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My problem with modern games striving for realism – lack of visual identity, density of worlds, lack of verticality

Gamingtodaynews1g - My problem with modern games striving for realism - lack of visual identity, density of worlds, lack of verticality
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I've noticed that recently a lot of games don't hit that sweet spot for me in terms of imagination and world building, and I've come to believe that it has a lot to do with games striving to be as realistic as possible. I think it really boils down to lack of visual identity, density of worlds, and a lack of vertical elements.

(Before I get too into this, I want to admit that I'm working with a fairly selective sample of games because I mostly play Playstation titles and even though I try to play a lot of indie titles, a bunch of them slip through the cracks for me and I miss them and big triple A titles attract a lot of my attention. If people have recommendations that contradict my points, I'd gladly take them.)

First off is visual identity. Back in the PS2 era we had a lot of "platformer-mascot" type characters such as Ratchet and Clank, Sly Cooper, and Jak and Daxter. These games were fairly popular and coexisted well alongside games that starred humans as the main characters. With a shift towards realism, we're seeing less of these creative mascot characters and most characters are realistic (and usually face scanned) human beings. Not only does this involve characters, but the worlds are becoming more realistic as well. This is the biggest problem for me, as I love to dive into an imaginative world such as a romantic reimagining of Paris through the eyes of Sly Cooper, or a techno-punk futuristic world of Ratchet and Clank. Lately we get a lot of realistic cities, forests, towns etc. People may praise a Grand Theft Auto city as being a good location due to its diverse elements, but you won't find people thinking things like "man, that city is so cool, I wish I lived there." Real life is kind of uninteresting, so making a city as close to real life itself is inherently uninteresting in my opinion.

Next up is density of worlds. I see this discussed a lot and it's a fairly common opinion so I won't get into it too much, but in older games, resources were limited, worlds were smaller, and there was action around every corner. Lately games use map-size as a bragging metric and it's not always a great indicator of how fun the world will be. Some games like Red Dead Redemption are more slow-paced intentionally, so it's kind of nice to have a meditative journey through an area on horseback, but most of the time, games try to be fast paced and intense, and having a non-dense world is problematic.

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Lastly is a point that I don't see discussed very often. Real life is very flat! When you're in a city, you spend the entirety of the time on the ground unless you're inside of a building. This takes away a lot of the creativity in visual style and also gameplay mechanics. Having a vertical element to explore makes a world so much more dense and exciting to navigate and affects gameplay in really significant ways: tactical advantage of higher ground, sneaking around underneath things, etc. With a flat open world, all combat will be the same given a set of characters, but when the world has varying heights and obstacles, the environment will factor into the gameplay to make every combat situation unique. Games lately just don't involve the vertical dimension a lot and I think it has a lot to do with the platformer genre going out of fashion so players can't climb as much. Some games allow climbing such as Spiderman PS4, Assassins Creed, but it doesn't factor much into the gameplay, and is more of a way to get around. In addition this usually just means the ability to reach rooftops and tops of structures; it's not a big factor in the world building such as a huge cliff or gorge that really shapes the environment.

I'm going to use Sucker Punch's 3 game generations as an example: Sly Cooper, inFamous, Ghost of Tsushima. Sly Cooper involved climbing, flying, and a bunch of mechanics to navigate such as hooks that launch you upwards and catwalks across buildings. This allowed for really creative artistic worlds that exaggerate the features of real life. Levels would frequently have huge vertical disparities that would force you to creatively find a way around a level by figuring out how to scale areas. And besides, having towering structures and natural elements made the levels look really interesting too. Sly Cooper was the pinnacle of taking real life cities and exaggerating them in fun ways to make a fun gameplay experience.

InFamous incorporated a realistic city but gave the character superhuman powers to climb and scale things. The gameplay incorporated the vertical element pretty well, but due to the realistic nature of the city, I don't think it was used to its full potential.

Ghost of Tsushima isn't released yet and we barely have any gameplay footage, so take this with a grain of salt, but from what I've seen, it looks very flat. The Japanese villages are small structures as they would realistically be at the time, but it seems like gameplay will mostly involve character to character interactions instead of character to environment to character interactions which make every battle feel like a unique experience. I plan to buy this game anyway because Sucker Punch has been one of my favorite developers since PS2, but I will miss their more creative style of their older games.

There is some hope though. The Uncharted games have done a great job of including rope swinging and dramatic environments to shape gameplay in fun ways that involve a lot of verticality and make every interaction feel unique. And creative ≠ childlike, as Cyberpunk 2077 is around the corner. I'm hoping this game will do a great job of building a unique world visually and involve a lot of vertical elements with towering structures that you can navigate up and down.

Just as we hit a slump with games being desaturated brown and grey and recovered from that, I think games will begin to be creative with their world building again as we run the course of "realistic cities" becoming exhausted.

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