After letting it languish on my hard drive for several months, I finally uninstalled Arx Fatalis today. I’d made it (I think) about half-way through the game before losing interest and never getting back to it, which was disappointing. One of my all-time favorite computer games is Ultima Underworld, which the Arx designers said in interviews they were trying to emulate. Unfortunately, while they borrowed much of the interface logic and much of the basic plot of Underworld, somewhere along the line it lost whatever it was that made Underworld such an awesome game.
I think one of the biggest problems with these kinds of games today is that they end up focusing on trying to give the player a detailed world rather than an enjoyable story. Comparing Arx and Underworld, the former has a much more detailed world, both in terms of backstory and in terms of physical reality. Whereas the Stygian Abyss in Underworld was nothing more than a crude approximation of a real space – I think the dwarf “city” was just one big room with a couple of dwarves in it – the city of Arx has architecture, a castle, denizens who have jobs, etc. But the designers get so caught up in creating someplace “real” that they start to forget about what makes a game actually fun. (There are also some really practical problems with creating spaces that approximate the real world, namely that you end up spending a lot of really uninteresting time backtracking through areas that you’ve already visited to get to somewhere else. If I want to do that, I can go take a hike in the real world.)
This same problem also really ruined another game I should have loved, Deus Ex. After all, it was created by the same guy who oversaw my hands-down favorite game ever, System Shock. As a side plug, if you’ve never played System Shock, I highly recommend tracking down a CD of it in a remainder bin somewhere and doing whatever you have to do to your computer to get it run. It was the most amazing game I’ve ever played, not the least of which because I really felt like I was there on Citadel Station. Even now, I can recall a tactile sense of the layout of the station and some of the more important locations. And all this with a graphics engine that would be laughable today.
When I first heard about Deux Ex, I was very excited although I was worried by the interviews in which the team went on and on about how they adapted real-world locations in loving detail for the game. Sure enough, the game does render futuristic versions of real locations in great detail. The game starts in New York City on Liberty Island, and when I was in New York recently I found myself on a boat sailing past Liberty Island. I was idly staring at a dock on the far side of island when I suddenly had a shock of recognition – I’d been there! Well, not really, I’d just been there in the game, but the game had been accurate enough that I actually could recognize the layout of the island. But even though the game was so “real” in this sense, from a game perspective, the world was… well… empty. As accurate as they were, all the real world locations in Deus Ex felt like disconnected set pieces. This was compounded by the fact that I ended up not giving a damn about the character I was playing. I mean, the guy’s brother is being offed by an evil group bent on world domination, and all I’m thinking is “Damn, couldn’t they get a better voice actor for this gig?” Contrast that with, say, Max Payne, which had exactly the same kind of New York set pieces and the same over-the-top mythical pretensions (while Deus Ex steals from Christianity, Max Payne steals heavily from Norse mythology). Even though the places in Max Payne were less realistic than those in Deux Ex, it kept my attention throughout the entire game. And whereas I uninstalled Deus Ex halfway through, I had a great time with Max Payne through the very last gun battle.
Ultimately, I think how “real” a game is has nothing to do with whether the game is any good. The good games out there make me identify with the protagonist or the story, just like a good movie, book or TV show. They feel more real in an emotional sense… more human. Clichéd as he was, Max Payne was much closer to a real person than the robotic J.C. Denton. And the “how the hell do I get out of here?” plot of Underworld was much more accessible than the “I’m a messenger from the gods from another plane sent to stop another god from blah, blah, blah, blah” plot of Arx.
Now if someone would just rebuild System Shock and Underworld on top of the latest Unreal engine, I’d be as happy as a clam…