This is not yet another article about how we have no more time for video games. In addition to its official Dead Horse status here at LCom, that topic has too heavy of a focus on the dullness and terribleness of the real world and its horrible effects on how we must live our lives in order to provide food and shelter for ourselves and – if we are lucky enough – our loved ones. Many of us are square pegs who must shave off essential parts of ourselves just to fit through the circle hole and join the rest of the misshapen blocks in the cluttered and darkened repository we call freedom. It is a grim fate and so is an understandable distraction of a topic when attempting to understand the pace of many video games, but it is not the focus of this article.
No, the focus here is the concept of long-form art and entertainment that video games provide through the lens of imagination in which real world constraints are happily quite irrelevant and through which we can sometimes glimpse when we are able to afford to slip ourselves into that glorious new way of perceiving time that our world as a whole is not yet close to emulating.
I wrote about Kingdom Hearts II a few weeks ago, LusiGoofies, and that is because it was all I was playing for close to a month. Looking back and as a whole, I do not consider it to be too strong of a game nor do I consider it one of my favourites, however there are strong elements to its systems and themes that I was only able to rediscover because of how deeply I had immersed myself into its world. A friend once mused to me that the best art meets its participants halfway and the more I think about it over the years, the more I agree with her. This is perhaps most literally true for video games. The best video games are acutely aware of their own mechanics, environments, narratives, and how they relate to each other and how it is possible for the player to interact with them. Of course, this is an enormously difficult thing to accomplish and it becomes even more difficult as a game is longer, includes more elements, and is influenced by forces beyond creative and artistic ones. But just like how the concept of interacting with a game over a massive period of time should be analyzed in isolation from the practical difficulties of finding that time, a game should also have the chance to be critiqued by its own merits outside of what real-world events conspired to make the game the way that it is.
I think there is a fantastic game struggling to break free inside the Kingdom Hearts series, but I am not sure that Kingdom Hearts itself will be the series to set it loose.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is a game that – I argue – could never have been made in a vacuum. I know I just said that I should leave context out of the conversation, but the game is pure reaction. Because if it is analyzed on its own merits, it is a completely baffling experience. The wonderful parts of the game appear to happen by accident or at least appear to have been abandoned with either deliberate or distracted ignorance, I cannot decide which.
Studying and exploring the environment to reach new areas is a satisfying process in its skeletal form, but the game seems to have no awareness of how strong this element is because character movement is awkward and inconsistent over the environment, a relationship that would have been given more focus by a director interested in creating strong coherent design. In a similar vein, another of the game’s strengths (aided by some truly wonderful sound design) involves the cultivation of personality of locations. Each location is distinctly itself, and this is expanded upon by the wonderful way the game tackles cave exploration.
There is little help to come from maps in caves, and torches light precious little area around the heroes. The larger the caves get, the more uneasy the player gets. Surely there are great treasures deep in the cave, but the architecture is unknown and so are the nature of the beasts within and supplies are limited. This is the essence of roguelikes or even flash-based digging games. It makes exploring a cave actually feel like exploring a cave in Inquisition and emerging victorious from one to the open sounds of a world left behind is a thrilling experience. However, this is a victory that exists in isolation because there is little intentional pacing that I have found while playing the game. Sure, the caves get larger as the player progresses, but the game is so interested in delivering enormous amounts of content that Inquisition seems oblivious to the missed opportunities it has created by having a lack of focus. Cutscenes want to be Mass Effect and conversations with characters play out either like wet dreams or Wikipedia entries. Inquisition tries to be everything to everyone and ends up like tapioca, ignoring what it does well, satisfied with giving everything equal weight even when it does not make any sense to do so.
Incidentally, the way Inquisition fails to capitalize on the relationship between exploration and mechanics is precisely why I am so optimistic for the new Legend of Zelda. I am sure that it will have its own share of Zelda and Nintendo-esque pratfalls, but based on recent entries in the series, recent releases by Nintendo, and the way in which Aonuma refers to the design of the new game makes me confident that it will at least pave a far more discernible path for open-world games to take if they would like to stop running in circles. That is to say, it is not enough to have a large landmass (as Zelda‘s own Twilight Princess proved), but that the player must have a relationship with everything they interact with, and that these relationships – even when they appear to be very different from each other on the surface – are just branches stemming from a single, focused design philosophy.
But that is simply a projection. The new Zelda will be what it will be regardless of what any of us want, fear, speculate, or hope it will be. And we will only know what it is after spending hours and hours with it and then reflecting upon those hours and then repeating that process. Because although games can have great singular moments, gamers know that the best video games know how to handle time as a dimension and that our experiences are not contained in a single moment, but in how all the moments relate to each other and how we interacted with the game to find these moments.
If somebody watched the screen for thirty minutes or even a few hours while I played Majora’s Mask – for example – it does not mean they are close to sharing my experience although they would be able to see everything I did. Because I have collected all the moments unseen before that moment and because I have been the one learning from my mistakes, not yet learning from my mistakes, and collecting the web of experiences laid out in all directions to slowly make a four dimensional map of them in my mind, he would have a vastly different experience from me despite seeing the same images and hearing the same sounds.
Inquisition is a game that does not know itself and Kingdom Hearts II is a game that does not usually know how to best express itself and these are both statements that I can only make comfortably after spending dozens of hours with both, and both are statements that could be overturned or solidified with even more time. Games cannot be known in an instant or in a day and that is just one of the reasons why I am enamoured with them.
But what do you think, LusiClocks? Chime in below. Video game discussion on the internet is only beginning.