When you look back at the consoles of generations past, themes tend to betray themselves.
With the SNES and the Mega Drive? Cartridges and neon-lit platformers. Sonic and Mario. Top down RPGs and Street Fighter. The PlayStation and the N64? Clumsy, adventurous leaps into the third dimension. Tomb Raider and Mario 64, Resident Evil and Ocarina of Time.
But writing a eulogy for the generation just passed is always trickier. Trends become more apparent as time passes, and right now it feels like there’s little that distinguishes the PS4/Xbox One consoles from previous generations. The controllers were similar, the consoles themselves were similar.
More importantly the games were similar.
If I had to identify one trend that defined the generation of games gone by, I’d say this was the period in which big budget games — the type produced by Sony’s first party studios or Ubisoft and EA — began to feel indistinguishable from one another. Games, even well-made games, felt like exercises in box ticking.
Third-person camera, check. Crafting, check. Skill trees, check.
The problem was exacerbated, for me, by a fan-made video created by Twitter creator SuhniLegend. A video designed to showcase the quality and breadth of Sony’s first party line-up. Cutting seamlessly between games like Uncharted 4, Spider-Man, Horizon Zero Dawn and God of War, the video was beautifully made and perfectly edited, but if you squinted hard enough you could probably convince yourself that — outside of a few unique cosmetic choices — the footage was all from one single video game.
A homogenous mish-mash of styles, camera angles, and mechanics. The end of video game history. Third-person, open world adventures, interspersed with cinematics. Chasing mission markers, punching bad guys, upgrading your gear, levelling up, unlocking new attacks. God of War is more combat focused, and Horizon has more RPG elements — but these sliders operate on the same spectrum. The same melody in a different key.
It’s understandable. We know that video game budgets are spiralling out of control; that developers are working through horrific, intense crunch periods to get games like The Last of Us 2 or Cyberpunk 2077 across the line. We know that video game creation is the ultimate exercise in plate-spinning and that, inside that insane pressure cooker, it pays to think of games in terms of familiar, discrete mechanics that marketing teams and players can latch on to.
But I also believe that something was lost.
In the last generation of consoles the majority of big budget video games played out like Marvel movies. Well-made crowd-pleasers operating within a comfortable set of aesthetics. You could never say that games like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey or Spider-Man were bad, but very few — even game of the year contenders like God of War — pushed into any new territory that disassociated players from well-worn expectations.
When I look back at the generation that was, the games that stand out are those that pushed back against the mono-game. Games focused specifically on one type of mechanic. Games that broke the rules in a way that blasted me out of the malaise of pushing the same buttons in the precise same order.
Games like Baba is You, a puzzle game and a satire of puzzle games all at once. Games like Outer Wilds, a pure exploration experience set inside a perfectly crafted snow globe of a universe. Games like Breath of the Wild, maybe the only big budget game that truly subverted the tropes we’ve come to expect from the mono-game. An experience completely comfortable in its own skin, brave enough to break the rules we take for granted. Games like Return of the Obra Dinn or Disco Elysium. Games like Death Stranding — a bloated, bizarre but ultimately flawed mix of the familiar and the outright bizarre. That game might be the bravest of the lot, given the stakes involved. I didn’t enjoy every second I spent with that game, but I’m unlikely to forget it.
As we head towards this new generation of consoles, that brave chaotic energy is one I hope future games will aspire to recreate. We’ve invented the mono-game, maybe it’s time to break it. The indie space has always been where the majority of risks are taken, but I’d like to see more big budget games follow that lead. To subvert expectations instead of catering to them.
Otherwise the next generation of consoles will serve up more of the same.