The State of Play
So there I was, playing Destiny 2 again in a perennial attempt to like a game that I had followed since its original release in 2014. Back then, I had a PlayStation 3 that I got off of craigslist that was filled with what looked like cat hair, and I was using a Bluetooth ear bud while also wearing massive, cheap, plastic headphones over that. On the PlayStation 3, I put hundreds of hours in on the original Destiny, despite the lack of content that the game struggled with due to a hazardous development. But as a player of the Halo series, I could feel the shooting mechanics were better than ever, and as a 23 year old, it was enough to keep me coming back for the immediate future.
But at some point, the game died in my hands.
This happened even before the famous Taken King expansion that purportedly turned Destiny into the game it should have been all along. One of the highest budget games of that generation had effectively gone into early access on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 before the term “early access” had hit mainstream.
It is fall 2020, and now we’re set with the thrill, or so it seems, of a next generation of consoles with the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox series X/S, and Destiny 2 will be receiving a new coat of paint in early December to take advantage of the new consoles’ powerful features. Most notably, faster SSD’s mean much faster loading times, hopefully making the era of starting a game and then making dinner, taking a shower, and tucking the kid to bed before hopping on to play with your friends a chore of the past. Not only that, but new developments on the back and front end of each system promises a new style of play. “Flick switching” between games on the Xbox series X means ADHD gamers can quickly tab between different sessions on the fly, while the PlayStation 5 made a big stink with the new haptic feedback systems of its dualshock controller, with many in the industry (including Giantbomb’s Jeff Gerstmann) calling it “possibly the best controller ever made.”
But here I am, playing Destiny 2‘s latest expansion, New Light, which promised a new area: the ice moon Europa. It also devised a new onboarding method to help new players make sense of a game that now has multiple years of updates layered on top of each other, producing a nasty lasagna that used to splatter on the wall of the player’s ship fuselage the second they left atmosphere.
I started my character, choosing a Hunter (the only character I had never played), and went through the introductory mission of the game for what felt like the sixth time in my life. As an act of nostalgia (or efficiency), the developers of Destiny (Bungie) decided to rework the original game’s first mission into the sequel with updated graphics. I shot the Fallen alien race to bits, blew up their walking tank (which I had done thousands of times in strikes and public events previously), and made my way through the tunnels of the Cosmodrone. When, suddenly, something different happened.
Above is Shaw Han, a character who helps introduce you to the world of Destiny 2. He is able to help narrativize you in the lore, (along with your Navi-like companion, called a “ghost”) as well as get you off the Cosmodrone and off to the galaxy.
I will admit, for a split second, that my ears had perked up. Finally, a new direction, filled with narratives unheard of, mystery and weight, a little skin in the game. My character was talking! My character never talked until now. And while I knew that they had flirted with a speaking protagonist in the most recent Shadowkeep expansion, here it was my character, offering the same piss poor dialogue that Destiny revels in. “We won’t let you down!” we said to Han, practically begging him not to drop us NOOBS in the Russian dust.
But then the game, quite expectedly, dropped back to its old ways. Shaw needed us to do some bounties in the Cosmodrone, killing people with weapons we did not particularly like, or completing public events which ripped across the horizon like unintended farts. As is typical in the series, picking up a gun or piece of armor that you do not like means nothing if the power level number is higher. For your own sake, you have to equip that gear, even if it means you end up looking like a fugly slut.
Like many other games where the geography is handcrafted, you’ll backtrack through the same areas multiple times. Make no mistake, the art design in Destiny games is some of the best in the industry. It also happens to be the most sterile. In the introductory missions in New Light, you’ll find yourself dumping thousands of rounds through that same installation with the satellite dish. Most egregious is the fact that almost all of the missions take you away from the installation, only to pull you right back. Except in each mission, instead of going left, you’ll go right. It feels like when your mother sent you to pick up groceries, and by the time you put them into the car, and you’ve finally had a chance to look at your phone, you’ll see a text that says, “by the way, we’re out of bread.”
But more egregious than that is the way Bungie has time and again recombined old content into new contexts in order to add playtime to the experience. Not only is the first mission a complete copy-paste experience, but so are the missions afterward. The geography, as we’ve said before, is a blatant rip-off of their own design back in 2014, but the logic of some of the missions too have their own new coat of paint. One such mission involves getting a communications array back online that I promise you I participated in back in 2014. My guardian flipped on a flashlight in the tunnels underneath, where I was introduced to the Hive…again. Only this time, rather than the correct pacing from the first game, this is embedded along with many other systems in a tutorial, reducing its impact. New dialogue from my Ghost peppered the experience (“the Hive are different than the Fallen, and fight for something other than survival”). The implications of the dialogue were immediately dashed as I threw a grenade and the Thrall, Hive enemies who rush you with reckless abandon, stopped and put their hands to their ears.
Yea, they’re SUPER unconcerned with dying.
As I neared the control panel, the Hive still came in with their dropships, and I was told again to fight them off while my Ghost finished getting the installation online, only this time it was Shaw Han telling me to do it instead of another mission giver. The mission beats played out in exactly the same way, more than six years later.
Investigating, holding a point, and then teleporting to another mission is still the modus operandi of the introductory missions, and I was told to defend a point against invading enemies at least four times in the span of an hour and a half. This is to compensate for an AI that cannot hold a candle to their Halo series, even after a decade. The game features only a handful of enemy races, and only a handful of types in those races, and this has been the case now for its entire series. New enemies are often, you guessed it, a new coat of paint over existing enemies. For a game all about shooting enemies, this seems like a blatant misstep.
In fact, the only point where I thought there was a different experience was actually the only place where I died. It seemed to be a location, marked with a strange symbol, with an entrance that hinted a little transgressivness in the player, as though we were not “meant” to find this little hidey-hole. This is always exciting in video games, even if it is designed, it is made such a way as to appear like a benign mistake.
But going through the tunnel-like level to the boss fight arena felt claustrophobic and dull, and I ended up dying because the game spawned suicidal robots behind me that exploded out of my peripheral vision. When the game is not a terribly easy shooting gallery, it can often feel like an unfair monster closet mess.
By the time I did reach the Tower to introduce myself to all the NPC characters who, I was sure, would be giving me quests of a similar type and rehashed locations, I felt truly despondent. And for some reason, I took it out on…new consoles.
This was supposed to be a NEW CONSOLE GENERATION. My Destiny 2 experience made me consider a pervasive critique of video gaming at large. The xbox series X/S are already out, and the playstation 5 is expected later this week. These are both strong consoles, literally. Their graphical performance, in combination with their proprietary SSD’s are a new frontier for gaming. Even in the days of fast-loading cartridges from the likes of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Sega Genesis, the graphical properties cannot hold a candle to the fidelity we see today.
But because of COVID, or because of an ideological gridlock, the only game that seems to be universally anticipated is Demon’s Souls, developed by Bluepoint, which is a remake. The other hyped games are either cross-generational or delayed.
Have we hit rock bottom? Or is the best yet to come?
Where I’m Calling From
The brittle character of maturing computer programs can cause digital designs to get frozen into place by a process known as lock-in. This happens when many software programs are designed to work with an existing one. The process of significantly changing software in a situation in which a lot of other software is dependent on it is the hardest thing to do. So it almost never happens. -Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget
I am a disillusioned gamer.
Try as I might to avoid it, I am still a gamer. I own a gaming PC I built, a VR headset that collects dust, a PlayStation 4, an Xbox 360, and a Nintendo Switch (my first ever Nintendo console). Effectively, I have widened the breadth of hardware to such an extent that if there is a game out there that I want to play, I can do it.
But as is so often the case, it takes a long time before something comes up that floors me.
The most recent game to do this for me was in May 28th, 2019 where I saw a Rock, Paper, Shotgun video for Outer Wilds, and I bought it that day. Summer was here, and I had effectively finished teaching. I inhaled the game. To me, it repeated the thrill of discovery in a time loop the way that The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask did a long time ago. And the haunting atmosphere still lingered.
But more often than not, I start a game and quickly bounce off way before I have invested the time it takes to finish it.
There is a cognitive bias called “loss aversion” where people feel as though, once they have sunk some time into an activity or idea, they cannot help but finish it because they do not want to feel as though they have wasted something. This is most easily seen with meals on a plate. To not finish the food means it will go to waste, regardless of the consideration of whether it is good for your health.
Since Bioshock came out in 2007, I have never felt this compulsion with a video game since.
With Outer Wilds, there was no coercive feeling of finishing it. Instead, there was a passionate exuberance to see it through to the end.
Outer Wilds is effectively the opposite of No Man’s Sky. Instead of breadth, it is depth. It is a tiny solar system of a handful of planets, but each one of those has that exact same feeling I had for the briefest of moments when I played Destiny 2 today and found the hidey-hole. Instead of doing that for twenty seconds, every single second of Outer Wilds feels like you are finding a benign mistake left in by the developers.
To me, this was new, and I do not mean new as effectively the same as original, because at a certain point we all grow up and realize that nothing under the sun is original. I mean new in the sense that it was a new experience for me, that took the medium of video games and showed me the possibilities of what it could be.
Only a handful of video games have managed to do that. Before Outer Wilds, there was the Bioshock demo of 2007, there was the Elder Scrolls: Morrowind port to the original Xbox console, and there was…
I think that’s it.
And I think the best way to describe my disillusionment with video games is with Jaron Lanier’s explanation of “lock-in.”
With a totally democratized medium, like reading and writing, innovation and novelty are rather easy. Most do experimentation poorly, while others are breakthroughs, but no one denies after reading Infinite Jest that, love it or hate it, David Foster Wallace turned a writing style into a tour de force that influenced thousands of authors to this day. And all he needed was three years in a study and few distractions.
Video game development is one of the least innovative mediums out there. It revels in the remake, because it loves less labor. It inhales old ideas and relishes in flipping assets to produce easy money. Look no further than annual sports games, which continue to sell well despite pissing off their most dedicated fans with each successive entry.
Now, I should not make blanket statements without some caveats. The crime fiction genre is one such level of reading where my wife and I are burned every. single. time. Most of the plots are schlock, and the characters are boilerplate. On the other hand, some novels, like the games ones mentioned above, do come out to stun a handful of people who happen to pay attention.
But make no mistake, if you were not aware that the video game industry makes its money by being predatory with their Pavlovian systems, and lazy with regard to their charge to inspire, you have not been paying attention.
Two “new” installments of video game series, Watch Dogs: Legion and Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War, actively lean in to political unrest and populism as well as conspiracy theories. While games have had an awkward history of softening up to autocratic countries like North Korea and China, they seem paradoxically eager to take advantage of the recent weaknesses in Western democracies.
All so they can peddle their cheap systems in your face the way they always have.
It is easy to be disillusioned as a gamer older than twenty five in 2020. As the expectations have seemingly bottomed out for what a game is expected to be on release (that they innovate, that they play well…that they work), even on brand new consoles, developers have only been too happy to indulge on our baser impulses.
New Consoles, Old Habits
Nowhere has “lock-in” been so easily applied as this next generation of consoles.
One of the most fascinating debates to watch in the 2010s concerned that of backwards compatibility.
Long story short, backwards compatibility is the chance for a new console to play old games. A PlayStation 5 will still be able to play many games from the PlayStation 4 era. To some extent, this is good, because it gives gaming its history. In a similar way to a DVD working for years to come on any player, people need to have an archival headspace when thinking about games, and when the desire comes to relive a feeling, consoles should be there to provide that need.
But in 2020, backwards compatibility has become essential because of the lack of “new” gaming experiences to be had, either due to COVID-19, or due to a lack of ideas. Watch Dogs – Legion has been getting reviews stating that it feels like an old, open world game like that of the Grand Theft Auto series, albeit with a poor plot and procedurally generated modulated voice-acting that comes off as plain wrong. According to SkillUp on YouTube, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, also a promising game for the next consoles, is the most damning of the entire series, with a stretched playtime of 67 hours that does not earn its keep. Halo Infinite has been delayed possibly until Fall 2021, with a creative director no longer on the project. The Master Chief, present on the box of the Xbox Series X, may not make it until a full year later.
Astrobot, which comes installed on the PlayStation 5 is little more than a tech demo, showing off an amazing controller. Most gaming journalists have reacted with childlike glee in reviews all over YouTube, describing a rumble feature than can literally make you feel a difference between whether your avatar is standing on sand or on metal. But each journalist is wary for a likely reason: with the only console to feature a stellar controller, it is up to developers to adopt it to their own project. And the results are already mixed. Imagining each game using this controller is far from certain.
So that leaves Demon’s Souls and Godfall as truly next-gen experiences. Even many games like Control, which promise an update, like that of No Man’s Sky and Destiny 2, have delayed mere days before console launch, as well as high-profile games like Cyberpunk 2077. And even supposing these games, Demon’s Souls and Godfall are a hit, one is a remake, while the other is a “looter-shooter,” a Pavlovian grind game that we have all seen before.
Probably the most “next-gen” experience thus far has been Spider-man: Miles Morales, which truly takes advantage of the proprietary SSDs of the consoles, booting up a game from the UI dashboard in as short a time as five seconds. And Spider-man games have always been a technical hurdle: web slinging quickly through a dense city is an activity difficult enough to set consoles on fire. But the most recent iteration is able to do so with raytracing enabled. It produces an eye-popping experience that looks remarkable.
But again we come back to “lock-in,” as Miles Morales relies on the previous game Spider-man 4, using the same engine which came out only two years ago. For those who have played one, it is much like the other.
And while some new features show promises, there are new hiccups. The PlayStation UI feels like a worse version for the fifth installment than the fourth, as Giantbomb has critiqued added button presses to find such necessary things as, I don’t know, “friends.” It is clearly a provisional and hasty patch-job that will likely take months to smooth out, trying the patience of consumers who will accept almost anything.
And with far less than the one terrabyte storage space (as advertised) on the box, it may come as a shock to some families when they realize that games like Call of Duty have a full installment size of 200 gigabytes. That is effectively a third of its space. While the Xbox Series X allows older games to be stored on external hard drives, they cannot be played from there, and PlayStation 5 does not even allow external storage at all.
Trying to imagine a family of four playing on one console while under bandwidth caps from their internet service provider means a huge amount of headache.
Both companies, Microsoft and Sony, have also made statements suggesting that extra storage space will not be available at launch. And little word has also been given as to when it is even likely to happen.
But beyond these slight issues, which over time will likely be resolved, is the lack of imagination behind the most powerful consoles ever released.
Werner Herzog admitted that virtual reality is an incredible feature that few people have managed to provide games for. Now, some four years later, Sony has effectively given up on VR, promising no new games to support it. Microsoft was of course radio silent.
I can understand a lack of imagination when it comes to virtual reality, as the technology has astounded us in only tangential ways. I have had more pleasant experiences with Google Earth and their art creation apps like Oculus Quill and Medium than I have had with 99% of “games” available.
But the money is rolling in on new consoles. This is not some niche market. Due to the pandemic, this is the market. And there’s little to show for it.
“The Best Is Yet To Come!!!”
It seems simultaneously the best and worst time to enjoy games. Live service games like Destiny 2 promise to make a boring game loop with endless permutations that make it little more than what YouTuber I Hate Everything called “crochet.” And while those games promise to take up the majority of your precious hard drive space, the furious pursuit of higher fidelity gaming means that many developers feel they have no choice but to “make boring pretty.”
Besides from those few veterans of the video game industry cynically deriding a lack of flair or creative risk in these new releases, the rest of the video game world seems dangerously ecstatic. As if that, now that we have 4k gaming and raytracing, finally games are going to start changing the world even more than they already are (and never mind that those changes may not be so great). The raw and unbridled enthusiasm is not unlike when Kimberly Guilfoyle scared older Republicans watching in their recliners awake when she screamed “The BEST. Is YET. To COME!”
And an eerie and very unwelcome silence followed.
Just what, exactly, are these consoles aiming to achieve? Many of the technical hurdles of yesteryear, like polygonal graphics, seem like cases opened and shut. What is desperately lacking, for perhaps decades, is a failure of imagination.
I stand by the verdict that I made back in the summer: the best console is likely the one you already have. Until a game company makes a stand-out case for a console that takes advantage of new hardware, rather than making it run faster and look prettier, I am likely to become an even more begrudgingly accepting consumer than I already am.
Game creation platforms like PlayStation 4’s Dreams sit mightily in people’s imaginations. People long to make games of their own, not only because people who consume long enough will have a desire to create, but because the video game industry is in desperate need of a shake up. Until then it is just going to be reiterated genres, mashups, and remakes, as well as adding RPG elements to things that have no business being there. And draconian microtransactions and season passes and battle passes, bludgeoning us until we’re bloodied on the streets with an empty wallet.
More than any other phrase, perhaps the cliche from War Games fits: the best way to win is not to play. Read, see your friends in person (when you can), and explore the world. Only with a careful new set of eyes do you come back and play only the very best that games have to offer. Wait for games like Return of the Obra Dinn, and Outer Wilds. Wait for those games that take your time and your mind seriously.
That might be a difficult thing to do in winter, when a second wave of COVID-19 is all but inevitable.
Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps in 2021 there will be several games that make good on these requests, and this writing will be as dated as the predictions about flying cars. But I’ll stand by what I have said: any excuse not to play Destiny 2 again.