PlayStation Experience shows soul-searching among gamer culture

Dec. 10, 2014 | 4:58 a.m.

THE PLAYER

Hayden Panettiere stars in "Until Dawn," an interactive horror drama.  (Supermassive Games)

Hayden Panettiere stars in “Until Dawn,” an interactive horror drama. (Supermassive Games)

The young, college-age man meant to praise Telltale Games’ emotionally wrenching take on “The Walking Dead” during a Q&A session Saturday night at the first-ever PlayStation Experience, a fan convention in Las Vegas largely dedicated to hyping mainstream and indie titles due out for Sony’s game platforms.

“I was crying like a little girl,” he said, admiring the game’s effectiveness in one particularly difficult-to-stomach scene.

An audible gasp shot through the room and a woman in the audience immediately spoke up.“I didn’t cry,” she yelled.

Melissa Hutchison, the voice actress whose character was responsible for the tears, was next to chime in. “I cried like a grown woman,” she said, inspiring cheers from the crowd.

If one is going to speak at a video game event in 2014, it’s best to first carefully consider the remark. As the gaming audience has diversified, more have started to question whether the industry’s tastes have too long leaned overwhelmingly toward the adolescent male. What’s believed to be a small but vocal aspect of the community hasn’t reacted too kindly to the suggestion of change, equating criticism of the medium with some sort of social cause for political correctness.

Even a relentlessly upbeat corporate event such as the PlayStation Experience wasn’t immune to tension. If there’s good news to be had, it’s that the industry has appeared to have done some soul-searching long before this summer’s “gamergate” — the term linked with what has largely been vile comments directed at female developers and critics.

"To Leave" is an in-development game about battling an existential crisis. (Freaky Games)

“To Leave” is an in-development game about battling an existential crisis. (Freaky Games)

If the upcoming game slate for 2015 and 2016 is viewed with a wide-angle lens, designers and creative directors are taking more authorship over a medium that has often been designed by committee — a method that resulted in years of games with nearly identical presentations.

“I stopped playing when everything became ‘Doom,’” said a Vegas cab driver in reference to the industry’s reliance on running and shooting.

Hard-core players need not worry. There’s no shortage of titles on the horizon that emphasize grueling action, either on the indie side — the heavily stylized, stenciled look of fantasy-action game “Salt and Sanctuary,” for instance — or the larger, Sony-published “Bloodborne,” a Victorian-set slash-and-bleed epic.

The Sony-published "Bloodborne" will be a challenge to even the most dedicated of gamers. (From Software)

The Sony-published “Bloodborne” will be a challenge to even the most dedicated of gamers. (From Software)

Still, indie and mobile games are expanding the audience and lowering the initial cost to play, not to mention lessening the learning curve for a medium that was once the province of only high-priced consoles and PCs. Even Hidetaka Miyazaki, whose titles, including “Bloodborne,” target the most serious of players, has sensed a new audience entering the game arena.

“It’s almost like the neighbors next-door are peeking in to see what you’re all talking about and getting excited about,” Miyazaki said through an interpreter.

It’s helping fuel an increased reverence for characters and narrative, and many this weekend were hopeful that the public would someday view the game-playing experience — which often requires the minimum of a 12-20 hour commitment — as similar to that of binge-watching a television series.

Supermassive Games is working on “Until Dawn,” a horror game starring Hayden Panettiere. “We see it as a season of TV, like a boxed set,” said creative director Will Byles.

“Until Dawn” looks to be about a 9- or 10-hour experience, and though it’s a genre title, it’s aiming for wide-scale accessibility. Players will be confronted with choices — hide under a bed or jump over it, for instance — rather than wrestle with learning complex action maneuvers.

“I love horror games, but they’ve become more shooters, big-action games, rather than just spooky and scary,” Byles said.
Finding ways to better marry game controls with narrative is an ongoing challenge. Ru Weerasuriya, the chief executive of Ready at Dawn and creative director of early 2015 title “The Order: 1886,” spoke of debates he had with his staff over the violent actions of the game’s main character. They eventually shifted the protagonist’s personality to better explain his killing.

Naughty Dog’s upcoming “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End” unveiled a blockbuster teaser over the weekend, one that split the difference between gunplay and the internal monologues of the main character. Many will be curious to see the final balance the game strikes, given that Naughty Dog’s 2013 title “The Last of Us” was lauded more for story development than action.

“Uncharted” writer Neil Druckmann acknowledged on a panel that past games in the series have been criticized for dissonance between character development and violence.

“Games have a certain reality to them and certain rules. In an action game, you’re probably going to kill more people than you’d see in a film,” he said.

“It’s a stylized reality. It’s part of the action, it’s part being on this escape, this fantasy. You have to find where your comfort zone is.”

Or largely avoid combat all together.

There's no combat in "Wander," but you can become a tree. (Wander Game)

There’s no combat in “Wander,” but you can become a tree. (Wander Game)

“To Leave” is in development from a small Ecuadorean team going by the name of Freaky Creations. It’s a puzzle game, but one in which the enemy is essentially an existential crisis. The main character — his name is Harm — is fed up with his life and wants a new direction. But he finds that getting out of the city and starting over isn’t as easy as, well, crafting a magic door and just flying out of the metropolis.

Although the game was crafted from personal stories, it manages to tap into a generational malaise — a fear that financial and occupational prospects are constantly dimming.

“Our main character is at a point in his life where nothing is working out,” said producer Jorge Blacio. “He has lost himself. In order to find himself again, he’s resolved the only way to do it is leave the megalopolis. He really believes the city is suffocating him, tying him to his past.”

Weirder and calmer still is “Wander,” an Australian game in which players begin as a tree and shape-shift through a forest. There’s no combat, only the challenge of exploring a rainforest. Creative director Loki Davison wanted a game that would allow him to interact with other players, but in a more friendly, non-violent way.

He describes it as “the opposite of YouTube comments,” which are often toxic. In the so-called gamergate era, Davison said the onus is on developers to foster a more welcoming game community, both for current and potentially new players.

“I want you to play with other people and think nice things about them,” he said. “So many people, if you tell them you’re making a multiplayer game, they will say, ‘Oh, I don’t like playing with people. They’re horrible.’”

“I think it’s a lot to do with setting,” he continued. “If you encourage something, then that’s what you’re getting.”

— Todd Martens | @Toddmartens | @LATherocomplex

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