Prepare yourself for a tautology: games are games. Video games, no matter how original or artful or steeped in tropes long refined, are just bits and pieces of things we’ve grown far too accustomed, perhaps even weary. More and more, you may find yourself saying a game is trite rather than it is objectively poor.
Good games are the ones that either hide these discrete chunks or utilize their copy-paste nature as a part of their feature set rather than a detriment. It’s a bit like alchemy in that way, where you take something intrinsically less valuable and turn it into something shiny. Consider the active reload of Gears of War. What is it beyond a digitized ticket-spewing skill game tied to a damage boost?
Yet it was considered essential to the whole Gears of War package, a vital component to its success. And it was because it took a necessary action (reloading) and turned it from something mundane into something engaging (which eventually would morph into a shibboleth of pro gamers). It is such an incredibly “gamey” facet of the series.
Other games tend to lay their foundation bare. Look around you and you see rebar poking out from the walls, brick beneath the drywall. Two recent releases made me think about this heartily these past few days. The first is Thief, the modern revival of the long dormant first-person stealth series. A full review is forthcoming, but first some tangential thoughts.
As considerably innovative as the first Thief game was (one of many revolutionary titles from the legendary Looking Glass Studios), this fourth entry into the franchise is fully enmeshed in the idea of being a game. It makes no apologies for it, either.
Garrett, the playable character, is a master thief living in a downtrodden, dirty Victorian-era city. True to the setting from which it draws its inspiration, the vast majority of the city’s population is just depressingly poor, people performing jobs they’d rather not or living lives they’d rather end. Abject poverty dwells right out in the streets.
Inexplicably so. There is gold everywhere. You pick up valuable trinkets and goblets and phat stacks of coin right up off the ground. It feels almost entirely like picking up coins in a Mario game or bananas in a Donkey Kong game. They’re left to bring up a compulsion in the player to leave a clean screen in their wake, a sentiment mashed into our heads since the dawn of the medium.
Soooo many windows are open to being breached, making available the treasures within. Perhaps it’s an allegory to the spending/saving mentality of the modern American society—the one that led us to a largely broken economy—but that is probably a sizable stretch. A sizable, unearned stretch.
The stealth is unapologetically game-infused, as well. A preface, first: this is nothing like the gameplay of Dishonored. Dishonored was very much a utility towards personal expression, giving you a wide array of tools to be precisely the Corvo you want to be. Thief aims to be a strict stealth game. Hiding in shadows isn’t an option; it’s a requirement. Conflict means you messed up.
And that’s not a negative statement (keep in mind that this is not a review). It’s just to set you up to understand this: noise is an important part of staying stealthy. Creating any amount of clatter will arouse suspicion from guards and civilians in places you shouldn’t be, which is pretty much everywhere. Your nimbleness is your greatest asset.
Your greatest enemy, however, is a laughable amount of pottery. It is an arbitrary setup to establish difficulty in moving about the world, and “arbitrary” is perhaps the most defining factor of a staple gaming element. These are ginned up obstacles for the sake of increasing the duration or iterations of the gameplay loop. Not a terrible idea considering it does make vigilance a necessity, but it is a barely masked concession.
The other game that stuck out to me was Rambo: The Video Game. You might assume it’s a terrible game (a safe assumption, I would say), but it’s so oddly, nigh impossibly entrenched in video game-ness. It’s an on-rails shooter wholly embodying the strange dichotomy between First Blood and the rest of the film franchise.
You earn more points for not killing cops that attack you, where instead your shoot the gun out of their hands or blast them in the chest juuuuust enough to put them on the ground but not permanently out of commission. It stands out so stridently as being a gamey representation of Rambo’s original sentiment. It is a shooter after all. What are you to do besides shoot the dudes shooting at you?
Once again, there’s nothing wrong with a game being a game. That is, after all, what they are. There’s no point in denying their true nature. But as the industry and the medium ages and matures, either integrating or throwing a facade over the essential components becomes more important. It’s come to the point where doing either poorly is remarkable, and not in a good way.