Choose Your Own Adventure: The Video Game
It’s a little embarrassing that a pop culture blog such as ours has so little content about one of the biggest pop culture phenomena of the last 20 years: video games. They’ve come so far in the last couple of decades, and the latest trends make them pretty damn compelling entertainment. As a relatively casual gamer, I think I’m enough of an insider to see these trends more or less as they happen and enough of an outsider that some of these trends aren’t yet old hat by the time I get around to playing the blockbuster games.
The video game industry is in a near-constant state of cyclical evolution. What’s old soon becomes new again. The side-scrolling run/jump/shoot games of old have come back in indie form; a little twist here or there, a slight tweak of genre, and we have a whole new game, a way for new audiences to enjoy old gaming styles. In addition to oodles of online multi-player gaming (wherein we can all treat ourselves to having 14-year-olds call us “fag” incessantly) the now-familiar first-person shooters (FPS) have found new ways to keep the player coming back.
A personal favorite of this blogger is Gearbox Software’s Borderlands and its sequel, the cleverly named Borderlands 2. The gameplay itself is not terribly innovative: go here, kill these guys, occasionally bring back this doo-dad we need for the thing with the guy in the place. Where the game excels is in the sheer amount of in-game accouterments (“loot”) a player can accumulate, and in how it keeps players coming back. You can play Borderlands as one of four (or five, in Borderlands 2) characters, each with his/her own strengths and weaknesses, and each with a “special skill”: invisibility, super strength, the ability to wield two guns at the same time, etc. Getting to choose a character that best matches your playing style is of course very common in gaming. If you like the up-close (melee) kill, there’s a character for that; or if you’re a run, hide, and shoot from cover kind of player, there’s a character for that too. Borderlands seems to have distilled and simplified the idea; some might say “dumbing it down” for the masses. (Other games have much more varied and complex character classes.) But the relatively limited choice is an extension of one of the other things Borderlands does well as a game. Players are encouraged to play through the game multiple times, at least once per character class and the gameplay can vary wildly with this simple change.
And then there’s the DLC, the downloadable content. This is additional gameplay that is added to the game after its release; usually it includes additional missions, more game levels, new weapons and abilities, clothing (“skins”) for your character, and sometimes entirely new characters to play. Most modern games, from the military simulators like Call of Duty to superhero franchises like Batman, use the DLC concept to varying degrees of success. Borderlands, for example, adds entirely new campaigns to the game. These are additional areas, additional scenarios, new villains, new places to go and things to see/kill.
Another gameplay element that seems to be gaining ground was the inspiration for the title of this post. A lot of new games play with the idea that the player can, well… choose how the game ends. And I don’t mean in a “kill all the bad guys and save the princess” kind of way. Modern games have the ability to change tone, scenarios, difficulty, and even the ending, based on the player’s in-game choices or playing style. Borderlands 2 has a few minor elements of this. The player can choose to attack one side or the other of two warring gangs, thereby gaining alliance with the survivors. Other games, like Bethesda Softworks’ Dishonored, can vary wildly based on how the player chooses to play. If you sneak around and manage to complete your tasks without any bloodshed, the game rewards you in completely different ways than if you just hack-n-slashed your way through everything. Bioware’s Mass Effect famously (and many would say disappointingly) had different endings based on choices the player made throughout the game.
Again, these are not entirely new concepts, but they are trending in the video game industry in new and exciting ways. Things like DLC can be seen as shameless, easy ways to squeeze more money out of players. But gamers know what they want, and can be quite merciless when something pisses them off (the aforementioned Mass Effect). On the whole, the fickle gaming community seems to have embraced the concept, especially when it’s done well. Ideas like fuzzy, fluid storytelling based on playing style can be executed well or poorly, but most developers seem to have gotten it right so far. And looking at how far we’ve come in the couple of decades since video gaming’s Golden Age of Nintendo/Sega (or the Stone Age of Atari), I for one am excited to see what the video game industry can come up with going forward.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to kill the Badassasaurus in Borderlands 2‘s “Mr. Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage” with my level 50 commando.