Aiden Pearce is a Dick

Story is, to my immense joy, increasingly becoming one of the defining factors in quality video games. If a game wants to be considered great it must have a story that is, at worst, coherent and at best the foundation upon which the game is built. Heavy Rain, Spec Ops the Line, The Wolf Among Us, just a small selection of great games that have story at their core and are paving the way for games of the future. The best games are those that can strike the elusive balance between story and gameplay. Ubisoft’s latest blockbuster, Watchdogs, tries and fails to do this.

It is really a great shame that Ubisoft bothered to attempt to fashion a proper storyline for Watchdogs. This is a game with excellent mechanics, a plethora of content and fantastic quality of execution that would have sat nicely around a clichéd and ignorable nothing of a story. But great games need a story, and Ubisoft wanted to make a great game, so a story has been forced in where it doesn’t belong. Completing the campaign missions of Watchdogs was, for me, a slog and it is only on reflection that I can recognise the many things I enjoyed about playing the game. As I worked my way through Aiden Pearce’s tale of retribution and soul searching I increasingly hated the man under my control. He is selfish, immoral, cruel, reckless and, despite his many statements to the contrary, appears to feel no remorse for the chaos he causes. As Pearce a player will commit crimes from privacy invasion all the way to murder with Pearce reassuring himself of the necessity of these actions to further his mission for justice.The creators desperately want you to care about him too. The crux of Aiden’s moaning is that his niece was killed by an attacker who was sent to kill Aiden. The game bombards you with reminders of this, including areas on the map where you can trigger chunks of Aiden’s memory on the subject, and one “mission” where you are tasked with getting to the cemetery so Aiden can look sad and his sister can comfort him. It is all boring and pointless and it in no way makes you feel sorry for the protagonist as I believe is the intention. Fun as his hacking powers are to wield the fact remains that I hate Aiden Pearce, he is a dick and I have spent a lot of time with him (which perhaps says something about me).

He’s probably shooting some puppies…

The problem with the growth of story driven games was never better illustrated than here. Watchdogs is so close to being a good game, so close that I genuinely believe I could write a story that would better suit it. I’m not claiming that I can write an excellent video game script, on the contrary, my point is that I can’t, but Watchdogs doesn’t need one. Had Aiden Pearce been nothing more than a vigilante (a title that he is given in Watchdogs, regardless of the ratio of crimes stopped to crimes perpetrated), a man using his abilities to fight crime in a city where corruption prevents crime from being fought, Ubisoft would have had a really nice game on their hands. In fact, some of the best parts of Watchdogs are when you have no agenda other than fighting for justice. Having completed the story I find the game much more enjoyable as I can freely pursue the side missions without the gloomy shadow of Aiden’s background hanging over me.

There are also problems with the story that go beyond the writing. The way that aspects of the tale have been portrayed sometimes borders on the comical. At one point Aiden is blackmailing a gang member (yes blackmail is also on his moral fails list) and he ends a phone conversation with: “We’ll talk soon”, presumably to intimidate the target but then proceeds to immediately call him back which, to Aiden’s credit, at least suggests he’s never blackmailed anyone before.

Good

At the very end of the story (after some of the credits have rolled in fact) you are given a kill-or-let-live scenario. In other games I have played, such a scenario causes genuine questioning of what to do. Usually the target has done something bad but the player has been through some serious shit and is questioning their morals and the morals of the characters by the end. In Watchdogs, however,  I had no doubt what so ever that a real Aiden Pearce would redecorate the room with brains and not lose a wink of sleep over the extinguished life before him. I honestly think that any video game can be enhanced by a well written and well implemented story, but that doesn’t mean that one is necessary for a game to be good. At some point in Watchdog’s development a brave soul should have raised their hand and said that maybe a rewrite was needed, maybe the player doesn’t have to empathise with the protagonist, maybe he doesn’t need this weird hypocritical story. Sadly, what we have is a game with many excellent qualities that are overshadowed by an appalling story that I highly doubt anyone has found interesting or engaging. If nothing else, Watchdogs has shown us that, while a storyline can push a game to greatness it also has the capacity to pull it into mediocrity.

Buy Another Day

The new console generation is upon us! Let us rejoice in the hum of new machines, the shine of better graphics and the chatter of critics. Few things in gaming are more exciting than the release of new hardware. It gets people from all walks of life talking about what to buy, but, amid all of the excitement and hype, I urge you to take a step back and consider not buying any new console at all; at least, not yet.

Which to buy? Which to buy?

Let me take you back to the release of the Nintendo Wii. It was a simpler time where motion control was Nintendo’s new thing, and it had a lot of promise. In the UK the Wii was an elusive creature and I was desperate to have one. I had succumb to its charms, to the promise of a game being shipped with the console and having the new Zelda available at launch, to the unorthodox and intriguing controller and, to the seemingly more immersive gaming experience that the Wii could offer, not to mention the attractive price point. Finally, in early 2007, I got my hands on the box, and for a few months I had a glorious time with Link and my Mii. Alas, this time was not to last and after I had played through Zelda and had my fill of Mario (in a variety of guises), I found few titles that could keep me playing. I returned to my PS2 and my PC, a broken man. I’m not trying to bash the Wii with this story and I am certain that many will disagree with my assessment of the console; but, if I had waited, if I had let a year or two go by, I would have known that the Wii wasn’t for me, and I could have avoided the bad experience I had after the euphoria of new games and a new console. I had some good times with the Wii, but I now know that purchasing it as early as I did was a mistake.

So much promise.

For me, the launch of the PS3 was very different. I have been a Playstation user for most of my life but I had no real desire for the PS3 at launch. It was prohibitively expensive for a start and there had been numerous redesigns and changes made to aspects of the console since its initial reveal. The games were also underwhelming, the best of the launch titles being (most likely) Resistance: Fall of Man, a critically acclaimed first person shooter, but a first person shooter none the less, offering little in terms of novelty or ingenuity. When it was released, I saw the PS3 as little more than an upgrade of the PS2, with better graphics and not much else. The 2007 me looked at the PS3 and dismissively waved his Wiimote. The 2007 me was an idiot. Over a few years, the PS3 collected a library of excellent games, the Playstation Network improved (I urge you to try Playstation Plus if you haven’t already) and the price and reliability of the console got better too. In late 2009, I got a PS3 and I have never looked back.

Get it sorted!

Would I have been happy if I had bought the PS3 at launch? I suppose I would be content now, but I would have spent a large amount of money on something that would take years to reach its full potential. By waiting a few years I was able to get the console that I really wanted (even if I didn’t know it to begin with) for less money than it was originally sold for, with a bigger hard drive than was originally available and with an excellent back catalogue of games available second hand, or even new, for very reasonable prices. There are, undoubtedly, some very intelligent market analysts in the world who are able to make a well informed prediction about how games consoles will look in the next few years; but most of us will be buying a console based on what it offers us on the day we buy it. With that in mind, it makes sense to buy a console  later in its life cycle, when it has more to offer.

Much better.

We love shiny and new, we love being at the forefront of technology and being the envy of our peers, but really it’s our own personal enjoyment that matters when it comes to games consoles, and I truly believe that a console will never reach its potential in its first year of availability. That being said, if nobody buys a console at launch it will never reach its potential. Thankfully, millions of new generation consoles have already been purchased by brave gaming pioneers, and when I buy a new console, I’ll have them to thank for the improved experience I get. For now though, I will enjoy the twilight years of the PS3, Humble Bundles and Steam sales until the time is right for a new console. Maybe you should do the same.

Let’s Get Physical

In the last six months I have bought maybe six games on two platforms, my Playstation and my PC. For those on the Playstation I traded some of my old games, but I didn’t leave the store with another disk, I left with PSN credit and I bought, downloaded and installed my new games from the comfort of my sofa, as I have done with all of my recent purchases. This is the future of game shopping and very soon it will be the only way to buy games.

“So what?” I hear you ask. Well aside from the inevitable job losses from the business of games retail, the next generation of gamers will lose out on the (as Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon put it) “oh-so-satisfying journey from discovery to desire to possession.”

Enjoy it while you still can.

For convenience (and perhaps a slightly lower price tag) we sacrifice the experience; it’s the difference between a train journey and teleportation, sure you’ll get where you’re going faster, but you won’t enjoy the ride. Let us take this time then to reflect upon the wonder of the physical game.

The first video games that I had didn’t come in neat little packages that could be stacked or tucked away, they came in boxes that could easily have contained War and Peace, occasionally with a flap at the front revealing information about the game.

What is this guy going to put in these shelves now? Books or something!?

I remember megadrive and N64 cartridges requiring a swift clean with a breath and then a firm shove into the slot and the crossing of fingers as the power button was pressed.

Fixing game cartridges is a highly technical process.

And then the Playstation and its disks black as vinyl coming in those fat CD cases with the most fragile hinges ever created. All of these gave way to the variations on the DVD case that are so common today, the last of their kind. We all have different gaming memories of different games over different platforms, but the ability to hold that game in your hands is a common denominator. There’s also the whole experience of buying a game from a shop. The browsing of titles, looking at the crap on the back mainly for the screen shots and because of the God awful cover art on the front.

Someone got paid to design this cover. PAID! With money!

Then taking it home and writing off the rest of the day to game time, or perhaps being forced to wait as trivial things like education or work held you back from your purchase. Either way, the anticipation is palpable and all centred around the physical manifestation of the game.

Perhaps the death of physical games will be slow, like that of music, or maybe it will be precipitated by console makers or perhaps an event like the closure of a major distributor. However it happens, physical games will one day be a thing of the past and I doubt too many people will mind, but every so often I’ll miss having something tangible to connect me to my purchases and I’ll reminisce about the good old days when a game was more than a piece of software.

From Brain to Game

A recent article published online by Edge magazine raises an interesting prospect in gaming; the use of neuroscience in the research and development of games. The article focuses on the possible replacement of violence in games with something more acceptable that gives players the same thrill. While this is an interesting prospect the more general use of neuroscience in the gaming industry could be a real possibility for the future. In an earlier post I described gaming as being intrinsically linked to the advancement of technology but perhaps, in the future, gaming will be linked to advances in our understanding of the brain and what goes on in there when we enjoy a game.

You can probably name the types of games you like, give examples and even go so far as to break these games down into the aspects that you particularly enjoyed and those that you didn’t care for; but when pushed, can you articulate precisely what makes a game fun? This is the challenge for game developers the world over, to create a game that consumers will enjoy. It therefore seems logical that developing an understanding of such enjoyment could lead to the development of better video games. This is the prize that neuroscience can offer. And research into video gaming isn’t even that big a leap, games have already been used in neuroscience. Maguire et al. (2009), for example, used an adapted version of the game The Getaway to examine the brain activity of London taxi drivers as they navigated the virtual streets. This was a landmark paper in the study of human spatial navigation but it also demonstrates that games can be used in laboratory experiments, in fact, they are well suited to MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) studies that require the subject to keep their head still. Neuroscience in gaming could allow developers to understand what has made successful games so popular, perhaps by taking components of these games (such as violence) and examining their effect on gamers’ brains. In terms of development, new game mechanic designs could be tested similarly and their probable success determined from comparisons with already established mechanics.

I would volunteer to be a test subject.

So why has neuroscience yet to be utilised by gaming? Part of it (possibly a big part) is the vast amount of money that would be required to undertake such a project, with no guarantee of return. Chris Stevens talking to Edge magazine claims that:

“The first game publisher which buys an MRI scanner will make its money back in publicity”

but those who can afford such equipment are already successful and may therefore lack the incentive to invest in such an ambitious venture. Proof of concept may also be required before investment is made and perhaps other industries such as advertising will need to adopt a neuroscience approach before the games industry dives in.

There are also ethical issues that need to be noted. An understanding of the brain could lead to its exploitation. In his book The Decisive Moment (a.k.a. How We Decide) Jonah Lehrer describes how mortgage lenders and credit card companies have exploited flaws in the human psyche to sell consumers products that they cannot afford. While there has been no direct use of neuroscience by these industries it is conceivable that such exploitation could be used in any industry with an understanding of the brain. Even if a games developer has no unethical intentions they could unwittingly make a game that is tailored so perfectly to enjoyment that it becomes addictive. Games that already exist have been shown to cause addiction in some people. Tapping into the reward and pleasure centres of the brain could be a slippery slope and perhaps games developers that utilise neuroscientific research will go too far before they realise their mistake. We are already surrounded by advertising that uses psychology to make a sale but perhaps using neuroscience will be taking that principle too far.

Addicted anyone?

The potential to develop better, more enjoyable and perhaps more socially acceptable games through neuroscience surely exists. It is only a matter of time before one non-scientific industry or another uses neuroscience and eventually I believe games will too. We must be careful though, there are dangers to using such knowledge that may not be realised until it’s too late. So much is still unknown about the brain that exploiting it too early may prove damaging. Neuroscience can be used in games but, only time will tell whether it should be used or not.

Gaming into parenthood

In the digital age, technology is king. I would wager that most people today have played and enjoyed a video game; be it something as accessible as Fruit Ninja or as complicated as Civilization, gaming is becoming part of our culture and, as we become parents, our children’s culture. A recent Observer article discussed the affinity that children have with computers and games and how this can leave “their parents baffled”. Does this mean, therefore, that the next generation of parents, those who themselves grew up playing video games, will be able to understand and connect with their children more? Probably not seems the likely answer; the child parent relationship is unlikely to change that drastically just because parents understand the interests of their children a little better, but, for the gaming industry and for children, a better understanding of the role games can play in growing up might not be a bad thing.

Children like video games and pressure their parents to buy them, this is undeniably true. The advantage that the gaming generation might have as parents is the willingness and ability to research and test what their children want. Rather that simply relying on what the media and shop assistants advise, gamer parents can inform themselves and make their own judgements for their children. The worry that is expressed in the Observer is that the author can’t interact with her son over games:

“…computer games still bother me. It’s the knowledge gap. I have no idea what Patrick’s up to when he plays Zelda, or cries over penalties in Classics XI, because, other than the odd game of Space Invaders, I’ve never got into computer games.”

This is a problem that can be rectified by gaming knowledge. Moreover, gaming parents can change the way games are viewed by making informed decisions.

This WILL happen

Too often have I heard of children playing games that are completely inappropriate for their age group. One could argue that this shows a lack of parental involvement but I think it is, at least in part, caused by a lack of understanding of games. Most people know what a 15 or an 18 rating means in terms of movies but for games they don’t. Gaming parents, however, will understand the likely cause of these ratings and can play the games before allowing their children anywhere near them. On the other hand, for some parents there seems to be the view that video games are universally “bad for children”. This too is damaging and misguided. I’ll say it again, children like video games; many of them will tire of games quickly, many will grow out of them eventually and many of them will become avid gamers.  Think of games like chocolate. I am not suggesting that children should do nothing but play games but nor should games be seen as “bad”. If properly regulated, games are harmless fun for children and perhaps it is this view that will become more accepted as more gamers become parents.

This WILL NOT happen

I am not a parent and perhaps I am naive to think that being a gamer will change the type of parent I am or affect my kids in any way; but I do believe that a lack of understanding is giving games a bad image and allowing children to play games that are inappropriate. Not every parent of my generation will be a gamer but perhaps they will all have a better understanding of games and the gaming industry will be better off for it.

Is this the real life?

As an industry that moves forward with technology, video gaming advances in sophistication very rapidly. In 1980 Pac-Man was the height of gaming, a 2D yellow blob eating smaller yellow blobs in a maze whilst being chased by ghost shapes. 20 years later, the Sims allowed us to take complete control over a character’s life. Now we have games with open worlds, morals, communities of real people playing together and Pac-Man playable on our already obsolete mobile phones. One of the industries greatest strengths is its ability to adopt the latest technology and push it to produce fantastic entertainment. But, while the advancement of technology is seemingly infinite, is there a point in the advancement of video games that will be too far?

Morals have been finding their way into games lately. At the moment they tend not to be greatly developed. Actions are either good or bad leaving no grey area; your character can either be a hero or a villain, but we can assume that morals will play a bigger and more developed role in the future . In current games, however, I find it hard to be the bad guy. I know the villains always have the best weapons and powers but I just can’t bring myself to be that much of a dick. As the industry advances this is only going to get worse, with more excruciating decisions, maybe making games more difficult to play. Realism is something that games seem to aim for but I don’t believe that is why we play games.

It doesn’t end with morals either, advancement in graphics could be an even bigger problem. Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain has one particularly difficult point where you have to cut off your character’s finger. It is amazing that a game can immerse you to the point where you have an emotional response, but how much is too much? Heavy Rain is not the most graphically accomplished game but perhaps that’s a good thing; if it was too realistic then it might be difficult to play.

How did you chop?

There are a number problems that could arise if games become too realistic. Arguments around violence in games could gain momentum (perhaps rightly so) and gamers might be alienated from newer systems because games hit too close to home. Can you imaging playing a Call of Duty where your character looks real and you have to kill AI that looks real? I think that such a game would be unsaleable. But does that mean that at some point the games industry will reach a plateau where no technical advancements are made? Perhaps, but it’s more likely that the industry will have to evolve, changing the type of games it makes and the type of style it uses in visuals. No one plays games purely for their realism; in 1980 Pac-Man was the height of gaming and it is still played and loved today. Games should first and foremost be enjoyable experiences and let’s hope that as they become more sophisticated they don’t lose sight of that.

The plumber must die!

Of late, Nintendo have become an entirely predictable and frankly lazy company. Like a home owner standing over their failed DIY as water spews mercilessly into the kitchen, I blame the plumber. It’s true that not all of it is Mario’s fault, Link and Pikachu, among others, could also be held accountable, but as Nintendo’s poster boy, Mario should really know better.

They’re all the same!

In the late ’90s I had a Playstation and after that a Playstation 2 so it was with wonder and excitement that I purchased a Wii having heard tales of the joys offered by the N64 and the Gamecube. But I was to be disappointed. While I enjoyed Twilight Princess and had fun with Mario Galaxy, the console never seemed to progress and in the end I gave up waiting for something special and went crawling back to Sony. I feel like I have missed out on Nintendo’s prime years but Nintendo seem to be doing little to change their current form. Go to the Nintendo category on any games website and I guarantee that the new instalment of an established franchise will be under discussion. People will be commenting on how exciting it is, how new innovations are being used and how the systems are being pushed to their limits, all the while ignoring (or perhaps embracing) the fact that nothing has really changed. So while Sony can discuss new exclusives and franchises, Nintendo relies on the old guard, a small group of franchises that it knows will make money. And we reward them for this behaviour. Every year we flock to the shops to see what the little Italian has been up to now, so every year Nintendo see no reason to branch out into something new; it’s a viscous cycle.

At this point I realise that perhaps I’m being a bit of a hypocrite. Sequels, prequels and remakes are a staple of gaming across all platforms and, unlike films, game sequels often improve on their predecessors. I buy, enjoy and get excited about such games, from Civilization to Hitman. So maybe I’m being harsh on Nintendo. The difference, however,  is that no other platforms rely entirely on such franchises for their success; Sony and Microsoft have franchises but they could survive without them and they continue to welcome new ones.

Getting rid of Mario and chums is probably not the answer; after all, they make money and we still love them. A focus shift is what needs to happen. Nintendo have decided to avoid competing with other platforms in terms of graphics and online content by offering what they see as fun and innovative gaming; that’s all well and good but these things have to be used to better effect. By making a bigger deal about new games and third party creations Nintendo will attract more current gamers to their platform and they can continue to sweeten the deal with old franchises. Adopt this strategy Nintendo and maybe, just maybe I’ll take Mario off the dart board and consider your next console (probably the one after the Wii U).