Five Things Modern Video Games Are Doing Right

I’ve been hating on video games a lot this week. First, there was my rather abrasive rant about the massive failures of Fable 3 (which I stand by), then I wondered if the entire industry was stuck in a creative loop, and then yesterday I ripped into Microsoft’s lackluster Kinect experiment, which lacks a ton of functionality for it to truly be a step forward for gaming.

But it’s not all bad news. Today I’ve decided to lighten up a bit and discuss moves the industry is making that I think are really excellent, and I hope to see them continue progress in these areas in the future. Read on to see what five things modern video games are getting right.

1. Story

Video games didn’t used to have plots. Well,they did, but they were usually no more in depth than say, rescue that princess, or kill that boss, or fight those ninjas who have kidnapped the president.

But today, we find ourselves in an era where some video games can be more engrossing than movies. How is this being done? I’d say it’s a combination of morality and character development.

Morality comes into play in a game like Mass Effect, where your actions have real consequences about how those around you feel about you, and it goes so far as deciding who lives and dies on your crew. Through excellent voice acting, powerful writing and a real sense of humanity among the characters (aliens too), Mass Effect feels like a living, breathing experience rather just a simple shooter, which during the core gameplay, it in fact is, and a very simple one at that. To feel real emotions toward in-game characters is a relatively new phenomenon, and it’s a trend that’s growing into many story based games.

God of War is another prime example of a series that outshines most movies these days. It’s modern day telling of a lost Greek tragedy seamlessly blends mindless violence and a compelling plot. While previously hack and slash titles were among the most mindless games you could buy, the God of War series shines brightly as having a compelling story to accompany the chaos.

2. Atmosphere

A lot of this has to do with graphical engines we’re working with in games today to render such detailed environments, but it’s also tied into storytelling as well. Games not only create characters and enemies, but now entire worlds that effect the feel of the game.

Dead Space has probably been the best use of atmosphere in a game in a while, with its dimly lit, claustrophobic corridors creating a constant source of tension for those playing. When things jump out at you, it’s more terrifying than its ever been in a video game, and it’s an effect barely movies can even capture at this point.

But from space to the earth, where the last few Call of Duty games have taken us, to war zones with levels of detail never before thought possible it feels as close to real as we’ve ever imagined it.With streets and buildings  littered with bullet holes and bodies, the environments FEEL authentic. And when they’re integrated into the story, the effect is even more profound. I’ll never forget my character crawling through the wreckage of a nuclear blast or watching and particpating as an airport full of civilians are gunned down without mercy. Powerful stuff, and very few moments in past games have elicited the same kind of reaction.

3. Exploration

Evolving our criteria yet again, exploration branches out from atmosphere. Open world games are more rich and vast than ever before, and true exploration is a concept that didn’t really exist a few years ago. At least not to this extent.

I’ve complained about the Fallout series not evolving recently, but between that game and Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series, they’re the leaders in single player open world exploration, which is why players can sink a hundred hours into one of their titles without batting an eyelash, and at the ends of the earth still stumble upon new things.

For too long, games have led us along a linear path, and it’s nice to be able to finally have some freedom at last. Whether that mean rampaging around New York City in Grand Theft Auto IV, or exploring the rooftops of 15th century Florence in Assassin’s Creed 2.

4. Genre Expansion

The mention of AC2 brings us to my next point which is that developers (at least some of them) are looking to non traditional places to bring us new ideas for games. The Assassin’s Creed series is my best example of this, as setting a game in the third crusade of centuries old Italy is a big risk, but one that paid off for the studio.

The Prince of Persia series is a great genre switch up as well, though that series history extends a little further back than most recent entries. I’ve most recently been impressed with Red Dead Redemption, as an open world cowboy shooter simply didn’t exist before, but Rockstar handled it with grace and ease and created a game that’s included every good element I’ve listed so far.

It should be a lesson to the myriad of companies currently crafting Space Marine or Modern Warfare-ish shooters. There’s a time and place for those, but it never hurts to evolve, and some companies appear to be stuck in the past while others are branching out to unexplored areas.

5. Unlockables

I previously have speculated that achievements might be, in fact, hurting gaming rather than helping it, but I no longer view that as the case. I have realized that I have one or two OCD tendencies that causes me to pursue certain achievements relentlessly at the expense of having fun with the game.

But taking a step back, I think the new trend toward unlockables is good for games as it encourages replay and will at least give the player the sense they’re working toward something, rather than just a useless win/loss ratio or kill/death ratio. Now you’re pursuing useless titles or armor! But hey, it’s something.

The best examples of this are in the Modern Warfare series, which has players mixing up their play style to unlock different guns and camo and titles. Even though some guns might be unequivocally better than others, it forces players to mix up their play style with different weapons and perks, making each game more diverse than it would have been without that encouragement. At the same time, for loyalists, it rewards sticking with one gun with high level unlocks if it’s used enough.

Halo: Reach has done something similar with its new credit system and armor unlocks. Yes, absolutely everything with this system is useless for actual gameplay, but at least players feel like they’re working toward something, saving up money to increase their standing among their peers, at least in a cosmetic sense.

So yes, for as much as I complain, the fact is I love playing video games, and these things are much of the reason why. I only criticize because I want the industry to keep moving forward, and I’m worried a parade of not-as-good sequels in our current generation just isn’t doing that.

When I look at how far we’ve come, I’m proud of how much the medium has evolved, and I can’t wait to see it in a another 5-10 years.

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  1. Nice analysis Paul, as usual. Just the fact that we are now even comparing the experience of playing a video game to that of watching a movie says a lot to how far they have come. I would say that the first four reasons you give are they only ones that keep me playing video games as an adult and, if the gameplay is good enough, that is where your 5th point comes into play. I really appreciate game developers giving me a reason to play through a game a second or third time. Like you, I have to be careful of my OCD taking over compelling me to spend hours and hours chasing pointless 10 to 20 gs achievements. I now will play through a game once then look at all the achievements that are left and ask myself two questions: 1. Can I get this in a reasonable amount of time and 2. Will it be an enjoyable experience? If the answer to both those questions are ‘Yes’, then I will go for it.

  2. I think mention should be made of the indie and small budget games that make their way to PSN or Xbox Live Arcade. These types of games just couldn’t be sold on a disc but with digital distribution we get to see a ton of great games we otherwise wouldn’t see for a fraction of the cost. Plants Vs. Zombies, Portal, Flower, the PixelJunk games, Torchlight, even Minecraft are all games that just couldn’t succeed before digital distribution and are really great games.

  3. Hey Paul,
    Have you heard of Extra Credits? Its a relatively new web series on the escapist magazine website. It’s from Daniel Floyd whom you might remember because you posted a series of videos he did on video games several months ago. He’s continuing with the concept, now with a backing from the escapist. So far it has been pretty good and with help from James Portnow, an actual game developer, he’s able to give some really interesting prospectives (and hopes) to where gaming is going.

  4. I’m going to add a 6th item to your list, if you don’t mind:

    Video games are quickly becoming more accessible to everyone. I know I take potshots at the Wii, but in all honesty it’s done more to expand the video game industry than any system release since the NES. Even my parents – who have referred to video games as “mind rot” on many occasions – are contemplating a Wii purchase. Facebook games like Farmville and Popcap games like Bejeweled may not be our idea of “real” video games, but they’re doing roughly the same thing.

    These are all good things. The more people play games as a hobby, the more socially accepted games of all varieties will become.

  5. Yeah, you definitely needed an article like this one to balance out the hyper-critical OCD rantfests and remind yourself (and readers) that you actually enjoy these games. The firefight voices in Halo: Reach are the best thing to spend your creds on. So cool.

  6. I gotta agree with Megameerkat3000, and add an example. For atmosphere, check out Red Dead Redemption, particularly the players’s first entrance into Mexico. The excellent music, combined with the visuals, turn the moment into an unforgettable experience.
    Trust me, words don’t describe it. Look it up on YouTube or something.

  7. My biggest pet peeve is awesome games demanding you play online and limiting the single-player modes. As well as requiring you to buy DLC that should is integral to the story.

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