Sometimes it’s better in your head…
So Star Wars is getting not only new films, but a new game courtesy of DICE.
Now, rather like this weekends EG Soapbox, I genuinely think we’re guilty of expecting something more than we’re going to get. The Star Wars franchise has, for years, been bordering on the precipice of mediocrity. It’s not only suffered the indignation of The Old Republic, but thrust itself in its usual unwelcoming method into games like SoulCalibur 4. And the less said about the Kinect version and that dance section, the better. No really, we don’t need to describe it. We all knew it was going to be crap.
This is a shame because, truth be told, it wasn’t always like this. Even to the likes of me, for whom Star Wars isn’t second nature, there were great moments in the past that hinged on Star Wars games – BioWare gave us two great Knights of the Old Republic games. We had Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader on the Gamecube, a title which won numerous accolades. But it’s easy to be selective in this manner. Most Star Wars games have been at best average, and at worst broken beyond belief. We selectively hinge our expectations on what was good, and willingly discard any entrant into the franchise that may not have met those expectations. But there’s more to this; Star Wars is not alone in a fanbase with either a selective memory or lofty expectations.
Part of me would level this at the Alien games; I can’t remember the last decent one I played since the 16-bit era that didn’t come attached with Predator. We are all disappointed with Colonial Marines; bitterly disappointed. Perhaps with good reason too, but a quick cursory glance back at the last few attempts would have signified that the Alien franchise hasn’t performed very well at all. Some may argue that the further it drifts from the basis of the movies, and Ripley, the less it becomes a science-fiction horror and the more it becomes a male power-fantasy. It’s hard to argue against that; Ripley may have been a tough woman in a male dominated world, but she WAS a woman. Ironically, she was a symbol of female empowerment, that you could be caring and sensitive whilst also being a total badass. Ripley was not two-dimensional; she was a character and the movies hinged largely on her (played brilliantly by Sigourney Weaver). This is best explained by bringing up that bastard child of the movie series, Alien Resurrection. When the focus was shifted so greatly from Ripley, the movie lost something. Winona Ryder did her absolute best, as she always does, but Ripley was different. Changed. Part alien herself now, she lost that sympathetic human edge. Perhaps the games are suffering a similar fate; it’s easy to hold the Xenomorphs up as the stars of the show, but unless the foundations can support them, they’re still nothing more than cannon fodder.
And I genuinely don’t think anyone can make a decent Alien game without at least a base understanding of how complex the movies are.
I was asked recently if I couldn’t see the potential of a good Alien game. And I do see the potential of a decent Alien-themed game. I genuinely do, but arguably for me, in my head, I’d strip back as much of the Marines stuff as possible. I’d keep it focused on a character, with a very limited pool of weapons but a scenario and setting a bit like Alien 3, where there’s more to it than simply shooting stuff. Some would throw their hands up in horror at the notion but even Aliens made a point that the Marines were still furniture, they were the meat. Ripley was still front and centre of the whole deal. The Marines, to me, are simply no longer that interesting. It’s too simplistic, too broad a brush stroke when the real genius of the franchise has been in the smaller details, the finer lines that add more to the picture. They are part of the machine; they are not the whole machine.
This idea works in my head. But I also sincerely doubt that a slow, character-focused game like this would work in reality. Even if it did, would it sell? I find myself doubting that very much. You may as well do a new film in this manner, than push it into the gaming medium where, unfortunately, people are still obsessed about guns and landscapes more than character development and narrative.
Of course, it’s even broader than this. The Alien franchise may be a very good point of reference, but so too is the cry for the games industry to remake, revive and resurrect older games. They remember the originals, love them, revere them in a quasi-religious sense. And I agree for most of them, that there are some really amazing games from the past that could make for great starting points for new games and revivals. But again, it’s easy to think, “That would be so cool!”. The image in our head is more potent than any reality could ever be, and I fear in some cases we may be setting ourselves up for a fall…
For example, Beyond Good and Evil 2. I hurt people last week when the twitter hash-tag #unpopulargamingopinions was doing the rounds. And I cruelly suggested that “No matter how hard they try, Beyond Good and Evil 2 will NEVER be as good as you want it to be.” This might have seemed mean-spirited but there’s a very good reason why I said it – as unpopular as it may be to say it, the reality is that most of us genuinely hold Beyond Good and Evil up as one of the finest gaming experiences of the PS2 era. It was brilliant, unexpectedly brilliant, with a great narrative, a lovable cast, plenty of humour, blending stealth and action seamlessly into one fantastic whole with some lovely side segments of racing and precision cannon-fire. Many of us love it deeply, and we are frustrated that the much-teased sequel is taking so damned long. It’s fine, we should be.
But really, think about that game you have in your head. Go ahead, just picture how good it is. Now ask yourself – will that ever really happen? Maybe it will. But it is unlikely we’ll all see the future in the same way, and therein lies the first problem with a Beyond Good and Evil 2; we had no expectations of the first game. Once you’ve got a game out there, and a good one that people revere, there is often an expectation on the sequel. Sometimes this is why it’s best to start a bit off-key before delivering a pitch-perfect note; Assassin’s Creed 2 would like to make its presence felt here. When you’ve got a great game, the follow-up has baggage. It has people thinking they know what made the game good, thinking that the game will focus on that at the expense of all else. It’s a thankless task and I can’t say I envy Michel Ancel in the slightest on this front. We’ve got a game where everyone thinks their favourite segment is better than all the others, rather than the cohesive whole, and therefore everyone has a different picture of what a sequel might entail. There’s no way that Ancel could ever please everybody. Our expectations aren’t just too high, but too broad in definition too. We’ve created the perfect brick wall for it to slam into, and I can’t help but wonder if this is part of why the sequel is taking so long – that we have created an obstacle out of expectation. A huge one that, in trying to find a way to please us all, has ground progress of the game to a shuddering halt.
The same is true of Vagrant Story – personally, I’d much rather have the original UNCUT version in High Definition. I had no expectation walking into Vagrant Story over a decade ago. I liked RPG’s and it looked interesting, but I wasn’t prepared for how it would swallow up my time, eat every waking hour of my life as I doodled potential weapon combinations at every opportunity. I found myself loving it more than I was ever expecting to – but herein lies the problem. How can a sequel build from this? What was so good about it? It’s hard to quantify, because Vagrant Story is that the whole is greater than the sum of its many parts. It’s depth and intriguing mechanics allow for freedom in a rigid, unchanging, unforgiving landscape. The characters – some carry others who aren’t so interesting. Guildenstern is nothing without Lady Samantha, who in her brief scenes adds far more menace and depth to his devious, cold manner than would otherwise be visible or audible in a game with no speech. Father Grissom is nothing without Neesa and Tieger. Grissom is shallow and throwaway, and yet with two small roles supporting him, his fate isn’t shallow at all, but tragic and twisted. Vagrant Story is a game of balance, of understanding how to get away with weaker points and characters and designs by virtue of propping them up with stronger characters, stronger ideas, stronger mechanics.
Can you see the Square-Enix of today ever giving them the space and time and indeed, money to make a strong sequel to this game? Heck, we know now that the original game was cut back dramatically to get it released before the PS2 era moved in, with huge swathes of the game and many characters sacrificed in the drive to get it to the market. I’d take that original concept in a heartbeat, touched up in HD, some slightly better mechanics and detail in some areas. But a sequel? Even if the ending was deliberately open-ended, I just don’t think it’s quite so easy to make a sequel. There’s no one defining point of Vagrant Story that makes it such a brilliant game, and that makes it a much harder game to make a sequel for anyway. Publishers and investors like sound bites, they like it simple and easy to understand. They don’t care about the subtleties of character interplay or the relationship between flesh and magic in the land of Leá Monde. They just want to know why it was a success and why they should invest in another. When the first question is hard to answer, the second becomes that much harder to quantify.
And you can broaden it further. A sequel to Earthbound? How about we have an official European release of it first! A new Grandia? I’m not sure…
This isn’t to say I wouldn’t buy them in a heartbeat though. I totally would, and that’s perhaps a little depressing. Even if I know that my expectations will be greater than the end product, I will still buy it anyway based on those expectations. But I know that such things are incredibly complex, and in trying to simplify the reasons behind their success, we dilute the end results. Sometimes, one thing cannot on its own hold up a game. Even if it is the main attraction, there is a lot of structural scaffolding at play to hold it up. Focusing on one thing at the detriment of everything that held up the main pillar of the game can only see it come crashing down and making an absolute mess of things. It makes games more challenging to make than you’d expect; there’s more to it than nice ideas. Nice ideas still need to sit on top of solid foundations, after all. Amy was a nice game, it’s a shame the foundations were rickety. NeverDead was a fun, mad and lovely game. But the main structure of the gameplay was unable to keep it from making a rather large hole in the bottom of the game.
Dark Souls is another game that depicts this in a mirrored way. Alone in a hostile world is a lovely idea, but it’s tired and boring – we’ve been doing this in fantasy fiction for decades now. Dress it up with some amazing creatures, a great plot, gorgeous locales and a bit of a challenge and even a tired old fantasy cliché can become something incredibly special. We think the challenge of Dark Souls is what makes it so good; it isn’t. There’s so much more to it, and I’m thrilled that FROM Software, in its more recent showings of the sequel, have shown they understand this. They always say the challenge is still there, but they talk about the world, the landscape, the creatures, the setting. The core is still “Lone hero against hostile world.” And they are aware the only way to still get away with that is to make sure that it is held up by everything else in the game. That I can see, and tolerate, and understand.
And yet I also worry that in a sense, the game that I have in my head for Dark Souls 2 can never match what will be released. I’ve seen it, and it’s got me excited, but it’s easy to imagine a good fantasy Action RPG. It’s harder still to make it carry itself across fifty to a hundred hours. I wonder if we’re all expecting the challenge so much that we’ll miss the subtle elements that make the Souls series so interesting.
We all want these games, we all want sequels. But I suspect that many of us are oblivious to the basic problem; that we’re a hard bunch to please. Developers (okay, maybe not Gearbox!) work very hard to make these sequels and sometimes they will fall a little short. That’s fine, you can’t always get perfection when a game takes so long to make. It’s sometimes a challenge, sometimes things get cut or scaled down. But most of all, we go out, buy them and complain bitterly when they turn out to not be what we want, even if all intuition and all prior examples suggest that we should have scaled back our expectations. What you end up with is scenarios like Star Wars and Alien games; we can see how they would make great games, but they never quite turn out how we want them to.
And for all the foul language over the Disney takeover and three new J.J. Abrams-directed Star Wars movies, and talk of another shot at an Alien-themed game, perhaps they will get it right this time. Perhaps new people and new talent and new ideas are necessary for things to grow. But I can’t help but wonder why sometimes they put themselves through it. Some say J.J. Abrams cannot do a Star Wars film because “He’s a Trekkie and he’ll ruin it!”. Or even my gut instinct that there shouldn’t be any hint of a new Alien game for a long while yet. We aren’t nice, and we don’t understand sometimes at the scale of the challenge ahead; whoever gets to make this new Alien game has to bridge the Colonial Marines crater, which is now full of angry mutant crocodiles that haven’t been fed for days and have been forced to listen to Nikki Minaj on loop since they were last fed. J.J. Abrams has to cross the minefield that is the remnants of the Star Wars franchise, scattered across the landscape with a compartmentalised fanbase just waiting for him to step on their particular mine so they can have the chance to savage him.
I think we should let them get on with it. If they fail… well, they fail. Enjoy your irreverently smug “I told you so!” moment when it comes. But we must keep some lid on our expectations, because there’s no way in reality that the end result will be exactly as we envisioned. That doesn’t make something automatically bad.
It just means that we may have to accept that what we want, may never really be possible. But hey, we can always try and enjoy the trip there. Right?