We are living in a golden age of big-budget PC games that offer us choice and freedom. Be they descendants of the System Shock model - finding a route around a meticulously-crafted, locked-down and hostile place, most recently seen in Prey [official site] - or the roleplaying games based around choice and consequence rather than action alone, they are legion. There are so many, even, that I'm not sure we can fully appreciate how good we've got it.
So spoilt for choice, we fall inevitably into gripes about lesser failings or delay our purchases until a steep discount. Understandably so, when we have gigabytes of existent delights clogging the extra hard drives we've had to buy to contain all these things.
Where once I flocked urgently to even the faintest promise of what was once called an immersive sim or a cRPG, nowadays glossy, multi-million-dollar descendants of those concepts seem to arrive so regularly that making time in our lives or leeway in our bank accounts for them is a significant challenge. Sometimes, an impossible one.
What a time to be alive and with a computer in the house. We should not take this golden age for granted.
PC games in general are in particularly rude health right now, but I’m talking specifically about games in which you choose your path and your playstyle. Even that falls into two distinct categories: the Ubilikes, sandboxes in which you choose who to kill, in what order and with which weapons, and the Shocklikes, those with more constructed, almost puzzlebox worlds of bespoke challenges with multiple solutions, their emphasis more on finding your way around than on violence.
It is this latter that I feel we may be taking for granted. The former, with its Arkhams and its Mordors and its guerrilla-strewn tropical islands (and even its Zeldas, now), is so wildly popular that I have no fears for its health. Killing a lot of things in a wide-open space (and invariably being rewarded with points for it) is going to be a mainstay of videogames for many years to come.
Games about finding one of multiple possible paths into locked-down spaces in rich, detailed worlds can never be so ten-a-penny. They are an inherently harder sell to a twitchy crowd and, with the greatest of respect and reverence for the skill required to create a Ubilike, this other sort requires a particular degree of master-crafting to get right. The extreme delicacy required to build a world that feels real, and that creates a compulsion to explore every corner on it, then balance that with solid combat and storytelling and characterisation is exactly why minor or major failures within a game like this can feel so jarring.
That's exactly why I can end up being so very picky about a Shocklike or RPG; hung up on minor foibles, failing to appreciate quite how many plates this thing is spinning in order to entertain me.
Coupled with the certainty that another one will be along soon, that is also why I can end up leaving Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Dishonored 2 unfinished. Where once I would have persevered regardless - those game-breaking bugs and countless rough edges in Vampire: Bloodlines didn't stop me, for instance - the modern belief that a game like that is no longer a rare and precious commodity means I feel safe to eject early. Perhaps because I don’t enjoy the characterisation, or some new area isn't compelling, or the overall familiarity is a bit of a drag.
So I hang on for the next one instead, or tell myself that this is only a brief abandonment, leave it on my hard drive for years, never buy the DLC, never give a real vote of confidence in wanting more.
What a thing it is to live in a world where we’ve had a new Deus Ex, a new Dishonored, a new Hitman, Prey, The Witcher 3, even Mass Effect: Andromeda, for all its stumbles, all within the space of a couple of years. I’m sure there are more still, but I struggle to recall them all because they seem to arrive and then pass by so quickly. It has been a delight: so many happy hours of hacking and sneaking and lockpicking and deciphering and negotiating and choosing who to be, where to go and how to do it. And, yes, who to kill and how, or who to choke or taser into unconsciousness, or who to avoid entirely.
There have been successes and there have been failures. There have been games with extraordinary fidelity of world-building, and games which rely more on wide-open spaces and routine combat. There have been games I have lost myself to for weeks, and games I felt I was skating around the edges of, waiting for a moment of connection that never came.
I often whinge at the time (and it is my job to do so, in fairness), but really I am grateful for them all, glad that these concepts continue to be explored. That someone tries this hard to make the biggest budget games more than just various different remixes of the shooting gallery concept.
The firms behind them could be creating more military shooters or zombie survival games or cynically microtransacted horrors instead. The developers make these games because they want to make these games (and though they might sometimes get it wrong, I always appreciate the attempt). The publishers commission to make these games because they believe that people will buy them.
What happens if they don’t, or not in sufficient numbers, or they wait too long for sales or for experiments to complete? Then Square-Enix abandons its planned second series of Hitman (and even wants to offload the developer), the Deus Ex series grinds to an indefinite halt, the Mass Effect franchise is put on ice.
Sure, we can name credible reasons for some of those, but is this the trend we want? If it doesn’t work out then it’s killed off? How safe are we to presume that there'll be something else with similar ambitions along before too long? Will we still be happily drowning in Games Like These in the years to come if publishers lose their financial faith in them?
Clearly, we must exercise discretion. I’m not saying buy a relative stinker like Mass Effect Andromeda for the sake of Supporting The Cause, but if we’re avoiding or putting off almost everything because of bet-hedging, be it concerns about quality or cost, we’re going to have the rug pulled out from under us before too long.
From afar – and I might be wrong here – it looks a little like Dishonored 2 and Prey have not been the smash hits they might have been expected - or required - to be. I do worry. Will we see Arkane make more games like them, or will they be tasked with making straight shooters, more like the Dooms and Wolfensteins and even Fallouts that have been more reliable cash-cows for their parent firm?
Not so long ago, it seemed every publisher was trying to make its own Call of Duty. We didn’t know how good it was going to get a few short years later. I don’t want this time to end. I want Hitman season 2, I want Prey 2 (2), I want Dishonored 3, I want another Deus Ex (albeit Jensen-free), I want to see how that Warren Spector-helmed System Shock 3 pans out, I want things I’ve never heard of but which are all about finding a way into that locked place by hook or by crook.
I don’t want to be simply choosing whether I kill the baddies with that gun or this knife, or grinding animal skins to unlock ammo pouches, or just more cod-parkour in some fantastical environment. I enjoy all those things too, but I don't want only those things, and sometimes the trend seems to be going the way. I don’t want this current time to end. I want to keep living in a world where something with a little bit of Shock or Black Isle in its blood is only a few months away.
This greed I am guilty of is what makes us take these games for granted, to think it’s OK to put off Dishonored 2 for months or not bother with Hitman until the series completes (by which point it’s old news). I say: enjoy these times, appreciate these times. Whether or not they last, whether or not they come again, they are here now, and not so long that did not seem at all likely.