Bigger is better. That’s the marketing idiom that’s been drummed into us from childhood; that you can’t truly ever have too much of a good thing, right? Like most things in life, sometimes it’s true and sometimes it’s not: why is a Mars bar so short and The Da Vinci Code so long? In our case, long, expansive games desperate and pleading to be called “epic” are a similarly mixed bag. Heaps of content and extra hours of game time are welcome for some titles. For others, it feels like a forlorn and cursory box-ticking exercise meant to keep us busy until the next one comes along. That seems to be the case for AAA development. Bigger is always better. But why?
Numbers. Numbers! We must make the numbers bigger! Bigger means more, more means better, and better means my boss’s boss is happy! Stockholder satisfaction, sadly, seems to surrogate for customer happiness and stifles creative freedom for large-scale video games, because data is quantifiable and presentable in a corporate meeting in a sense that the way Metal Gear Solid 3 made me feel isn’t. That’s ultimately why gaming will, at large, struggle to adapt into an artistic identity, as it’s stuck within the most ugly and incestuous rat race in business where developers are always looking backwards. You need both eyes to see the bigger picture. This has tragically spurred on a pernicious and troubling “follow the leader” culture in video games development, in which new games seldom feel made to order, but more like variations on the last big title, in a breathless pursuit of one another, within and without all at once. This is not inspiration; you are, by and large, playing the same game every time in a market where AAA is twitchily obsessed with scale.
What they say must certainly be true: familiarity breeds contempt. If you were to ask someone what the heart of a game like Assassin’s Creed is, you’d probably get a few likely strings of data served to you, Family Fortunes-style: “assassins”, “crazy kills”, “period setting”. It’s part of Ubisoft’s distinct framing that has allowed the series to craft its unique identity and become a household name worldwide. Yet, it’s all superficial. If you stripped all the veneer, all the window dressing away, what do you really have? Tragically, for all the quirks that Ubisoft desperately try to throw in, what really makes AssCreed different to Mafia or even the vaunted Grand Theft Auto series? Take away the identity and the bones are the same. We’ve been playing one, long, box-ticking exercise the whole time, and I blame the mould that AAA games made for itself. It works, it sells, it placates the masses. It might be too misty-eyed a view, but I don’t think games should be so mechanical and heartless. Disposable. Not at the prices they sell games for these days, anyway.
However, it can’t be stressed strongly enough that large-scale video games are not always bad. The underlying issue is the insistence by the AAA market that big games are not just a way, but the only way. It’s not enough to create a “map”; if you’re in for a penny, you must be in for a pound, and you have to create a world around it for it to mean anything. Skyrim is electric because it has a cohesively-built universe where every character, settlement, and book (well, most) adds something to the overall experience. It is, ultimately, a game that justifies its scale. Other titles that have embraced the open-world, 100 mission format as standard often feel barren because they fail to understand – or maybe don’t want to – the concept of working within what you can provide. Skyrim could afford to be so large, because that’s within its scope as epic fantasy fiction. Conversely, a game like LA Noire didn’t need its open world, and even worked hard to convince the player that there wasn’t one – certainly nothing would have been lost without the inclusion of invisible walls, a sixth-generation stalwart that proves that limitations are not always a punishment.
The non-plussed nature of a AAA industry that neither wants nor needs to change is disheartening, and really emphasises a need for meaningful experiences. That doesn’t necessarily mean art games, as even the simplistic old arcade-esque title will always have their place. It’s distinction. Annoyingly, the most distinct titles that I’ve played (and you should too) recently are indie art games, but they’re merely good examples to my point at large. Titles such as OK/NORMAL and The Beginner’s Guide don’t have the funds to match the scale of a built world that something like The Crew 2 possesses, nor can they afford to be conventionally pretty. But these games know what they are, which is far better than the identity crises that AAA games endure in which they must have a little of everything. We’re speeding far faster to the homogenised omnigame, a third-person adventure game with RPG storytelling, guns, driving, puzzle, and a standardized online built with zero learning curve in mind. The day that we have a game that claims to do everything is the day we have nothing. Hyperbolic as that is, an omnigame with every imaginable feature will only ever satisfy functionally, never in the way a good book or an essential film might. There is not and is no such thing as a perfect game. That assertion relies on statistics. There are only perfect games. I have many. You do too.
It’s not like the AAA industry can’t do better. It’s fashionable to criticise the industry and its fans for not being able to take Nintendo out of its mouth, but under fanatical screeching lies sensible thought: they continue to prove that scale and innovation can go hand in hand, and should. Super Mario Odyssey had endless charm, and yet was much more monumental than the latest mission-‘em-up could ever hope to be, as it was never held back by silly ideas of structure, and how a game should look and feel. Not only that, it seamlessly intertwined motion controls with gesture-based gameplay that never felt contrived, as well as its hyper-rewarding progression system, by literally rewarding you for every imaginable task. Nintendo has always been at the forefront of innovation; third parties merely pick up the scraps after the fact. Without Mario 64, we wouldn’t even have the vaguest notion of what camerawork in gaming should look like. Wind Waker set a standard for cel-shaded graphics. Without Splatoon, the world of paint-based games would be limited solely to de Blob and Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure. They serve as a constant reminder that games rivalling that of epic cinema or literature can always be distinct, and can always be quality.
Ultimately, what I really want the games industry to have is a greater sense of scale regarding titles in development. This is why the label of “AAA game” frustrates me in the first place. I get it on a conceptual level, as it signifies that game development doesn’t get more involved or intense than this; this is development firing on all cylinders. Yet I gripe with the term as it implies a range that doesn’t exist anymore. Why aren’t there more mid-range titles that adopt the now-forgotten level-based progression (versus open-world mission-based storytelling) common in the early 2000s? Budget titles released at cut-price lasting 15-20 hours? A justification to refer to games as AA or A, or even BBB, something to lessen the vast, yawning chasm between AAA and indie, where artfulness sometimes wrongfully feel like a spectrum. There can and should be more interplay, and only then will we get past what big and small games are “supposed” to look like.
The cynical world of AAA development paints an unrelentingly grey picture, but the tireless efforts by creators, big and small, show that there’s another way, that games don’t have to feel so horribly paint-by-numbers, that there’s still some life in the old horse yet. Forgive me for being so sickeningly facile conciliatory, but games don’t have to be big. Games don’t have to be small. They simply have to BE, and knowing the limits of your game is part and parcel of that. ‘Being’ does not mean to simply exist, by the way, otherwise I’d own 20 copies of FIFA 06. They can’t just take up space; they have to have a raison d’etre, good or bad. That’s exactly why the insistence on having THE BIGGEST GAME POSSIBLE when there’s certainly no call for it ultimately chokes the life out of games as a whole. I’ll never deny people their right to blockbuster games with as much depth as a kiddie pool, but even then, I would hope that games, even as cynical and as grey-suited as AAA titles can be, still have even the twinkle of artistic ambitions in their eye.