The Vita, Killer Games and Adventure.

Adventure!

Everyone seems to think that the Vita will sooner or later begin to match 3DS sales. Theoretically, I agree with this statement – but it comes attached with the condition that the Vita needs some actual games to give people a reason to part with the cash for the machine. Games sell consoles. Whodathunkit?

                                                                            

Shigeru Miyamoto sure stuck his foot in it.

By pointing out the obvious fact that the Sony Vita lacks software that will push hardware sales is hardly blasphemous – Nintendo should know, they had this issue predominantly with the Wii, and the first few months of the 3DS’ life were a similar story to the one the Vita is currently experiencing. If anything, I’d say Sony should have paid attention to what stumbled the release of the 3DS, and what picked up the sales to break records months later – games like Mario Kart 7, Super Mario 3D Land and Resident Evil: Revelations. Nintendo made that mistake and it is one Sony ignored at its own expense.

That said, I am surprised by defenders of the Vita that somehow, all the Vita needs is one killer app – and everyone is pinning their hopes on Monster Hunter Vita.

Now, I am aware a Monster Hunter Vita is in the pipeline, but then – there is also a 3DS version on the way too and is more likely to hit the shops sooner. The question then doesn’t become, like the spike in PSP sales when it got Monster Hunter, if the game is selling the system. When both machines have what is ostensibly the same game inhabiting the same genre, the argument should shift to what platform will it sell the most on, and the obvious answer to that one would be the platform which has the largest share of the market – which just happens to currently be the 3DS.

I’ve said this before but it is a salient point that console manufacturers often forget; we do not buy games consoles for the tech inside them.

Why is it nearly every generation it has been the relatively cheaper and inexpensive machine that has always dominated? Why is it that PC Games are almost all tuned for mid-spec graphics cards and processors, and not the very highest end parts that are absolutely available to us all? Why is it the Wii has utterly dominated this generation, despite not being HD and having a relatively smaller pool of game releases?

The truth of the matter is that whilst some of us are gamers, it is the first four letters of the term we’re interested in. I am not a console or PC fanboy – I actually happen to love games and I’m not really bothered which machine it comes out for, or is better on. For me, I play games for the experience. You could argue in this day and age, I am a digital adventurer in a world where there is a lack of physical adventure to be had. We know so much about this world, have it mapped out. There is no-where to run, no-where to hide, no-where to explore that you can’t find out and experience on the internet now. I have a thirst for adventure, exploration and danger in a world where all three have been reduced, and the last one everyone else seems to impress on me to avoid at all costs.

As a result, for me there is no one killer app. People say Nintendo sells itself on Mario, and by and large I see their point, but Mario himself changes worlds and landscapes. He is an adventurer, an explorer, the sort of person who desperately needs goals and challenges to pursue. This makes each Mario game look – and feel – very different, and so it is hard to deny Mario his rightful place as a true mascot for the company. Also, Zelda changes all the time, a fantastical land groaning under the weight of looming disaster, a hero rises and scours the land for the tools and the power to save his home. As does Metroid – the Metroid Prime series was as much about adventure and exploration as blasting aliens. You also have Pikmin, being lost on an alien planet and searching it. Nintendo are masters of giving people this adventure, this sense of experiencing a world.

Sony more than anyone don’t tend to give that. And I know people will gasp in shock and be mortified by me saying this, but it is true – Sony are comparatively more linear in their approach to games. Microsoft are also guilty to a lesser extent, their baby Lionhead Studios did try so hard to make Fable this adventure of a lifetime but once again were caught up in the linearity of the stories progression.

You see, so many games want to define a purpose for themselves. Uncharted is scripted heavily, as is Resistance. Gears of War and Fable too. They dress themselves up as big worlds, but they are actually very tiny – fairground rides, places you can’t reach out and touch. Some of us like to get lost in worlds – aq good world, a good big world, is one you want to get lost in. Gears of War was so dangerously close to this that it was so disappointing it was so on-rails, because the potential for that broken world to break free and open up is one that I fear will haunt Epic for years to come.

Nintendo games people sometimes ask, “What’s the point? The story is always the same!” True to a certain degree, but from the perspective of myself as a gamer who desires escape, the story is not what draws me in. Writers suck. I say that as a writer. We skip over plot holes, we use narrative shorthand to the point that it offends more than it assists, we get ourselves at times muddled up. Stories are fallible – like string, it takes one knot to feel a bump.

Relying on a narrative to give a sense of belonging has become cheap. A reliant and important staple of a game has become something of a grotesque mess that has eclipsed something that is missing, but we can feel it so often – that sense of adventure, of exploration. Feeding that primal instinct we have for new experiences, to expand our horizons in a world where nothing is sacred, nothing is taboo and everyone has an answer for everything.

It’s why looking at this generation, and generations before, you can see why Nintendo always comes out dominant in the best games listings. There is so often nothing like what they do – and when people try to copy Nintendo, they often miss the point that simplicity is important. We don’t need answers spoon-fed; we want to work it out ourselves.

This is why you see games like Dark Souls being so popular – probably one of the strongest new brands conceived this generation, it doesn’t explicitly tell you much more than you are an undead who may or may not have a purpose, but you have to proceed in a violent and hostile land to work this out for yourself. There is little to no narrative; there is danger at every turn, but you are dead anyway. The best you can hope for is that there will be an actual end at the end. It’s this brutal and spartan style that has made it so beloved by people – it’s an adventure. One the player, and other players, can control and shape.

The Vita lacks games with this texture, this vibrancy. And it needs them. Dark Souls sings because in a generation where experience is linked inextricably with linearity, it’s an experience that isn’t. You can poke around. Jump off ledges – sometimes with good reason and sometimes you’ll find there’s nothing but a very long drop into darkness.

Dark Souls itself has set a bar. Nintendo will probably outdo it again with their Wii-U launch line-up, this is their whole shtick, but it’s important this doesn’t get lost and that there are companies out there willing to push worlds, not stories.

The Vita is cold and clinical. It’s technology for the sake of it. I have a Vita. I like it. But it is not art, it is not there to be admired, it is there to be used. And there’s nothing much yet to get lost in, to spend my nights sleeplessly hooked on. It remains in a box, in the cupboard, awaiting its destiny – what that may be, I have not yet decided. Perhaps E3 will help me decide.

But the Vita needs lots of games which appeal to lots of people. The lovely thing about Monster Hunter and Dark Souls is they are about adventure – but two games cannot justify two hundred and fifty pounds of any persons money.

It needs to. After all, GTA3 – I’d wager most of the people who played that paid very little attention to the story for very large chunks of time and just wandered about doing random crazy stuff, right?

That’s still adventure. Sandbox games should be all about adventure.

So why is it that so many of them now aren’t? Sony want the Vita to be a gamers handheld. Without true adventure on it, it will only ever be a machine… it needs a game, a heart, a pulse to bring it to life. And I sincerely hope the Vita does in the end come good.

Go on Sony. Be adventurous.

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