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No Video Game Country for Old Men

I noticed something funny yesterday. I signed into Xbox Live like I normally do, but about 2/3 of my friends list was signed in as well. Over the last 2-3 years, I can’t ever remember seeing more than three or four friends online at any given time. I went to see what everyone was doing. Yes, some of them were on Xbox One. However, the vast majority were either on Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube. I have to admit, most of the time that my Xbox is on, it’s not to play games either. I’ll throw on a movie for my girlfriend and I, or I’ll browse YouTube without having to fight against my aging laptop’s memory issues and poor sound. Maybe Microsoft was right all along. Maybe turning the Xbox into a one-stop media center was the key all along.

I didn’t quite catch that. What can this thing do again?

I felt like 2013 was the year when my love of video games really took a hit. For some reason, I just couldn’t muster up the same enthusiasm I had in years past for new releases. I still played a bunch of games. For the life of me, though, I have a hard time remembering most of them.

Of course, I played Grand Theft Auto V. It was a masterpiece, just like everyone predicted. I finished the campaign, put the disc back in the case, and haven’t touched it in over two months. I plowed through Assassin’s Creed IV in a few days, and promptly lent it out to a friend. I haven’t seen since, and haven’t even really thought about it. Saints Row IV might have been the most fun I had playing games all year, and thankfully there’s a steady stream of DLC to keep me going back. That seems to be the exception, though. It’s definitely not the rule. Not anymore.

When I think back to the games I really enjoyed over the last several months, the list is pretty short. If I had to name a Game of the Year, I suppose I’d say GTA:V. It was a great game, if not flawed in some areas. The torture mission, for example, is the perfect example of how Rockstar tried to overreach its grasp and turn GTA into legit social commentary (as opposed to the tongue-in-cheek satire we’re used to) and fall flat on its face.

Honestly? The games I enjoyed most this last year barely count as games from an objective viewpoint. The Telltale Games’ Walking Dead series (Season 2 recently launched) and The Wolf Among Us stand out head and shoulders above most of my other gaming memories. So does Quantic Dream’s Beyond: Two Souls. In the case of B:TS, it has a nonsensical, flawed storyline and epitomizes the phrase “interactive movie” even more than its previous offerings. There’s no real skill involved in “playing” the game, and from what I can tell there are no negative consequences to your actions. There is no way to die or to fail. Despite that, I had an amazing experience with the game and was so hooked that I beat it in one sitting.

The things these games have in common is they strip away what we’re used to as gameplay mechanics. Instead, they focus on delivering narrative to the player. As successful (The Wolf Among Us) or not (Beyond: Two Souls – not a terrible game, but problematic in some areas) as they were, these titles eschewed tradition to try something different. That’s why I gravitated towards them.

Better than anything else you did in 2013.
Better than anything else you did in 2013.

I hate to feel like a jaded old man, but it’s starting to feel like video games just aren’t for me anymore. I’m not the intended audience. Publishers are finding it harder and harder to turn a profit in a world where our attention spans are shorter than ever and being pulled in thousands of directions at the same time by competing media. Games cost more money than ever to develop. The price on the consumer end hasn’t changed in a decade or so, which only serves to cut into profits. Likewise, we all know the secondary market for used games has been hurting sales figures for as long as GameStop has been a thing that exists in the world. The times are changing, and these publishers are struggling to keep up.

The answer seems to be to take whatever formula has worked in the past, distill it down to figure out which parts were most favorable to the audience, then slap a fresh coat of paint on it and release a sequel. If nothing else is certain, there will be a new Call of Duty game in 11 months. There will also be a new Assassin’s Creed game. Neither has been announced, but we know they’re coming. Ubisoft has even gone so far as to declare they are only interested in producing blockbuster franchises moving forward. This is the company that, once upon a time, gave us Beyond Good and Evil. A game like that can’t get made today. There’s no guarantee that it will be profitable. Companies aren’t willing to sink millions of dollars into the development of a game with no guarantee of a return on their investment. So while Watch Dogs hasn’t even released yet, be assured that there’s already a team working on Watch Dogs 2.

It’s the same problem we’ve been having with Hollywood for years now. Everyone is tired of seeing sequels and reboots and remakes, but the people fronting the money for these projects want that same return on their investment as game publishers do. It’s also the same reason books like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey are popular. It’s not a commentary on society in the way we think it is. Those books cast a wide net and push the right buttons in a large enough group of people to make them popular. They’re not poorly written (okay, yes they are), they’re formulated to be accessible and appealing and easily digestible. They were Frankensteined together in such a manner as to ensure at their very core they were blockbusters. Same goes with Call of Duty and the like.

Next year, we'll give them TWO dogs!
What do you mean it’s the same game? This time, we gave you a dog! You people love dogs, right??

I understand that there are avenues to experience the creative types of games I’m lamenting the lack of. I know indie games exist, as does Steam. Every time I bring this up, I’m reminded of such. That isn’t necessarily my issue, though. I miss being blown away by games. Do you remember what it felt like the first time you fired up Grand Theft Auto III or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or Portal? Do you remember that feeling of excitement you got from being floored by a game you knew nothing about? I do, and I miss it sorely. I already know what I’m getting, as good as it may be, when I start a new Assassin’s Creed or Batman: Arkham game. I miss the surprise of finding a real gem. They’re still out there, but they’re becoming more and more rare.

As it stands, I don’t currently own any of the next-gen consoles. I’m sure at some point I will. Sadly, I’m sure they’ll be used much in the same way my current consoles are. I’ll stream on-demand television, music, and movies. I’ll browse the internet. I’ll sift through user-created content on YouTube. And, sporadically, I’ll play video games. The times are passing me by. I understand that. It’s part of getting older. I’m still looking hard at companies like Telltale Games and Quantic Dream, though. More than any other developers, they seem willing to keep fighting that good fight. They’re interested in pushing boundaries and delivering unique experiences to gamers. They still want to wow us.

Oh, them and Volition. Regardless of everything else I’ve said, I don’t think I can get much more wowed than I was when I was reenacting scenes from They Live alongside Rowdy Roddy Piper. Unless it was the time I was riding a talking velociraptor that was singing “Walk the Dinosaur”. Or maybe that time I was dismembering luchadors with a chainsaw while “You’re the Best” blared in the background. Or maybe it was the Dubstep Gun. You know what? Definitely the dubstep gun.

You know what? Scratch everything. As long as they keep making Saints Row games, I’ll be fine.