Gameplay Is Dead. Long Live Gameplay!
E3 2012: By focusing on cinematic excess, studios are alienating those of us who want games, and not films.
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Following 2011's trends of turret sequences, quick-time events, and cinematic set pieces, E3 2012 has showcased its own share of quick-time events and cinematic set pieces. On one hand, this is a sensible marketing approach. The more movie-like the showing, the easier it is for the publisher to control the pace and content we see. They want us to see explosions, carnage, and dudes in heavy armor shouting words like "delta" and "bro" and "Go! Go! Go!" The alpha male audience responds with fist pumps and high fives at highly controlled scenarios that may or may not reflect the gameplay at large. Even more standard gameplay can look remarkably cinematic on these stages: the developer playing the game has spent hours practicing and preparing so that we see exactly what they want us to see. It can be hard to tell what events are organic to the game, and what events are scripted and impossible to avoid.
And thus my biggest disappointments were the games that stuck so closely to the script, and Resident Evil 6 may be at the top of the list. It was all button prompts, explosions, corridors, quick-time events--and a tiny bit of zombie shooting. In other words, it was all the tired Western game cliches in a game I hoped would avoid them. Tomb Raider left me similarly unimpressed, though I know I risk the wrath of the Internet hordes with such sacrilege. We saw gameplay, sure--highly linear gameplay down a single corridor. That corridor was made up of a zipline, a river, and a parachuting bit, but it was a single corridor nonetheless. (Though to be fair, in one place, you could take the route above, or go below. That helped give an ounce of flexibility to a few seconds of the game, at least.) Throw in an abundance of cinematics and quick-time events, and you have the prototypical modern video game, albeit one in which the protagonist can withstand a few bullets but is rendered bloody by errant tree branches.
Don't misunderstand me: I don't think "linear" is a dirty word, and there is value in gaming experiences that guide every player down the same basic rails. In some ways, these demos represent the direction of many big-publisher releases. The thought process: to gain a large audience, games must be more like films. The Call of Duty franchise didn't invent this approach, but it popularized it, and in so many cases, you can almost hear the voice of a studio's head honcho saying, "How can we make our game more like Modern Warfare? How can we make it even more cinematic?" Other choice buzz words/phrases I imagine come up include "visceral" and "turn it up a notch."
Even the games that we expect to feature plenty of flexibility and open-ended appeal kept their freedoms tightly in check for the purposes of the show. Crysis 3, for example, will likely be full of free-form action, but the focused presentation kept the pace moving quickly, without hinting at the flexibility you expect from the franchise. The same could be said for Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist, which (hopefully) will feature plenty of ways of executing your foes but moved so quickly--and relied so heavily on the mark and execute mechanic--that it looked like the game was playing itself. The less said about Black Ops 2 in this regard, the better, of course. (Look! Hovering drones can do the shooting for you!)
Thank the heavens, then, for the developers and publishers that understand that we love games because they're games. Ubisoft understood this better than any other publisher when it came to press conferences, which is part of what made Watch Dogs one of the most talked about games of E3 2012. In the GameSpot war room, we traded glances and tried to make sense of what we were seeing during the game's demonstration. And then the pieces started to fall into place. We saw multiple protagonists. Third-person action, hacking, and an open world in which you can view private information about perfect strangers. The game did the talking, and the press responded. We didn't need a litany of explosions, "Press A to Avoid Boulder" prompts, and collapsing skyscrapers to entertain us. I can go to any random Michael Bay movie for those things. I came to E3 for the games.
Rayman Legends was also a big hit for this very reason. You may or may not be convinced that the Wii U's tablet will be a game changer, but we saw exactly how the tablet user can impact the other players' experiences, and we understand more or less what it's like to play the game just from watching the demo. Nintendo didn't show any live gameplay, but the canned footage it showed of Pikmin 3 and Lego City Undercover look incredibly charming and fun. Say what you will about Nintendo (and there is plenty to say), but it's seemingly immune to many of these traps, and it's that continued resistance to trending norms that--among other things--makes Mario and company so beloved. For them, it's all about the gameplay.
I don't expect the press conference showings to change all that much in 2013. We may see new hardware, but the presentations aren't likely to grow all that much, sequels or not. Expect to see lots of quick-time events and cinematics from companies that lack the confidence to let the game do the talking, and instead shower us with bangs, booms, and "Press X to Destroy Entire City Block." I like a bit of blood and fire, myself, but games are more than violent imagery and big blinking button prompts. Enough, already: get back to the games.'