Ever since I was just a little Brother, I’ve been a video gamer. I don’t need to tell you about the unique value of this form of media or why we love it so much, but I’ll admit that the thrill of putting in a new game isn’t quite what it used to be. I’ve been thinking about the reasons for this, and I don’t think it’s because I’m too busy with real life or because I’ve become cynical (those are just coincidences). No, I keep coming back to the one thing that made me love games the most when I was young – the “holy crap” moment.
Now, the “holy crap” moment isn’t exclusive to gaming by any means. It’s just one way for entertainment to get something very right. If you haven’t experienced it in a video game, first throw out your game collection because you need better ones. Then, close your eyes and think back to the end of the first season of Game of Thrones. Statistically, each member of this site’s audience has seen that episode around four times, so you know the scene I’m talking about; the first time you saw it (or read it), there was a visceral reaction of dumbfoundedness and total engagement. This type of “holy crap” is the subversion of the “Like You Would Really Do It” trope, and it can be a doozy in any type of fiction.
What makes gaming special, though, is the diversity of surprises available. Whereas in a movie or TV show you can experience a jarring or affecting moment, brilliant plot twist, or visual spectacle (and the latter only in a theater), an interactive medium opens up endless possibilities.
When I was five years old, my parents drove me to K-Mart and bought the family (but really just me) a Nintendo Entertainment System. It cost $103.88. I remember that number because it was one of the most important days of my life, right up there with my wedding day, the birth of my son, and the series finale of Lost. The first couple of days with Super Mario Bros. were one extended “holy crap” as I watched my dad control the mustachioed 8-bit avatar on the screen and began to figure out how to do so myself. The next few years were a time of gaming discovery – Blades of Steel, Dr. Mario, Legend of Zelda, Metroid – each new genre blew me away with what these cartridge-based gems were capable of. The trend continued from system to system, well into my adult life; every time the gaming world showed me something really new or gave me an unexpected twist on what I thought I understood, there was that surge of adrenaline and dopamine, that affirmation of why I loved this hobby so much.
Here are a few more recent examples to illustrate this principle:
- There was a game called Run Like Hell for the PlayStation 2 that garnered some notoriety around its release but was promptly relegated to the bargain bin due to lackluster gameplay. I played it years later, and was bored by the cinematic space love triangle in the opening. The game didn’t keep me waiting too long, though, because the alien threat made itself known to my main character by chucking the head of one of his love interests at him. That was such an unexpected delight that it stays with me even though I didn’t finish the game. I love the horror genre for things like that, but it’s not the only place “holy crap” moments are found.
- I recently played through the turn-your-brain-off fun of the Saints Row series. Saints Row IV started off as a bit of a disappointment, since it reused the same map from the third game in what was apparently a cost-saving move, justifying it via a virtual reality framework. But then I was bestowed with superpowers, and suddenly I’m hopping over entire city blocks I’d fought through in the last game. Holy crap.
There are of course the more universal thrills (decapitation via chainsaw in Resident Evil 4, anyone?), but the point is that a big draw of gaming has always been these resonant moments, and they’re more meaningful than just novelty.
As the years went on, these thrills started to come fewer and further between for me. Despite what the big companies would like you to believe, games pretty much leveled off graphically a generation ago. The thrill of plunging bravely into the Uncanny Valley and then emerging from the other side just isn’t a thing anymore, even though more and more money is spent on the last little bit of possible graphical advancement. Think about it – when was the last time a game’s visuals got a bigger reaction out of you than just acknowledging that they were kind of cool? We’ve gotten to a point where unless there’s something wrong or unique, we don’t care about how a game looks.
I used to think that the reason I wasn’t getting that same buzz from games anymore was simply that I’ve seen it all before. After all, it’s easy to be impressed by everything when you’re a kid, because everything is new, right? But then I realized that I’m still consistently impressed by what good television shows do, even though that’s a medium I’ve spent more time on and one that has had many more years to show us everything under the sun. Shoot, The Walking Dead gave me a “holy crap” moment this season! So now I’m thinking that we’re not getting moments like this in as many games because developers aren’t innovating – either because it’s too difficult, or because they don’t care to.
This is a serious problem facing gamers. A lack of “holy crap” moments isn’t going to kill the industry – not when EA can profitably put the same sports game out with slight tweaks year after year, and movie tie-in shovelware is still making decent money – but it is going to damage gaming as an art form. I don’t want the next generation of gamers (my younger siblings) to be robbed of the experience I had as a kid because developers aren’t trying anymore. Indie publishers can come up with some great stuff, but back in my day there was real money behind the best ideas. I don’t see a 10-man crew putting out the next Chrono Trigger. By the way, Crono dies in that game. Holy crap!