OPINION: Look before you leap into PS4, Killzone, and the uncanny valley
(continued from previous page) ...a carnival of nonsense where you could leap nimbly above a marketplace, decked in cloak-and-dagger, only to have the populace below bewilderingly repeat, “He must be drunk!”
And we are a bit drunk, a bit intoxicated by the power of our own technology. We demand developers take immense visual steps, however awkward they may appear. Fans clamor for old games--games that benefited from simple graphics and cartoonish charm--to be remade with the capabilities of modern hardware. These games were impressive precisely for how they dealt with their respective eras' limitations. To throw legends like Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VI into the jaws of Unreal Engine, and to expect a better product to come out the other end, is problematic. We need to think harder when it comes to graphics and the role they play in our interactive medium. Graphics aren’t just coats of paint; they can’t just be considered an upgrade you get when a new system is released. They form a medium in and of themselves, and must be respected to be used properly.
Jump back two generations - to the ending reign of PlayStation 2, when developers really had a grip on the platform. Even then, necessary shortcuts were made to avoid the consequences of being too ambitious. For instance, Shadow of the Colossus--a game so historic it’s become somewhat obnoxious to talk about--was originally planned as a multiplayer game. Players would ride together and take on the roaming colossi as a unit, but the concept proved too unwieldy. Perhaps there was a lack of resources, or certain obstacles were just too complex for the programmers to cleanly overcome. For playability's sake, the idea was ultimately dropped in favor of a single rider.
Fumito Ueda, the producer behind Shadow of the Colossus, explains this entire process effectively, if succinctly, when he says that “a game has to fit into what the technology allows.” He makes a comparison to music, saying that “in hip-hop it's a three-minute track, maybe, with a lot of restrictions, but you're still trying to convey a very powerful message to deliver to your audience.” What can you do, as a lyricist, if given a slice of a certain track with a certain beat? Under these limitations, how can you manage to still express yourself? The same concept is what defines great game design, where a team of creators makes something magical happen within a platform's limitations, which inspire creativity.
What bothers me about Killzone: Shadow Fall, then, is that it seems like a game that works outside the given limitations. Whether these limitations be of PlayStation 4 or the actual development team, Shadow Fall's early footage seems to imply an experience it may not deliver. I don't trace this problem to any lack of talent on Guerrilla’s end. I trace it to gamers, who demand a certain visual quality that can’t be met comfortably by game designers. Here, we have a huge metropolis of science fiction that's a backdrop for... what? The same enemy A.I. we’ve had since 2004? What purpose do these graphics serve? Why are you doing all of this--making everything utterly gorgeous--if you’re just going to do that? It’s off-beat, it’s out of rhythm, it’s uncanny. The higher our visual expectations get, the weirder these games are going to feel.
Ubisoft's Watch Dogs demands the same questions. As insanely awesome as it looked last week, is it going to play like that all the time? Or is it just another clever demo of a very planned, isolated sequence that Ubisoft has proven so good at selling us? Will the game’s world fall into place believably, or is it in over its head? I don't mean to say the games we saw last week will fail, or turn out badly. I'm just asking: Will this be the game I actually end up playing? Watch Dogs may, in fact, come to be enjoyable for completely different reasons. Ubisoft was able to salvage something out of the original Assassin’s Creed when it stopped trying to pretend its game could be a pragmatic, historical simulator, and instead focused on giving us a goofy, semi-hilarious sort of "Grand Theft Assassin" playground. Ubisoft got honest about limitations, and better games were created as a result.
Perhaps it’s not ... (continued on next page)