Saturday, November 7, 2009

I don't like video games

I want to get this post out of the way so everyone knows where I'm coming from, for better or for worse. Basically if you compare the subject matter of this journal with the title of this post, you'll start to understand my complicated relationship with video games.

To be fair, I came up with the title to arouse titillation in an effort to draw you in. The facts: I own video games; I play video games; I plan on buying new video games in the future. Am I a masochist? Sure, I might spend twenty to sixty dollars on something that I spend most of my time grinding my teeth in front of, but I never start playing a game because my teeth need grinding.

I suppose a better title would have been, "Video games do not make me proud." I'm not exactly embarrassed by them, nor am I disappointed, per se. I just want to be proud of this rich new medium, and sometimes I feel a certain sense of loss that I am not.

A picture is worth a thousand words. I was looking at the featured games on Steam and I realized these games made most of my argument for me.

Some of you might already get where I'm going, particularly if you've been playing games for a while. In that case, you'd know that these four games are very similar to what you'd have seen if Steam had been around ten years ago--the titles are different, but the general tone and content of the games are the same.

In another medium, this wouldn't be a problem. After all, go to any Blockbuster and you'll see the same movies (more or less) represented in every decade, many with the same name (give or take a Roman numeral). While that may be a concern unto itself, it at least doesn't make video games a special case. My true concern comes from looking at these screenshots. (Click them to get a larger picture and a clearer contrast.)

Dragon Age: Origins (2009) versus Bauldur's Gate (1998)

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009) versus Counter-Strike (1999)

Shattered Horizon (2009) versus Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)

Torchlight (2009) versus Diablo II (2000)

If you're not swept up in a wave of nostalgia, you might recognize the significant difference between the quality of the newer game versus the older game. (Image quality is referred to as "graphics" in gamerspeak, and if you're wondering why I didn't use the familiar nomenclature, it's because I don't like it.) Notice the difference in quality is readily apparent in the screenshots because of the massive increases in polygon count, resolution, and lighting effects. If I had videos to show you, you would also see substantial gains in the quality of animations. What is harder to see in the screenshots is that, apart from the image quality, the games placed side by side are virtually identical.

The issue here is that this budding medium has enjoyed exponential gains over the last few decades, but these gains are focused on one or two areas of the medium, which are almost exclusively in the realm of technology. Meanwhile, video game theory goes largely ignored, and as this blog is about video game theory, you can see why I might be a bit perturbed.

Video game technology is still in its infancy, but it is very mature compared to video game theory. Now is the time for theory to be developed, so that it may more effectively drive the technology. Video games are good at doing certain things, poor at doing other things--this isn't solely the fault of technology. Just as films are better than books in certain aspects, and vice versa, video games have their own strengths and weaknesses endowed by the nature of the medium itself. These aspects of games must be explored for the maximum potential of video games to be reached.

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