In a number of ways, I couldn't be less excited for the next generation of consoles. Will they allow us to do things we've never been able to do before? From a technological standpoint, almost definitely. But in terms of design, in terms of creative and cultural innovation, we've been going backwards for years.
"I’m not that interested in technology or the next generation of consoles," noted David Cage, a week or so back. "If we could continue with PlayStation 3 for another five years it would be fine with me. I think the main challenges are on the creative side than on the technical side.
"Are there technical things I can’t do on PS3? Honestly, no. The limitation is much more about the ideas we have. When you look at the past, you realised that the technology evolved must faster than the concepts we rely on.
"As an industry we have pretty much have been building the same games for fifty years, despite the platforms changing.
"So, what do I expect from the next generation of hardware? You know, the usual. More polys, and higher resolution texture maps, and, horsepower, and, stuff. Wow. It’s so cool and exciting."
Depressingly, I'm inclined to agree with him. Does that mean that I won't laugh maniacally as my retinas cream themselves at the prospect of what the likes of DICE, Crytek, and Epic can wring from the next generation of consoles? No, I'll be there drooling with everyone else. But the heavy focus on cinematography, on bringing games in line with film on an aesthetic level has done two things that have caused fundamental problems within our industry: it has exponentially increased development costs, and it has led to a stagnation in creativity at the top of the pile.
When we talk about design in games, when we talk about titles that have impressed us with the way they are laid out, or games that have hooked us from the start with a gripping story, or experiences that have made us laugh, cry, shout, cower, think, and feel, I often find it difficult to chart a way in which we have progressed.
But there comes a point when you have to ask the question why that is. Is it because developers and publishers have gotten lazy? Is it because the audience has switched off and there's less demand? Is it because costs have risen too high, and now risky ventures are virtually unthinkable?
Chatting to a number of friends, and it cropped up again in this week's PWNCAST, we highlighted L.A. Noire as one of the current crop of big-budget present gen titles that seemed forward thinking - a game that brought a genre that was treading water up to date with aplomb. It wasn't perfect, but it was groundbreaking. But it was also expensive too, and you only have to look at the events that came afte the game's release to understand why the prospect of following in Team Bondi's shoes may not be an attractive one.
But the real kicker for me? The fact that L.A. Noire jettisoned its best mechanics in order to have a shoot up at the end - a finale that added nothing and took away much. Did it really need that action-packed finale? Was there really no other way of creating a climax to the game? Ironically, in throwing away the moody adventure-puzzling (just when you got to play as a proper PI dammit!) for a would-be-tense firefight, all of the tension was lost, the narrative disrupted, and the final feeling one of deep dissatisfaction.
When David Cage says that we've been building the same games for half a century, I'm inclined to agree with him. Furthermore, I'm not sure if we aren't actually going backwards in some cases.
Talking fondly about Baldur's Gate and the Infinity Engine RPGs that were all the rage back in the nineties, Jon made the point back in March that the writing had to be good on older games, that characters had to be engaging, quests interesting, customisation options deep, because the technology did not easily allow for flashy cutscenes, picture-perfect graphics, or celebrity voice work.
"Focus on tight scripts provided us with the best dialogue, the most memorable characters and some of the most heartbreaking, thought-provoking decisions that have ever featured in a game. The fact that the writers had to think about every single word meant that every single word meant something."
Step forward twenty years and you might have thought that advances in technology would have allowed BioWare to create even better experiencs, and yet why is it that we tend to look backwards so much when discussing truly great games. Speak to most Zelda fans and I bet they'll either say A Link To The Past or Ocarina of Time when asked about their favourite. Nintendo go almost too far these days in recognising that their former glories lie deep in years gone by, but at least they tried something new, even if they struggled to follow through. No one will ever forget the Wii, though they might have trouble remembering more than five games that graced the system.
There might be those that tire of Cage's perceived whining, but I posit that's only because he's one of the few voices saying it, and to a certain extent doing something to try and change that (with limited success I might add). But when he lists his predictions for next gen, it's difficult not to agree. We'll get shooters and slashers, sports games, racing titles, Gears ripoffs, COD wannabes, and people gunning for Nathan Drake. It's all highly predictable, except for the fact that there'll likely be even less choice the next time around, with belts to be tightened and budgets squeezed.
Unless you're a PC gamer, of course. In which case you're rolling in nectar-stuffed fields of innovative indie goodness and laughing at the very concept of "next-gen" because you've been able to take the fight to 63 other players in Battlefield 3 on day one and pay a quarter less than all of the console grunts like me.
Greener grass? Yes please.