Eighth Generation Games: Redefining Expectations

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Dark Souls III may be a great title, but it’s a great traditional title.

When it comes to evaluating video games, the process is so subjective that it seems odd to assign numerical scores or compile “best of” lists, which is why we don’t hand out scores for games we review, or create “official” Game of the Year lists. There’s just so much disagreement among gamers (which is great), that the exercise seems rather pointless.

That said, I am often prone to making such subjective lists myself, even if my thoughts don’t make it further than a drunken conversation with friends. Or, as was the case a couple weeks back, during a leisurely stroll through a park, catching all of the Pidgeys and Rattatas to transfer to the Professor for more candy and stardust (for those of you who don’t speak Pokémon, I was playing Pokémon Go). You know, grown-up activities. While on my walk I began thinking on what seems to be a stacked 2016, and if I had to choose, what would I pick as the top three games? Games like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and DOOM came to mind, and although I’ve yet to play it, our official review of Dark Souls III makes it seem like a safe bet for many end-of-year lists.

But the one thing these three games have in common is that they’re games from franchises most of us have played before. Of course, they are great  games, but after Dark Souls and Dark Souls II, I’m not chomping at the bit to play the third one. I will someday, and I have no doubt it will be a great experience, but it doesn’t get me as excited as it once would have. Same for Uncharted 4, which was a phenomenal title, but four times adventuring out with Nathan Drake is plenty.

When I gave it some serious thought, I came up with a list of three games, all of which provide experiences in new, intriguing and unique ways, games that redefine our expectations of what the medium is capable of. In no particular order, my list of the best games of 2016 (so far) would read: Quantum Break, Pokémon Go and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. In other words, a game most people never even paid attention to, a mobile free-to-play game and a game released in 2015. Although I have my reasons for why these games stand out above all others released in 2016, the exercise did lead me to wonder – if the seventh generation was the golden era of video games, will the eighth generation be the era of redefined expectations?

Making The Case: Quantum Break

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Quantum Break is more than a video game – it is a new entertainment experience.

When I reviewed Quantum Break earlier this year, I summarized my thoughts by ending on a hopeful note that more games would follow in its footsteps. From the review:

“Quantum Break is the first game of its kind, and hopefully not the last. There may be better examples of this mixed-medium format going forward, but those games have a big burden on their shoulders already, because the bar has been set high.”

Proving how subjective video games could be, I made that bold claim with the utmost confidence, and was confused when the game came and went with little more than a whimper. Why didn’t it catch on? How come others didn’t see what I saw?

My confusion began to clear when I brought the game up in a conversation with friends. “I heard about that game,” one friend remarked. “That’s the one with the lame superpowers? I heard it had boring gameplay.”

That’s when I realized: if we judge Quantum Break against a game like Uncharted 4, and focus solely on areas of traditional video game design, I too would most likely pass on Quantum Break. Although the gameplay is by no means broken or horrible, it isn’t revolutionary. It’s serviceable, and when you stack serviceable up against some of the best platforming and cover-based shooting from this generation, that won’t quite cut it.

But Quantum Break is so much more. As I detailed in my review, the title is a mix of three different mediums, and each one works together in such perfect harmony that I’m amazed more artists haven’t already given this format a shot. The video game blends into the TV show, each one playing off the other, and the world-building is handled through some well-written documents that are just as engrossing as most video game stories.

That’s what makes this title special – it can’t be viewed as just a video game, because it does so much more. It creates memorable characters that players get to interact with, and then tosses them into some spectacular action scenes. It follows them when the main protagonist is unavailable, allowing an inside look into this mysterious world, expanding it far beyond the exploits of one character. Reading about it in such vivid detail is the icing on the cake, making the world come alive in ways other games could never even hope to accomplish.

This is what I (and hopefully many others) want out of the video game industry – the ability to tell engrossing stories in new and inventive ways. Quantum Break does this, in spades. But to look at the traditional game design elements and write it off for not being equal to the better games of the industry is not only doing the developers at Remedy Entertainment a disservice – it’s doing a disservice to the entire industry, hampering its ability to evolve.

Making The Case: Pokémon Go

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Despite being part of the mobile free-to-play genre, Pokemon Go is one of the best games of 2016.

One of the stances we take here at Theory of Gaming is to be platform agnostic. There is no one right platform to play games on, no “PC Master Race” or console wars to be had. If it’s a device that can play video games, and if a developer makes a compelling one for that device, we will gladly give it a try.

This shouldn’t have to be stated, but there is still this notion that mobile gaming, especially free-to-play gaming, is something that “traditional” gamers would never take seriously. Mobile gaming is a minor distraction to help pass the time, whether it be in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, or on a commute home. Mobile gaming is looked down upon the same way video games as a whole were in the 1990s, with some going even so far as to call it a health concern that preys upon people prone to addiction. Whether this is accurate or not is beside the point, because one of the most disruptive games of 2016, across all platforms, is a free-to-play mobile game.

Pokémon Go is certainly addicting. It was designed to pull players in and entice them to spend real world money on fake video game currency (after all, it takes a lot of time and effort to catch ‘em all – why not make the process easier for a few dollars). It can only be played on smartphones, and developer Niantic Inc. seems to take a hands-off approach with their fans, making changes that send the most dedicated players into a rage. It seems to check off all of the items on a list titled “how to make a bad game.” And yet, I haven’t had this much fun with a game in years.

When we think about the act of playing video games, we typically think of sitting on a couch, looking at a large screen. We may have friends over to play the game, but we’re not really interacting with each other, but with the images on the screen. They have our full attention, while our friends get the occasional glance out of the corner of our eye. And that’s assuming that we even have friends over to play – most of our time spent gaming is done solo, our only social interaction coming through microphones (where 12 year olds can shout big adult words), or through tiny chat boxes hidden in the corner of screens.

Pokémon Go changes that. It is both a video game, a traditionally solo experience, and a social event. Because of its reliance on GPS to play the game, fans must go out into the real world, likely meeting other players of the game, where they can interact and share information with each other. One day, I found myself frantically running through a park that I had never visited before, because a Growlithe showed up on my nearby map. I ran into a man walking his dog, holding his phone in his free hand.

“This way,” he shouted out, excitedly. “The Growlithe nest is this way.”

Without thinking twice, I ran up to the other end of the park with my new friend Matt, who had discovered the nest himself earlier that day (for the uninitiated – nests are locations where a certain type of Pokémon will spawn for an indefinite amount of time). We talked about how difficult of a time we’ve had finding Growlithes, and how great it is that there’s a nest, and also about how the game is changing our lives. My new friend pointed at his dog, who was loving every second of the warm summer evening.

“I used to take him on ten minute walks,” he said. “Now? Definitely nothing shorter than 30 minutes, an hour even.”

I’ve had numerous experiences similar to this one. When you step out into the real world, and you see people of all different ages and backgrounds coming together and bonding over a shared interest, it puts into perspective how powerful gaming can be. We all enjoy these games, and that should be cause for celebration, not pointless fan-boy wars about which console is the best, or how only people who don’t know what they’re doing play smartphone games. Pokémon Go creates a social experience few games prior have managed to achieve, and that counts for something. Video games don’t need to be a solitary activity, and when the social element is properly introduced, it opens up a whole new avenue of gameplay features and mechanics that can change the way we play.

Making The Case: The Witcher 3

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With The Witcher 3, developer CD Projekt RED demonstrates how video games are meant to change and evolve well past their release date.

Regardless of personal opinion, at least the previous two games are ones that were released this year. So how can I justify putting a game from 2015 on my 2016 list? Because the same element that will be the enduring legacy of The Witcher 3, and of developer CD Projekt RED, is also the same element that changes the way we think about video games: the 2016 version of the game is vastly different than the version released in 2015.

It’s common practice to release a game, release a few post-launch patches to weed out any glitches and wrap it up with a few pieces of downloadable content (DLC). That’s the standard, and if CD Projekt RED would have stopped there with their support of The Witcher 3, we would still be talking about one of the most immersive and stunning RPGs in recent memory. But how they supported the title throughout 2015 and well into 2016 demonstrates a crucial fact of video games – it is an always evolving art form.

Before diving deeper into The Witcher 3, we need to take a step back and appreciate just how influential and disruptive Minecraft is and was. At the time, it was almost unheard of for a developer to release a game in an unfinished state, and ask people to pay for it. Yet that’s what Markus “Notch” Persson did – he released his game in an unfinished state, asked people to pay for it and promised that he would update the game based on player feedback.

Going back to the original versions of Minecraft and comparing it to the version available today is incredible. The game has changed and evolved so much that it’s almost unrecognizable in its original form. There was no hunger meter, no Ender Dragons – it was simply virtual Legos. But Notch wasn’t content with it being a building block simulator, and although he saw potential in the idea, he also knew that player input and feedback would take the game to places even he couldn’t imagine.

This idea that a game can be released and significantly altered at a later point is still a relatively new one, and as of now it’s often associated with games that are so broken at launch they get pulled from store shelves. But even video games that release in a playable and enjoyable state can evolve for the better. CD Projekt RED listened to player feedback, and the improvements they made to The Witcher 3 drastically improve the game, and the process mirrors that of Minecraft. Menus have been completely reorganized and made easier to navigate. The HUD can display even more crucial information, or it can be further customized so it displays exactly what the player wants, and nothing more. The 16 free pieces of DLC, along with the two paid expansions, open the game world up and fill it with even more compelling quests.

But most importantly, the game that received its last piece of DLC on May 31, 2016 is so different from the game that was released on May 19, 2015, in large part to player feedback. The quality of life improvements that, typically, fans would need to add to the game as mods, were incorporated directly into the game by the developers themselves, and they only knew which ones to implement based off of what the fans said. It’s one thing to see a developer communicate so openly and honestly with their fans, but it’s another to acknowledge that, even though they were proud of the original game, that there’s always room for improvement. The version of The Witcher 3 playable in 2016 is vastly superior to the version that was playable in 2015, and it’s time we acknowledge this ability to grow and evolve as a strength of the medium.

I Wonder What’s Next?

There will always be room for and a desire to play traditional titles. As I write this, I am eagerly anticipating the release of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, which appears to be a very worthy successor to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. That is, it appears to be a very good traditional game. I’m not saying that all games need to feature non-traditional design elements, or that they should force me to be social, but I do believe those games should be recognized as the next evolutionary step for the industry.

I wondered at the outset of this piece if these three games, and the specific instances of each, were isolated incidences, a happy coincidence. Maybe these games are the anomaly, and the industry has decided it will not veer too far off course? But then I remember that I have to spend some time tonight playing No Man’s Sky for an upcoming review, and I thinking about the 18 quintillion planets I have left to explore. If the eighth generation will be known for something other than redefining our expectations, then at least 2016 will be remembered that way.