Seventh Generation Games: The Golden Era of Gaming Part I
By Josh Snyder
In this series, author Josh Snyder examines the seven key elements that defined seventh generation games. Each element will be examined alongside a game that best exemplifies that particular aspect. Taking it one step further, each essay will hypothesize how these elements will be refined or evolved in the next generation.
Seventh Generation Games
We are currently living in the golden era of video games. The medium has reached the point where the basic elements of game design, semiotics and storytelling have been established, and the hardware is powerful enough to realize many developers dreams. True, the hardware could always be more powerful, and there will always be advancements in game design that we can only dream of now, but the fact remains – seventh generation games have seen the biggest leaps forward, alongside the highest levels of refinement.
This essay will examine seven key elements of game design and theory that have contributed to this golden era. Each element will be examined alongside a game that best exemplifies that particular aspect. Taking it one step further, each essay will hypothesize how these elements will be refined or evolved in the next generation.
One final note – this list should not be mistaken for a “top seven games of this generation.” While all of the games highlighted are personal favorites and games everyone should play, their inclusion here does not immediately denote them as a top seven (or even top ten) game – they just happen to be the best in one specific area.
Without further ado…
Art Design/Direction: Bringing Colors to Life
When the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 arrived, the buzz words tossed around were: 60 frames per second, hyper-realistic motion, high definition and no jaggies. In other words, the hardware was so powerful that the graphics would be unlike anything seen before. But what would developers do with all of that horsepower? In the early days of the generation, that answer was to make technically gorgeous games colored in various shades of brown and grey. On the Xbox 360, two games summarized this aesthetic choice better than any other – launch title Condemned: Criminal Origins and system seller Gears of War. While both of these games had their shining moments visually, they were, in a way, a graphical letdown – all of this advanced hardware, and the most colorful image developers could conjure up was blood splattering across the screen as your machine gun chainsaw ripped a Locust in half.
As this generation progressed, developers began to experiment with different art styles. Games such as de Blob used art design as a gameplay mechanic, while MadWorld, was nothing more than an interactive version of Frank Miller’s Sin City. And while these games showed promise, there were few games that offered a truly timeless style.
Of course, memorable art design is nothing new to the medium – there are still games from the late 80s and early 90s that look great today. Of course, most of those games, Super Mario Brothers 3, Super Metroid and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, just to name a few, were developed by Nintendo. So it should come as no surprise that, once again, the famed developer has produced a game, on inferior hardware no less, that still manages to look better than most games coming out on systems that actually support high definition and high resolution graphics.
The Game that Defined Art Design/Direction – Super Mario Galaxy 2
Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the pinnacle of art design and direction in the seventh generation of video games. From lush green open spaces dotted with yellow, blue and purple enemies, to giant erupting volcanoes overflowing with vibrant shades of orange and red, every color pops out of the screen, swirling through space, creating an experience unlike any other. And though it may look great in a still image, the game looks better in motion – a Pixar film come to life, where you can run, jump, fly through space and ride dinosaurs, often in the span of minutes.
Where Super Mario Galaxy 2 sets itself apart from every other visually stunning game this generation is in how the art design was used to communicate to the player, and how well it was integrated into the world without bombarding the player’s senses.
Color was used to subtly guide the player through each level, or to quickly communicate whether a character was an enemy or friendly. And those characters were designed in a way that made them stick out in an already busy world. All of these complex elements were masterfully combined into a single product that never wears out its welcome – there is a joy when starting up each level and experiencing something new and unique, a feat when considering that, just like other three-dimensional Mario games, there are 120 different stars to collect at the end of 210 different levels.
Nintendo’s artists should be applauded for being able to let their imaginations run wild, while also sticking closely to a focused vision. No other game this generation brings the fantastical to life in the way Super Mario Galaxy 2 does.
How Art Design/Direction Can Evolve
Any seasoned artist will tell you that the visual element must do more than simply look good – in Super Mario Galaxy 2’s case, it also communicated information to the player. These two elements – visual beauty and communication, have been refined to a point where they are expected. But there is room for improvement, and those changes can and should be made to the over-reliance on the heads-up display (HUD).
Too often, developers rely on a HUD to communicate basic information to the player. In some games, the reliance on a HUD makes sense – as a cybernetically enhanced detective, Adam Jensen should be able to highlight and separate friend from foe in the sci-fi hit Deus Ex: Human Revolution. But for every game that incorporates a HUD into the plot intelligently, there are two more that use a HUD as a cheap way to convey information (see Dead Island: Riptide as an example of a game that betrays its scavenger, survive-at-all-cost tone with a mini-map and health gauge that let you know where enemies are and how much trouble you’re in).
This is where the artists in the design department can come in and radically change the way our games look. Metro: Last Light has a minimal HUD, yet is able to quickly and easily convey health, ammo and friend from foe. As a result, the game’s visuals are allowed to shine, and the player is only given the information they need in that exact moment – no mini-map or compass crowds the screen, obstructing the view.
Next generation games should take this concept and run with it – the HUD should permanently be removed from the developer’s set of tools, and in its place vivid, gorgeous worlds can thrive. And those worlds should be filled with memorable characters, memorable both in the sense of character and visual style. Levels and worlds should be paintings that spring to life as we move through them, transporting us to places we cannot visit and only imagine.
Open Worlds: Virtual Society Realized
Grand Theft Auto III broke barriers when it was released, both in terms of how violence is portrayed in video games, and how developers create open world games. Liberty City was one of the first fully rendered three-dimensional cities, and the freedom it offered gamers was so revolutionary that every developer began to incorporate elements of its design into their games.
By the time the sixth generation was coming to a close, it was clear that the limits of the hardware were met. Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas provided the largest open world in the franchise yet, and with it came the signs that open world design had hit a plateau. The urban environments were often empty in relation to the size of the city, and it often felt like players were manically driving through a ghost town, in a rush to get nowhere in particular.
With the seventh generation, open world games such as Just Cause and Far Cry 2 attempted to add life into their open worlds. Non-player character (NPC) count was upped across the board, and the world was designed with a plethora of ways for gamers to get from one end to the other with little trouble. Developers began to hone in on how to use the open world to help tell their story, yet there was still a critical component missing. Gamers now had access to bigger, more lively worlds, but the detail was missing – in many ways, these games were not an evolution of the formula Rockstar used for Grand Theft Auto III, but rather bigger versions of the same game. But who better to revolutionize the open world than the developer that helped to pioneer the genre?
The Game that Defined the Open World – Red Dead Redemption
One ride across the west. That’s all it takes to realize that Red Dead Redemption is the game that has defined the open world design for the seventh generation.
More so than any game released this generation, Red Dead Redemption is an open-world game where the world has its own character, its own soul. Riding across the plains, as one of the many settlements comes into view off in the distance, you notice a storm rolling in over the mountains in the distance, ready to meet you head on, and you push your horse just a little harder and faster to get into town before the rain comes. Wildlife runs and flies across canyons and rivers, searching for food. And at the end of the day, after the sun has set and the storm has passed, and the stars in the night sky shine bright, you will often find yourself sitting alone next to a campfire, wondering what adventures tomorrow will bring.
The strongest compliment anyone can pay to an open world game is to say that the world is so compelling that the gamer would rather take the time to travel from one end to the other than use some sort of fast-travel system. And while a fast travel system exists in Red Dead Redemption, gamers are doing themselves a disservice by using it. Venture outside of town, and you’re bound to come across any number of random world events, from a drunk man kidnapping a helpless woman, to a man who claims to need help, only to steal your horse as you stop. These random encounters paint the land with a sense of desperation and turmoil, one that stands in stark contrast to the majestic vistas you’ll experience on your travels.
But what these encounters ultimately add is life and soul to the game world. They exist solely to give the player a reason to explore the world. There is a lengthy campaign in Red Dead Redemption, one that relies little on the open world mechanic. In fact, if you play only the main story missions, the game can often feel linear. But that would be missing the point. The events of the main story begin to matter to the player because of how they impact the world. When revolution sweeps across Mexico, and protagonist John Marston finds himself helping a man who promises to lead his country honorably, yet exhibits the same dictator-like tendencies of the man just ousted, it feels like a kick to the gut. The world deserves better than this, but not today.
And gamers only care because they get to explore that world, they get to be a part of it. Listening to random conversation in taverns, watching hunters chase down their prey – it’s these details that help elevate open world design to the next level. No longer are these world barren playgrounds to run through however you please, they are breathing, living entities, and they are often the star of the show.
How the Open World Can Evolve
Developer Rockstar provided a new way to experience multiplayer with Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption, by having those games take place within the same open world that the stories take place. Still, this mode was distinct from the single player mode – you had two separate characters with two different sets of objectives. But what if that weren’t the case?
From Software toyed with the idea of incorporating multiplayer into a single player game with Dark Souls, the infamous RPG that went out of its way to repeatedly destroy gamers with its overwhelming difficulty. If a player chooses to connect their game to the internet, another player can invade their game, hunt them down, and kill them, or the player can fend the attacker off. Either outcome results in rewards given to the victor, adding a risk/reward element to the multiplayer.
By allowing others to experience your otherwise single player adventure, From Software is essentially blurring the line between single and multiplayer, and open world games across the board are ripe for this kind of change. Think of how exciting a traditionally single-player based Elder Scrolls game could be if you happened upon another adventurer, willing to duel or trade items. It would add another element of strategy to the game, while also opening the door to social aspects of gaming. Show off your custom built house, your set of enchanted armor. Half the fun of games like Borderlands and Diablo is showing your friends the loot you worked tirelessly to acquire, and it makes the world truly open.
That notion that open world games are still inherently closed off is nothing new – every open world game that has preceded this generation felt fake to some extent. Most of the time it was a lack of NPCs, but today it is the barrier that separates your open world from everyone else’s open world.
Red Dead Redemption gave us a glimpse at the future – a world lovingly crafted, rich with detail, begging the player to get out and explore it. Random encounters break up the monotony, keeping the player guessing and forming a bond with the world. Here’s hoping that next generation sees gamers experiencing those open worlds together.