Monday, July 28, 2014

The Racing Tangent, part 2...

Through the '80s the West was in a race to develop the best arcade games, their console games weren't known however for being exceptional. Japan seemed to excel at every step of the process and had created genres on the consoles that would be copied for the next three decades. The best that the US developers could do was play catch up and try to have a game in the vein of a popular Japanese title for the fledgling Nintendo and Sega systems. There was one niche however where the Japanese had no foothold in and would struggle to keep up with. When it came to computer gaming the Japanese publishers did not invest a lot of time or resources compared to the rest of the world. Consoles were growing at an exponential pace and audiences were starved for content. The money was therefore in the console market. Computers were powerful but more expensive and took up a much smaller slice of the entertainment pie. Computer games ran the gamut of experiences. Mostly education titles and the occasional arcade port. Some of the most memorable experiences took advantage of the advanced storage capacity and graphics engines that computers supported. Young developers and self-taught programmers from the West cut their teeth on computers like the Amiga and Commodore 64 in the '80s. They learned how to program simple game engines and trade games with the homebrew community. By the '90s these young programmers were making headway in their own 3D game engines.

Namco and Sega were pouring millions of R&D money to get their in-house teams up to speed with 3D during the '90s as well. The games they unleashed in the arcade were amazing however the computer users in the US, UK and Europe were creating their own 3D titles to enjoy at home. Suddenly the sprite-based consoles seemed obsolete by comparison. When Sony, Sega and Nintendo began to pursue 3D technology for the next generation of hardware some of the best games would not be coming from Japan. This trend would continue from the mid '90s through the new millennium. The Western publishers began to harness the processing power of newer consoles and the talent reserves of computer game designers to create cutting-edge 3D experiences. One of the first things that Western publishers did was introduce the Western ideals of graphic violence into the industry. First person shooters like Wolfenstein (1992) and Doom (1993) were the proving ground for the modding community. Players in the US enjoyed the over-the-top violence provided in FPS titles. As graphics technology improved Western developers seemed to relish in how much more visceral they could make their main characters appear. That especially was the case with the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles. Suddenly characters were presented with as much detail as those used in CGI films.

Naughty Dog for example created an adventure series called Uncharted: Drake's Fortune in 2007. It revolved around the fictional explorer Nathan Drake. The series was a testament to Western gameplay and Western aesthetics. The studio had presented a believable adventure with just the right mix of exploration and gun-fighting to satiate most audiences. The character and environments were not pristine and idealized. Instead they were gritty and detailed. As the series progressed Nathan became slightly more disheveled. When the game was first previewed at the E3 in 2006 the character was clean-cut yet that quickly changed when the game came out and as the sequels came out. He had become as weather beaten as his clothes by the time the final game in the series, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception was released in 2011.

As the Uncharted series progressed audiences could see the world becoming darker and more graphic. This was a precursor to the visceral experience that Naughty Dog had planned in the 2013 hit The Last of Us. The main characters Joel and Ellie were very easy to identify with because they were some of the most realistic characters ever featured in a game. All of the experience that the West had with computer programming was made apparent in the game. In the '90s companies were trying to figure out how to create realistic hair on a character, two decades later they were not only creating realistic hair but also eyes, skin, mouths, muscles and skeletons. These new figures were able to emote with facial expressions and body gestures that were uncannily good. Audiences developed genuine concern for Joel and Ellie as they tried to survive in a world following an epidemic.

By comparison the once popular Tomb Raider series, which began in 1996, had lost its human connection as the years went on. The main character and explorer Lara Croft was the predecessor to Nathan Drake, Joel and Ellie.The developer Eidos did little to keep the content fresh in the series relying instead on the power of marketing. Lara was a very buxom computer model, and sometimes human model in their ad campaigns. Using sex and violence to sell the series to a young male demographic was the top priority for the publisher. The time and money should have been invested into the game itself. In terms of gameplay and level design the series was good but not always the best in the genre. The graphics did get better from year to year but the experience became predictable leading to a downfall for the franchise. As sales declined so did the popularity and even relevancy of the main character.

The success of Naughty Dog did not go unnoticed by Eidos. They decided to create a dark and gritty reboot of Tomb Raider that fell in line with the smaller developer. They copied the realism that had made the Uncharted series popular, but to be fair Uncharted was poaching the exploration, puzzles and action that made Tomb Raider a hit to begin with. There was nothing glamorous about the redesigned Lara. She was still young but looked a little bit more like a seasoned explorer rather than polygonal supermodel. The new Lara would become bloodied and beaten over the course of the new game. The firefights and close combat encounters were much more visceral than ever before.

The realistic and hard hitting encounters were reflective of the more popular titles from the West. In fact since the Western audiences seemed to gravitate towards the new darker, grittier graphics then the developers began pursuing the format for different genres. The concept of the superhero seemed passe' and the rise of the anti-hero in games like Infamous and Prototype became more acceptable. Games that did revolve around comic book heroes presented them in a different light. Instead of colorful spandex costumes the new superheroes wore muted colors over body armor. These visual changes were not limited to human characters either.

Racing games began taking a page out of the new school of game design. Car models were not only expected to be highly detailed and respond realistically, they were also expected to take real damage and break apart like real cars. Minor bumps were expected to take a scratch out of the paint job while a full-on collision was supposed to shatter windshields and tear off body panels. Anything less than that was seen as a failure in the eyes of modern gamers. Of course just because the studios had the technology to create more complex models and more realistic graphics did not necessarily mean that it translated into a better gaming experience.

The post-Destruction Derby world would have to find a balance between combat and racing. It would have to engage the player on multiple levels and not simply feature destructible car models or real-world tracks. The genre for violent racing games would explode (no pun intended) in the new millennium. The roots of the genre were based in the US. The influences of muscle cars and reckless getaways from live-action films would forever color the format. The next blog will look at the shift in racing's accepted format. I hope to see you back for it.

1 comment:

  1. Darker, Grittier and more realistic. still on the fence about this, I worry that in the attempt to make things so realistic that going outside may be a choice for intertainment; although most of the stuff done in games I would think of doing in real life. a 1st time, much consider doing.