune of “Master of Puppets” instead of “Love in an Elevator.” … Thank goodness?
And what about the ease with which company executives can make serious bank off of my MMORPG-addicted brethren? How to make a lot of money: 1) Follow the Dungeons & Dragons model to create your character system. 2) Use the same model to create your battle system. 3) Put the whole thing online and set up a subscription-based, completely addictive time sink. 4) ??? 5) Profit. There’s a reason people called, EverQuest, the first success of this phenomenon Evercrack. While I won’t deny people the joy they find in the endless level-grinding that is the backbone of these games, I will simply state that this is not the arena where new and exciting games are being created.
Along the same lines as the MMORPG formula: what in the world is going on with The Sims? No matter how technically impressive and disturbingly true-to-life the simulation might be getting with each new iteration, there is nothing particularly innovative about imitating real life. While it undoubtedly takes a good deal of intelligence to program such a thing, it doesn’t take all that much creativity, nor does it require a fountain of brand-new ideas. This is not to criticize fans of these games; rather, it is merely saying that the Sims franchise is another example of games that follow a tired, familiar formula because it is a formula that has been proven to sell. In fact, more creativity is asked of the player than the developer in a game like The Sims. It’s the most carefully constructed blank notebook page or empty easel you can buy. Something similar is going on with sports games, but those don’t ask for any creativity from anybody, and I find that to be far less defensible than the weird thrill that you can sometimes get from playing God in The Sims. Buy Madden NFL 09! It’s exactly like Madden NFL 08, except this time, the rain looks a bit more realistic or something. And you can play with an up-to-date, ephemerally true-to-life roster! It’s totally different than last year’s game. Really. Buy it.
Amidst these towering industry juggernauts, there is hope yet for groundbreaking game development. And happily, there are several examples I could use. But the two I want to focus on are two of the best; they are games that succeed on every level, games that have looked back at their worthy predecessors and built on the tried-and-true formulas rather than mimicking them.
First off: 2D Boy’s World of Goo is a wonderful addition to the tradition of games from which it was birthed: Lemmings is the best example, and also the most relevant comparison. Goo is a game that started as a naked physics engine, and it was slowly dressed up by the developers until it reached its final form. It is a puzzle game structured in level format and asks players to use space and limited tools to their advantage while always keeping physics in the forefront of their minds. The weight, shape, and mass of the structures you create all have a direct effect on the results. This means that there is a great deal to think about while you play. And the seemingly obvious solution to a puzzle is rarely the right one, especially as you progress through the game. Can the structure you’re trying to create hold itself up, or will it collapse under its own weight? Do you have enough goo balls to get across the chasm, or will you run out at the eleventh hour?
In this game, you will make mistakes. You’ll make a lot of them. But you not only learn from them as you go, you’ll also have a hell of a lot of fun making them. There’s something strangely fun about watching your goos collapse and disappear into the void, making hilarious noises as they go. This is due in no small part to the excellent work the developers have done on the sound effects. It’s hard to get mad at your goos for failing you when they’re so damned cute. The graphics are also seamless, and the music is always effective. Every level looks beautiful, and Kyle Gabler, who also composed the soundtrack (and cites Hans Zimmer,Danny Elfman, and Vangelis as influences), has outdone himself on every single composition. This is not background muzak; it is music. It never gets dull, never feels too repetitive, and never once annoyed me. This is a rare quality in any game. Also, most puzzle games don’t bother with a plot. World of Goo is to be commended for not ignoring this element. It still would have been a great game without a plot, so kudos to Gabler and Ron Carmel for going the extra mile. While you work your way through the mind-bending puzzles, you will wonder about a secret identity, encounter a nefarious corporation, and fight to free your spherical population from their post-human dystopia.
The most impressive thing of all about World of Goo is the level-to-level variety. Puzzle games often fall into patterns; there might be 50 levels, but there are really only five basic types of solution. As I played through Goo, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by how I had to think in a very different way to solve almost every puzzle. Lazier developers might have come up with only a few types of level and then multiplied them to lengthen the story mode. So although this game deserves praise for a lot of reasons, the element of ever-varied challenges is what really makes it shine and stand apart. World of Goo has a new brain teaser around every corner, refusing to let you go into half-conscious autopilot mode.
Much as I’ve praised Goo, it is still not the best example of what I’m talking about. That honor goes to Jonathan Blow’s truly outstanding Braid. This game blew my mind the first time I played it, and remembering it now almost makes me want to return to the joy of that first moment, that first instant I realized the treat ahead of me. I never thought that it was possible to combine the best elements of Mario and Myst and still bring something new and exciting to the table on top of it all. The important elements and rules of game-play are introduced as you progress, one by one, and not a single one of them comes with even a hint of handholding. Many games offer intermittent tutorials, making absolutely sure you know exactly what you’re doing before you continue. “Are you sure you get how to do it? Want to see an example? Want to practice one more time? We want you to win with the greatest of ease!” None of that is here. I appreciate a movie that doesn’t spell it all out and trusts in my intelligence, and self-respecting gamers should be looking for the same quality in their games.
Braid’s base model is the classic platform game, and though it initially comes off as a bizarre Mario knockoff, it doesn’t waste much time in showing that it is a unique entity. First of all, the rules of death have been rendered null and void. My jaw nearly hit the floor in shock (and delight!) when my character first tumbled off the screen; I waited for the you-suck-try-again music, but I was introduced instead to my immortality, made possible by the malleability of time. “Well, that won’t work,” I was told without words. “Why don’t you hit rewind and try something else?” Much like World of Goo, you will make a lot of mistakes in this game. But unlike pretty much every other game ever created, you won’t have to return to the beginning when you make them. You just have to reverse time, which makes it so that your mistake never happened at all. At first I thought this was simply a time-saving trick, but it ends up being so much more. Reversing time doesn’t just cheat you out of the Grim Reaper’s hands. It is also an essential puzzle-solving tool. You have to constantly move time back and forth and plan actions several steps in advance to have even half a chance at completing these levels. The rules about which things are and are not affected by manipulating time also change from level to level. It is an amazingly complex game, and this one really isn’t for those who don’t want to think, because it is also quite hard. But it is a rare and welcome challenge. The frustration that can be brought on by not being able to pass a level is also recognized, which keeps Braid from being tedious or so hard that it stops being fun. If you can’t figure out how to solve a puzzle, the game allows you to move on and come back to it later, instead of leaving you stuck there forever.
The fun of Braid lies in its complexity. Discovering new tricks is incredibly entertaining. Watching as the complex, careful work you’ve done comes together perfectly to bring you to the puzzle’s solution is a rush of pure joy and satisfaction. And like World of Goo, this game manages to keep its primary focus on game-play and fun while still not ignoring other important elements. The graphics are beyond well-done. Braid’s vast capacity to keep track of your prior actions and recall them while integrating current actions and events into the past (it makes more sense if you play it), all without a single glitch or second of lag, is unreal. Though the music isn’t as immediately catchy as World of Goo’s, it is still expertly composed, and it matches up perfectly with what’s going on in the game. Sometimes it drops out entirely, and to great effect; the silence is eerie and just as atmospheric as the music. The music and sound effects go backwards when time goes backwards, which is a flawlessly executed detail that really helps to immerse the player into the experience of the game. And in addition to all of this, there is a plot in Braid as well, even though just like Goo, the genre doesn’t necessarily call for one. The plot is a welcome, engaging grace note, ringing with the echo of heartbreak, in the midst of a brilliant composition.
The tendency of the mainstream to regurgitate the things that have been proven to be safe and digestible happens in all forms of media, not just video games. This trend can be found in literature, movies, and music, to name the most obvious examples. And no, the mainstream is not always the enemy; as I pointed out before, just look at Mario. But in general, it is independent developers that bring the best ideas to the table. The best books and songs are the ones that make us learn, that help us discover new things, that tap into all the best elements of being human and illuminate them. Why shouldn’t we ask our video games to try to do the same? Maybe we’ll never have revelations about the human experience and what might be beyond the stars when we play videogames, but we can at least push the boundaries of our minds and challenge ourselves. The game creators and developers that find a way to tap into this power are the true artists. They are our visionaries, and we should put down our guitar controllers for a moment and salute them.