Monday 25 January 2010

Is Console Gaming About to Grow Up?

Heavy Rain is released on the 26th of February and has the potential to be a 'game changer'.  (Has that phrase started to grate with anyone else yet?)  The 'game' has a twisting narrative set around four characters trying to solve a crime.  All four characters can die during the course of the story and the game will continue.  This is essentially the first attempt at playable cinema on this generation of consoles.

It contains adult themes, male and female nudity and a playable sex scene.  It could be the title that moves gaming out of the realms of the geek and the Daily Mail's arrogance and into the world of accepted media.

Gaming is seen by many as still being something ostensibly for kids.  It doesn't matter how many titles get an 18 rating the perception is that the genre is just 'one genre', when it is in fact many.  Heavy Rain will probably have a niche appeal when it gets released, but it could be the start of developers trying to push boundaries by introducing more and more adult themes.  But potentially it could be the new genre of titles that it births, that may not appeal to younger gamers but hits that audience whom have grown up playing games since the late 1970's, that will be the most interesting.

Whilst graphics have been pushed further and further the gaming experience has rarely included an emotional commitment to the characters you play.  I can recall only twice being genuinely moved by a game.  Final Fantasy VII's death of Aeris and Metal Gear Solid 4's final 45 minute cut scene took my breath away for entirely different reasons.  After hours and hours of developing Aeris into a healer for the battlefield, to then lose her during a cut scene, cruelly cut down by the games main bad ass and with hours of the game remaining, was a tough moment.  That game, more than any other, tugged at the heart strings but Kojima's fourth instalment laid on the emotional coating from the get go and never let up.  Part genius game play, part movie, MGS4 lets you play as an ageing Snake and right up until the end you're never quite sure if he's going to take his own life or not.

The difference with both of the games above is that destiny of both those key, iconic characters are out of your hands.  The outcome is predetermined by the game developers, it doesn't matter what you do, Sephiroth will kill Aeris and Snake will either pull the trigger or he won't.  Heavy Rain potentially takes us in a new direction although there are concerns.

You will have a perceived level of control over events but there will be a fair amount of sitting and watching.  So although adult themes and a degree of choice will be present it may not engage with a generation of gamers so used to the run/shoot/die/spawn dynamic of so many titles.  You are also going to be controlling the  mundane tasks of everyday life such as shaving or applying eyeliner, this will be a unique, if very different, experience to what most gamers are used to.

However it's worth noting how diverse the industry is and XBox Live and the PSN have both encouraged the development of smaller titles, many of which are a throw back to earlier consoles.  It's here, rather than in the full priced market, that imagination has flourished.  Games like Flower and Braid have shown that success can be found from simple, downloadable titles and that there is a market for less conventional games.

Personally I hope that Heavy Rain meets the ambitions of the developers and pushes gaming out of the darkness and into the light.  Gaming has such huge potential to be the new cinema but to do that it must embrace titles like this, which will push at the boundaries of what gaming is.  The Daily Mail will always enjoy fuelling this debate with it's unique take on what is and isn't acceptable, it's going to be a delight to see how they respond to male nudity in a game, let alone a playable sex scene.  It's not the readers of the Daily Mail I want to see get sucked into this gaming life though, it's the members of 'my' generation that have dismissed it or feel they've out grown it.

Ultimately I know that gaming isn't going to suit everyone (although the Wii and DS have pulled many into the gaming world through casual play) and I can accept that.  But it's hard to believe that in the next ten years gaming won't have moved out of it's puberty and have started to be the most significant medium around.  It really does have that potential.  Where else does the release of a killer title see thousands queuing outside retailers around the world?

It does need to grow up though and that's not always an easy step to make.  I expect Heavy Rain to have an uneasy ride from the gaming and traditional press but don't expect it to be an insignificant release.  The success or failure of this title may only be measurable in the years to come when any influence it has had will be able to be looked at and evaluated.  I wish it all the luck in the world.

I will be reviewing Heavy Rain mid March and  Final Fantasy XIII in mid to late April.

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