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June 8, 2015

On The Witcher 3 and Intelligent Games

“The world doesn’t need a hero.  It needs a professional.”

You can’t begin to imagine how much that tagline irritates me.  Is it true?  Maybe.  But just hearing it makes me cringe -- like it smacks of the obsession with pessimism and grit that’s held a stranglehold on creative outlets for ages.  Yeah, a professional can do a lot, but a good hero can do even more -- become an enduring symbol that overpowers and outlasts “a job well done”.  Plus, it’s just more interesting; who was it that decided that fiction can never ever have idealism or a lack of realism?  Doesn’t that mean stripping away good possibilities -- a good half of what fiction is all about?

Also, Geralt just rubs me the wrong way.  Maybe I’m alone on this, be he feels like the most DeviantArt-ass OC the world’s ever seen.  White hair!  A scar!  A dark costume with lots of belts!  Two swords!  A gruff and growly voice!  Unusual eye colors!  He’s a bounty hunter!  He’s the best bounty hunter!  He’s got a dark and troubled past!  He’s different from normal people, which also makes him better!  I know The Witcher is much better than what I’ve described here, but at a glance?  Boy, it doesn’t do itself any favors; it’s as if it was designed to be industrial strength Voltech repellant.

But it’s fine, though.  If there’s any game I want to give a chance -- to open my heart to, and welcome into the depths of my soul (and/or ventricles), it’s this one.


I’ve read the reviews and heard the buzz; The Witcher 3 is a good game.  And I’ve seen bits and pieces of it that tell me, "No, this is NOT a shallow, dour string of errands."  And “Holy crap, this is the game we’ve all wanted deep down.”  There’s a part of me that thinks there’s buzz in the first place because of all the steps the devs took to NOT betray and belittle consumers, but either way the impossible has happened: a AAA game managed to live up to the hype.  But by the sound of things, it’s done more than live up to those expectations; it’s gone out of its way to offer up thoughtful, meaningful content.

Weighty sidequests.  Decisions that matter.  A fully-realized world.  Actual charisma.  All those things and more are packed in, which is definitely good news.  I haven’t played the game for myself (though I’ve listened to the soundtrack some, and it’s pretty good), but now I’m interested.  CD Projekt RED has apparently delivered on, well, pretty much everything I could ever want out of a modern-day game.  I don’t need bright colors, optimism, virtue, goofy humor, or Rider Kicks to be satisfied by the stuff I consume; I just need something with depth.  Something I can digest -- and something I want to digest.


In stark contrast to what a lot of games have made people (myself included) do these days, I’m going to assume the best of The Witcher 3 and buy into what’s been said.  For now -- for the sake of an argument -- I’ll believe wholesale that it’s smartly put together with all the trappings of a good adventure.  Good characters, good setting, good plot, good themes, good events, whatever; let’s say for now that it’s all in there.  And let’s say that it’s undeniably in there; anyone who plays it will find objective proof that this is one of the most intelligent, most thought-provoking games ever plopped into a console.  Or computer.  Or rendered in board game form, in the case of perennial masterpiece Guess Who.

Here’s my question, then: why did it take this long?

Let’s think about this for a second.  Video games have been around for, at a bare minimum, thirty years -- longer than that if you want to count pre-Mario titles (which you probably should, all things considered).  And sure, past technology didn’t allow for much besides pixels running through strict design limitations -- we ARE talking about consoles that couldn’t even produce a full range of colors, after all.  But since then, the tech has evolved.  Development has evolved.  Players have evolved.  The medium itself has evolved.  So at this stage, stuff like The Witcher 3 should be the standard, not the exception, right?


In an ideal world, I suppose; expecting video games to do that would be like expecting every big dumb blockbuster, vastly-inferior remake, or Michael Bay production to not only be banished from theaters forever, but to suddenly jettison themselves from time itself.  There’s always going to be dumb stuff, and there’s always going to be smart stuff -- yet in the context of video games, I can’t help but find myself wishing that there was more smart stuff.  At this stage, there should be more intelligent products that advance the medium, not just keep devs above water for another day.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been intelligent games, of course.  But by now I’m guessing you already have examples of dumb games as well as smart ones in mind.  I mean, there was that incredibly-niche, often-overlooked title called The Last of Us back in 2013.  And while I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as others did, I can’t help but respect what it tried to do: be about more than killing zombies, and aim to tell an emotional, impactful tale.  So my expectation was that we’d see more of that in the future.  Based on its success, we’d see games that opted to do more.  Be more.

And then 2014 happened.


I don’t know if it was because of the transition to new consoles, but it felt like one developer after another had no idea what the hell they were doing.  I still consider Watch Dogs to be the worst western-born game I’ve played to date, and not just because it tried to tell a story that alternated between cyberpunk thriller, nonsensical revenge fantasy, and whatever you’d call a grown-ass man hacking signs to slap outdated memes onto them. 

It’s not the only one.  Destiny could have been a sprawling and exciting adventure through space, but instead decided to be Borderlands without the humor…or the quality.  I don’t know what Sucker Punch was thinking when they penned Infamous: Second Son, but given that the story practically got pared down to giving the finger to the mean ol’ government -- even though the player kind of proves them right -- I’d have preferred if they didn’t try at all.


I can think of plenty more examples, but games that promise one thing and deliver something significantly dumber isn’t unique to 2014.  Remember how DmC’s hype-men promised that their story would practically reinvent storytelling, and then the final product was an episode of Futurama without a shred of self-awareness?  Remember how Tomb Raider got off to a bad start because it looked like an establishing moment for the new Lara Croft would be saving her from the threat of sexual assault, and then it turned out the real point of debate was just how much it put violence on a pedestal?  Remember almost every single Call of Duty for the past half-decade?

In some ways, it doesn’t matter what effect The Last of Us had on the gaming climate.  Past, present, or future, games are going to stumble on their way to the next level, assuming they even attempt it at all. Even so, that would be totally fine if the gameplay (or any part of the audiovisual aspect) managed to compensate.  In a lot of cases, it isn’t.  A hodgepodge of gunplay and stealth mechanics, the latter of which usually means “go for a backstab when they aren’t looking”; open worlds with nothing to show for millions of man-hours besides virtual chores; combat that would sooner turn they player into a predator than a participant…and ends up sleep-inducing instead of thrilling.

Let’s be honest here.  Modern games have a lot of problems, and they’re going to have problems for a while yet…but I’m actually not all that hung up on it.


It may sound like I’m just writing this post to hitch a ride on the Doom and Gloom Express, but I’m not.  I want to be fair, and even optimistic.   For starters, we all know by now that the AAA games that have (often rightfully) earned so much scorn in the past aren’t the only kids on the block anymore; smaller productions like Bastion, Transistor, The Swapper, Braid, and an armada of other indie games are practically doing the lord’s work.  That’s a given. 

Likewise, it’s not as if the big games are automatically doomed to be dumb; that would be a disservice to stuff like Deus Ex, Red Dead Redemption, and the BioShock games, just to name a few.  And there are even more examples to pull from between those extremes; they might not get the attention they always deserve, but they’re there.  So even if something like, say, Final Fantasy Type-0 turns into a complete shitshow well before the halfway point, it’s hard to devolve into rage for very long when there are plenty of Tales games can, have, or will ease the sting.


Female protagonist confirmed right off the bat?  BASED TALES.

With all of that said, there’s something that’s been on my mind.  Yes, I’m happy that stuff like The Witcher 3 exists, and is getting recognition for a job well done; it’s my assumption that it’ll show people what a game can be, if not what it should be.  But maybe we’ve been going about it the wrong way.  As in, the desire is in the right place -- well-meaning and admirable as all get out -- but the means to reach that conclusion, and the desire itself, are the real issue.

So here’s what I’m thinking.  With hundreds, and likely thousands of games in our midst, I’d like to make an assertion.  Maybe it’s not about waiting for the game that delivers.  Maybe it’s about realizing that the games we want -- the intelligence we’re hungry for -- are all around us at this very second.  We only have to open our eyes and realize it.   

Remarkably, I’m not just saying that as an S-tier nerd.  Well, not entirely.  Just slightly.  About 44% at the most, I’d say.


Here’s a question that needs to be answered right off the bat: what is it that makes a game “intelligent”?  Is it really just a matter of quality?  On some level, maybe, but it’s easy to argue that that’s just an end result of intelligent design, not a requirement.  Is it the enjoyment factor?  Not really, because that factors in at the end.  Seriousness?  Maturity?  Tackling “real issues”?  It’s hard to get a conclusive answer, I think.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have a measuring stick of my own.  Basically, a game (any product, really) has to do at least one of four things.  One: offer up a memorable experience that’ll keep me thinking long after I put the controller down.  Two: explore the possibilities set up by that game using the means built-in.  Three: have ideas and themes worth exploring in the first place.  Four: use those skills to draw out an emotional response.  It’s simple stuff, really.

Again, I haven’t played The Witcher 3 to know exactly what sort of content is in it.  (That’ll stay true for a while, because I’m concerned with inkier matters right now.)  But slogan aside, what I’ve heard is intriguing.  Apparently, it’s not so much about saving the world as it is dealing with personal matters -- the ramifications of decisions, and more importantly the bonds shared with people Geralt cares about.  That’s what I want to see (well, that and the game’s efforts to flesh out the world), and it’s what makes me preemptively assume that it makes for an intelligent game.

But what about everything else?


You know me by now, I hope.  I’m the guy whose entire gimmick is overanalyzing games (which people seem to like for whatever reason).  I’m the one who argued that the latest Donkey Kong game is the harrowing tale of a king forced to reconcile with both his karmic cycle and the duties of an exiled shepherd.  I’ve said in the past that Xenoblade Chronicles is as much about robot-busting as it is dealing with the consequences of scientific one-upmanship.  For God’s sake, I made a Top 10 list of cool female characters -- and argued that Poison deserved a top spot.  Yes, that Poison.

I can pull a lot from even the most unlikely of sources (which would help explain why I’m enamored with Kamen Rider).  Even in an age where developers can’t even get Tetris right, I can still look to the future with high hopes because I can walk away with something gained on a regular basis.  So in a way, it’s not necessarily about waiting for some savior to descend from on high; it’s about being willing to find the good, and the merit, in whatever media we happen to consume.


That’s true of every game, no matter the style.  There’s potential to find intelligent design in any game worth its salt.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a supernova of color like The Wonderful 101, or a grim nightmare world like Bloodborne.  It doesn’t matter if it’s got a straight narrative like Deus Ex, or virtually no narrative like Mario 3D World.  What’s important -- going forward, if not at this very moment -- is that games have to engage people.  That’s been true before, but as tastes evolve and “par for the course” becomes “triple hyper dream cancel bogey”, it’ll have to become truer than ever.

Are games like The Witcher 3 and The Last of Us going to show devs (and the bigwigs controlling them from the shadows) that we want and need games to be more?  Will they offset the dumbness that shows up on a regular basis?  There’s no guarantee, but I sure hope so.  The latter of the two made waves, but even the tiniest ripple takes time to make it anywhere -- so maybe at this very moment, some illustrious dev team is hard at work on a successor.  Same goes for The Witcher 3; the days of being asked to do pointless sidequests may come to an end one day in the future.


It’s because of that prospect that I look forward to what games can be.  I love them, and I want to keep on loving them -- just like anyone with even a slight interest in the medium.  That said, the games industry is built on more than just phantoms toiling away at computers in their decrepit dungeons; the players can decide what reigns supreme, what falls to the wayside, or simply what garners the respect it deserves.

So maybe we’ll hear about how the latest annual installment of that one franchise you hate -- you know, that one -- sold ten million copies on day one.  It’s pretty likely.  But that’s fine for now.  Change will come eventually, but until then?  Find the games that engage you, and engage with them right back.  The way I see it, a relationship like that has to be good for the soul.

Or the brain, ostensibly.  But let’s not go into metaphysics now, or we’ll be here for the next decade.


Ha.

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