There’s a fine line between making it accessible and just dumbing it down
When creating a big-budget title, the general idea is to satisfy a large audience and alienate as few potential customers as possible – guaranteeing a profit and covering the manufacturing costs of the game.
While this is a sensible idea, it means games tend to play it ‘safe’, pandering to what is popular in the current gaming climate. At the same time, games also need to have a unique selling point, something that sets them apart from the crowd. The combination of these two ideas has led to the trend of games adopting tropes from more specialised genres (i.e. stealth, fighting, and role playing games) and streamlining these systems to appeal to a mass audience.
The issue is whether this streamlining is ultimately a good or bad thing; whether it opens the genre up to a new audience or just dilutes what makes the games so special.
Sometimes opening up the genre ends up appeasing nobody. Long-time fans are left unsatisfied and new players are disappointed by a watered-down experience. The recent Thief reboot is one of the games. Originally one of the greatest stealth games of all time, the most recent entry left people completely indifferent. Thief was criticised by old players for being too linear and easy compared to the original, while even new players commented on the poor AI and uninteresting level design.
Having played Thief, it is evident that all these problems were the result of making the formula more accessible. The first two Thief games were ruthless; AI searched high and low for the player, sword drawn if they heard so much as an out of place footstep, and combat usually ended with you on the floor. On the other hand, in the reboot you can drop off of the enemies’ radar by diving into a slightly dark corner and crouching for ten seconds, before taking them out with one easy blackjack blow to the head. All while their friend just around the corner remains oblivious to it all. Thief was a perfect example of the ‘water it down so the dumb masses can handle it’ attitude giving a poor representation of the genre.
The Last of Us is unique in that it borrows from two different genres – survival horror and stealth. Most people will agree that it functions very well as a horror game; the sequences in which you try to avoid grotesque enemies that kill you in increasingly horrible ways owe a lot to Resident Evil and Silent Hill and are genuinely effective. The stealth sections, however, are far less so.
The majority of the stealth moments have you playing what is essentially Pac-Man with dumb humans. When you’re stealthily making your way from wooden crate to wooden crate, your companion Ellie will shout “Be quiet Joel!” as she runs straight past a trio of guards. Not that they care, mind, Ellie might as well be invisible given the lack of any reaction. I appreciate that the developers probably didn’t want to make it an arduous task dragging a massive target of a companion around, but having her be little more than a 14 year-old swearing ghost created a bit of a jarring experience in an otherwise enjoyable game.
While hardly a contemporary example, Call of Duty 4 is still one of the best examples of adapting a genre well to suit the masses. Say what you want about COD, but you’d be lying to say that it didn’t introduce a whole new wave of people to the niche genre of online first-person-shooters. While Counter Strike, Call of Duty 2 and Day of Defeat were the crowning kings of hardcore competitive FPS, COD4 came along to provide a healthy balance of skill based competition and beginner-friendly gameplay.
COD4’s class system gave you five distinct play styles: Assault, Heavy Gunner, Spec Ops, Demolition and Sniper. These are all that’s available for the first four levels, giving new players a feel for the different facets of gameplay and also including a slight auto-aim function to help them hit their targets more frequently. Once you reach level five, you get to create your own classes and loadouts. This gave existing FPS fans a rewarding arcade experience that consistently awarded them with weapons and other unlockables for skilled play. It hit the perfect balance of appealing to both parties by making the genre accessible without being dumbed down.
Sacrifices need to be made to help introduce new players but at the same time the core experience needs to be represented well enough to still be a good example of the genre. Call of Duty shows that there is a balance that can be struck, The Last of Us almost made it work, and Thief is a pretty good example of how dumbing it down can ruin your game.
Images: Sony Computer Entertainment, Eidos Interactive