The Next-Gen vs The Future.

This is a response to EG’s Tom Bramwell who stated that he can’t wait for the next-gen.

I for one understand the desire to move into a next-gen – not just for the improved graphical fidelity, although its a cheap argument that revolves a lot around preconceived notions of progress. There’s a fundamental train of thought that expects a next-gen, and the added power that could be brought about by new technology, that thinks that we can somehow reinvent existing franchises, encourage new IP and cure all the ills of what we gamers enjoy in our games.

Perhaps it can. There is no debating that extra horsepower can make a substantial difference to the gaming experience – this is why so many games used to be optimised for a PC audience, as the technology that drives the PC becomes generationally at least one or two steps beyond the console market. It can, in theory, be used to the advantage of developers and make even the most average of games better – either by virtue of the added ease of tweaking the engines and content, or by opening it up to the modding community who can indefinitely maintain a game and expand on it at very little expense to the developer.

But for me, the issue isn’t one of horsepower. I struggle to look at games now and think they need more visual grunt; the graphics we see now are often at the top of their game. When you boil it down to polygons, framerates and high-resolution textures, we’re not wanting for anything.

Rather, I feel the issue here is people are becoming bored of the same-old concepts and visuals. The issue is not one of graphical grunt – but of art style and direction, something which in recent years has been abandoned and neglected in the relentless pursuit to optimise and advance the realism and integrity of the industry.

We’ve become accustomed to the rippling muscles of Gears of War; the detailed guns in Modern Warfare; the facial animations in games like LA Noire, Heavy Rain and Skyrim. We’ve been trying to add voice acting to everything, expecting it to make a valid difference like in The Old Republic and arguably, Age of Conan. We expect the worlds to look believable, with weather that adds atmosphere and ambiance that integrates through our surround-sound headphones and speakers to immerse ourselves in the worlds.

And we’re getting BORED of it.

This is an inherent problem in giving the consumer what is believed they want, when actually its the industry chasing its own tail to no avail. Games are becoming more photo-realistic, more detailed. The animations are better, the sound is cleaner, the detail in our gaming worlds has increased to a level that last generation we barely thought possible. But for all of this, the games themselves have become stuck in a rut; with imagination and creativity dropping to an all-time low. We just expect what we’re getting; there’s no inherent surprise to gaming now.

Last generation I picked up a few games with only a basic understanding of what they were about, and was still pleasantly surprised by the actual content. Fatal Frame/Project Zero was a fabulously underrated experience, which led into me getting the second game, Crimson Butterfly – a game that challenged every known convention of the horror genre, making the story so sympathetic and believable and emotional that everything bled into everything else – the story drove the locales, the atmosphere, the shocks, the ghosts, the characters; what could have been a messy confusion of concept and ideology became, to my mind, the best horror game ever made. I will happily be quoted as saying that because to me, it is a game that has yet to be bested; has yet to be advanced on. The horror genre is so confused about how to approach horror and giving quick and cheap thrills that it fails to actually deliver an experience – one of artistry, a tapestry of human emotion and conflict that challenges, thrills, excites and moves in ways that the genre used to be so sublime at. Silent Hill 3 did this too – for all it did, it was not until the bombshell towards the end, when it is suggested that the hell dimension may be nothing more than a delusional state of mind and that many of the “monsters” we see are actually normal people who were going about their lives that the game shifts in tone; and a subsequent playthrough notes times when cars blockade your path with nasties surrounding them, which are hinted as maybe simply being the police trying to stop a psychopath in the midst of their delusional murder spree.

These two games, in a genre not often noted for its intelligence, challenged our perceptions of right and wrong. They made worlds that were rich, vivid and interesting. And more than that, they communicated, often with very little wording, a sense of menace and fear and insanity that only one horror game has matched this generation; Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which also understood you don’t need words and cheap shocks to deliver an experience. You just need the right concept, the right approach and text and documentation and a sprinkling of gentle narrative to impose it upon the player, and they will do the rest of the legwork.

This generation, when we come down to it, hasn’t thrown up any actual surprises; last generation we had Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, The Thing, Beyond Good and Evil, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Trilogy, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Oddword: Stranger’s Wrath, Jade Empire, Jet Grind Radio and Grandia 2. All pleasant, brilliant surprises in genres that were so often already tangled up focusing on the commercial successes of other titles.

And few of them had complete voice acting, or photo-realistic environments, or indeed in some cases made any actual sense. But they are fondly remembered and adored because they delivered something more than the game itself; they delivered an experience that transcended their genre, their game or their own design.

A next-gen won’t somehow magically reignite the creative, imaginative spark that has gone a little astray from the industry in the last couple of years – indeed, I can argue that the increased budgets and man-hours it would take to make games in a next-gen environment may cripple and damage imagination; in a market that is slowly becoming more and more risk-averse, a next gen would actually make them tow safer lines, rely on established names and franchises that can pull in the money, and give less room for surprises because they will essentially be reworking the same ideas, concepts and narratives in nothing more than a new pair of clothes.

Changing the experience, the artistry, the imagination of games will have to come from a fundamental change of attitude in the industry; to slow down, smell the flowers and reflect on games of the past. We have in recent years been either reworking old ideas, or polishing up and remaking successful games from the past. The industry is far too keen on relying on the past to shape their future, and it’s inherently damaging to creativity.

As someone who has been in therapy for years, it’s in the last couple of years I’ve learned to slowly let go of my troubled and slightly crazy past. I believed, as the industry does, that you have to cling onto the past in order to not make the same mistakes; but we do, we always do, because by clinging on to the past we simply immerse ourselves in it, and by token are doomed to repeating the same mistakes. My past, my scars, are always there – but it is by looking forward, to the future, that I have been able to come to terms with my past. The future means I can move away from it, and become a newer and better individual. I can make choices and I will still make mistakes, but I will make new mistakes – all new cock-ups to learn from, not repeating the same old tired stupidity and actions that got me into such a muddle in the first place.

And this can’t be fixed simply by a new address or new clothes or a new haircut; it has to come from deep within, a fundamental and perceptive change in the attitudes we have to ourselves and our minds. If we continue to think as we have always done that a next gen will solve the problems, we’ll just make the same mistakes all over again – and more of them, as it becomes more and more likely that experimentation and trying new things will blow up in our faces, we stop trying new things, we stop experimenting, or exploring ourselves and others. We learn and program ourselves with the line that risk is bad; risk hurts. And we eventually stop taking risks altogether, and become isolated. We stand still. The world runs past us, changing, adapting, evolving. And we do nothing.

You can’t simply run away from your problems. They will always be evident until you take the concerted effort to actually tackle them, solve them, come to terms with them. And then they actually do become a part of you; a small part of you that has learned, changed. They bolster your mind and spirit for the future, and will warn you when you are about to make a mistake.

A next gen is simply the industry running from its own problems – and unless the industry tackles the problems of sequelitis, until it asks itself why so many games have become sci-fi space marine shooters, or war shooters and FPS games, until the MMO industry comes to terms with the fact that 13 million subscribers isn’t a sustainable long-term business model and that World of Warcraft cannot simply be copied for the same success, until the big three of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo come to realise that motion control is merely an additional side attraction and can’t ever be the main event for commercial growth – until the industry looks at itself, long and hard, and asks itself why gamers are so finicky, so bored, so picky, so opinionated and jaded, it simply cannot change anything.

A next-gen cannot fix the problems that are already there – because they will always be there until someone does something to fix them.

I hope one day the industry wakes up, looks around at what they have and suddenly has that one simple thought, those simple words that signal that change is about to happen, and gives them the drive to make that change happen…

“What the hell am I doing?!”

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