RECOMMENDED:
Fallout 3 – Xbox 360 (Playstation 3 doesn’t get
the expansion) $59.99
Bioshock – Xbox 360/Playstation 3 – $29.99

There are two ideologies currently wrestling for dominance in the gaming world: one in which action is king — satisfaction is guaranteed quickly. The other in which story is as important (if not more important) than the game mechanics, where a world in which the ability to destroy a universe is only as satisfying as understanding why one would choose to use said power. These worlds have lived side by side in respective harmony for years; it appears now that they may be drifting towards alienating one another.

In 1958, when William Higginbotham turned on “Tennis for Two,” an interactive game created for the Brookhaven National Laboratory’s annual visitors’ day, little did he know that 50 years later an industry would thrive in its wake. Tennis for Two’s children — Pac-Man, Pitfall, etc. — brought with them 2-D images and linear stories. It wasn’t long before developers and fans concluded that in order for video games to survive, they would need to connect to an audience personally rather than just visually. After all, only so much can be derived from swinging over pits or devouring yellow balls. The man has a knack for leaping over things and the monster has an eating disorder.

When Final Fantasy hit the market in 1987, video games had evolved dramatically into immersive gaming experiences. Now the player was the character and the character was an extension of the player’s emotional being. Throughout the ’90s, role-playing games (RPGs) grew in both maturity and popularity, with the Final Fantasy series leading the way into the next generation.

As reality TV and 24-hour news programming began to dominate television, it became apparent that the period of growth had slowed for the RPG genre and has remained in steady decline since, in this, the age of instant gratification. Games like Dead Space and Fable, marketed as action role-playing titles, failed to live up to the role-playing moniker, choosing to give bare-bones, generic reasons for the characters to be doing something. Like watching American Idol, we cheer and laugh, but in the end we haven’t consumed anything fulfilling, rather, we devoured the mental equivalent of an MSG-laden donut. But this isn’t to say that there aren’t games worth playing on the market.

Fallout 3, an immersive action-RPG for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 (Bethesda Softworks), is a game that delivers, with an interesting mix of gun-heavy battles and a bleak, alter-history story. Think Mad Max meets The Twilight Zone.

However, on May 7, fans of the Xbox version will be able to purchase and download Broken Steel, an expansion that introduces new monsters and achievements, new weapons to destroy said monsters, and the ability to completely ignore the ending, rendering hours of game play and story progression worthless. This expansion brings with it a devolution in story-telling — what Peter Hines, the vice president of public relations for Bethesda, is really saying when he says they “got the idea” from the fans is that they (Bethesda) don’t want to face the consequences of their actions; they don’t want story getting in the way. Behold: dangerous thinking.

This winter comes Final Fantasy XIII, the next installment in the long-running series of RPGs. Square-Enix recently released a demo introducing its intense attention to character detail, an interesting battle system involving timed attacks — a player could choose to use all three individually or unleash them all simultaneously to deal in the realm of ultimate damage — and the story appears to hark back to the classic Final Fantasy in-depth, character, focused epics. In September, Bioshock 2, a sequel to the semi-RPG action title, will be released. Watching the sales figures for these two games should determine just how large the fissure has become — if they do well, Pete Hines may need to reconsider what he learned from the “fans.”

It would be easy for one to lose hope, to fall back on the classics (Chrono Trigger, The Secret of Mana) and disregard the future. But in the end, the world will change with or without you or me. To compete with instant gratification, one must meditate on just what is to be accomplished. Are you the type that is willing to move from one game to another, ever hungry for more destruction? Or are you willing to become involved in an epic, the likes of which Homer (not Simpson) dreamt of?   

Chris.ONeal13@gmail.com