The AAA Game Uncanny Valley?
I think it is safe to say that Bioshock Infinite is “a thing”. With glowing reviews and copious amounts of praise, even outlets that don’t normally review games are weighing in.
However, many gamers seem…disappointed. For every major outlet raving about the game’s brilliance, there are 5 gamers complaining about one thing or another and their complaints are…fascinating.
Because, you see, it isn’t because the gameplay is awful but rather story nitpicks, universe questions, and minor presentational deficiencies. Things like poor foot models, recycled animation, or a bout of silly clipping. This should obviously be taken as a sign of a good game if these minor nitpicks are the worst complaints we can get, but it is the sheer amount of disappointment that has me raising my eyebrow.
My personal favorite example would be a set of wooden steps. When I looked at them I noticed the steps had blemishes on them and each step looked unique…until further inspection revealed two steps with identical blemishes next to one another. A closer look revealed a step near the top and a step near the bottom also having identical blemishes.
There are two ways to look at this. I personally am amazed they actually made 6 different wooden step textures that they switch between to make the stairs look unique. However more frequently I would hear people complain that they were lazy because they didn’t make a unique texture for each step.
Yet these same people would praise a faux retro indie platformer with blatantly tile-based construction. Why is that? Perhaps it is an odd case of The Uncanny Valley.
For those unfamiliar, The Uncanny Valley is used to refer to human-like things such as robots. The more a robot looks human the creepier it gets and the more its faults stand out.
In this case we have videogames coming closer and closer to movies and real worlds and thus the more the artificiality stands out. We don’t have any problem with the retro indie game because it walks right up to you and tells you to your face “Hey! I’m a videogame!”. However, AAA Games promise more than that. They promise a cinematic interactive experience in another world. We get so wrapped up in the BS “immersion” aspect of the game that anything that could break the immersion stands out to us. The things that remind us that this is a videogame.
For the most part this is just a weird quirk of AAA gaming. Most would agree that it doesn’t completely ruin the experience but it does stand out the more you play. It’s like seeing the strings during an incredible action scene in a movie, or being able to see the zipper on the back of a costume, or knowing what’s CG or animatronic or claymation. Those stark reminders that this isn’t real.
No, if AAA gaming had a major flaw it would be that said games are becoming increasingly similar. In my own opinion, Bioshock Infinite isn’t all that different from Aliens: Colonial Marines underneath the pretty facade. That probably sounds a lot worse than I mean it but it’s true: both are competent but generic first person shooters whose environments and stories are what makes the game more than the gameplay. Thus, perhaps, greater emphasis is put on the environments and stories and I’m not sure that is the best way to go.
This might sound weird, but games are not a good storytelling medium. Not in a traditional way anyway. Because if you want to tell a story there is usually a way you want it to play out, a message you want to send. As such players become limited in what they can and can’t do. Bioshock Infinite has this issue as well. You have no real freedom, you’re just watching a movie through the eyes of one of the actors while occasionally taking a break to play a shooting gallery. If you want your story to play out in a specific way, games may not be the best medium.
No, games are best for telling an experience. Setting up a world or a scenario and letting the gamer themselves live it out. It is in this strange way that cult classic budget game Earth Defence Force 2017 is a better example of games as a medium than anything else. EDF2017 isn’t about the story. We’ve heard it before: Aliens have invaded the Earth and they’re trying to kill us. What makes that game special is how it puts you in the shoes of one of the nameless cannon fodder soldiers trying to fend off the invasion. Not a legendary badass, not a mercenary with a troubled past, not even a rookie. You’re just a generic soldier guy. It is the sense of scale and the free-form way each scenario plays out that makes the game special. We’ve seen EDF 2017 as a movie a million times, but actually living the experience is a different story.
Bioshock Infinite, however, probably would have made a better movie. This goes doubly so for Tomb Raider.
If I ever had a concern about our complaints of immersion breaking hiccups, Tomb Raider would be it. The game was so concerned about preventing players from making Lara look like an idiot that the control was severely hampered. A bit of delay was put in the controls so that way Lara could move more naturally, so she could put her hand against the walls and look around, and clutch her wounded stomach. Her speed and pacing would change as she walked, the exact speed and distance of her dodges varied as no one really clambers the exact same way twice and the result was a game I found difficult and frustrating to play. It lacked the precision of other games.
Yet despite their best attempts, gameplay necessity still clashed with the “game”. From Lara’s arms going crazy as she quickly switches weapons, to the game’s awkward tonal shift between the cutscene where Lara obtains a gun and when she gets to use the gun. It was utterly absurd and never before was it made more clear that a game did not want to be a game.
So do we have no right to complain about immersion breaking hiccups and story faults? Of course we do! We are all free to have our opinions afterall. The real question is what developers do with this information. Do they try to make their games even more “immersive” at the expense of gameplay, or do they reconsider what they should do when making the games themselves. Perhaps it is important to ask oneself “Why is this a game? What does interactivity bring to the experience? Would this work better as a movie?”. Or, perhaps, this is a sign that gamers are getting bored with the first/third person shooter genre.
Just some food for thought.