Game talkThe Death of High Fidelity in Games?

 Posted by (Visited 9607 times)  Game talk
Dec 292007
 

In the last few days I’ve had off, I have been able to catch up on a lot of the games that I missed. I played Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Halo 3, God of War 2 and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and Mass Effect, BioShock and Assassin’s Creed.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about it. Clearly, we’re killing TV because we are TV. Or movies. Or something. (Which is why everyone is upset over my saying this style of games may be doomed). Many of these games played exactly the same on a gameplay level. The differences were largely in the stunning graphics and the storytelling and cinematography.

But more critically, they were all so intense. It was strange to compare it to other games that I also tried, like the PS3 downloadable Pain, which is a very simple game but had all of us rolling on the floor laughing.

Then I read this Rolling Stone article on “The Death of High Fidelity,” about the “loudness war” and the way in which all our music these days is mastered with high compression. Something I knew about already, but hadn’t thought about in this light. The argument is that as music has gone from being a hobbyist audiophile thing to a ubiquitous utility listened to in noisier places all the time, the music itself is recorded to be louder and more penetrating, losing nuance.

Well, games are increasingly becoming a ubiquitous utility. I am sure you can see where I am going with this.

It brings me to the tougher question of how much nuance we had to lose.

  37 Responses to “The Death of High Fidelity in Games?”

  1. scene of plastic toys, not a vast, grandiose world. Perhaps that was the look they were going for, but I don’t think so. I think it was just a case of the team getting carried away with the latest shader effects. There’s a lot to be said for usingsuch effects with nuance

  2. Playback formats have always dictated popular musical styles, all the way back to ragtime on player pianos. I’ve recently been listening to a lot of classic jazz, it’s interesting to do because even the versions recreated from the original masters show the influence of being recorded with an eye towards the limitations of the record players common at the time. Lots of brass very loud when the singer isn’t singing and nothing but woodwinds and piano when they are.

    The audiophiles do remind me of the game purists who not only don’t like RMT or spoiler sites, but find it offensive that anyone else makes use of them. Sound engineers have very fine ears and a tendency to obsess over the finest nuances of sound (if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have gravitated to those jobs). I like music, but I do not have the same obsessions and find the fact that they do amusing. Who are they to tell me what music I should like?

    Or, to take another example, HD video. It’s physically impossible to tell the difference between 720P and 1080P from a distance of more than about 5 feet on a 50 inch screen (the size of the one I bought this christmas). From 10 feet (the distance I am currently sitting from mine), you need an 8 foot screen (96 inches) to tell the difference, assuming you have normal vision (you’ve seen my glasses, I probably couldn’t even on a 108″). Forget about higher resolution unless your screen is an entire wall of a fairly big room.

    Yet people act like I’m some kind of heretic when I tell them I bought a 720P set, even though I could have gotten a 1080P for only $150 more. But $1000 is my personal boggle limit on the price of a TV and I was damned if I was going to top that level for an “improvement” that was no actual improvement.

    On games, we have been pursuing visuals at the expense of everything else for the last 20 years. In actual fundamental gameplay there hasn’t been a significant advance in 10. In design theory, it’s been nearly that long for single player games (is there anything out right now that is better, in anything but visuals, than Max Payne?).

    The Wii is hot in spite of a dismal lack of non-gimmick titles or non-crappy 3rd party games because it’s the first fundamental improvement in gameplay in 10 years, and that is more important than the last-generation visuals.

    Wiz-bang particle effects bolted onto the same old narratives aren’t going to pack it anymore. And the narratives aren’t going to get any better. The PC is nearly dead as a single-player gaming platform, WoW is grossing more than the entire non-MMO market combined. There is no technical reason not to build MMO’s on consoles anymore, the only barriers are business issues.

    –Dave

    –Dave

  3. I had a similar experience earlier this fall, just before Austin, in fact. Big playfest, sampled probably 10 AAA games in a single day. I remember distinctly thinking, “So where do we go from here?” After I got over the “wow” of the graphics, the gameplay felt very much like what I’d been playing for a long, long time.

    I have not played Pain, but have been having a ball with a bunch of indie games, facebook games and art games (Lost in Static, Passage, etc). The simplicity and sometimes even the message… the nuances?… still seem to be there.

  4. This is why I can’t get into Hellgate London anymore. I had a lot of fun for the first few hours of gameplay, but it’s to the point where it’s ALL EXPLOSIONS ALL THE TIME. Hold down “W” and hold down both mouse buttons, and BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM. I don’t even know if there are game levels or enemies. NPCs? Quests? Music and sound effects? Stories? NOTHING BUT BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM!!! It’s all just a big repeating explosion in the middle of my screen.

  5. Slyfeind, Hellgate London is probably the ugliest game I’ve played in five years… not sure how it fits into this argument. I’m pretty sure you’ve missed the point of this post tbh – Hellgate is just Diablo in 3d but worse looking, and the problem you’re talking about is pretty sytemic to that genre.

  6. Which problem is systematic in that genre? Being ugly looking or lacking nuance?

    Roguelikes, the genre in which I’d place Diablo (which is a clear descendend of Angband) might be accused of ugliness, but I don’t think accusing them of lacking nuance would hold much water.

  7. I think one argument that can be made is:

    Better the mediocre story that I participate in than the mediocre story that I don’t get to interact with.

    For me, that is where it’s at. There is no such thing as ‘must-see-TV’ – I’m sorry, the concept is a bad joke. Occasionally there is a good TV show with great writing that is worth watching in the same way a good book is worth reading, but for the most part it’s like most music, just noise.

    Now it should be noted that I’m not in a community where TV shows are talked about much, or regularly discussed so that form of interaction is absent w.r.t. TV for me.

    Overall I think the interactive story medium, however formulaic or weak, will often seem to be better than TV because you are doing something, regardless of how simple, repeated or how many times you’ve seen it before.

  8. Yes, I get that the games are “intense,” but did you like them? What were the good parts? What were the bad parts? You have labeled some very different subject matter as all seeming to be the same. I understand what you mean by the gameplay is similar, but you can’t be entirely serious to not see the distinctions…especially as a professional designer.

  9. It’s the opposite, Mundinator. As a professional designer, my first pass is to strip out all the subject matter. It is irrelevant to the gameplay, though not irrelevant to the experience.

    What’s left in most of those cases is a shooter. At that point I judge the design on things like controls, what sort of autoaim is provided, whether lock on is available, how good the control layout is and whether there are too many or too few controls, whether I am on rails or not and how good a job the game does of guiding me, etc.

    Oddly, the most complex shooter out of the ones I listed was the RPG, Mass Effect. This despite the fact that people are complaining that as an RPG it’s kind of shallow — which I think I agree with.

    But really, all of them were very good. And really, there were fairly few distinctions. Mass Effect had squadmates, which complicated the controls. BioShock had the most intense storytelling aspect, but it didn’t manifest much in the gameplay proper. And so on. Call of Duty did an astounding job of keeping you on track; it was also easily the hardest one as a game, though it was very forgiving when you screwed up.

    As far as liking them… out of the bunch, Uncharted was the one that I am most likely to return to. That has little to do with whether it was the BEST one from a design perspective — it has more to do with the experience again. Frankly, I get tired of the “go go go” and the “dark passages of doom” sorts of games because, well, there were too many of them in the pile. :) Uncharted was less a shooter and more a straight-up Tomb Raider/Prince of Persia game, and I love those games. Assassin’s Creed was mostly the same thing, but Uncharted just clicked better for me.

  10. I might be getting too ‘meta’ here, but isn’t this lack of nuance a kind of meta-trend across the board? As we are innundated with (a) sheer volume of media (less time to consume it all) and (b) choice, we lose nuance everywhere.

    Movies are ‘300’, Kill Bill, etc – highly polished and stylized, all dialed up to 11.

    But then news is also super sensationalized and 5-minute pieces.

    No difference with games, except as you say, that we didn’t have much nuance to begin with.

  11. My biggest gripe with the games you listed is that they are all so epic. I don’t have the time or desire to sink 20 hours into Mass Effect, 15 into Uncharted, and god knows how many more into the rest. Give me more Portals where I can jump in, have an awesome game-play experience and be done 3 hours later with a smile on my face!

  12. [...] The Death of High Fidelity in Games? Raph’s Website In the last few days Ive had off, I have been able to catch up on a lot of the games that I missed. I played Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Halo 3, God of War 2 and Uncharted: Drakes Fortune, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and Mass Effect, BioShock and Assassins Creed. I wasnt entirely sure how to feel about it. Clearly, were killing TV because we are TV. Or movies. Or something. (Which is why everyone is upset over my saying this style of games may be doomed). Many of these games played exactly the same on a gameplay level. The differences were largely in the stunning graphics and the storytelling and cinematography. But more critically, they were all so intense. It was strange to compare it to other games that I also tried, like the PS3 downloadable Pain, which is a very simple game but had all of us rolling on the floor laughing. Then I read this Rolling Stone article on The Death of High Fidelity, about the loudness war and the way in which all our music these days is mastered with high compression. Something I knew about already, but hadnt thought about in this light. The argument is that as music has gone from being a hobbyist audiophile thing to a ubiquitous utility listened to in noisier places all the time, the music itself is recorded to be louder and more penetrating, losing nuance. Well, games are increasingly becoming a ubiquitous utility. I am sure you can see where I am going with this. It brings me to the tougher question of how much nuance we had to lose. [...]

  13. Hmm… you have me confused, Raph.
    Are you complaining that all of the games are very similair on a gameplay level or the fact that they are all so INTENSE?

  14. Both, really. And it isn’t so much a complaint as a comment. They felt “loud” somehow. And in some ways, it is like the loudness was meant to compensate for the lack of originality (I did have to laugh at the insistence in the “behind the scenes” segments on Uncharted, where the team kept harping on how the game was so incredibly original… right).

  15. Hollywood is making the same movies over and over again. You will find it in games as well. But playing games will use more of your brain.

  16. I sort of see what Raph is getting at with the “plays the same” point, and then I sort of don’t. The visceral similarities are clear: you’re maneuvering in a 3D space where you’re largely stuck to the ground, you avoid getting hit because each hit will reduce your “life” (arbitrary) and you die when it reaches zero, you shoot or swing a sword, you take the bad guys down.
    At the same time, the conscious decisions the player is expected to make are quite different; at a low level, Metroid Prime emphasizes speed and pattern apprehension (“what pattern is the boss using?”), whereas Mass Effect emphasizes the use of the environment and pattern recognition (“is that bad guy planning to charge my position?”). At a high level, Metroid Prime deals with environmental recognition, whereas Mass Effect is about (relatively) strategic allocation of character skills and equipment. The decision-making process is only similar insofar as it ties back into the low-level visceral combat feedback loop.

    To put it another way, tennis, squash, table tennis, badminton and racquetball share the same low-level feedback loop (predict movement of projectile, position self and racquet, hit projectile with racquet), but one would hardly call them “the same” in gameplay terms.

    But I do see what he’s driving at with games being “louder”. It’s like the difference between Homeworld and Homeworld 2. The first game was kind of relaxed in a lot of parts; the second one was out-and-out frenetic. I wonder, though – Raph, are you driving at the idea that the games are too “loud” at their most intense bits, like boss fights, or too loud overall? Because I certainly didn’t get a “loud” vibe from the random-wandering sections of Mass Effect. (Although I find some aspects of that game distasteful, such as how it constantly reminds you that you’re the Big Hero (c) and forces you to wear that silly stormtrooper/walking-arsenal outfit into the least appropriate of places.)

    Perhaps it would be better to define “high fidelity” in terms of dynamic range, the contrast between the high-key and low-key bits? If you compare “classical” (and I use the term loosely, since I’m a Philistine ;) music with modern music, the loud bits of a classical piece are pretty much on par with the loud bits of a modern piece. It’s the soft bits that make the classical piece stand out, because modern music isn’t just loud in places, it’s always loud. So perhaps what we should be thinking about is not whether or not there are loud bits, but whether or not there are soft bits, and how well-executed the soft bits are (viz. conversation in Mass Effect, exploration in Metroid Prime, etc) – whether they’ve been polished up as much as the loud bits have.

  17. n.n, in point of fact, I am exactly talking about dynamic range — that’s what the Rolling Stone article was about. The modern process of “normalization” pushes even quiet sounds to “loud.”

    Mass Effect and Uncharted were actually the only two on that list that had significant dynamic range.

    As far as your other comment, I suggest to you that you are making distinctions that most ordinary gamers do not. Let’s leave Mass Effect out of it for a sec, since its challenges, as you say, are more about squad management. The others are basically all “line up the target and shoot it.” You do get choices as to different sorts of guns to shoot with, over time. But the bulk of it is still rapid reaction.

    Yes, it is true that there are different challenges to Call of Duty versus Metrod versus Halo and so on — some are more about learning enemy patterns, others push you through set pieces, and so on. But we’re not even talking about the differences between tennis and racquetball here — it feels much more like the differences between different ball-hitting exercises in one sport. To me, anyway.

    Keep in mind I am not very good at console shooters — I couldn’t accomplish COD4’s tutorial/difficulty rating level in less than 49 seconds. :)

  18. Thanks for clarifying, Raph!

    Perhaps you’re right, but I’d like to believe just a little bit more in ordinary gamers – the difference between “circle-strafing is life” (Metroid) and “circle-strafing will get you killed in a hurry” (Mass Effect/CoD from what I know of it) is a pretty big one, for instance. Kind of like the difference between a badminton shuttle and a tennis ball. At the basic muscle-memory level, the reactions are the same, but at the level of conscious decision-making, things kind of change up a bit. Perhaps I am splitting hairs though.

    Would you consider mise-en-scene-ish elements such as the audio recordings in Bioshock to be “quiet” aspects of the piece, though? I acknowledge that they’re not strictly gameplay elements, but for the people who are prepared to “pay attention”, they’re an “audible” part of the experience – to borrow the audio metaphor.

  19. Should a ten or twenty hour AAA title let up on intensity?

    Comparing it to music, I’d say it’s like a 90 second punk song. There’s not a ton of time for range or subtlety.

  20. I suggest putting them all to one side and playing Super Mario Galaxy instead. It looks gorgeous anyway (proof that you don’t need to be in HD to look lovely), but the gameplay experience is constantly interesting and always changing in all sorts of fun little ways.

    I had Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed for xmas too, and whilst I enjoy them both, SMG stands head and shoulder above everything else in terms of raw playability. I invariably end up grinning inanely while playing it because it’s just so entertaining and doesn’t ever seem to get into a rut (so far).

  21. Hello, resident audio engineer at your service. I’m gonna agree with your analogous comparison of our fields. I’ll even take you one step further. My industry (like many) is filled with folks who really shouldn’t be in it for any of dozens of reasons. A lot of these poor audio engineers seemingly operate under this guiding philosophy: If it doesn’t sound good, yet….turn it up some more.

    The industry itself isn’t even that fond of its own media! No, I’m not talking about CDs, I mean audio….ya know, making sounds through the air? They spend far more time on what everything looks like. I’ve often compared WoW to Britteny Spears, sure she sells platinum albums. Ask a true quality vocal talent and they’ll tell you, while she can technically hit notes (after a few hundred takes and hours of post-production), the girl fundamentally cannot sing.

    Watched a recent South Park episode last night, I had to stop the video nearly every time they showed Heroine Hero so I could laugh for 20 minutes.

    But really, it seems like everything is turning into that, lately. There’s 800 sad, uninspired facades of the real thing out there all trying to shout louder than each other. The fakes don’t want you to know their fakes, so they keep you chasing your tail for a while. Once you figure it out, they act more like the problem is you not believing them (and continuing to pay) than them lying about what they really are.

    Do most people realize that this country has its own little bubble boy version of a cell phone market?

    Maybe its just Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap.

    I love audio and working with artists to play on a tapestry all of these entertainment styles and mediums end up using. The human emotional spectrum. Esoterics is absolutely humbling sometimes.

  22. I suggest putting them all to one side and playing Super Mario Galaxy instead. It looks gorgeous anyway (proof that you don’t need to be in HD to look lovely), but the gameplay experience is constantly interesting and always changing in all sorts of fun little ways.

    I really disliked the controls. I keep trying, because everyone raves about it, but they feel slushy and imprecise, and I cannot seem to land jumps while twisted at a 15 degree angle from upside-down.

  23. Should a ten or twenty hour AAA title let up on intensity?

    Comparing it to music, I’d say it’s like a 90 second punk song. There’s not a ton of time for range or subtlety.

    No, a 90 second game is like a 90 second punk song. A 20 hour game is like a full season’s worth of TV. :)

  24. the difference between “circle-strafing is life” (Metroid) and “circle-strafing will get you killed in a hurry” (Mass Effect/CoD from what I know of it) is a pretty big one, for instance. Kind of like the difference between a badminton shuttle and a tennis ball.

    I think of those as the difference between a kill shot and a Z shot in racquetball — tools to use for different situations. Really, CoD single-player anyway, is all about cover. Metroid is all about run n gun. But they’re both still paintball, so to speak.

    Would you consider mise-en-scene-ish elements such as the audio recordings in Bioshock to be “quiet” aspects of the piece, though?

    Yes, but in Bioshock, those were “shouting.” I mean, the storytelling is not subtle at all, I don’t think. I haven’t finished it yet and I know there is a twist ending, but the Randian critique is pretty heavy-handed I mean, the guide voice is Atlas? Come on). The audio logs haven’t really shed different light on anything for me yet.

    Hello, resident audio engineer at your service.

    I am surprised you haven’t been shredding the music I have posted. ;)

  25. Shredding?!?! For starters at least you know how to properly mic a guitar track, you’re already twenty times more qualified than some people in my field right there. :9

  26. The sad part, to me, is that most of the games are about combat. All this money, all these resources, all these people’s *lives* are being spent in service of exploring combat. I think the nuance missing is the variety of experiences possible that do not involve… combat! :)

  27. [...] at his MMO blog, Mr. Koster made an interesting observation on the fidelity of games. In short, he asserts that many recent titles crank the volume up to 11 instead of offering a range [...]

  28. Off-topic but interesting: http://www.runescape.com/kbase/view.ws?guid=diary06

    Its a description of Runescape’s battle against RMT problems (gold-farming with botted accounts bought with stolen credit card numbers, etc).

  29. Jason,

    Tell that to the MMO folks please. Combat in MMOs should be but a spoke of the wheel yet it is uniformly treated as the centerpiece and the entirety of nearly every MMO. It needs to be there because its a natural progression of conflict resolution that is so important to MMOs but it does not have to be the centerpiece. Perhaps twitchy combat games (and I’d argue real-time strategy) have to be “loud” in order to be seen whereas more visceral and subtle experiences of game play can be had in other genres. It’s too bad MMOs ignore the opportunities that the format presents them but then again most MMO developers/producers/investors/decision makers came from the single player genre so it’s no wonder the opportunities are lost on them. AAA titles need to be “loud” because that’s just how things are these days and that’s a shame.

  30. [...] in public places.He directly relates this to the loss of nuanced sound this results in, making a sly dig at the quality of these single-player experiences. IE: by being ‘bold and brassy’, these titles pale in the realm of quality compared to quieter, [...]

  31. Derek,

    I’m with you all the way. Every MMO I’ve ever seen (maybe except Puzzle Pirates?) is nothing but a combat grind. I do admit that I really enjoy Guild Wars. But certainly these kinds of designs are way too common. Once you’ve played a fantasy MMO, you’ve pretty much played them all (get sword, get bigger sword, reach new area, fight new monsters). Maybe details change, but I want more variety in setting, activities and goals! And that applies as much to single player.

    (Shameless plug…) Fortunately, I am in a position to experiment a little with the formula. I’m making a “small,” non-medieval MMO (with funding from kongregate.com), and I’m trying to design away all the annoyances that I can–including combat.

    Well, at least I feel justified to complain since I’m trying to do something about the problem. :)

  32. [...] Raph Koster has an interesting post covering many of the major game releases of 2007. The gist of his argument, as I see it, is that underneath their graphics and storytelling, games like God of War 2, Bioshock, Mass Effect, Halo 3, Call of Duty 4 and so on are all more or less the same game. [...]

  33. [...] of the team getting carried away with the latest shader effects.There’s a lot to be said for using such effects with nuance, but it’s difficult to do in an interactive medium where you aren’t sure how much it’s going to [...]

  34. The audio logs haven’t really shed different light on anything for me yet.

    And they probably won’t, much. They do add depth and texture. There’s a pretty good SF novel (or, possibly, TV miniseries) hiding inside the Bioshock back story longing to get out.

  35. [...] off of a post by Raph Koster, I set down some of my own thoughts on the games of [...]

  36. [...] and the more alternative forms of electronic music. Raph Koster was talking about this in games, here but the discussion veers off towards music and other media. Quite an interesting topic really. [...]

  37. When I think of the evolution of games and where we can go from here, I keep remembering the “game” from Ender’s Game. Even the description of his simply understanding the world that was generated as a reaction to his behavior in the game was riveting to me (granted, a lot of that was Card’s prose style, but still..) Some fight was required, but not always.

    A variety of puzzles were presented to him and his only goal was… to play and understand it. No acquisition of shinies, no ranking ladder to climb, no coin to accrue.

    To me, thats where the subtly of MMOs are; The “Fidelity”. An ever expanding world for you to explore and learn where things are and how they work. 20 levels later you face a giant snake and can’t figure out how to get past it.. then you remember that bird in the cage from way back in the first tavern you visited. Ring any bells?

    We’ve had all the pieces of the world/game I’d like to see, but never in the same game. The intangible feeling of not knowing if the person you’re talking to is an NPC, an employee or a player from “Majestic”. The rich and textured lore and history from EQ. The ability to shape and change the world for everyone in SL. Textual/conversational interaction ala Zork, fast paced battles in any number of games. Rich, complex economies.

    Thats the path. Don’t crank up the volume. Add more instruments to orchestra. When they’re all in tune, its magic!

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