Game On: Forspoken represents everything wrong with big-budget video games
Fri., Jan. 27, 2023
The highly anticipated Forspoken was released on Tuesday, and despite its lofty cinematic presentation, its reception was about what I expected: middling. After all, there’s only so many times big-budget studios can cobble together a cinematic third-person action-adventure game before the niche is completely devoid of originality.
The story is set in the fantasy world of Athia, where protagonist Frey Holland is mysteriously transported to from modern-day New York City. Frey acquires a magical, sentient bracelet known as “Cuff” – very clever stuff – and must use her newfound powers to return home. Of course, Cuff and Frey exchange plenty of sassy one-liners throughout the journey.
The time you don’t waste in cutscenes is spent running around in desolate open plains and fighting hordes of monsters. I struggle to think of a more generic AAA experience than Forspoken, which does a mediocre job treading the exact same path left by the likes of Assassin’s Creed, Middle-earth, Destiny, Far Cry and countless others.
It’s difficult to recall the last big-budget title that genuinely impressed me with anything more than its graphics. 2016’s Titanfall 2 was excellent, but it was quickly left to rot at the hands of hackers who repeatedly overload its servers – Electronic Arts shifted that development team’s priorities to the cash cow that is Apex Legends, a decent game stuffed full of loot boxes, battles passes and cosmetics. Triple-A game development seems to be all about the bottom line.
I want to be clear that I don’t favor indie games lately out of some sort of desire to be a hipster or elitist with “refined tastes.” I’m constantly looking toward new titles to get excited about, whether the budgets are big or small. I remember being amazed by the immense graphical fidelity of Xbox 360 titles in 2005, and thinking how incredible it would be to see all of my favorite genres given the “next-gen treatment.”
But that’s not what happened. Instead, the split between indie and triple-A began in earnest – the Xbox Live Arcade took off by offering loads of cheap, addictive games that were quick to download on account of their small file sizes. The same thing took place on the PlayStation Network and the Steam store, and even the Nintendo Wii’s online storefront brought about renewed interest in retro Nintendo titles.
Thus began the schism between modern and classic game design sensibilities. The spectacle of photorealistic graphics, vast open worlds, movie-like storytelling and near-endless customization options took over one side of gaming while the other side returned to simple and streamlined arcade-style titles.
There are rare instances of these two sides coalescing – 2020’s Hades and 2021’s Metroid Dread are recent examples – but the key term here is “rare.” And that’s a shame, because when the cinematic style is combined with a focus on smooth, innovative gameplay, something truly special is born.
With the millions of dollars poured into the development of AAA titles, I have a hard time believing developers don’t have the talent or resources to develop more original gameplay concepts. Instead of funneling that cash primarily into the graphics, sound design and motion capture, it’d be a nice change of pace to see a big-budget game prioritize innovative gameplay and embellish it from there.
Here and there, a good cinematic game is welcome – November’s God of War Ragnarök is proof enough – but oftentimes, a barebones plot accompanying a satisfying gameplay loop is all you need to make a great and memorable video game. After all, rescuing the princess from a giant ape or turtle isn’t exactly inspired stuff, but the Super Mario games are widely considered legendary regardless.
Like it or not, money will always be the biggest motivator for game publishers, especially publicly traded ones such as EA, Activision-Blizzard and Take-Two Interactive. Just remember, with every game purchase or preorder you make, you’re voting with your wallet – for better and worse.
Riordan Zentler can be reached at email@example.com.
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