To be frank: quite a lot of current-gen video games feature environments that lack a certain creativity and intrigue. Today’s video game player can boldly venture into worlds of browns, blues, and greys. In short, they are not worlds that I would want to visit as a tourist.
Even one of the more colourful–in all senses of the term–games of the past couple of years, Saint’s Row the Third, features a relatively drab urban environment occasionally punctured by bright, funny, over-the-top signage. Of Kimberley Wallace’s three Oh, The Places You’ll Go columns for Joystiq, one is set inside the Citadel–and while the outside of the citadel is a thrillingly original spaceship, tends to be a series of blue-grey hallways, puncutated by a cover system. Of course, the Presidium Commons in the original Mass Effect is gorgeous–open, airy, and feels like a real place–but due to the events at the end of Mass Effect, it disappears entirely in the sequels. Omega’s fluorescent dirtiness was a welcome change of pace, but even then it was overwhelming orange-tinted brown/grey hallways, other than the fully-realized sleaze of Omega’s club, Afterlife.
In fact, it seems like a lot of the colourful, imaginative set design is coming from either MMOs or cartoon-styled games. For all the problems I had with Tera during my free beta experience (boring fetch quests, the irritating stamina mechanic, character designs that needed some reigning in), the environment frequently took my breath away–bright, colourful, and gorgeous. As for Guild Wars 2, the gorgeous bursts of colour that punctuate the opening cinematics (below) actually do continue throughout the game. Everything is lushly textured and visually enticing. And Awesomnauts, the 2D sidescrolling platformer-MOBA, is perhaps the most colourful game I’ve played recently. Neon, electric colours pop everywhere–you fall down to ‘earth’ in a red spaceship, then move to the bright-green shop. The only things that lack colour are the white platforms and the brown-grey neutral creeps.
As for the best-selling video games of 2011–well, colourful and visually innovative, they ain’t. Batman comes close, but even it contains a not inconsiderable amount of cement-grey.
So why is this? Ken Levine states that the driving fantasy behind Bioshock was not a power fantasy (‘I am big, tough, and can do anything’) but rather what is fundamentally a fantasy of tourism–to go somewhere that can’t exist, or that no longer exists.
In this model, the reason why the big-selling games–which are overwhelmingly power fantasies–don’t create intriguing worlds is that the intriguing worlds serve to subvert their power fantasy. Being powerful in a world that doesn’t abide by the visual rules set forth in real life feels somehow less ‘real’ than being powerful in the realistic FPS du jour.
However, if you prioritize the ‘tourist’ fantasy, you overwhelmingly wind up in an MMO situation–because the very nature of an MMO subverts and denies the individual power fantasy. Not only can you not do much of anything by yourself, but once you achieve something, the world does not really change, as someone else will kill the same boss and get the same loot right after you did. You are not the powerful, predestined hero: you are one member of a group. So while the social interaction is key for MMOs, so too is the environment–absent any feeling of ultimate power, the main reason to get hooked in an MMO is a feeling of visiting something strange and lovely. A feeling of being a tourist in a land of magic (or of the Force, or of demonic intervention, or of the future, depending on your preferred MMO setting). Instead of domination, it is a fantasy of investigation.