In order for the industry to produce landmark titles on a consistent basis the games industry must shed its obsession with technology. Every year we’re blasted with news about new control systems and more powerful graphics cards. We're told at length how 3D technology will revolutionise gaming, just as it is beginning to do with the cinema. It's a techno arms race and it too often comes at the expense of creating games that distinguish themselves in terms of their design, with developers trying so desperately to learn and implement the latest tech just to keep pace with their competitors that they never consider anything else. They are so busy playing with their new toys they don't learn to use their old ones to their fullest.
Improvements in technology have no doubt brought the industry enormous financial success and grown the size of its potential audience enormously. If you need proof then you need only glance at Nintendo, which has seen a dramatic increase in the size and profit thanks to new control systems and inclusive, pick-up-and-play approach to game design.
However, this recent explosion in audience size hasn't led to significant cultural respect. One could even argue, especially in Nintendo’s case, that the types of games now being produced has resulted in a decrease in cultural respect – moving ever further towards the realm of toys then that of a respected entertainment medium or, dare I say it, art.
Are the new Final Fantasy games really that much better?
As long as technology remains the key component in driving games forward then audiences will forever remain in the ‘wow-factor’ zone, eagerly anticipating improved graphics and ‘controller-less’ controllers. Does this really lead to better, more engrossing gaming experiences? Are we having more fun with games now then we were in the 16-bit or Playstation eras? Is Final Fantasy XIII really better than Final Fantasy VII? In terms of game design very little has changed since those days and, while new graphics may be fun and exciting, the sense of satisfaction they provide dissipates quickly.
To an extent, games find themselves in the same place cinema found itself in during the late 1800s - the time of the Lumiѐre Brothers – in which audiences watched the screen with amazement, not because of the film’s content but because someone had managed to record moving pictures, displaying immense technical skill in doing so. Predictably, once audiences had seen those early films the excitement wore off and they were no longer satisfied; they’d seen it was possible to capture events and it was now down to filmmakers to use this new tool to engage with the public.
What’s so frustrating is that the video game medium has enormous potential, enough even to surpass film. Games can do everything films can; they can display images, broadcast sounds, present story and characters. However, games have the added advantage of being interactive, a trump card not available to film-makers. And yet the games industry has always had trouble fulfilling that potential. Rather than experimenting with new ideas it’s too caught up with trying to find the next cash cow. Inevitably this results in playing it safe and reusing the same successful formulas over and over again.
Heavy Rain - are we having (more than) fun yet?
Is the next Call of Duty, Gran Turismo or World of Warcraft going to change the face of the industry and rid it of its subculture status? The answer is no. And if the publishers believe the answer to be yes, then they are playing a dangerous game, as audiences will at some point surely begin to shrink as all but the most ‘hardcore’ grow tired of being sold the same experiences with each passing year. Even Wes Craven had to stop making Scream sequels... eventually. (Ok, they stopped making Jaws films then - Ed)
The elephant in the room here is Heavy Rain, a title hailed by many as representative of the kind of engagement video games can accomplish. While Heavy Rain attempts to provoke and challenge our emotional state to a higher degree than most titles, it does so by following the rules and conventions of films and television – feeling like an interactive movie instead of a ground-breaking gaming experience. As interesting and enjoyable as this approach is, the reality is that it’s not the kind of innovation that will lead to cultural relevancy. Games must utilise their potential and develop their own rules and conventions, their own way of touching an audience, rather than relying on transferring proven techniques from other mediums.
With the industry experiencing tremendous growth and broadening appeal among demographics previously thought of as out of reach, now is the time to take risks and compliment the shoot ‘em ups, drive ‘em ups and sport ‘em ups with content that aims to engage and provoke us. Once the industry achieves this broad range of content – and snubs its unhealthy obsession with technology-led progression – it’ll be on track to fulfil its potential as a mature, culturally relevant medium.
Who knows, maybe it’ll even lead to a Top 100 Video Game countdown on late-night TV? Davina McCall could host.