When gaming first came to fruition, it offered a new avenue of entertainment due to the addictive interactive experience it provided. Over the years, it evolved into something even greater, combining the interactive aspect with elements of narrative, sound and visuals. As time has gone on though, gaming has slowly changed even further into something that has me asking the question: is gaming losing its identity?
Before we can answer that, we must answer “What is gaming’s identity?”. Afterall, it would be unfair to say that all of gaming SHOULD fall under one specific description, as gaming is an artform and thus not something that should be limited. However, I’d argue gaming’s fundamental identity, in regards to what distinguishes it from other entertainment mediums like movies and music, is the way it allows users to directly experience a creation through aspects such as model construction (e.g. levels) and problem solving, while being supplemented with visual and aural additions.
Hence, I believe gaming is losing its identity as we’re seeing more and more games push the interactive element aside for the sake of focusing on aspects like the story. For example, while the Uncharted games feature nice gunplay, climbing areas, puzzle solving, etc., they’re always centered in and around cinematic set pieces, to the point that it feels like I’m playing a movie. That’s the point, but I’d argue that’s muddling gaming’s identity because it’s striving to be something more than just a game – it provides very little unique to gaming as most of it is something a movie does. The reason, for example, Crash Bandicoot stands out is because it provides an experience that can’t be created in a television show or song. Uncharted doing something a movie can easily do squanders its identity as a video game.
I hate to use Uncharted as an example because it’s a fantastic series, but it’s also a shining example of my point. The same applies to Telltale Games’ games, if not more so; the focus of their games is (well, “was”… and just like that I’ve made myself sad mid article) always the story and choices, and any actual gameplay is simplistic walking or pressing one or two buttons to get you to the next dialogue sequence. The gameplay is an afterthought to the television show esque experience it wants to provide, and as such it creates an experience that any medium could pull off – it doesn’t take advantage of what makes gaming, gaming.
And then we have games that walk the line and make this debate harder to solve. The best example is Journey, a game that is entirely focused on its visual and audio offerings… but would have neither click if you weren’t controlling it. Journey is brilliant because while the visuals and music are incredible, it only moves you as well as it does because you’re directly interacting with it. Should you just watch or listen to it without any context, you’ll appreciate it but not feel as much emotionally. Journey captures a perfect synergy between interaction, visuals and audio. However, if we look at it the other way, i.e. if you just had the gameplay without the visuals and music, it’d be terrible. So, Journey both goes against my definition of gaming’s identity, yet also spins it in a way that it kind of does fit, which adds a lot more complexity to this already convoluted discussion.
Despite unique games like Journey, a lot of games nowadays seem to heading the way of Uncharted and Telltale Games’ offerings, making me question whether the industry has forgotten what makes gaming such a unique experience compared to its contemporaries. However, one glance at the Battle Royale frenzy slowly turns the question around. The biggest games of this year and last are Apex Legends and the Battle Royale portion of Fortnite respectively, games that feature absolutely no story and focus entirely on the gameplay. While them being Free To Play does contribute to their success somewhat, players have spent millions of dollars on microtransactions and millions of accumulative hours playing, indicating how beloved the experience they provide is.
Moreover, single player games like The Sims are also still incredibly popular. The latest entry, The Sims 4, has no story (excluding a minor narrative in one of its DLC packs) yet has been a huge and continued success, again supporting the idea of players playing a game purely for the gaming experience rather than the experience a movie or show can provide too. The rise of indie games, games that largely focus on the gameplay, support this further. The success of everything noted here (including others not mentioned) suggest the industry is moving back to what made gaming stand out, a move that players appear to be embracing
However, cinematic centric games like God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 are also just as successful, suggesting the industry still has its sights set on emulating its contemporaries just a little bit more. As such, the evolution of gaming’s identity remains undetermined. All we know right now is that a shift has happened, and that the remaining questions now are “how far will it go?” and “will it stop?” The other remaining question is “well, is it even a bad thing?”, and that’s something I’ll leave you guys to answer for yourselves. I personally enjoy all of the games I’ve mentioned here but, as I’ve covered throughout this piece, I do worry about developers forgetting what makes gaming such a unique and special medium.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree or disagree with my points? Are you happy with the direction the gaming industry seems to be going? Is my theory actually just a load of bollocks? Let me know in the comments or via my Twitter profile @JoshBSocial.