When you think about it logically, video games should be the ultimate in storytelling. While other mediums could be described as simple watching or reading tasks, video games are designed purposely to put the audience into the steps of the main protagonist. The experience should feel more intimate; certainly more intimate than watching something unfold on a screen. So why does the industry struggle to have the impact in this area as its rivals?
Compare it to books, for example. Books are probably the only medium that should be able to challenge video games, thanks to intelligent writers that can describe the thoughts and emotions of a characters as if they were your own.
It feels like every other film these days is adapted from a book, whereas I don’t remember the last time I saw an adaptation of a video game (Hitman was the last one I remember). Even including projects that failed to come to fruition, such as the attempted Fallout and Bioshock movies, it’s clear that – using movie adaptations as a barometer – something is going wrong with video games in this respect.
I believe that the best books excel in their simplicity. Basic tone and language that allows extraordinary moments to flow. Maybe the video game industry could learn something from this idea? Or, maybe they are already..
Developers taking it back-to-basics
The reason I’m writing this article is that in the last month or so I have played three games more than the others. I didn’t notice until I had purchased the most recent title that they are all clearly linked in one area. They are all visually-orientated.
All three of these titles have taken their attention away from simple gameplay mechanics, turning attention – and, clearly, man-hours – towards creating a deep, eye-catching environment.
Mirrors Edge: Catalyst
A sequel to the unique Mirrors Edge of 2008, the player controls Faith, a renowned ‘runner’ (smuggler) in the dystopian, authoritarian city of Glass. Faith, whose parents and sister were killed in the regime when she was a kid, leading to her being taken in by runners, finishes her prison sentence (explained in spin-off comics released before the game) and has to work to pay off debts to black-market boss Dogen. While working for him she steals a valuable blueprint from KrugerSec – the dystpian leaders – which leads to rifts between those who need it (Faith), does who want it (KrugerSec) and those who wish they had nothing to do with it (namely Noah, Faiths boss/new-father).
The first of this trio of games I’ve recently played, eagerly pre-ordered this major EA title after loving the idea of the original game. Overall this was a hugely diappointing experience, with poor story, lazy free-roam missions and general lack of substance.
However, there is one area this excels in, and that is visuals. The city of Glass (and I don’t say that as a metaphor – it’s actually called Glass) looks spectacular thanks to EA’s much lauded Frostbite engine, with unbelievable reflections and beautifully natural-feeling colours, which is quite an achievement given the dystopian feel of the landscape. Also, the cut-scenes are so well created and animated – far above the level of the rest of the game – that it does genuinely feel like you’re watching a movie, minus the sub-par voice acting.
The Tomorrow Children
A massively-multiplayer online game where the players control projection clones, tasked with saving humanity that has been reduced to almost nothing. Set in an almost completely empty world known as The Void, the players work together under a communist-style rule to obtain materials from procedurally-generated structures and save people that have been turned into dolls.
Another recent release, this time from the relatively small, Sony-owned JapanStudio. This is a small game that will eventually be free-to-play on PlayStation 4, so the lack of depth and small play time shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
Again though, this is a game that takes immense pride in its visuals. This is a game with fantastic depth, using blurred edges to give the illusion of almost 3D vision. The rest of this unique and minimal world – similarly to Mirrors Edge, except with a bit more subtlety – is given a sheen, as if the world is almost made of glass. The general artistic style is also unique to the game, with a ‘small-world’ variation on a stereotypical view of Soviet Russia passing through everything in The Tomorrow Children.
Set in a fantasy world, the player controls a mysterious robed figure as he travels across a desert, heading to a large mountain in the distance. As the figure travels through the world and up the mountain the player begins the understand the reason behind this pilgrimage.
The winner of several ‘Game of the Year’ awards when this was released in 2012, Journey is widely considered to be one of the greatest indie games of all time. A game in which not a single word of dialogue is spoken, it has, and will continue to receive praise for its audio and visual excellence.
With a mixture of environments – from hot deserts to raging snowstorms and underwater moments – this game excels by creating an all-encompassing world around the player, without having to assault them with an array of colours and fast-paced scenes. A cluster of memorable scenes, particularly the sand-boarding event, mean that despite having almost no tangible story this is definitely deserved of the ‘one of the greats’ tag.
These are three totally different games with their own play styles, differing budgets. The one thing they do have in common is that they are all visually-orientated, and have all been praised for this side of their games, despite differing levels of excellence for the overall product. I am telling you about these games because it occurred to me that it isn’t just the big AAA titles, such as mirrors edge, that are capable of creating visually outstanding games. In fact, for smaller developers it can make more sense to focus on the aesthetics of the game as oppose to developing incredible game engines or paying for top-mark voice actors and writers. With these indie developers becoming more and more popular as the years go by (Journey’s award winning game and the recent No Man’s Sky are examples of this), it could get to the point where the sheer number of visual-orientated games leads the industry down a new path.
So is the video game industry suddenly changing tactics, turning away from big, money-spinning blockbusters and addictive franchises? The answer to that is a resounding no. However, there is more than a substantial market opening up where people are showing a demand for games that are incredible visual experiences and, sometimes, one-play games. These three titles, along with other games such as the previously-reviewed Life is Strange and the eagerly anticipated Detroit: Become Human, are opening peoples eyes to a world of gaming that isn’t all about button-smashing. With the two next major hardware developments – 4K-clarity ‘pro’ consoles and virtual reality headsets – for the gaming industry also being geared towards improving the visuals of the medium, maybe there is some serious winds of change blowing through the industry.
What are your thoughts? Do you think that visuals are quickly becoming the main focus of gaming in 2016, and going forward? Is there still a space for games based solely on how it plays, or do all developers have to place importance on visuals? Let us know what you think by commenting below, or hit us up on Twitter or Instagram!