The Art of the Pure Video Game

Pac-Man Forever

Somewhere along the way Video Games started to miss the point. They veered away from the ‘true north’ of Video Gaming and became entrenched in a AAA Focus Tested mire. Dripping in consensus and banality. Driven by commercial viability and green-lit by passionless executive teams who haven’t played a game for 20 years. The suits decide which games you play. The suits don’t know about games, that much is clear.

The process, and associated costs, have led to feature creep, a need for iterative improvement, an endless pursuit of the ‘majority’. Most games have lost the essence of the game itself , and are little more that excessive semi-disguised corridors punctuated by fetch quests for non engaging NPCs. As games got bigger they have become less game-like and more cinematic/epic/engaging. All of these are simply band-aids over broken and tired game mechanics dressed up to pull in the audience. The publishers are pushing for a point of difference, and the developers are beholding to the whims of the committee.

Lost is the purity of the game-play experience, the game itself. It’s fading. The best games are built upon a core game mechanic, that can withstand innumerable replays. In fact these games get better the more you play them. The examples are countless: Trials Evolution, Pac Man Championship Edition DX and Minecraft are all textbook examples of games built around a single core premise. This premise is fun, logical, easy to learn and mastery elevates the game to new heights. These are the games built around core ‘arcade’ mechanics, that effectively tap into a compulsion loop to play one more time. The financial barrier to entry of the arcade has evaporated, meaning that restarts are free, potentially rendering the experience worthless. Not so, ‘pure’ video games drive a compulsion within the boundaries of the game paradigm. Minecraft’s mechanics and game world, present a world free of restriction, yet underpinned by simple core mechanics. This framework provides a playground for the gamer, leading to creations of immeasurable brilliance and scope.

Minecraft vs. Game Of Thrones

Minecraft vs. Game Of Thrones

The accolades for these games lie at the feet of the game designer and engineers, whose single-minded determination have created game experiences at once shallow, but with endless depths for those willing to endure with them. Trials Evolution has a brutal punitive game mechanic at its core that chastises and repeatedly bests those prepared to invest time to understand the underlying game logic.

In these cases, the game mechanic is clear. The shortcomings and failures are always attributable to the player. Never was the adage ‘A bad workman blames his tools’, more true. These games don’t need to hide behind smoke and mirrors, marketing, USPs and Bullshots. Their intentions are perfectly apparent, driven by inherent purity. The issue therefore, is, can a game concept actually sell games in 2013? Maybe you should ask Notch that question.

Fail-ble 3: The Demise of Albion

I finally finished Fable 3. It’s not that the game is long but other things got in the way. I am at a loss. What am I supposed to think?.

All of the flair, depth and engagement of Fable 2 was pushed aside for a clumsy broken two-piece game mechanic. The Road to Rule was a clumsy way to guide the player through the world, the primary joy of Fable 2 was accidentally traversing the game world, stumbling on encounters that usually ended in spell casting and sword swinging. A game built upon decisions that effected, not only the world but the way you looked. My joy of finishing Fable 2 as a bloated scarred monster with twisted horns cannot be underestimated. I felt as though I’d shaped the character and left my mark on the world. I owned things, i’d met people. I got married. In Fable 3, I’d compared hand holds, chicken kicks and melee kills. Fable 3 took the secret sauce out of the burger bun.

The drive towards asynchronous engagement divorced me from the game world. This suspension of disbelief was further compounded by the disastrous implementation of other online characters in the game world. The floating orb mechanic, populated with random gamerpics, that were intrusive and shattered the illusion worsened by fragments of audio from jabbering trash talking strangers. Uninvited and unwanted.

At the midway point the problems start to far outweigh the good. Its only when you finish the game that you realise how hideously imbalanced the game is. This is a cut and shut video game. The pacing is disparate and the prescriptive game mechanic and box checking of the latter half (or should that be third?)  is ill-considered. The cast of engaging characters feels miserly and the decisions presented  feel lightweight and inconsequential. The Hero sits dispassionately on the throne … my mood exactly.  Fable 3 razed Fable 2 to the ground.

My expectations of Lionhead are bordering on the unreasonable, but my patience for their craft is almost limitless. I’ll let you off on this one, but I expect better next time.

Must try harder.