This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
In some respects, the Nintendo 3DS couldn’t have come sooner; lately I’ve been finding the DS shelves at my preferred game shops increasingly clogged up with an enormous tidal wave of shovelware. A while back, before Game decided to have a purge, the PC games section was dominated by various varieties of hidden object game (potentially a side-effect of most canny developers giving up on the idea of selling boxed PC games in shops in the first place); at points it’s seemed that the DS selection has been getting that bad. If the 3DS is substantially more expensive to develop for then hopefully that will mean the market isn’t swamped to the point where shovelware crowds high-quality games off the shelves.
The crappy selection of games currently out for the DS is particularly unfortunate, because I think the best console games often come out comparatively late in a console’s life cycle. Once you hit a point where developers are both comfortable enough with the system in question to really be able to put it through its paces, and the prospect of an upcoming new generation of consoles make them want to push the constraints of the old hardware in order to compete with the flashier offerings on the horizon, sometimes wonderful things can happen. The first Silent Hill game is one of the most visually arresting games on the PS1 and came out barely a year before the PS2 arrived; the PS3 had been out for years when Persona 4 came out on the PS2 and amazed me with how good the graphics on the old system could still be.
So I was quite glad when a while back I was able to score the latest sequels to some of my favourite series on the DS, and found that in both cases they pushed the graphical capabilities of the system to the limit. On top of that, I don’t know why it is but for some reason both of them seemed to take a more pessimistic, downbeat stance than is usually typical for downbeat games, which got me thinking about downer gaming in general.
Writing games that make people feel sad or bad about the things that happen on them is kind of a tightrope. Spec Ops: The Line, I would say, is a superb example of a game which did it right, not least because whilst it does teeter towards the trap of blaming players for attempting to engage with the scenario that a game presents them with (if a game gives you no option other than to kill people, is it really your fault when you kill those people? Is it really fair to expect people to play a game without partaking of the core activity of the game?), but it also spends just as much time analysing how games of its ilk are put together and presented by the industry in the first place.
It’s crammed to the gills with set pieces that the Call of Duty clones of the world unimaginatively cough up time and again, and has a perfect knack for making them very slightly fucked up, and generally getting across the idea that once you are in the midst of a full war situation then things are already fucked and nobody is getting out clean, and that’s not something to cheer or celebrate or valorise or treat as being a Good or Strong thing; instead, the capacity of a human being to do awful things because they are persuaded that they are the Hard But Necessary things is, in Spec Ops, something to deplore.
However, for every Spec Ops: The Line that comes out there’s a dozen indie attempts at Challenging Your Preconceptions which fall flat like The Path or Dear Esther, and two or three major league developers revealing the extent to which their artistic pretensions overreach their craft, as happened with Mass Effect 3 or Grand Theft Auto IV. And yet here are two games in series which had previously proven quite cheerful which had me genuinely engaged and mooping away at the moop-worthy things that happen in them, and they make the whole thing look easy. What gives?
Continue reading “Handheld Tear-Jerkers”