My recent post last month about videogame criticism turned into a conversation about why so few games rise above mere entertainment, with some particularly harsh words for first person shooters. I've never been a huge FPS fan myself. I'm probably the only 360 owner who isn't chomping at the bit for Halo 3. My favorite for the last generation was probably Half-Life 2, largely because the gunbattles required a certain amount of puzzle solving and tactical thinking. My only problem with it was that the world, while well-designed, was yet another oppressively metallic Orwellian dystopia guarded by armored stormtroopers. It's hard to believe, but games are even more mired in clich� than movies.
That's just one reason I was so taken by the BioShock demo, which I played through last night. Not only does the gameplay promise some Half-Life style finesse, the setting and storyline is something I've never seen before in a game. The game begins � as you can see in the trailer below � when your plane crashes in the Atlantic, conveniently near the long-lost entryway to an underwater art deco city that was built in the mid 50s as some kind of Randian paradise. The city � Rapture � has since been thrown into extremely tormented upheaval by.... something. The idea of being able to explore this world and solve its mysteries � while also electrocuting, frying, whacking and blasting genetically devolved maniacs � is immensely appealing.
It's too early to say whether BioShock will be emotionally engaging in the way the best movies and novels are, but then, as we discussed earlier, what games are? I loved Knights of the Old Republic, which Jessica mentioned last time (and I am dying to play Mass Effect), but I can't say it made a lasting impression on my psyche. I'm dating myself here, but I think the only games that ever have were the old Infocom text adventures. Even 25 years later, I can still access the emotions I felt � not just the excitement � at the high points of Infidel, Planetfall, The Lurking Horror and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, one of the few videogame adaptations that may be even better than its source material. And this isn't just youthful nostalgia. A few years ago my wife and I played one of the games I'd never gotten around to as a kid � Ballyhoo � and I was blown away by how much freedom the game allowed, how well written it was, and how the puzzles managed to be both diabolically clever and so utterly natural that I almost always felt like I was "doing real stuff to solve a problem" rather than merely "solving a puzzle that was designed for a game." (You can play ugly but functional versions of many Infocom games here, or keep you eye open for used copies of various boxed sets that have been reissued over the years.) Of course, this was possible because developers could write responses for virtually any action a player might decide to take without having to create graphics to go along with that. Today the best RPGs look fabulous, but you only ever have a very limited number of things you can do at any one place/with any one object. Which means that unlike with the text games, which allowed you to improvise solutions, you're almost always stuck finding the one correct way to stick slot A into tab A.
Wow, I really am beginning to sound like a grumpy old man.
Other games I'm looking forward to: Fallout 3 (a similar aesthetic to BioShock, now that I think about it), Rock Band, GTA IV, and maybe Assassins Creed and Beautiful Katamari. Games I would be thrilled if they turn out well, though I'm highly skeptical: Stranglehold and The Bourne Conspiracy.
What's on your horizon?