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November 19, 2015

In Search of Majestic Games


I’ve been thinking about Until Dawn recently, even though -- as of this post -- it’s been more than a month since I finished it.  Part of the blame is on the recently announced VR installment, Rush of Blood.  I don’t know what to make of that, because I haven’t followed VR developments too closely; still, the fact that Until Dawn is seeing more play than a one-off release inspires confidence.  It’s new, it’s different, and even if there are some serious flaws, overall it’s still a good game.  I’m glad it came out, and I hope it gives Supermassive Games the freedom to branch out.

People are going to have different reasons as to why they like Until Dawn (thanks to that pesky thing we call “free will”).  Some wanted horror movie tropes, and got them.  Some wanted an adventure in the vein of a Quantic Dream title -- minus the Quantic Dream -- and got that.  But even if people give different reasons, I have one of my own.  I don’t think anyone’s going to fight me on it, but it might be the reason why the game succeeds overall, on some basic level.  And beyond that, Until Dawn is a good reminder of what a game can be, because its makers remembered what a game could be.

The word of the day -- or close enough to it -- is spirit.


If you’re looking for a close facsimile, then you’ve probably started thinking of “tone”.  You’re not wrong for it, but for the purposes of this post I’d prefer to stick to “spirit”.  It’s more than a matter of semantics, especially in Until Dawn’s case.  Pared down to basics, its tone is spooky, or creepy, or (as you’d expect of a horror movie where the logos is as sturdy as a chewed-up Popsicle stick) goofy.  It varies depending on the scene, as it should; it’d be impossible to see virtual Brett Dalton sashaying about if the whole game was in super-duper scary mode.

But no matter what happens in individual scenes, it’s clear what Until Dawn is trying to capture the spirit of.  It wanted to be something like a horror movie, for good and for ill.  The tropes and trappings it cribbed off of gave the game a road map to follow, albeit with some interesting twists.  In the world of video games, it’s not the only one of its kind; The Wonderful 101 captured the spirit of explosion-filled tokusatsu shows, while the Uncharted games pretty much brought Indiana Jones to the small screen in playable form.  Amazing things can happen when you commit to a certain style.  Observe:


There’s a dark side to having a certain spirit in mind, but I’ll get to that in a minute.  The important thing is that Until Dawn serves as a reminder of how important it is to have a spirit.  Pardon the generalization, but I think it’s safe to say that we just don’t get games like Until Dawn anymore, or at least on a regular basis from the big budget/console space.  Supermassive Games had a very specific agenda, and stuck to it to deliver something unique -- something that could satisfy gamers on any level, whether they enjoy horror movies or not.  (I’m definitely in the latter camp.)  Okay, granted you can only be so unique by mashing infinity horror movies together, but the intent was there.  And how many other games even attempt it?

I’m not trying to ask a rhetorical question here.  If you’re reading this, then by now you’ve heard or experienced the complaints that games are facing a serious problem with homogenization -- how everything is morphing into an amorphous sludge without beginning or end.  That’s a real concern, given that Ubisoft’s E3 2015 conference showed off three separate Tom Clancy shooters in one go that to the layman are just minor tweaks on the same virtual skeleton.  It’s been a concern for a while, because we’ve all been through an age where devs saw fit to turn Harry Potter into a Gears of War clone, and now we’re in an age where (if not for efforts from The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid V) open-world games would be multimillion-dollar chore simulators.  I mean, some of them still are regardless, but that’s neither here nor there.


In the best-case scenario, Until Dawn has shown the world that there’s room for different spirits and different tones.  I’ve rambled on and on in the past about grim-and-gritty fare, because even if it has the potential to be good, there are those that A) make it suck, B) hold it up as the gospel, and C) believe that it should be errywhere.  I suspect that we’re at least starting to move past that as a culture, but there’s still a ways to go before every spirit becomes 100% viable.  Not to stereotype, but how many AAA games are out there that can’t be arsed to have a sense of humor?  How many of them are filled with po-faced seriousness or scrabble at walls in a desperate attempt to be “epic”?  How many of them have you played and forgotten about, save for the name and the fact that you played it?

I know I used Uncharted as a positive example earlier, but it helps exemplify the dark side of using a spirit: there’s paying tribute to one (as Until Dawn does), and then there’s just copying it wholesale because it’s popular or the cool kids are doing it.  I don’t think anyone’s going to forget the whole “Tomb Raider has become Uncharted” claims from a while back, which is plenty legitimate…except Tomb Raider copied the “cinematic” style and reliance on set pieces without the breezier tone and characterizations.  Assassin’s Creed may not have kicked off the revenge fantasy plot that’s been pretty popular lately, but it sure did codify it -- to the point where Unity sees fit to kill off two father figures to get the leading man off his ass.  God forbid we let a main character have anything resembling passion or self-motivation.

But enough hate-dumping.  Let me make a selfish confession: I want to see more majestic games.


Like I said, I hope Until Dawn shows the world that we can have more than just furious attempts to try and strap gamers into their epic rollercoasters (because even if sales say otherwise, I think their effectiveness is on the wane.)  Indie devs are filling the gaps left in the modern console space, sure -- and they’re absolutely doing the lord’s work, without a doubt -- but what a gaming world it’d be if those with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to throw around actually made use of it to create something special on a regular basis.

When he did his review of Gears of War Ultimate Edition, Yahtzee mentioned that a remastered edition of the game meant taking decaying, dilapidated environments and making them look slightly prettier -- prettier in the sense that it could fit perfectly amongst its ten-eighty-peas contemporaries.  That was a success, I suppose, both in the sense that people who bought the remaster were satisfied and those who played the original game found what they would come to consider visual splendor.  But I know exactly what Yahtzee argued about because it’s the same argument I’ve had for ages: what’s the point of lavish rendering if it’s used to render something people would hate in real life?


I’m not saying that dilapidation and destruction don’t have a place in art, and in fact I can actually appreciate it.  But that appreciation comes from art that’s done exceedingly well -- if not purely original, then good enough to make a strong impact.  Beyond that?  Even if games are an audiovisual medium, there’s more that can be done with them.  We can have more, and experience more.  That’s what helped make Until Dawn a success; it had some good visuals, sure, but they were part of a package intended to create a genuine and lasting effect.  The looks -- graphics, aesthetics, whatever -- mingled with all of the other elements to create a perceptible character.  In other words, Until Dawn has a spirit, and a damn good one.  It certainly helps that, as far as games go, it’s got a rare spirit.

Spirits shouldn’t have to be rare, given that video games have a huge reach these days, as well as the technical wizardry behind them.  But here we are.  Or to be honest, here I am; here I am, wondering if others have a problem with the game industry as-is.  I’ve long since accepted that not every game will cater to me or my tastes (which in all fairness is a good thing).  I know that the industry we have now still has plenty of high spots, and it’s making a lot of people happy.  But can it make people happier?  I think it could.  One way to achieve that, I think, is to give the people things they never even knew they wanted.  Give them more than what they ask for.  It's not necessarily about what a game should be; it’s about what a game can be.  And yes, games can indeed be majestic.

But what does that mean, exactly?  Well, I have some ideas.


A Google search on “majestic” turns up this definition: “having or showing impressive beauty or dignity.”  Fair enough.  So if we pare it down to basics, that means we’re looking for games that are beautiful, and impressively so.  Nice graphics go a long way toward making that happen, but remember the goal here: we’re thinking about games in terms of their spirit, not just their visuals.  What games have gone out of their way to be beautiful -- to make the players feel that sense of wonder, or an appreciation of what the virtual world du jour has to offer? 

The answer to that is going to be different for everyone.  Frankly, I wonder if there’s even the trace of a straight answer; beauty and majesty are subjective, and what has a profound effect on one person might be like a fart in the wind to another.  I’d bet that the goal with a majestic game is to inspire awe in the player, not just the expected visceral thrills or momentary victories.  That opens up a lot of sub-questions about what’s being done and how, but for argument’s sake let’s keep it simple here, and pound out the rest in the comments.


For now let’s say that a majestic game has to meet certain criteria.  First: it should have some sort of appeal, be it visual, emotional, or otherwise.  Second: it should put a strong emphasis on the world.  Third: it should inspire awe and/or wonder in the player.  Fourth: it should make a conscious effort to pull the player towards appreciating the niceties of its crafted universe -- or, alternatively, the little moments that in retrospect become precious. 

Those are some basic guidelines -- not ironclad by any means, but it’s a start.  Whatever the particulars, the goal is to create something that’ll have a profound impact on the player.  Moreover, it’s something that can be done wordlessly, if the creators have enough skill.  We should expect no less from an audiovisual medium; in the same sense that we don’t need a painting hanging in a museum come to life and explain all of its nuances, we don’t need our games to grind the action to a halt so it can explain why it’s a better purchase than one’s daily bread.  Ideas can be communicated quickly and effectively in plenty of ways; games are no exception, and majestic games are out to communicate specific ideas.  They’re about making players feel the warm fuzzies, or something close to it.

So what are some majestic games?  I can think of a few.


I hold Xenoblade Chronicles in high esteem for plenty of reasons -- a thoughtful story, strong combat, and one of the best songs in anything ever, holy shit.  But there’s really no understating the world it crafted, and crammed into a disc that didn’t make Wiis all over the planet burst into flames.  The scope and scale of it is a rare treat, but there’s actually something to show for it time and time again -- sights and structures that could only exist in an alien world (relatively speaking, since all the action takes place on gigantic dormant Gundams).  There’s no better example of it than Satorl Marsh at night; even if monsters lurked about, that area stopped me cold.

Meanwhile, Okami lends itself towards majesty on a regular basis.  As a Japanese deity in the body of a wolf, it’s the player’s duty to purify the world -- to make it beautiful after no-good demons turn the world into a shadowy hellhole.  The art style plays a HUGE part in the process, but what really clinches it are the restoration sequences; they create a sense of progression, but on a deeper level they push the player toward a deeper appreciation of the game’s digital Japan.  Okami is a game with no shortage of strange moments (Mr. Orange, anyone?), but the adventure is made all the more potent thanks to the game’s furious attempts to create majesty.


But it’s not necessarily about making players go “Oh, look how pretty that is.”  Shadow of the Colossus is proof of that.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call its world pleasant, per se, because the sheer size and stillness of it makes for something that’s kind of unnerving.  On the other hand, that’s part of the charm.  Between the gigantic monsters that the player’s tasked with slaying and the gigantic world that’s untouched and unsullied by outsiders, it’s proof that “our hero” is an intruder there.  Nature ran its course without human intervention for who knows how long, and thanks to that the world takes on an interesting -- if not awe-inspiring -- character.  It’s majestic…and that majesty is jeopardized by the player just doing the ol’ video game song and dance of “kill monsters and save the girl”.

You know what, though?  I think that World of Warcraft is majestic, too.  I’d bet that by extension, plenty of other MMOs are majestic too, but WoW’s the example I know best.  Like the name implies, there’s a massive world to explore and appreciate; sure, it’s easy to forget about that nigh-endless sprawl thanks to quests and raids and guilds and such, but being able to go solo and explore uncharted worlds (as a new player, at least) is still an incredible feeling.  And since the rules and rate of progression are determined by the player, it leads to a sense of intimacy.  It’s your adventure, and it means everything to you.  Savor the majesty.


Obviously, there are more examples of majestic games out there than just those four -- and there are probably better examples as well.  But it’s like I’ve been saying for ages now: there are possibilities that are waiting to be tapped by creators, in video games or otherwise.  There’s so much that can be done, and so much to be found in the world that the very concept of “absolutes” doesn’t exist.  I want to be able to see the majesty of created worlds, and the characters that trek through them.  If we got that on a more regular basis, then who knows what’d happen?  Something good, presumably.  Nothing lost, either.

And that brings me to the last question of the day: “Why does any of this matter?” 

Under the circumstances, it doesn’t.  I can’t force the industry at large to march lock-step toward a selfish whim.  Likewise, I can’t -- and won’t -- say “This is what games should do from now on.”  This post, and the games that cater to it, are an example of what can be offered.  Not just to me, either; those that embrace a strong spirit, majestic or otherwise, can have a huge impact on gamers.  So even if there are those who don’t see the point in a through line like this, the benefit comes from actually experiencing something beyond the norm.  If exposed to Satorl Marsh, a revitalized Japan, or a dying colossus, would a jaded or close-minded gamer shrug it off?  Would he pretend like he couldn’t feel the impact of good art?  Somehow, I doubt that he would.  A good spirit crosses all borders.


That’s my guess, at least.  But I am an optimist.

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