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Edge #164, July 2006
I've always struggled to finish books. Don't get me wrong; I love to read. Heck, I probably buy a book a week, or thereabouts. Wherein lies the problem; I tend to buy a new book before I've finished my last book. There's a stack of books beside my bed - novels, biographies, graphic novels, travel books - all of them with a page folded over approximately three-quarters of the way in.
Unfortunately, this problem has now migrated to games. The only 360 game I've finished to date is Call Of Duty 2. And even that statement is a big lie, because I actually finished the PC version, but couldn't be bothered to live through the horrors of World War II a second time. Or umpteenth time if you count its precursor, and all the other World War II games.
While I'm sure this problem has as much to do with me as anything, there are some examples where I know full well that it's the fault of the game. Sort of. Ish. Or rather, it's a combination of the two things. To wit: the age demographic of the games market is sweeping upwards, as gamers raised on a diet of Hungry Horace and Pitfall are failing to leave games behind as they creak into middle age. Consequently, we've all been there, done that, and got the experience points to prove it.
I mean, let's take Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Gorgeous isn't it? It's a fa, sweaty, love-in of a trad RPG. So much depth, such variety. All those people who speak in one of the same three voices... If you enjoy RPGs there's little doubt this is, as the young people say, the shit.
Except I've barely scratched the surface of the game, and I can't really be arsed to play any more. I've shut the first Oblivion gate, and the thought of going through that again and again injects my buttocks with apathy. I mean, how many Tolkien-homaging, quasi-medieval worlds am I expected to explore in my life? How many times am I going to literally visit Hell? How many taverns must I enter in order to seek rest and a quest (now there's a slogan: "Rest and a Quest - enquire within"). As wonderful as the graphics are, as awe-inspiring as the scale may be, I feel like I've already played and finished Oblivion a dozen times over.
Same thing happened with Black. I loved playing it at first. All that gun scat, or whatever they called it, proper floated my love boat. But after a while I just switched off; both literally and figuratively. I'd seen it before. I mean, if you really liked potatoes, if they were all you ever ate, chances are you'd soon crave something else. Or find new ways to cook them at least.
In the case of both Black and Oblivion my issues have nothing to do with the gameplay, or visuals, or anything like that. As examples of their respective genres, both Oblivion and Black are way up there. Yet rather than try to come up with some new places for us to visit, all they do is refine what's gone before. It's like recycling a tin can into an identical tin can, but with a sticker that reads 'NEW AND EXCITING CAN!'
This is why Half-Life 2 remains such a benchmark. Even a few years on, there still hasn't been another game to feature such a compelling, and original, world (sorry, Shadow Of The Colossus fans - great monsters, coupled to an average fantasy environment). Admittedly, Half-Life 2 borrowed heavily from The Big Book Of Post-Apocalyptica. Yes, it doffed its cap to George A Romero. But it was the sum of its parts. It fashioned them into something different. Somewhere you wanted to explore, and return to. Something we hadn't seen before.
Having a rant about originality in games is about the most unoriginal thing I could possibly do, but never before has it stopped me finishing games. This isn't even about originality, it's about me becoming more difficult to please. I don't even mind if gameplay is unoriginal anymore - so long as it's well done. And in both Oblivion and Black the gameplay is very well done. If you wanted a traditional RPG, or a traditional firstperson shooter, you couldn't hope to find two better examples.
It's like if you go and see certain genres of film, you expect certain things from them. Yet at the same time you want to feel that you're watching something new, even if the structure and underlying mechanics are exactly the same as every other film of that genre. Oblivion doesn't try to be anything new. It just makes it bigger, and better looking.
Maybe I'm becoming jaded, and if I am the chances are other gamers of my generation are too. There are a lot of 30-something gamers now - more than there have ever been. And chances are we've seen it all before, and we're all going to become increasingly difficult to please. Games firms can't just keep throwing the same clichés at us and expect us to keep swallowing them. Not without getting a face-full of 30-something vomit.
Mr Biffo co-founded Digitiser, Channel 4's Teletext-based videogames section, and now writes mainly for television
Do you know of any important moments from the annals of Digi history that have been omitted? If so, then mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) right now, man. Credit will be duly given for anything that gets put up.