Video Games Are Squandered On The Mundane

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, June 24, 2011 at 9:00 am
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They say that in comic books the price of your special effects budget is the cost of ink. That, for me, was the appeal of reading novels and comics when I was a kid -- these creative works offered doorways into worlds with limitless potential. They could take you to strange new places, introduce you to people and creatures beyond your imagination and the things that happened there could challenge your understanding of reality. 

It's from this perspective that I am frequently disappointed in the ambitions of video games. Sure, the palate of games is much more limited. The requirements of gameplay have a way of corralling our experiences into familiar spaces. To visit a game world you almost always need to be a dude who shoots (or kills) other dudes. And the world has to accommodate that scenario. It has to take place in a setting where dudes kill other dudes. Talk about limiting.

That's why I'll always favor a game that tries to break out of the familiar -- even if it has glaring flaws or weaknesses. I was willing to forgive Brutal Legend of much because it dared to take me someplace totally unique. Double Fine seems determined to take us to new places in video games. Their latest, Trenched, is probably the most conservative game they've made to date -- an it is set in an alternate post-WWI history where soldiers fight in giant transforming mechs. 

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When you've been to a summer camp for psychic kids and a land cribbed straight from heavy metal album covers it's hard to get excited about a firefight against Russian ultra-nationalists in Manhattan. The current crop of games that aim to tell the story of the modern soldier feel epically unimaginative in comparison. I will admit that I do love a good online round or two of Battlefield: Bad Company 2. I can't resist the charms of the game's particular mayhem -- especially when I find my self on a roll. But there's little about those battlegrounds that capture my imagination. Those maps stick with me because of familiarity, not any emotional resonance.

I'm particularly happy when the rare game manages to fire on all engines, delivering me to a wholly unique world and giving me a taut, fresh gaming experience while I'm there. Portal 2 is the last game to fit that bill perfectly. Shadows of the Damned comes close. You can read more of my thoughts on the game when my review at A.V. Club runs on Sunday, but to me the game manages to deliver on both fronts. It is a unique game -- set in a whacked out underworld full of movie references and juvenile dick jokes -- with highly polished play. It is a game full of chemicals that fit snugly in my pleasure receptors.

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But there's still that issue of guns (and other implements of doom). While people like Suda 51 are cooking up weird new places to take conventional game play I wish that more people would take the Valve approach -- and try to come up with something different for our thumbs. That's why my appreciation for Bioshock has always been muted. For all its accomplishments in setting and story it was still a shooter. I felt like I was getting through the gunfights so that I'd have the time to breathe and appreciate the world. Imagine my disappointment at E3 when Bioshock Infinite showed itself to be more-of-the-same. You're transported to an amazing parallel reality with deep roots in American history and you're a Pinkerton-type -- another guy with a gun.

It seems like I'm asking a lot. Please come up with a fully realized, fresh new world AND invent an entirely new way to play games at the same time. Sounds like a crazy demand. But that's exactly what I want. Portal proved that it can happen. And I can't wait for it to happen again. But I'm not going to hold my breath. Until that day comes you'll find me in the trenches of Battlefield dreaming of an alien battleground in a distant galaxy. Or better yet -- a time of peace.

Pretension +1 is a weekly column by Gus Mastrapa that tries to look at games as cultural works rather than widgets. Occasionally it succeeds. 

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