Many people say games today are too 'simple' and 'linear', and this is the sentiment I always completely disagreed with. I feel the opposite is true. Recent games have become wider, nonlinear, and more complex, but lack depths.
Either out of trend or publisher's influence, it seems a lot of AAA blockbusters attempt to reach every genre possible for the mass market appeal. What happens is the game becomes a jack of all trades that hits the design checklist but master of none.
Openworld? Check. Skill trees? Check. Stealth? Check. Scavenging? Check. Crafting? Check. Sidequests? Check. Metroidvania element? Check. They want to encapsulate everything that is popular in the market with little care whether the feature reinforces core gameplay or fits the theme. The developers used to start the development with an aim to create a certain experience and designed the features and systems from there to fit that goal. Now, it feels like they already have a design template and then imagined a vision around that template. Time and resources spread thin across the game instead of pouring efforts into a singular, consistent vision. The game feels big, complex, large, but shallow.
The first games I noticed this trend were Tomb Raider reboot and Far Cry 3, both had a clear narrative vision yet the gameplay constantly undermined that experience. The games want to tell a gritty survival story of how an innocent, normal, ordinary protagonist transforms into a hardened guerilla fighter. The story demands to be taken seriously so much that they hamfist "this game is about SURVIVAL Y'all" message in every corner of the cutscenes, but as soon as the gameplay begins, it is like a fun island theme park with guns and explosions. Tomb Raider is especially egregious. You see a genuinely shocking cutscene with incredible acting from the actress with a strong rape implication. Indicating this is Lara using the gun for the first time, showing how she clumsily handles it and her emotional mental breakdown on the screen. It is a powerful cinematic… A second later, you get pop-up messages about "YOU EARNED THE EXP AND THE HANDGUN", then less than a minute later, you immediately mow down dozen of armed men in a bullet-time with little to no sweat. It is like two development teams wanted to create a different experience.
That does not mean the games that do follow this convention cannot be unique. Death Stranding, The Last of Us, God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, and The Witcher 3 do use those checklists and rearrange them to fit their coherent creative visions. They play like many other games they got inspired by, but no other game plays like them. But watching the gameplay trailers/videos of so many AAA games like Days Gone, Spider-Man, Ghost of Tsushima, Horizon: Zero Dawn, most Ubisoft openworld games makes me go, "Looks cool, but didn't I play this?" It makes me yearn for more focused, minimalistic big-budget games like Shadow of the Colossus.
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