Tag Archives: Avalanche Studios

Trying to be a Game

Trying to be a Game

At some point, the umbrella is too small. You keep throwing things under it, hoarding definitions and references and landmarks, until it stops being an umbrella altogether and starts being a noose. The ones that hoisted the parasol as a banner start to resent the foisted structure.

Of course then the problem is one of nomenclature. What do you even call it if not this thing? This is a struggle that strikes all artistic mediums after a certain point of maturity. Once all the obvious bits are done away with, you have to start asking “what not” instead of “where to begin.” All the fruit, low-hanging or otherwise, has left the tree.

That’s how you encounter situations like the 240-hour Modern Times Forever, a Danish film that depicts how Helsinki’s Stora Enso headquarters building would decay over the next few millennia. Few would dare call it a film as something you could casually watch on your television, but it still is a categorical fit. (Strangely, though, it has a lot in common with many of the first films ever made including Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horse.)

Video games are finding themselves critically and quickly at this point. Over the short span of 70-ish years, the industry has gone from figuring out what it needs to do to figuring out what it can do. It needed to give people an interactive experience. But what could it necessarily do beyond that?

The term “low-hanging fruit” has earned a negative connotation, but it’s not always a bad thing. The grasp and execution of it all lays the foundation for what lies higher up. Lower doesn’t mean it’s within reach; it doesn’t preclude innovation. In fact, it often requires it.

Certainly the earliest and most recognizable video games were of the needs variety. Consider Pong, a tennis-based game that took a simple and immediately intuitive competitive structure and gameplay loop into the history books. Then Asteroids and Centipede, two classics that arguably rode the space wave amidst the recently launched NASA Space Shuttle program into relevancy and, consequently, popularity.

Very quickly—relative to other mediums like music and film—video games wanted to do more, jumping from tree to tree in pursuit of higher and higher fruit. From simplistic coin-ops to the home console to the modern era of games, we eventually arrive at the like of Proteus and Dear Esther. Whole genres push the greater corral like interactive novels and, well, I guess you could call them experiments.

This is all a very long and roundabout way to bring up something that has been cropping up lately: Mad Max previews. First off, it’s crazy for any of the previewers to compare with or expect anything resembling the recent film Mad Max: Fury Road. Their mostly aligned release schedules seem to be more coincidence than anything else. It’s completely detached from the movie.

But the second part is that ignoring that first thing brings up some interesting considerations. Whereas the film was full of life and drama and implements that are exceedingly specific to what director George Miller wanted to achieve, the game appears to be a by-the-numbers affair, albeit a rather competent one. But lifeless it is by comparison.

It’s not that the game itself lacks content or life; on the contrary, developers Avalanche Studios (the folks behind the rambunctious and teeming Just Cause games) and publisher Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (the same behind the Batman Arkham franchise) seem to have instilled a lot of freneticism into the game. With that combined pedigree, it seems inevitable the kind of game they would make.

That inevitability seems to have trapped them, though. Instead of questioning what the game can be, they made what it needed to be. It reads like a checklist (car combat, melee combat, open world, outposts, etc.) and even more so when the layers peel back. Things like throwing up into the air trackable/countable achievements like yanked tires or freed territories. Jason Shreier of Kotaku made the astute and appropriate Ubisoft comparison.

Not that there’s anything even wrong with the 1 + 2 = Mad Max equation. The structure seems like a natural fit for the fiction and the universe, so it can hardly be blamed as a capitalization on a gift horse. But the described framework quickly became a prescriptive one where reach and grasp were easily met by fruit so low it might as well already be in the basket.

Mad Max

It seems like Mad Max is trying so hard to be a game that it never wanted to explore what else it could be. It seems almost comfortable under the umbrella, watching others push out into the rain and stumble and fall. In the expansion under the brim, you go further and further until a new shelter takes in your borders.

This is not to disparage a game that isn’t even out yet nor is it to put down the artists and developers and designers behind the scenes putting it out. This is just a statement—a plea to not always want to be a game but rather be whatever you need to be. You may not fit under this umbrella and others may not join you under yours, but that’s better than slotting into a mold that never quite fit.

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