While watching the recent Sup Holmes interview with Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning (an incredibly fascinating watch if you've not seen it!) Mr. Lanning said something that I found particularly interesting. When talking about the events that led up to the creation of Oddworld he spoke about what made other pieces of media stand out before video games. He spoke of unforgettable experiences and how that needed to translate into a video game and it really made me start to think about just how often we've had experiences like that in the gaming industry. So let's talk about that.
Lanning mentioned films like Blade Runner, a masterpiece that still has the power behind it today that it had 20 years ago. It holds this power because of a few reasons; mainly because it isn't a film that feels like a marketing team made it and it didn't go on to be diluted by sequels and spinoffs. I thought at first "Well there are plenty of great experiences in games!" and then I immediately countered myself with "But are they really on that same level?" It's easy to think of games that you really enjoyed, but it's more difficult to really separate the good games from the experiences that are truly unique.
You could probably take the easy way out and say "oh Tetris or Super Mario Bros because they started it all" and that is true, but there also wasn't quite as much competition for something "new" back then. These days we have so many games of different genres. There are so many platformers, so many shooters; we really have to dig if we want to find something truly unique. The most difficult part of picking out these unique experiences is deciding just what makes a game unique, because surely that's largely subjective. I find the challenge pretty fascinating so bear with me while I talk it out.
The first example that pops to mind is Journey on PS3. When Journey came out I constantly heard from sites and gamers that it was such a profound and unique experience and all I could think was "How can a game be THAT good in a 2 hour experience?" I finally bit and gave it a download and I don't think I've ever experienced any game that so truly deserved the hype it was getting. Journey truly is a very unique and powerful experience in such a simple and beautiful way. It's a game that exudes raw emotion. Obviously there are people who may disagree, but I think the vast majority of people can agree that this game qualifies as a truly unique experience.
What else though? I'm already having to default to experiences that are much more subjective. Personally I feel that Jasper Byrne's Lone Survivor is a very unique experience. That's a game that could easily be looked at as just a 2D survival horror which, while different, may not really resonate with many. At the same time though, those who really pay attention to what's going on in the game and the themes and experiences that it holds will find something incredibly deep and meaningful hidden within it.
I'd also say that both of Supergiant's games are incredibly unique and unforgettable experiences for me. Bastion and Transistor have fantastic methods of narration and storytelling that really hit a special chord with me. Now that I think about these games though I can already think of plenty of people who don't see them in as fascinating a light as I do, but when it comes down to it you can always find someone who dislikes something that you love.
I feel like there's an added layer of complexity when it comes to making a game feel unique rather than a movie or book. What kind of things do you think about when you're considering how good a movie was? Well you think about how good the story was, how well the characters were written, how well they were portrayed by the actors, how good did the film look, etc.
Now what about video games? In a video game you could look for every one of those things but you also have to worry about the biggest component: how does it actually play? I could say that Silent Hill 2 contains some of the best story telling in any game, but that's just one aspect of a game. I couldn't say that SH2 offers a unique, or even terribly enjoyable, gameplay experience, and to many that's more important than any of those other components.
I could probably point to Shadow of the Colossus as a great example of these components coming together in a meaningful way. That's a game that is primarily gameplay, very enjoyable gameplay at that, but also features a very special story and a fascinating world to explore. It is unique in both gameplay and story, and as such still receives praise to this day.
Something else to think about is how much should we WANT a new and unique experience from a game? I think it's important to want the best for our medium and for the creators to strive to create something special, but I also feel that it's important that every creator not feel the need to carry that burden of "I have to make something truly unique and innovative or I've wasted my time." We see this in plenty of mediums outside of games.
Regardless of whether you're looking at movies or music or games you always see what my friend Mike would call "popcorn flicks." I'm talking about the Transformers and the Resident Evils of the film world. These aren't going to blow your mind in any meaningful way and you may not remember them for very long, but that doesn't mean that they're not fun in the moment if you're willing to switch your brain down to a lazy setting for a while.
Games have these types of experiences as well. You don't play Call of Duty or God of War for a deep meaningful experience, but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't exist. The fact that people are willing to pump such an unbelievably substantial amount of money into those games with every iteration proves that people do want those types of popcorn experiences. More and more these days the titles that really try to be thought provoking and unique are in the indie scene. The problem then becomes standing out from those Call of Duty types of experiences when you've created something meaningful. How do you get people to look away from the flashy advertisements long enough to see this little gem that you've poured your heart into?
I don't know that this is a problem that can really be fixed, at least not in the current market, purely because what publishers seem to want to push into your face are the franchises that they KNOW will sell. They know you'll buy Call of Duty, they know you'll buy Mass Effect, but the amount of risk that comes with something that wants to test the boundaries is more substantial. We've got programs like greenlight for games that have been made but need to be made available and we've got kickstarter for those games that could be made if people would give creators a bit of help, but there seems to be a real need for someone with a real following to dig through these sorts of titles and find the hidden gems to show the world.
Now there are people who are legitimately trying to help make this kind of thing happen. Every so often on Destructoid or Rock Paper Shotgun or Kotaku you'll see a bit of "Hey, here's this interesting thing that we just heard about on kickstarter!" and I know some people on YouTube delve into it with shows like The Greenlight on Jesse Cox's channel or the TotalBiscuit's WTF is?, but it would be interesting to see someone with a following delving into these titles regularly. We've seen some fantastic games come from the indie scene that have taken the gaming world by storm, so how many more could we find if we really looked? The question then becomes will people actually watch such a show and how realistic of a goal is it to reliably find lesser known titles worth mentioning? These are questions I'm honestly not equipped to answer.
If we're totally honest with ourselves we can't really just blame publishers either, because it's also up to consumers to actually fork up the cash for the games that try to stand out. We can blame big companies for only pushing out big sequels and rehashes, but how many consumers are really willing to give their money to these smaller studios? Especially the ones who haven't gotten to prove themselves yet? Lanning also touched on that a bit when he spoke of people not wanting to spend $20 on a game just because it's an indie title, and it is a bit absurd. We're happy to bitch about big companies not giving us quality products but we're afraid that smaller guys might be small because they don't have quality to offer.
This is a very complex subject that just gets more and more out of my league the more I think about it. I'm sure there are far greater minds than my own who have been considering all of these things for far longer, but it's something I just felt like speaking on for a bit. If nothing else I hope it prompts a bit of thought from people and maybe even some discussion. Either way, thanks for reading!