Why can’t games just be simple anymore? This is the nascent curiosity which has been nagging at the back of my mind as of late. Something like Assassins Creed: Brotherhood might have birthed it, games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 carefully nurtured it and, lately, Batman: Arkham Knight has thoroughly raised it.
I often think about some of the classics that are widely accepted as the pinnacle of our humble industry: Super Mario Bros 2, Mega Man 3 and Super Metroid, to name a few. What all these games have in common is simplicity, and an elegant simplicity at that. Mario jumped. Mega Man jumped, too, and he shot things. Samus also jumped, she also shot things. These games weren’t lauded for their expansive scope, their scores of content, or even their production values. They were lauded because they excelled in their every element, and the reason for this was that they consisted of so few.
Here’s some basic maths: the grander the scale, the more variables. The more variables, the harder it is to maintain consistency overall. In other words, excellence is often found, not in quantity, but in quality. In spite of all the technical limitations of their respective platforms, this is something I believe Shigeru Miyamoto, Keiji Inafune and Yoshio Sakamoto understood all too well back in those early days.
Do you want to know another thing all of these games had in common? They were all sequels. All of them represent a now largely dormant approach to sequel design. They didn’t morph; they honed. They didn’t reinvent; they developed. Those original Mega Man games might have featured different enemies, different platforming challenges and different special weapons, but the soul of those games always remained the same. Our eponymous hero always jumped, he always shot things. He did some platforming, then fought the boss, always.
The same could be said for the world’s most famous Italian plumber. Super Mario Galaxy asked you to do exactly what you’d been doing since Super Mario 64 and (in essence) the original Super Mario Brothers. Is it any wonder that Galaxy was so universally acclaimed?
All of these games proved one, very important thing; you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you just have to find new ways to make it go round. New ideas or mechanics didn’t define these games, they complimented them. It’s a fine line, but an important one. This is something many modern games have chosen to ignore.
Consider some of the bigger sequels of the past few years: Hitman: Absolution; Resident Evil 5; Metroid: Other M. A morose mantra follows the design creed of every one of these games that can best be described as – to borrow Cliff Blezsinski’s phrasing – “bigger, better, more badass.” The problem with this philosophy is that the notions of “bigger” and “more badass” become perceived as central to betterment. As Mario, Mega Man and Metroid have all shown us, this simply isn’t the case.
Hitman: Absolution insisted on considerably diminishing the open level formats the franchise was famous for. The intention here was obvious: Square Enix wished to ape the success of titles like Uncharted or Call of Duty by creating a more controlled, cinematic action experience. Though initially this may have sounded like a good idea scrawled across a smudged whiteboard, in practice, the implications were dire. For the most part, experimental playgrounds were substituted for stiflingly tight corridors. This approach evaporated much of what made the original games fun and different, to the point where there was so little freedom in Absolution that it could scarcely be called a Hitman game.
The Resident Evil franchise has also undergone an eerily similar transformation. The originals utilized tight corridors and imprecise combat mechanics to disempower its subjects. These were games that truly made you feel claustrophobic, helpless and alone. All of this changed with Resident Evil 5. Capcom fundamentally altered the bedrock of what made Resident Evil, well, Resident Evil. The entire game was retooled upon the soil of co-operative play.
As you might have guessed, fans didn’t take to this all too kindly. Capcom’s attempt to evolve their beloved franchise toward the shores of mass appeal backfired horribly. Resident Evil 5 proved that some experiences just aren’t meant to be shared. All the suspense, all the fear, all the unknown dissipated under the crux of camaraderie. For all its fantastic new “improvements” and refinements, the series lost the one thing it truly needed. This wasn’t innovation; this was desecration.
In both cases, the efforts of developers to create something “bigger, better, more badass” contradicted everything the original games stood for. The market drive to ape the successful parts of other (often times completely unrelated) games helped mutate them into something ungainly. Those original ideas that were so magical got drowned out amongst the bustle of new concepts and new mechanics. What they became wasn’t sequels, but crude approximations of what was once great.
We don’t even need to talk about Other M.
And that brings me to the present. Batman: Arkham Knight is a prime example of a series that gradually diluted under the pressure to change, to ape other successful games. Here’s some context: I adored Arkham Asylum. Last year I proclaimed it one of the few modern games I will be playing in 20 years’ time. While far from simple, the gameplay homed in on three core aspects: combat, story and the haunting atmosphere. It needed nothing more, and Rocksteady succeeded in making you feel like Batman.
As a game, Arkham City was perhaps even superior to Asylum. Combat was just that little bit slicker, there were more gadgets to play around with and, this time round, we had a much less restrictive open world. But as a cohesive experience, City was undoubtedly the lesser in my mind. Asylum’s signature atmosphere dissipated in all that open space. The world didn’t feel as real, the story wasn’t as tight, traversal didn’t feel as purposeful. In going “bigger”, Rocksteady lost that spark that wove Asylum together so superbly in the first place.
Then along came Arkham Knight. Knight boasts the franchise’s single biggest “evolution” to date: the Batmobile. It’s on every cover, in every trailer, on every poster and it’s forced remorselessly into the final product. Arkham Knight demands you hop into The Batmobile’s cockpit over and over again. What this really means is trudging through reams of finicky tank shootouts and slippery games of cat and mouse. The Batmobile feels like a weird, ill-conceived school science project in nausea. It’s dull, uninspired and so completely at odds with what the Arkham franchise is (or was) that it just doesn’t let you feel like Batman anymore.
The problem isn’t just the Batmobile, either. The even bigger open world, the even longer list of gadgets and moves, the flurry of unwelcome side quests (“Go defuse all these bombs!”; “Go destroy all these towers!”; “Go hunt down these super-special tanks!”) It goes on and on. Every one of these serves to nudge Knight just that little bit further away from the elegant design choices that made Asylum so special, and in turn, just that little bit closer toward feeling like every other copy-and-paste shooter out there. Even the idea that each game lasts just “one night” is becoming increasingly ludicrous to swallow.
There’s now so many gadgets and weapons to upgrade that you can’t do anything without being showered by tokens. Attaining one is no longer special, nor exciting. Even as I peer at Arkham Knight’s nebulous and numerous skill trees I begin to feel overwhelmed. There’s simply so much that I am left wondering where I should even start.
To receive the “true ending” in Arkham Knight, you are required to complete every one of these repetitive tasks. But, at the end of the day, it’s all just unnecessary fluff. Arkham Knight is a game so self-consciously laden with ancillary fat that it becomes a chore to cut through to the real meat.
This is precisely the modern attitude toward sequel development. Publishers demand selling points. They demand bigger, they demand better, they demand more badassery. So, go figure, developers make their games “bigger, better and more badass”. But what so many executives seem to fail to understand is that this isn’t always the answer. AAA sequel design has become so self-conscious that most modern publishers wouldn’t dare sanction a follow up without a big, new “hook”.
Not only is this philosophy patently wrong, but completely antithetical to rational business sense. Prolific, long standing franchises like Super Mario Bros, Pokemon and even Counterstrike have proven again and again that loyal consumers will return in ever increasing droves to celebrate the very same core mechanics they have been familiar with for decades. There’s very good reason why – currency wise – Nintendo’s core IP is the most valuable of all in the entire industry.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Arkham Knight, though, is that around 75% of it constitutes an excellent game. Predator rooms are as gripping as ever. The series’ trendsetting hand-to-hand combat system remains satisfying and packed with the same intuitive flow. The story is the pick of bunch; it is the cleverest, most surprising and sordid tale Rocksteady have given us yet. This is the writing team at the very top of their game. I would go as far to say it is one of the greatest videogame stories of the past 10 years. Quite ironically, in these very elements, Rocksteady shows how a studio can and should go about creating sequels. They don’t overhaul, but improved the core formulas which made Arkham City and, indeed, Arkham Asylum so blisteringly unforgettable. I simply wish this could have been true for the entire game.
This is not to say I’m swearing off any and all change. Miyamoto, Inafune and Sakamoto were all innovators. The visionary work of all three helped push our entire medium forward. But – even in expansion – they found simplicity. They found excellent core concepts and stuck to them. MegaMan always jumped, he always shot things. What’s more is that none of these developers ever allowed their core visions to be compromised by change for change’s sake. MegaMan did some platforming, then fought the boss, always. They did what felt right, what felt natural. And, at the end of the day, that’s precisely what art should be.
Likewise, I have no qualms with big, nebulous games. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is one of my favourite games of the year so far, while Fallout 3 is one of my favourite games of all time. RPGs like these were conceived in order to provide players with mind-boggling scope and near-limitless options. Though both franchises have indeed grown exponentially as the technical limitations of their predecessors have unravelled, it is still how they were always meant to be. Bethesda and CD Projekt Red have always remained true to their original visions.
What I do, and think we should all, have a problem with is undue expansion. The kind of expansion present, not to move forward a franchise in any natural, elegant way, but to tick marketing boxes. Or, change present because a developer feels pressured to include it for the sake of keeping their game relevant. Maybe, just maybe, the industry would be in a much healthier place if producers were to let go of this trite trick once and for all.