I’ve been playing video games for a very long time now. As a nineties kid, I grew up just as they were really becoming a mainstream kind of thing. I can remember my first Nintendo Entertainment System, playing games like Super Mario Bros. and Iron Tank. When I was a little older my biological father introduced me to PC games like Heretic and Myst and Pool of Radiance. I came into the video game arena during a time when the focus was on creating new and amazing things; where the gameplay experience was based on previously unexplored territory and trying to find every possible way to enjoy this relatively new medium of entertainment.
Unfortunately, our society has changed so drastically from those heady times and it has completely changed the way we approach the art form that is video games. No one seems to have the patience anymore for something that is truly innovative and interesting. We have been conditioned to feel like we have to make the most of every minute of our day, which includes our free time. Because of this, even the various forms of entertainment we currently enjoy have an air of impatience about them; an attempt to cram as much into as little time as possible to feel like we’re getting the most “bang for our buck”.
The problem is adrenaline, really. It is only when we get that feeling of excitement that we feel anything anymore. We have become dead to the more subtle forms of entertainment, instead preferring only the brute force methods that get our hearts pumping and neurons firing rapidly. Everything has to be action these days, or at the very least a rapid series of events leading up to it. There is little interest left in today’s gaming landscape for games like Myst where you have to pour over an entire island looking for the one mechanism that opens the door to the next area, or Warriors of the Eternal Sun where you had to spend long hours on the first playthrough exploring the area and fighting off monsters. It simply takes too long.
The problem today is that very little effort is spent on quality story telling anymore. Everyone is fixated on rapid fire, fast paced games like Fortnite, which is a perfect example of what I’m trying to get at here. There is a vague story associated with the game itself, and die hard fans are aware of the lore surrounding it, but the gameplay itself just isn’t about a rich storytelling experience. You hop into a game, run around and kill as many people as you can, and then the round ends and you jump into another one. People can play the game for years and not even realize there is a story hidden in there somewhere. The focus is on the fighting, not a narrative.
A good example of story versus action is the sad example of the Neverwinter franchise. I can remember when the game Neverwinter Nights was first released, and I spent many hours absorbing every aspect of that game. I recently went back to play through it again, and the story was just as engaging today as it was when I first played it. My brain doesn’t really hold onto details for very long, so I can go back an re-watch old television shows and movies, or play through old video games and it can feel almost like the first time. Neverwinter Nights is a game I return to every so often.
On the other side is the similarly titled Neverwinter, the MMO version of the same world that deviated from the mostly turn based style of the original game to conform to the “action RPG” style that exists in nearly every modern game. Like most heavily action centered games, there is definitely a story that you’re playing through in the game, but that just isn’t where the focus is. Even if you’re like me and playing games is mostly about enjoying a narrative, you get sucked into the grindy action aspect of just getting your character to the maximum level rather than really paying attention to what’s going on with the characters. There is little effort into making you care about any of the non-player characters in the game, presented as little more than an interface to use to activate a new “quest” and move to the next step in the game.
This is the truly sad state of video games today. In Neverwinter Nights, I cared about the main characters of the story, developing an affinity for Aribeth and Fenthick and feeling a true sense of sorrow watching the story turn very dark for the both of them. I enjoyed my dealings with Aaron Gend as relationship between my character and his grew. There were great backstories for the non-player companions I could bring with me which allowed me to have favorite characters based on who they were rather than what their stats were. The MMO Neverwinter has none of these things.
I find myself moving away from modern video games, returning to the classic games from my youth. For most things I would say this is simply nostalgia, but when it comes to one of the major passions of my life I can only look around at the current offerings and see the objective and abject failures of creative developers who chase dollars rather than quality. There is little desire to create something truly engaging when people are willing to spend their money on garbage. We have this amazing technology that can create mind-blowing experiences, but we continue to waste it on shiny flashes and empty game play.
The struggle for me is that the shallow part of me struggles with going backward. When I go back to play the old games, it is impossible to not notice the comparatively horrible graphics quality of what was available in those days. It was cutting edge at the time, but impossible to enjoy compared to the visual quality of modern gaming. I yearn for the best of both: great graphics with a truly awesome story and gameplay.
Perhaps one day people will finally get bored with the way things have become and yearn as I do for a return to when videos games were all about something new. Games today are all cookie-cutter. If you’ve played one, you’ve played them all. Games like World of Warcraft or Neverwinter or Fortnite are just the same old games with different art work. I’m tired of the same old thing. It’s time for something new.