Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
29 November 2006
Goodbye to Wonder
Videogames don't have the same effect on me that they used to.

I won't ever forget my exhilarating first game of Sabotage on the Apple ][+. I used to just sit in a Star Wars: The Arcade Game cockpit to bask in the glow of the colored vectors and hum that unforgettable music. The beautifully smooth movement in DooM mesmerized me, the increasingly disturbing levels and enemies drawing me forward in fearful anticipation. One of the most beautiful sights I ever saw was Quake on my Voodoo2 as the transparent console pane slid down over the exploding grenades of a raging ogre. The Tyrannosaurus Rex in The Lost Valley level of Tomb Raider made me drop the controller in awe. Goldeneye 007 on the Nintendo 64. The Tanker level of Metal Gear Solid 2. Opening up the second island of Grand Theft Auto III. The final level of Rez. The effortless acrobatics of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

And then it just stopped. It wasn't enough that the games looked more real. It wasn't enough that worlds were larger. It wasn't just that my on-screen persona could pull off action movie feats I'd previously only dreamed were possible.

I've stopped having a sense of wonder at games.

This isn't to say that I've stopped enjoying games, of course. I'm excited about all kinds of new games -- like Every Extend Extra on the PSP and Elite Beat Agents on the Nintendo DS. I look forward to owning a PlayStation 3 and eventually a Wii. However, I haven't seen a single game -- on established or new platforms -- that excites me like the experiences I named above.

I've passed the point at which beautiful explosions or huge, detailed worlds would suffice to impress me. Starting with Silent Hill and continuing through Ico and Ace Combat 04, I've sought more interesting storytelling, taking for granted that the technical aspects -- graphics and sound -- would see sufficient mastery. Simultaneously I have grown increasingly weary of games like Black which are brilliant technical achievements but little more. Regrettably, game trailers focus more often on how nice a game looks. It's probably easier than trying to lure people in with a game's story, especially when there is little of the story to show.

There is no guarantee that the new systems will offer anything other than more of the same. I might have lost my sense of wonder, but it appears I haven't lost a sense of hopefulness.
--Matt Matthews at 20:30
Comment [ 19 ]

Comments on this post:

just wait until you fly/glide in Kingdom Hearts. i wanted to be able to fly so much after that.

conversely, the atlantica level doesn't inspire the same feeling with swimming.

By Blogger cgm, at 29 November, 2006 21:26  

I generally feel the same way -- it's rare that I get genuinely excited about a game anymore. I enjoy them, but it's nothing like firing up a random game on my Apple //e way back when, where _everything_ seemed interesting and new.

But I wouldn't give up hope. You know Fumito Ueda is somewhere right now working on something for the PS3. Inaba and folks did (IMHO) some pretty amazing stuff with Okami -- here's hoping they'll keep doing amazing stuff wherever they end up. Oh, and the new Zelda and Mario Galaxies, while both somewhat echoes of past wonder, still invoke a bit of excitement for me.

By Blogger Dan-o, at 30 November, 2006 01:57  

I keep reading Mario Galaxies and then remembering the trauma I experienced in playing Star Wars galaxies and expecting a mixture of the two.

I still can't understand how they ever released a mmorpg where you attack flags that spawn monsters. I should have tried to get my $50 back.

By Blogger Zachary, at 30 November, 2006 03:27  

Katamari Damacy has been the only wonder-inspiring game I've played in the last few years. I've been going through a similar crisis of faith myself, these days.

By Blogger M@, at 30 November, 2006 08:32  

I feel the same. However there are occasional glimpses of that old feeling. Shadow of the Colossus managed it. Okami also.

I wonder if part of that is because the older generation of gamers has seen the evolution starting with Pong, and has the perspective to appreciate how the bar keeps rising. I know my son just takes it all for granted.

By Blogger Zach, at 30 November, 2006 08:45  

To be fair, it's not like you're checking out any Xbox 360 games. You've been sitting on the sidelines of the next generation for a year now.

By Blogger Jeremy, at 30 November, 2006 13:35  

More to the point, I've had that experience several times this year, all on 360.

The moment when you step out of the sewers in Oblivion, or when you find a dead troll floating under a bridge with a suicide note on it's body.

Seeing a woman jump to her death off a building, hounded by zombies in Dead Rising, wading into a horde of enemies in the underground with nothing but a 2x4.

Descending in the helicopter to Dante's Casino, then realizing that your heat vision is nearly useless in Rainbow Six: Vegas because of the massive column of fire in the center of the unfinished casino.

Hearing the achievement chime in any game at any time, but mostly in Geometry Wars when you realize that you've been alive for 100,000 points, and you're well on your way to "figuring out" the way the game works.

By Blogger Jeremy, at 30 November, 2006 13:46  

I believe your age and experience of games has an affect on how you perceive modern releases.

You are seeking an experience that you believe will come because you've experienced it in the past.

In the meantime you are very happy to experience everything that comes along but you've found that you've become analytical.

You analyze games now instead of immersing yourself in them.

You still enjoy them immensely, but your enjoyment is not at the same level as it was some time ago.

By Anonymous GP2X Fan, at 30 November, 2006 15:28  

A recent wow moment for me was in FEAR when I shot a guy in the foot on a walkway and watched him hop across. I'm finding I'm enjoying little surprises like that more and more.

The beginning of Prey was a nice wow moment for me. The first third of the game does a great job of conveying the kind of disorientation one would feel if he or she was kidnapped by aliens (hostile or not).

The end of Oblivion was neat for its scale and of course the realization of the subtle (or not so subtle depending on how you look at it) foreshadowing.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 30 November, 2006 17:11  

Metal Gear Solid 3, fighting The End.

Guitar Hero - and its sequel.

Dawn Of War Dark Crusade, battling an apparently never-ending tide of Necrons with my own never-ending tide of Orks.

The wonder is still there. As GP2X Fan says above, you're over-analysing, and you're experienced.

There is indeed less originality in games. But you said it yourself: you're looking for something different in games than you used to; story over graphics. Graphics aren't the be-all-and-end-all, but they can help immerse you in the game world.

Stop analysing and start playing.

By Anonymous Geoff, at 30 November, 2006 21:41  

Put me down for one "Guess I shouldn't've shot The End early" and one "I agree with GP2X Fan; it's all about your age."

By Blogger rufbo, at 30 November, 2006 22:00  

rufbo: Oh, I see how it is. I try to tell you the battle with The End was worth playing and I get nothing! Some dude in the comments here mentions it and suddenly you regret not doing it. Sheesh. ;^)

To all y'all: Yes, I'm getting older and expect more, but that doesn't mean there can't be games that break through my cranky, over-analyzing exterior...right?

By Blogger jvm, at 30 November, 2006 22:06  

The fact that there are four different outcomes to the fight against The End, depending on your actions / propensity for cheating / ability to think laterally, just proves my point. Magic.

By Anonymous Geoff, at 30 November, 2006 22:32  

"To all y'all: Yes, I'm getting older and expect more, but that doesn't mean there can't be games that break through my cranky, over-analyzing exterior...right?"

Actually, no, not really.

I did a degree in English. For a long time afterwards, I found it difficult to read books for pleasure. Overanalysing anything rubs the sheen off.

Look at Shadow Of The Colossus. 2nd-rate platformer, with bad camera and washed-out graphics? No. The fact that it did something new probably curtailed your ability to over-analyse, but there's a magic in that game that exists apart from the flaws. And the flaws are there, believe me.

Sorry to double-post. "Some dude in the comments", indeed. :)

By Anonymous Geoff, at 30 November, 2006 22:39  

Geoff: I didn't include The End in my list (in the original post) but it was definitely one of the highest points for gaming that entire year for me. However, it wasn't the four outcomes - it was that I felt like I really was trying to outwit/snipe/flank a clever human being. When I got beat, it was my own fault, not some cheap trick.

As soon as I posted the "some dude" comment, I regretted not adding "(sorry, Geoff)" after that bit. Don't let the tone scare you away. We're really a fairly civil lot around here most of the time.

By Blogger jvm, at 30 November, 2006 23:15  

No worries - the internet has to work hard to offend me, as I'm not talking to real people. :P

I think this discussion leads to another interesting thing: how has the nature of wonder in gaming actually changed? We talk about one thing in MGS3, or Kingdom Hearts, or Zelda, or any of the other cited examples. Do these give us the same 'wonder' that, say, Elite gave us, or Zaxxon, or Tetris?

Is it simply that expectations have raised with system specs, or has the introduction - as you say in your post - of things like 'story' (and 'character', and so on) given us something new to gawk at?

You say in your post, "Regrettably, game trailers focus more often on how nice a game looks". But this is the same as films. Because you can't advertise simply on story. To do so, you would have to play the whole film, which is obviously defeating the point.

The worst examples are films like Solaris and Lucky Number Sleven. The trailers advertised a romance sci-fi and an action comedy respectively, which - while sort-of-true - bore little relation to the films in question.

Games face the same problem now, with their increasing importance on story. You quote Prince Of Persia, which didn't sell too well. Why? Because swoopiness aside, the story was the best part. So people missed the reason to buy it in the advertising, and the marketing people misinterpreted that and gave us the mash-fest that was Warrior Within.

I've forgotten where I was going with this, so I'll stop now.

By Anonymous Geoff, at 01 December, 2006 00:35  

cgm, I'm sorry to tell you this, but Kingdom Hearts is the opposite of wonder. It is the dreams of childhood cynically packaged and shoehorned into a stupid Final Fantasy plotline, saddled with fanservice, given horrible writing, and given a tacky pop music video ending for good measure.

Mario Galaxy just might do something to kindle the sparks of wonder. The newest Zelda doesn't but it seems to be at least a workman-like entry in the series.

I think one of the things that causes wonder in video games is when our sense of what is possible is defeated by ingenious design. Wii Sports may have some of that, but not for people who know enough about the controller to see how it works.

By Blogger JohnH, at 01 December, 2006 03:39  

Maybe gaming has lost part of its lustre because we've had so many experiences that created a sense of wonder, it's getting harder for game developers to make new ones, and as so many games are iterations in a series, their potential for creating a sense of wonder diminishes, because we kind of know what's coming.

Elite's a great example of this - the moment you realised that the universe was your oyster and that you could do pretty much whatever you wanted was a moment when your expectations of what was possible in games widened dramatically. And once you've had that moment, it's hard to have it again. Although FinalFantasy7 and GTA3 both managed to recreate it.

And sometimes that wonder is wrapped up in nostalgia. When I first played Bully, and noticed the telling details tucked into every nook and crevice of the game, it reminded me of playing games when I was younger, when almost everything you came across was new and wonderful.

Think of the worlds we've seen these past three decades, and it's easy to understand why we might be come jaded.

By Anonymous Chris, at 01 December, 2006 04:33  

I didn't buy a Wii for Zelda, I didn't buy a Wii for Mario Galaxy, I didn't even buy a Wii for Brawl.

I bought a Wii for games that haven't even been announced yet.

I bought a Wii because there will be games that use the controller in ways completely unimagined except by that one guy with a spark of genius who says "Wait.. why can't we do this?"

For example: Not that this would be feasable but.. from what I've read/seen/tried with the remote, a game that measures if you're pointing the remote at a super-bright ir light source is quite possible. Something like Boktai Wii could use it.

There is some wonder in gaming left, it's is through the people who say "why not?". Shadow of the Colossus is "Why can't we make an engaging adventure game with only boss fights?". Wind Waker was "Why can't we make cell shading actually work, and why can't we make a Zelda game set at sea?" Wario Ware was "Why can't we make the minigames 5 seconds long?"

There's a lot of mental barriers in game development. The best games are the ones that ignore them.

There's also this: In Wii Sports if you hit the stands, it stays bouncing in the stands, or if you hit the railing in the aim control training, it bounces off with a metallic sound. This wouldn't be surprising in a full tennis title, but in Wii sports it really makes you gawk because it's hard to get the "this is a simple game" notion out of your head, but the game seldom has situations where what ought to happen doesn't.

By Blogger webrunner, at 05 December, 2006 09:19  

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