With the advent of the next-gen consoles, the debate over diminishing returns has repeatedly surfaced. The argument, in a nutshell, is that while the new machines are technically more capable of rendering better graphics, they aren't necessarily supplying developers with new techniques. Instead, they are merely upgraded forms of past tools, only now there is the processing power to fully utilize them. We're talking about pixel shaders, normal mapping, better lighting, curved surfaces, draw distances, and a larger number of characters on screen at once. That is what seems to define next-gen: attention to detail. That's hardly a bad thing, of course, but it gives rise to another potential problem – as developers strive for a more photorealistic image, games seem to be losing their fluidity and cartoon-like conventions. Out of all of the titles announced for next-gen systems so far, we have maybe, Kameo, Sonic, and Blue Dragon. Granted, it is a bit early to gripe about all of this, considering some genres don't appear until at least a year into a console's lifetime.
What seems to be more worrisome, though, is the mentality of the developers and publishers. Realism is difficult to achieve and, unless done well, we're left with two even bigger problems – the marginalization of certain genres and an increase in the obviousness of graphical flaws. These are already issues evident in the Xbox 360's early line-up. Actual entertainment value of the games aside, there is a predisposition to immersive simulations. This means first-person shooters, racing games, and sports. In each case, the player is either intimately involved in the experience (inhbaiting the space of the character in an FPS or the cockpit of a car in a racer) or is engaging in some sort of robust simulacrum of a verifiable experience or environment (sports games or “realistic racers” such as Project Gotham Racing 3). Even the future outlook forecasts more titles found in these genres. The Xbox 360 has Splinter Cell, Gears of War, Ghost Recon, Full Auto, The Outfit, and so on in the coming months. Even the RPG, Oblivion, is grounded in the realism of a fiction – an emphasis is placed upon realistic trees and fully-realized architecture.
So, what does that say about the gaming industry? Is it forsaking the more fantastical genres for those that lend themselves towards realism? The film industry once went through the same phase. Early films or “magic lantern” shows (in which individual slides were manipulated and projected, back lit by a lantern, onto a screen) often utilized frames that were hand-painted or featured some sort of manual manipulation of the image. But once the mechanical reproduction offered by a film projector came into use, film turned into a recording device, documenting the “real.” Animation was suddenly divorced from the film medium, left to its own devices in creating fantastic, fictional worlds where the physics and characteristics of the “real” did not apply. You could have a lopsided house in a work of animation and it'd never fall over. Eventually, animation found its way back into film via the computerization of the industry. Animation could seamlessly be combined with live-action.
The analogy I'm trying to make here is that the gaming industry may be going through a kind of phase where realism eschews the fantastical. Is there no longer any room at the inn for our beloved mascots? Creativity is driven by necessity. Companies that, over the last few generations, have produced excellent, imaginative titles are now making that switch. Namco, behind the Katamari Damacy series, is pushing out eye-grating doldrum like Frame City Killer. Likewise, Insomniac, who developed the Ratchet and Clank games, have shifted focus to a more gritty war/horror game in the form of I-8.
I'm not denying the fact that it isn't the team behind Katamari that is producing something completely uninspired like FCK, but once again, there seems to be a certain direction towards which the entire industry is pushing itself.
Like the two sides of the human brain, though, there are connections which can be drawn between the development of certain games and how they look or are marketed. This brings us to the graphical flaws I mentioned earlier. Generally, a good game, with mediocre graphics, can be saved by nice artwork. Otherwise, a game could generally survive on its technical merits, despite the glaring problems which infest its code. In fact, this is what seems to be the case every time you look at a Top 10 List. A barrel full of bad games, selling hundreds of thousands of copies, because they kinda look nice and feature licensed content. Honestly, it's not even worth counting on them to look nice, as evidenced by top-selling titles like Enter the Matrix.
However, being the unwitting American consumers that we are, we can often convince ourselves something is pretty if we're told it's so. A lot of us go to the movies to indulge in the special effects, don't we? And even those of us who crave the muted palates and awkward moments of independent films can't deny that there's the occasional impulse to see something more mainstream with all of the explosions and impossible creatures strutting about on screen. I'm probably getting into too many generalizations here, though, so let's step back and look at the problem again from the angle of video games.
Creativity leads to good concepts, which lead to good art, which produces a good game. Generally speaking, of course. Sometimes creativity evokes nothing but a gimmick. Realism leads to proven concepts, which can lead to good art (but usually doesn't), which produces an uninspired game. The recently released Perfect Dark Zero is a great example. Everything is shiny, and I mean everything . It would seem that in striving for realism, the team over at Rare didn't have the chops to make it happen. There wasn't good art or art know-how to back it up, but because the Xbox 360 afforded them the ability to light things in a certain way or build characters with normal maps, they still utilized those effects. As a wise man once said, “Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.” But it may not be the fault solely of Rare's art staff in this case. When you're pushed to make something look “next-gen,” you're inevitably going to be pressured to use graphical techniques which define the capabilities of the new system, whether they actually work for your game or not.
I don't want to be alarmist, as it's really too early in the generation to count on the real quality stuff to come out. It happens with every console cycle, but the balance of art and diverse genres with graphics and “safe” genres seems to eventually even itself out. I merely propose this as a warning that developers need to be a lot more careful with how they construct their games this time around or we're going to end up with plastic, awkwardly-animated characters and either boring or over-saturated environments. I say that we need more imagination, as well, but don't try to drag down the fantastic with the “real.” The last thing we need is a fur-shaded Sonic the Hedgehog, which looks more like a singed fur ball than his classic design. Sure Sonic doesn't look much like the real animal upon which he's based, but he's not supposed to. Let the unnatural be its unnatural self!
The wild card here is ultimately Nintendo. The rumors of a system not much more powerful than the GameCube means that it will likely not have to contend with the same kind of issues that the PS3 and Xbox 360 will. On the flip side, though, the technology found in the more powerful next-gen consoles, if harnessed by a capable developer, can create solid and creative new experiences which will transcend all of the inevitable dreck that will appear on the market.
In the mean time, it's a waiting game. I can only hope that my doom and gloom won't actually manifest itself, but as games become more expensive to produce, some companies may be willing to take fewer chances, which further marginalizes more creative genres of gaming. But developers, publishers, and gamers be cautioned: don't let this generation slip through your fingers by forgetting what is truly important to creating a good game.