In preparation for the 2016 in review conversation we’ll be having on the podcast in about a week, I decided to write down a list of all the games I’ve played. Not just the games from this past year, mind you, but ALL of them. Didn’t matter if it’s a game from 2002 I was playing for the first time, or if it was an old favorite I was revisiting for the 18th time. Old games are just as much a part of our ‘gaming makeup’ each year as the new stuff we play, so here’s what I came up with:
Angry Video Game Nerd Adventures
Assassin’s Creed: Rogue
Far Cry 4
Batman: Akrham Knight
No Man’s Sky
Final Fantasy XV
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
Life Is Strange
The Witcher 3 (restarted)
Dark Souls 3
Forza Horizon 3
Gear of War 4
Dead Rising 4
Kirby: Planet Robobot
PvZ: Garden Warfare 2
Street Fighter V
Grim Dawn (official release date)
Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Super Mario Run
Skyrim Special Edition
Dragon Quest VII
Earth Defense Force 4.1
Super Mario 3D Land
Grand Theft Auto Online
Grand Theft Auto 4
Super Mario 64
Mega Man 2
Mega Man 3
I obviously didn’t play all of these games from start to finish. Some I may have only played for a couple of hours. But even so, that’s one hell of a list, isn’t it? Great titles, alright ones, and even a few stinkers, but overall, I’d say 2016 was rather enjoyable. Still, this list presents a bit of a problem, namely the inadequacies of the gaming industry as a whole. Forty-three games, and you know what I noticed about them? Thirty-two are either sequels or stem iteratively from existing IP’s. Mmhmm. Thirty. Two. That’s insane. Even if we take older games off my list, we’re still talking close to 20.
Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with sequels or reboots. Doom makes a compelling argument for being my favorite game of the year. Hell, Dark Souls III is up there, too. Oh, and surprisingly, Gears of War 4 has proven to be quite memorable, as well. I also don’t care how many times Nintendo throws Mario at me, because he always amounts to a good time. Point is, I don’t personally mind when studios lean on formulas that’s proven to work them. No, it’s when they cross that line… when they insist on using that mindset as a crutch, that’s when I get worried.
And I’m worried now.
Gamers routinely say this is the best generation of gaming to date. Sure, they’ve conveniently overlooked the unnecessary iterative consoles and the sea of unfinished games that’s been released… but vidyagames, right?!
But seriously, I can’t deny there’s been some titles genuinely worth swooning over, but that’s not unique to the here and now. There have always been great video games, and there always will be.
But from a first party perspective, Sony and Microsoft have been playing things far too safe. They’ve relied once again on the likes of Killzone, Infamous, Gears of War, God of War, Forza, Halo, Ratchet and Clank, Little Big Planet, Uncharted, The Last of Us, and a handful of others. These are franchises that also defined the LAST generation of gaming, and while I understand the desire for studios to milk a cow’s supple teats until they’re coughing up powder, they’re leaving the PS4 and Xbox One without identities of their own.
The Xbox 360 was defined by Forza, Fable, and Gears of War. But what does the Xbox One have? Sunset Overdrive was largely overlooked, and Quantum Break was disappointing.
The Playstation 3 had Infamous, Uncharted and The Last of Us. But PS4? Well, it has Bloodborne… but that’s about it. Nobody cared about Knack, and while Until Dawn is great, it isn’t a title that’s going to sell systems. Driveclub has its fans, but still hasn’t managed to evade the stink left behind by its troubled launch. And it’s not even worth mentioning The Order: 1886 (I didn’t think it was terrible, but it’s certainly frowned upon by most of the gaming community).
So, if video games aren’t giving this generation a definitive voice, what is?
Well, the struggle over resolution and frame-rate, for one. But outside of that, this generation will likely be remembered for the releases of the PS4 Pro and Xbox Scorpio. I mean, their very existence could very well change the way consoles are developed and sold from here on out. I don’t have a crystal ball or anything, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we never saw a Playstation 5. If each console is only somewhat better than the version before it, a new naming convention could take over: Playstation Nitro, Playstation Beyond, Playstation Zen, etc. All only somewhat better than the previous iteration, and yet still years behind what PC hardware brings to the table.
And if I were Sony and Microsoft, I’d start thinking about how big a problem that might be.
This isn’t rocket science. GAMES should define how we feel about any given generation. Sure, we’ll also develop an attachment to hardware designs, but games are what matter most. Unfortunately, the gaming industry has lost sight of that, and that could very well bite console developers in the end. If Microsoft and Sony want to continue down the path of pushing consoles more than first party exclusives, they’ll eventually be perceived as third-party machines. If that happens, it leaves the door WIDE open for Steam machines to make another push, and with Steam having almost any third party title you can dream of, and for less money, that platform could finally become a contender in the living room.
And speaking of third-party, it’s pretty clear the AAA heavies have gotten lazy, too. They’re just too afraid to let go of moneymaking franchises. People often complain about being bored of the same old crap, but how do these companies respond?
“We’ll make our games look better. Cool?”
But people aren’t complaining about graphics anymore. That narrative just isn’t driving the industry as much as it used to… at least from the perspective of consumers. Gamers want better writing, character depth, enemy AI, etc. But nooooo… all anyone has done is say, “Better volumetric fog, god rays, and particle effects! That’ll revolutionize everything!”
Shadow of Mordor had the right idea with the Nemesis System. It was basic, yes, but I was convinced it was the first baby-step in this industry’s journey to develop better AI… and yet nobody has tried to emulate, let alone best that system since. Nope, every other game still features enemies that either stand against a single guard post, or walk in the same L-shaped pattern over and over.
So let me ask: Is this truly the best that AAA developers could pull off in 2016? Is this REALLY the best generation of gaming ever? I don’t think so, and furthermore, I think the industry CAN do better. Not only CAN it do better, but there’s nothing wrong with EXPECTING better, either. But with so many people literally buying products before they’re finalized, what incentive does this industry have to change its unfriendly business tactics?
Well, consumers have to realize that more powerful hardware isn’t going to solve a damn thing. If you want better quality products, you have to stop pre-ordering games. Stop telling studios you’re willing to buy their crap sight unseen. Also, if you’re not having much fun playing the games being released on the PS4 or Xbox One, playing them on a PS4 Pro or Xbox One S (or even the Xbox Scorpio) isn’t going to change that. Your gameplay will be enhanced, but enhancement of non-enjoyment is still just that… non-enjoyment.
If you want newer, better IP’s, and advancement in storytelling and AI, then all you need to do is keep those conversations in the public eye. Keep those narratives strong so AAA publishers and developers can see that they’re no longer going to get away with repackaging the same two or three gameplay formats time and time again. Make damn sure they know you want more than just: FPS – The Game / Blasting From Behind Cover – The Game / Stealthily Wipe-Out Poor Enemy AI – The Game / Detective Mode – The Game.
Not that AAA games should be villainized, though. Again, I still find them to be quite enjoyable. I’m just disappointed that the industry refuses to broaden its horizons in the ways that are most needed.
The good news? As long as you’re willing to wander outside the AAA scene, there’s plenty of great games being released by smaller and/or independent studios. Ori and the Blind Forest, The Witness, Inside, Limbo, Absolute Drift, Stardew Valley, Shovel Knight, Axiom Verge, Grow Home, Child of Light, Never Alone, Outlast, Trine, Braid, Undertale, Owlboy, Soma… and these are only some of the most notable choices. And hey, if none of these pique your curiosity, there’s still decades worth of games for you to go back and enjoy.
It’s easy to forget that gaming isn’t a ‘box’, but an art form that we can enjoy… well, pretty much whenever. Games take a bit longer to digest than music albums, movies, and even a number of books, and as a result, people always feel like they have to play the newest stuff and never look back on the old… and that’s just simply not true. If you find yourself in a rut, just look at your back catalog or start working on games that you may have missed. Sure, there are some titles that may not have aged as gracefully as others, but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that most hold their own quite well.