What Does Next-Gen Mean to You?

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bioshock.pngGame|Life reports that developer David Braben is claiming Bioshock and Halo 3 aren't next-gen games. Obviously this is an incendiary comment intended to stir up controversy and draw attention to Braben's upcoming "techno thriller" The Outsider, which I had never heard of before now. So, congratulations, Mr. Braben, mission accomplished.

Braben can make this statement because he's not using the generally accepted definition of "next-gen." According to his own definition, games "must give the player the chance to change the story beyond simply following a good or evil path" in order to qualify. I consider this an admirable proposition, in some sense - certainly, I agree with him that Bioshock and Halo 3 represent a traditionally linear sort of game design, which results in a fundamentally predictable narrative experience. This has advantages and disadvantages over a nonlinear system, such as can be found in, for example, Second Life, Civilization or Animal Crossing. I also agree with Braben that the industry could stand to see more exploration and innovation in the nonlinear game space. But the fact remains that, while Braben might consider this the criteria for creating a next generation game, no one else does.

In common understanding, generations are strictly defined and indelibly related to hardware cycles, and games are classified by the cycle during which they're released. For the most part, it's a clear-cut classification. Braben is clearly trying to redefine generations based on something other than hardware; presumably, as artistic movements based on universal design philosophies. Movements are similar to generations in that they're sequentially progressive - each iteration is a reaction to its predecessor. But I don't think that's an accurate description of the way games are developed. First of all, it would be difficult to pin down design philosophies that come anywhere near universal at a given time. There's simply too much variety in the industry. Additionally, even though one could argue that games are designed as reactions to previous games, there generally isn't a stable progression to it. Rather, a game's design is likely to include a number of philosophical precepts, each a response to a different (or, more likely, many different) earlier games.

The best way to classify games uses genres rather than artistic movements. Genres are relatively stable and tend to coexist rather than occur sequentially. Generally, games are well suited to this sort of organization, but certainly there are clusters or sequences of games within some genres that can be classified or analyzed differently - and, for that matter, there are many cases of games that straddle genres, or fuse them, or defy them. Genres are complicated, and a favorite subject of mine, so no doubt the discussion of how genres are differentiated and how games are classified within them will continue to be a common theme of my posts.

While I think all this is fascinating (and maybe that's just me), I suspect that Braben's intention isn't to imply a different sort of classification system for games. I think he's merely trying to use the phrase "next-gen" as a synonym for "cutting-edge" or "avant-garde," or maybe even "buzz-worthy." Which I don't think is particularly accurate, either. The claim that Bioshock and Halo 3 don't push the envelope is simply wrong, even if the envelope they're pushing isn't the same one Braben is interested in. Game design is eminently multi-dimensional, and these games, along with Portal, and others, no doubt, are breaking ground in one particular dimension of it: narrative context.

Certainly this is true of Portal, which hints throughout at the larger world in which the game takes place, and contains just the right amount of mystery to ensure the player is considering the implications of the things they are presented with throughout the course of the game. And that's for new players who are unfamiliar with the Half Life universe - for anyone who has played through that saga, Portal preserves much the same sort of mystery by hinting strongly that it exists within the established universe but being coy with details such as when it takes place and how it influences the larger world. I'd walk on thin ice to talk any more about Bioshock (although I have acquired the game, now, so expect more informed analysis in the future), but my impressions of that game lead me to believe it also invests heavily in the backstory of the setting. Details like the frequently-referenced dancing couple are excellent examples of a focus on creating a rich, detailed atmosphere as a backdrop that continually informs the plot - and may in some cases, I would argue, be a more important component to the narrative experience than the plot is. I'd also make the claim that Halo 3 plays a very strong hand in terms of creating and engaging the audience with a substantial backstory. For the past several years, Microsoft and Bungie have invested an enormous amount of marketing capital into accessories to the Halo franchise: a series of paperback books (that aren't about the main characters of the game), a pair of world-class ARGs (again, detailing events that occur outside the scope of the games), and two incredible television campaigns for Halo 3 (Neill Blomkamp's three part series and the Believe campaign, which are remarkable in that they do not show content from the game or deal directly with the plot or characters from the game). The purpose of all of these products, aside from obviously generating awareness and excitement for the games, has been to expand the Halo universe. I think it's also worth noting that Halo 2 broke from the original's precedent to detail the social and religious organizations of the Covenant, drawing the focus of the narrative away from the simple Space Marine story and instead swinging our attention around to the explore the political landscape of the game world.

Are these games the first in history to include backstories? Of course not. But they raise the stakes, elevating the idea of narrative context and carefully designed atmosphere and its role in game design to a new height, much as Braben is - I can only assume - attempting to do with nonlinearity.

So, to conclude, David Braben's disparagement of Bioshock and Halo 3 is without qualification baseless and completely out of line. I wish it were more unusual for a developer or publisher to make this sort of outrageous claim in an attempt to draw attention to themselves, but the fact of the matter is that it's a common and effective tactic. Certainly it has brought The Outsider to my attention, and I will be curiously following its progress from now on. Any attempts to experiment and break new ground in any aspect of game design is welcome news to me. We'll just have to wait and see if the game can live up to the significant promises its designer has been making.

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