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May 5, 2014

On Donkey Kong and the Pursuit of Next-Gen

So when did “epic” start being a thing?

I would ask if people still use that term, and play it as being a synonym for “cool” or “awesome”, but not that long ago it popped up in a commercial or something, and my brother scoffed at the idea.  “I hate it when people use ‘epic’,” he said, more or less.  I don’t blame him.  Setting aside what an epic is supposed to be and what it actually means, it feels like it’s a bit of a reach in terms of the modern-day lexicon.  It’s verbal escalation; being cool isn’t enough, and being awesome isn’t enough, so obviously the only way to top that is by being EPIC, right?  But the tradeoff is that you get diminishing returns; it makes what was once incredible seem commonplace if you overuse it.  That, and it just makes you sound like a doof.  Or a bro.  Doofbro.

That strive to be epic -- to act in excess -- is a real problem, if you ask me.  It feels like there’s this constant pressure to be “bigger, better, and more badass”, as CliffyB once put it.  But that’s unsustainable, and unrewarding when you get down to it.  It’s not always about adding in more, and more, and more; an audience is more than capable of building tolerance, and too much epic can lead to them getting burned out.  Or to put it another way, it’d take ten summer blockbusters just to get them to normal.

So what’s the solution, then?  Hard to say for sure -- but if nothing else, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze gives us one possible answer.


Games like Tropical Freeze -- and games for the Wii U at large -- feel like they understand the point of being a video game.  Sure, they each have their styles and frills and flourishes, but not to the point where they’re in excess.  The intent, no doubt, is to make a game that lets the player do what he/she should be doing: using the systems in place to interact with the game, and allowing both parties to express themselves. 

The game gets to show off its tech wizardry, and the technique used to create a memorable audiovisual experience.  Meanwhile, the player gets to show off his/her skill in an active sense, enjoy the game’s offerings in a passive sense, and at the end of the day set down the controller with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction (assuming they don’t rage quit or anything).  I was under the impression that that was how it should be.  That was what we counted on games to do.

But maybe I’m wrong.


Maybe the reason why the Wii U is in a bad place (not quite NINTENDOOMED, but I’ll gladly admit things could be better) is because people think -- or know -- that the Big N’s latest isn’t going to “get with the times.”  It’s true, a lot of conventions are lost on the Wii U, and plenty of the games that are on it right now, while top-notch in quality, feel like antiques.  Artifacts of a long-gone age.  There’s been a paradigm shift in the past few years, and the trends (however obnoxious) probably aren’t going to stop anytime soon.  More people are playing games than ever before, and countless wallets have spoken about “what’s worth making”.

Now, I’m not so harsh that I’ll say that devs are wasting their time.  On the contrary; I know that there are good people behind those walls of code, and I know that by and large they’re putting in as much effort they can -- even if it pushes them to their limits.  But the problem is that they -- devs and companies and the bigwigs behind them -- are putting that effort into all the wrong places.  The intent to take games to the next level is there, and I appreciate that.  I hope everyone can.  But from what I’ve seen to date, I’m not impressed.  In fact, I’m downright worried.  In fact, maybe I’m right.

And if I am, then we’re in for a rough time.


Right now the Big N has a thankless job.  By and large it’s doing the same thing it’s always done, and pushing others (Retro Studios among them) to do the same for some mutual gain.  But maybe that’s a problem in its own right.  That’s not enough anymore -- not for the industry and its consumers as they are now.  Yet the alternative is damn close to a betrayal of what makes Nintendo who they are, and what their games are.  Nintendo had it right when they added a transitional phase, graphics-wise, between the sixth and seventh generations; they decided to create a platform for innovation, realizing that more powerful graphics weren’t going to be enough in the long run. On one hand, it worked for them and helped bring in a tidal wave of new gamers; on the other, it made them a target for ridicule, made their console out to be nothing but a gimmicky toy, and made way for a slew of knee-jerk reactions to what constituted a hardcore game and what could be cast aside as kiddie or casual fare.

Nintendo didn’t really grow up -- a boon and a fault of the company.  But by staying true to their roots, and by creating a platform that allowed others to do the same, they at least TRIED to be something more…even if it was by way of being less.  In that sense, they’re collectively more mature, and more grown-up, than almost anyone else out there.  Compare that to other companies and other creators, who, in trying to be grown-up, or legitimate, or even accepted, they’re willing to distort themselves and their products into what they think is “right”.  Blinded by that desire, and furious in their attempts to prove themselves as “epic” -- in a world that’s long since devalued the word AND the appeal -- they’re stuck eating their own tail.  Only in their case, they’ve long since started to deteriorate.


I’d like to think that there’s no right answer to the question “how do you make a good video game” or “how do you take games to the next level”.  If there was, then everyone would be making one game, and copying it over and over with slightly different paint jobs.  There are plenty of options, just like there are plenty of concepts, designs, and levels of execution.  Possibilities can be explored, will be explored, and should be explored by those with the skill and wit needed to handle it.  And that’s how it should be.  The moment when you start to limit yourself is the moment you start to fail.

Yet here we are, with plenty of failures in our midst.

There have been days where it feels like I just want to smack video games.  Not physical video games, or one title in particular; no, sometimes it just feels like I need to hit the very concept of games, and those that hold them up as their one true law.  In the past few years, they’ve almost (for a given definition of “almost”) turned into a parody of themselves, or some joke you’d see on The Simpsons.  I just don’t understand how, in this day and age, a company could release a forty-dollar demo with a straight face.  I know why, of course: it’s likely to restock the war chest for the sake of the actual game.  On that note, I was under the impression that the new consoles were supposed to make development easier, and therefore cheaper -- except that’s been negated by the fact that now they have to render even more, and better, lest they leap into the uncanny valley.  So now instead of boasting about the uniqueness of the game or the validity of the story in previews, we’re told about the majesty of hyper-realistic chair and wood physics -- while the game in question looks like a pile of cold gruel with chest-high walls sticking out.


I said as much with Infamous: Second Son -- itself a crushing letdown -- and I’ll say it again here: it feels like we’re going backwards instead of forward.  I don’t get the sense that “the game” is evolving.  And at this point, it really should; companies have touted that the key to innovation will come from new hardware, but those same companies will still bank on the old guard despite very nearly running it into -- and through -- the ground.     Meanwhile, you’ve got games like Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition boasting better graphics at the cost of making some of the animations jankier, Dead Rising 3 being “the same, but less” vis a vis the lightened difficulty and sanded-down aesthetic, and Ryse as a game that actually exists. 

I just don’t understand what the plan is.  How are video games -- and the industry at large -- supposed to evolve when the brightest glimmers on the horizon are a new Uncharted and a new Halo, games that could conceivably appear on the PS3 and 360 with a graphical downgrade?  How am I supposed to believe that more involving stories are on the way when I’ve seen games at their supposed best, or when they’ve claimed to be revolutionary?  How can I accept delusions of grandeur when they’re not only distorting what a game should be, but not even offering anything worthwhile to stand in for the sake of the quest for legitimacy?  To be epic?  Why is David Cage being allowed to make another game?

I don’t have any answers.  But I know this much: whatever it is, it’s not down the road we’re on now.


The answer isn’t going to come with excess.  If excess is involved -- and I doubt it is -- then it’s going to be a side dish, not the main course.  The industry has the technology to make damn near anything it wants, but that’s not because it’s got wide access to the PS4 and XB1 kits.  It’s had that technology for years.  The mastery of the craft is already there, and making the games that’ll usher in the future -- that’ll prove the worth of the medium -- isn’t going to come down to being wasteful or indulgent.  It’s going to come from the same things it always has: from being smart.  From being well-executed.  From being able to put out a lean yet ever-meaty product.  From being focused.  From being able to let the game parts of the game breathe, and exist, and stand at the forefront instead of being shoved aside by the particulars.  From being true to the game -- and letting it be what it should be from start to finish.  Simple and natural.

But I shouldn’t have to type a single damn word to prove that.  This should be obvious by now, and obvious to anyone who’s had even a passing interest in games.  If you’re reading this, you can name plenty of examples.  Why?  Because games have already proven themselves plenty of times before.  In some respects, they don’t need someone to try and fix them, or make them evolve, or take them to the next level, or earn legitimacy.  If games were so flawed without the presence of white-knighting developers, then don’t you think interest in them would have withered and died out more than a decade ago?  They’re not perfect, but they’ve done something right to have made it this long.  Embracing that, and understanding the inherent strengths, is vital.  Making that into a weapon is where the true next-gen experience lies.

…Wasn’t this post supposed to be about Donkey Kong?


Well, it can’t be helped.  I hope you don’t mind this little filibuster of a post, but it just feels like there were certain things that needed to be said.  A lot of games, and people, and companies have made their mistakes, and the sooner we accept that, the better off we’ll all be.  There is absolutely no reason why we should have to accept what’s “good enough”, and certainly not what’s being force-fed to us.  Our standards need to be high, and stay high, so that we can know A) when we’re being taken for granted, and B) how we can improve, be it ourselves or those who try to sway our hearts with their products.  We can’t expect things to change if we don’t change ourselves first.

But I still think there’s time for change -- even if it’s at once necessary and unnecessary.  It’s necessary in the sense that eventually, the tech will be there; people will get it, and rather than scrabbling at some meaningless goal, they’ll do what needs to be done with cheer and grace.  It’s unnecessary in the sense that sometimes, we have to go back to basics.  Sometimes we can -- and should -- look at the past to learn how to proceed.  That way, we’ll either learn from our mistakes, or we’ll find some precious gem tucked away.

And without a doubt, Tropical Freeze is one of the biggest gems to date.


That’ll do it for now.  See you guys around.

…Next time, we’ll talk about boobs some more.  That’ll make me popular, right?


4 comments:

  1. Gaming is certainly at a, how shall we say, "interesting" place right now. That isn't to say I think it's getting boring, but I fully grasp what you're saying here and I agree.


    The overgrowing need for "bigger, better, more revolutionary, MORE POWER!" is really getting out of control. In so many instances, more effort is being placed into the aforementioned things rather than the game itself. Making the window dressing looking appealing is all fine and dandy but I'd really like to see that attention to detail being put into the game as well.

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  2. I agree. And when it comes down to it, I think that's what a lot of gamers want, more so than just "more power". That power -- and wealth, and effort, and everything else -- has to be used effectively.


    I was under the impression that that was what each new console generation was primed to do -- take "the game" to a new level by letting them do things that they couldn't before. Evolve, instead of bootstrap more bells and whistles...and certainly do more than just play to/play up delusions of grandeur. Why this is so hard for countless developers to understand, I'll never know.


    My doomsaying aside, I'm still not about to give this generation a pass. It's like you said; games are in an interesting place, and I want to believe that things can get better -- because they have gotten better before. I just want them to stop being so ass-backwards from the get-go.


    Am I being unreasonable here? Am I really asking for that much? I don't think I am, but then again I have some pretty highs standards.

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  3. I had a feeling this discussion was coming. But well timed and well said. In other news I left you a little something in the Google Drive 'Bat Cave'. It may give you some ammunition for future posts.

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  4. Fun fact: I actually wrote this post a while before I did the Infamous posts -- and probably before I even finished playing Infamous. I prefer to stick to DA PLAN when it comes to post order, but there are...interruptions. I was tempted to write something about the reveal that Destiny's going to cost Activision roughly FIVE HUNDRED MILLION POOPING DOLLARS, but I decided to hold back to keep it from becoming a post choking on rage, despair, and confusion. But I won't be forgetting that subject anytime soon...

    "It may give you some ammunition for future posts."



    Dude, a quarter I find on the ground could give me ammo for a future post. Hell, I've been thinking about doing one on Batman for a while now, and the fact that you brought up the "Bat Cave" is pushing me even closer to it. Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuut I'll be sure to give this "little something" of yours a look in the coming days.


    Five hundred million dollars. I don't. I just -- I just DON'T.

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