Well, it’s come to this. The final part of our epic interview series with The Legend of Zelda; Symphony of the Goddesses producer Jason Michael Paul. In this finale, JMP shares the ultimate reward he gets from producing a show on this scale. Please watch and enjoy the interview below.
As always, thanks for watching. Please subscribe to the channel if you want to know when we release additional segments of our interview series with Jason Michael Paul. Our staff wants to extend our sincerest gratitude to Jason Michael Paul and Kate Lollar for coordinating these interviews. We hope everyone viewing learns something new and takes the time to see the Zelda Symphony in person.
One of the most interesting parts about video games is the potential to account for player choice in the narrative. This “choose your own” style of adventure is something video games have aspired to for a long time. From the intimate decisions of the Walking Dead to the trilogy-spanning choices of Mass Effect, games have only been getting better at these types of stories. Yet is it more satisfying to see your personal actions affecting the game or to take part in a thoroughly crafted narrative?
It all hinges on execution. I’ve played great games that have a single immovable storyline and great games with a narrative I can bend mold like clay. I’ve also played bad games of both narrative styles. Currently, I enjoy games that have a fairly set in stone story, that I am able to “personalize” in smaller but noticeable ways. I love being able to customize my outfits in games. Or name certain characters or objects. Or determine the order in which I do certain tasks and have that order be acknowledged by other characters. I think narratives that are more firmly set tend to be more successful because the writers have more control over everything from tone to pacing to foreshadowing. But anything that helps sell the illusion that my agency is being recognized in the world really sells it for me. Being able to choose where I start my story in Uncharted 4, choosing different outfits Grand Theft Auto, or even determining how I explore the house in Gone Home are all examples of the stuff I like. None of those things change the narrative in the least, but they help make my experience feel like *my* experience, and it sets a video game story apart from something I could get from a book or a movie.
One of the most important aspects of modern gaming, in my opinion, is agency; that sense of your actions having an effect on the world around you. Branching narratives are one such way to give the player agency. I like being able to play different content based on my actions, or other characters treating me differently because of a decision I made. When they can make a proper impact and when branching narratives are an integral part of the game, I tend to prefer those over games where I’m just drifting from event to event without having the power to affect anything. Even if it’s only the illusion of choice, that illusion is powerful. My experience with a game is my own, and when I can have multiple, varying experiences, I feel somehow more fulfilled. That’s not to say I don’t like games with linear stories; The Last of Us is one of my all-time favorites. But in those little moments in Mass Effect or Horizon: Zero Dawn where I can make a dialogue option or complete a quest a certain way, that’s where I feel myself really becoming a part of the game.
I respect the difficulty and craftsmanship inherent in writing stories that include branching narratives, but I tend to prefer stories with a definite narrative through line. I find that games with a defined series of events tend to have a more powerful message and more significant themes. This is because they have been constructed to carry out a specific purpose rather than account for a range of possibilities. The Last of Us, Bioshock, and The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time are some of my favorite video game stories. All three of these games contain themes and ideas that could be undermined if the player could alter plot outcomes.
I think games with branching narratives put too much pressure on the player and usually not for any good reason. Your choices in most games like this don’t often have an impact on the finale of the story, meaning your choices up until that point were essentially meaningless. This illusion of choice isn’t worth the constant dread of wondering how your actions will impact the outcomes. “So-and-so will remember that” is more terrifying to me than most horror games I’ve played.
**What do you think? Is it more satisfying for a story to bend around your choices? Or do you prefer taking part in a definitive narrative? Let us know in the comments!**
This week we bring you Part 3 of our interview series with Jason Michael Paul, the producer of The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses. He discusses both the joys and challenges of working with Nintendo. Namely, it seems that although Paul and his team are tasked with producing the officially licensed Zelda concert series, Nintendo is a bit stingy with the assets. While it is truly an honor to be able to adapt the iconic music from legendary composer Koji Kondo, it’s by no means an easy gig. Learn how Jason Michael Paul and his team rise to the challenge in this fascinating interview.
In 2012 developer Telltale Games stunned the game industry with The Walking Dead. With its constant tense sequences and dark but endearing tone, the episodic series was one of the year’s biggest surprises, going on to win the lofty Game of the Year title from the VGA’s and many other publications. At the time, however, there was quite the divide between those who felt the saga was a gaming innovation and those who doubted whether it should be considered a game at all. Although the title involves player interaction, the heavily cinematic and on-rails feel of the game led many to argue that it wasn’t truly a video game.
Since 2012, this argument has continued to occupy the collective discourse of the gaming community. The contention has expanded to include all of Telltale’s episodic series, visual novels, and even games with full-motion video (FMVs). Some call them interactive narratives, some call them graphic adventures, but I think it’s high time we clear up some of the finer points of the debate.
Games, by definition, require rule sets and are determined by strength, skill, or luck. By that logic, video games are a natural outgrowth of the traditional systems. A game’s code is really just an internal rule set that places challenges in front of gamers who must use skill (and sometimes luck) to overcome them. When you ask a random person what they think of when they hear “video game”, you get Mario or Zelda or Call of Duty as answers. There’s a certain expectation for games to have interactive scenes determined by player skill; that’s called gameplay. There’s a chance you can win and a chance you can lose, but it nonetheless requires skill to complete.
Telltale’s games, however, restrict what one would call conventional gameplay. You can’t really move except when the game occasionally breaks to let you explore a small, controlled environment, there aren’t many puzzles to solve, and most of the time is spent conversing with other characters. To say you can “lose” at a Telltale game is to fail an easily repeatable quicktime event. There are few moments where the plot’s momentum stops to have players shoot zombies or play a minigame. Some members of the community state that these so-called “games” have minimal interactivity and are nothing more than glorified cutscenes broken up by QTEs. Without being able to overcome a difficult task and reap the sense of achievement that comes with it, by definition it cannot be a game. So goes the argument at least.
Video games are considered in a different light than the way they were twenty or thirty years ago. Gaming used to be about achieving high scores or beating the big bad guy on the final level, their stories relegated to rarely-read booklets included in the box. But as technology has improved and data storage increased, developers started to include narratives directly in the game. Mass Effect, The Last of Us, and The Witcher have each been lauded for their mature storytelling, as well as their gameplay. In fact, one could (and I indeed would) argue that stories are now an inseparable part of games. They provide context for our actions, giving us tasks to accomplish and rewarding our efforts.
While the main story in Tales from the Borderlands or The Wolf Among Us does not greatly diverge based on your choices, how you experience the story is still ultimately affected by the actions you take. The nature of this interactivity doesn’t remove the end goal from a player’s experience, but alters it, emphasizing progression and resolution of the story rather than “beating” a challenge. The agency may be different than in your common game, but it’s still there. Maybe you’re trying to survive the zombie apocalypse or maybe you’re just trying to date a certain girl. Phenomenologically, the way you interact with and receive the game is entirely unique to yourself. This methodology, known as reader-response criticism, argues that individual interaction with a game imparts a sort of “real existence” to the art; you create and interpret the meaning of a game on your own terms. The structure is there for you to interact with, and the blank spaces are there for you to fill in with your own thoughts and projections.
You can call them games or interactive experiences or garbage or whatever. The point is that they are fundamentally game-like. They have interactive elements, a goal or resolution to strive toward, and require player input to do so. Whether or not they are games in the strictest sense ultimately doesn’t matter. The notion of what a “game” can be has changed over the years. Can you really “beat” Journey? What’s the final boss in Until Dawn? Games have changed, and as our technological capacities increase, they will continue to change. At a certain point, arguing about whether or not the experiences they present fit into traditional molds feels constricting. The debate is only relevant in that it forces us to address the fundamental nature of what video games are. Suggesting that these experiences fit into a traditional hierarchy, however, might make us less open to new forms. I may not know in which direction video games are heading, but I’m going to play them regardless.
How do you revitalize a once revered video game series that has spent the better part of two decades oscillating between varying degrees of mediocrity? If you’re struggling to come up with an answer, look no further than Sonic Mania, the first game in Sega’s flagging Sonic the Hedgehog series to be a bona fide hit critically, commercially, and communally. The Blue Blur faced some stiff competition this month from the solid if somewhat safe storytelling of Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, Ninja Theory’s strange and experimental Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and the manic but endearing tactical RPG crossover Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. In the end, the aging mascot managed to pull ahead of the pack and earn first prize for our August Game of the Month.
Perhaps the most significant single achievement of Sonic Mania is that it has put Sonic back on the map for the first time in decades. A big reason for this is because the game reached for inspiration from the franchise’s heyday. It’s common knowledge that Sonic has struggled since the move to 3D despite Sega’s numerous attempts to update and “innovate” on the core gameplay. Rather than try to change how a Sonic game plays, Sonic Mania keeps its design rooted in two dimensions and focuses its energy instead on delivering clear, fun, and well-thought out level design. The core attraction of Sonic games has always been the character’s fluid movement, something the 3D games could never quite replicate. By getting the fundamental elements right, clever level design and speedy gameplay, the innate appeal of the series is able to shine much brighter than when it’s cluttered by ill-fitting gameplay systems.
The ironic thing about this achievement is that Sega was not the developer behind it. While Takashi Iizuka, one of few designers from the first Sonic games remaining at Sega, oversaw production, the core design and programming responsibilities were actually headed by Pagodawest and Headcanon, two prominent studios in the Sonic fangame community. In fact, lead developer Christian “Taxman” Whitehead actually worked on an early version of the game for months before presenting it to Sega. Iizuka was so impressed that he decided to officially sponsor development. In reality, Sega’s most significant game in recent memory is a project that was created from the blood, sweat, and tears of their fans.
Sonic Mania isn’t a corporate motivated, nostalgia-bait cash-grab. It’s a genuine recreation of the franchise’s core from the people who love it most and for whom this kind of game has the most meaning. This is what truly edges Sonic Mania over the competition this month. It has all the prerequisites for a Game of the Month: excellent gameplay, solid design, and a strong place in the current gaming community. Yet what marks this game as truly special is how the resurgence of a decaying franchise was precipitated and spear-headed by the community, for the community. For resurrecting Sonic, proving how powerful and talented the gaming community can be, and just being a blast to play, Sonic Mania more than earns our Game of the Month.
Once every year the video game industry converges around the nexus of E3, the Promised Land of the video game future presented in dazzling spectacle. Travel back in time with us on this episode of Trust Sircle as Devin and Marcus recall some of the hurdles involved in any E3 experience and discuss the best and worst of all the big press conferences. Does Microsoft need a new naming strategy? Do game advertisers understand how people actually communicate online? Is there any sense to Mario fighting off an invasion of Rabbids?
The console is a special thing to gamers. It’s a gateway to other worlds, a tool for connecting to an immersive experience. The loyalty formed through this connection is one of the reasons people can feel so competitive about whether or not their chosen console is the best. This week, however, TSG is ditching the animosity of the “console war” and expressing our pure appreciation for the specific machines that have brought us happiness, community, frustration, wonder, and, of course, great gaming experiences.
I initially thought I was going to give this to the Xbox 360, hands down. But after some further consideration, I think I have to say my favorite console was the Playstation 2. That generation as a whole stands out to me as the time gaming went from an interest to a lifelong passion for me (boy that sounds cheesy doesn’t it?), and while I eventually got an XBox and was whisked away by Halo, my PS2 was the console that started it, Last week I espoused my love of Rockstar’s open worlds, and I first encountered that franchise on a PS2. I discovered my love for realistic (ish) racing sims on the PS2. I finally learned fighting game mechanics on my PS2. I was introduced to RPG’s on my PS2. I enjoyed hours upon hours of Goldeneye’s far superior cousin, Timesplitters, on my PS2. I was brought to the brink of tears with Shadow of the Colossus on my PS2. I played my first online game on PS2. Heck, I watched my first DVD on a PS2! I learned to take games seriously on the PS2, and for that, I will always love the Playstation 2.
It’s honestly very hard for me to pick a favorite console since there have been so many, each with their benefits over one another. But if there’s one console that I have a particular fondness for, it’s the NES. I was growing up in the time that N64 was popular, but I tended to gravitate toward the “simpler” gameplay and “basic” graphics that its grandfather utilizes. I would argue that many of its titles are unassumingly challenging, with designs and mechanics created out of necessity rather than commercial success, and that there’s a beauty to 2D graphics which is lost in today’s high definition world. Although I love my PS4 and Switch, I find myself returning to that ancient grey box and continuing to play these elegant pieces of classic art that became the foundations for everything we know today.
While I really want to name something from Nintendo, I have to go with the Xbox 360. I played many of my favorite games of all time on this console, from Halo 3 to Bioshock, and Mass Effect to Red Dead Redemption. Aside from all the great games featured on the console, it was also a space of community for me like no other machine was or has been since. Late night online Call of Duty binges, Halo LAN parties, extended Rock Band sessions, it facilitated so many experiences that went beyond mere gameplay. Add on the fact that Xbox Live was hands down the best online service of that generation and you get an almost incomprehensible range of experiences. Granted, its lineup of exclusive titles started to run dry towards the end of the console’s lifespan (something Microsoft is still struggling with) and many of its best games were available on multiple platforms, but I experienced them on the 360. You know this is significant if you’ve spent even a bit of time with the comforting feel of that hall-of-fame-grade controller.
Maybe I have rose-tinted glasses but my Switch has become one of my favorite things ever. It’s integrated itself into my life so seamlessly and I take it with me everywhere I go, even my day job. I have a lifelong love affair with my Nintendo handhelds starting with my pink GameBoy Color, to my multiple 3DS systems. My Switch gives me the familiarity of always having a handheld console with me but also brings me the types of gaming experiences I’ve always dreamed. The Switch meets my near impossible desire for nostalgia and future forward thinking.
**What console do you have the fondest memories of? Did Halo make you love the original Xbox? Is the PlayStation 4 the newest top-dog? Or perhaps you subscribe to the superiority of PC gaming? Let us know in the comments!**
When Nintendo unveiled the Wii in 2006 the console was a shock to the video game industry. Motion controls had long been a dream of gamers and the Big N’s console seemed poised to open the gateway into a new future. The underside of the reveal was the console’s underwhelming technical specifications, especially compared to Sony’s powerhouse: the PlayStation 3. Where Sony’s console pushed the limits of graphical fidelity, Nintendo pursued an ambitious attempt to change the way we interact with games, trumpeting what has become their consistent motto: gameplay first, graphics second. If you were like me at the time, then you supported this philosophy. After all, what was a few hundred extra polygons and sleek shaders compared to the feeling of actually physically interacting with a virtual world? In truth, this decision to prioritize the Wii’s unique controller design over technical prowess would have farther reaching consequences than any could have predicted, seriously hindering Nintendo’s ability to pursue what they actually claimed to be championing: industry defining innovations.
SD to HD
Do you remember a time when Xbox 360’s didn’t have an HDMI output? It feels like the dark ages now, but back in 2006 the HD-era of gaming was just beginning and the leap in power was so significant that studios actually struggled developing for the new hardware. New possibilities were opened up by the technology, but this also meant that entirely new engines, processes, and techniques had to be created, essentially from the ground up, in order to take advantage of the opportunities. As a Bungie engineer working on Halo 3 put it, “When you’re working in high definition it’s a very unforgiving environment.” It took years for developers to truly adapt to the newly available technologies. Once they did, however, the worlds they were capable of crafting were so much richer and clearer that the difference could hardly be understood by the quantifiable increase to polygons and draw distances. There was something intangible that resulted from the upgrade to all those little details like draw distance and texture detailing. Game worlds were now more dynamic, capable of a new range of design that was similar to the change from 2D to 3D, but more subtle. HD gaming’s true leap forward was the unconscious ease with which players could believe, wholeheartedly, in the reality of the virtual environment around them.
Nintendo was forced to go through this transition as well, but, rather than experience it with the rest of the industry in the middle of the 2000’s, they started the learning curve half a decade later with the Wii U. One would think that, with all the accrued information on HD development, Nintendo would be able to learn from other developers’ pitfalls and handle the transition smoothly. Yet this was not the case. Shigeru Miyamoto even admitted this, saying in 2013 that Nintendo had underestimated how difficult the transition would be, and that this had delayed many of their most promising Wii U titles. This dearth of software was what hurt the Wii U most and it was a result of Nintendo struggling through a transition the rest of the industry had already gone through. It is only now, with Breath of the Wild and the Switch, that we are seeing Nintendo fully in command of high definition technologies.
The real crux of the problem for Nintendo was that, in a sense, they bet on the wrong innovation. They assumed they could create more lasting, visceral, and innovative experiences with a new controller rather than a powerful machine, and that the high-end technology would wait for them while they did this. What they didn’t seem to consider was how a console’s power doesn’t just correlate to the quality of graphics it can produce, but also to the freedom with which developers are able to design games.
Given that Nintendo sacrificed high definition to focus on motion controls, it’s important to ask what we got in return. The answer is not much. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was supposed to be Nintendo’s crowning achievement on the Wii, a game inseparable from the console it was made for and utterly in harmony with motion controls. This was the game we had been waiting for. Yet despite initial favorable reviews, the game received significant criticism in the following years for imprecise motion controls and the increased linearity the game brought to the series. The motion controls that were supposed to elevate the series, and theoretically gaming, have made it feel dated, and the low-end technology that was not supposed to be an issue has revealed itself as a massive limiting factor.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword came out in 2011, the same year as the open-world phenomenon Skyrim. All you really have to do is compare those two games to understand the significance of Nintendo’s gamble. Where one is called dated and imprecise, the other is one of modern gaming’s most popular and lauded achievements. While Skyward Sword is mostly forgotten, Skyrim is still the standard against which RPG and open-world games are compared. The distinction between the games is so significant that Nintendo itself invoked Bethesda’s towering monument when discussing their inspiration for Breath of the Wild six years later.
And that’s where the most telling comparison comes into play. Could you imagine Breath of the Wild running on a standard definition console? I can’t. Skyward Sword was a very linear game because it had to be. The Wii wasn’t capable of presenting the kind of worlds that Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners were getting to explore with Skyrim. When Nintendo finally had access to this kind of power, however, they created one of the richest, most intricately designed game worlds ever. Breath of the Wild will surely have a significant influence on the future of game design not because its control scheme fundamentally alters how we interact with the game world, but because its gameplay and design are so subtle. What if Nintendo had the technology capable of making this game back in 2011? Would open world games look different? Would it have been such a breath of fresh air? It is impossible to know, but I think it’s worth considering how drastically different the gaming landscape could look if just one business decision was changed.
This issue is, of course, a bit more complicated than simply saying blankly, “Nintendo made a mistake picking motion controls over graphical power.” The Wii was a much cheaper console compared to its competition and the biggest reason for this was its low-end specs. From a business, and even cultural perspective, this was a smart move as it enabled the console to proliferate into the mainstream in a way Microsoft and Sony’s machines simply couldn’t. Yet it also came with significant drawbacks. Nintendo has only just made the transition into being a truly modern developer. It’s actually quite spectacular to see their development practices evolve as they start to win back the “industry pioneer” label they lost in recent years. However, with Nintendo continuing their famous “gameplay first” chant, I feel it is important to remind them that powerful technology has the capacity to elevate and inform gameplay in ways they might be overlooking.
I built my first PC last week, just in time to try out the Destiny 2 Beta. I fumbled through the introductory level while attempting to seriously learn keyboard controls for the first time. As I crawled my way between waves of enemies, I marveled at how beautiful the game looked running off the unbridled power of my newborn computer. I decided that Destiny 2 would be the first game I buy for PC, even though I invested hundreds of hours into the original on PS4.
Then I learned that the PC version of Destiny would launch on Oct. 24, almost two months behind the console version which is currently available. Unsure if the wait would be worth it, I researched the pros and cons of getting the game on PC over console. Finally, on Tuesday evening, as I watched the pre-order clock wind down to zero, I bit the bullet and purchased the game on the PlayStation Store. Minutes after the game installed, my choice to buy Destiny 2 on PS4 was validated. Slight spoilers incoming.
Before the character select screen, an introductory cinematic plays followed by a scrapbook-like sequence which recounts the events from the original Destiny. These “memories”, as the game calls them, described a harrowing threat from the first game and how my fictional character overcame them. I thought it was cute how Destiny 2 recapped the lore from the first game by treating these story details as memories. The first one, for example, reads, “We stepped through time and prevented a garden from consuming the stars”, as if I actually did that myself. I noticed something during the first memory that made my heart race.
My name appeared in the corner of the screen right below a date. I now understood that these memories were a list of my accomplishments from the first Destiny. I advanced to the next memory and, this time, under my name was someone else’s. It was my old roommate, the one who taught me everything I knew about Destiny. The one who guided me for the first couple months before I was able to take on the universe on my own. It was a shared memory.
This continued until there were no more tales of my escapades through the galaxy from the original Destiny. Even though I hadn’t played Destiny for months, remembering how much time I invested into it filled me with pride. I defeated Crota, became a pro at Sparrow racing, and wore my Crest of Alpha Lupi with pride. Most importantly, I had a blast doing it and it was nice to be reminded of that as I re-entered into the Destiny universe for the first time in over a year to start a new adventure with a new avatar.
That’s when the game surprised me. After the memory slideshow finished, the game loaded the character select screen and there she was: My short-haired, purple-skinned, glowy-eyed avatar that I created in college the night Destiny launched. She had been transferred into my Destiny 2 save file. I teared up.
The thought that I could play Destiny 2 with the same avatar that I created three years ago made me grin from ear to ear. I felt a strong ownership as I started the first mission, knowing that I earned the accomplishments listed in those memories, but also understanding that my work as a Guardian was far from over. No longer was I embarking on a brand new adventure. I was picking up where I left off, a retired veteran taking up her rifle once more in the face of a new intergalactic crisis. Had I switched to PC, I would have missed out on all of this.
Destiny 2 does a great job of building off of the lore from the first game. Many side characters from Destiny, like Amanda Holliday and Lord Shaxx, have a more active story role in the sequel. All these familiar faces and locales helped to solidify my place in the world and made me feel like my actions from the first game had a direct impact on this one. As the events of Destiny 2 unfold, I look forward to reuniting with old allies, making new ones, and continuing the heroic adventures of a story I began crafting for myself in 2014. Good thing short hair on women is still in style.
There’s something magical about attending the Zelda Symphony. This feeling is never stronger than attending the symphony during its annual performance during Comic-Con weekend. Jason Michael Paul explains how the tradition of performing at San Diego Comic-Con came to be and how the performance is invigorated by the energy of the fans.
I’m going to give my pick to Rockstar, with some caveats. They are my favorite studio (technically group of studios) not because they are known for the best of business practices or the most affable relationship with their consumers, the press, or each other. But the open worlds they create in their games are so unlike what any other developers can do. They are not without fault, and certainly, GTAV had some design problems, but the worlds Rockstar makes have such attention to detail and character in both a macro and micro level that is unparalleled. GTAV is STILL topping sales charts years after its release because Rockstar was able to craft one of the best, most versatile virtual large scale playgrounds ever. And they’ve been doing this since 2001. The wild west of Red Dead Redemption is still one of the most beautiful game worlds I’ve seen, and GTA IV’s Liberty City more accurately captured the look and feel of New York than Warch Dogs 2 was able to do with San Francisco 8 years later (and Watch Dogs 2 created a really good San Francisco!). I play a lot of different games these days. But Rockstar titles are the only ones I still get that light-headed anticipation for. They may not make the very best games, but I’ve yet to see a more fully realized game world from anyone else.
Although Bioware will always hold a special place in my heart for making some of my favorite games, right now I am infatuated with Naughty Dog. Recently inspired by Crash N. Sane, I went back and played the original titles on PlayStation and they still hold up as excellent platformers. Their more recent titles, like The Last of Us and Uncharted, represent a turning point where they’ve embraced mature stories and darker characters while still maintaining that sense of childlike fun present in their old games. It’s a strange juxtaposition to be smiling during a fungal apocalypse, but somehow, Naughty Dog managed to make it possible. I am emphatically excited about The Last of Us Part II (a game I was, admittedly, initially against) and if Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is any indication, the series is going to be just fine without Nathan Drake.
This is a tough choice. Nintendo is an obvious answer for sure. It really feels like they’re growing into a new golden age of creativity which is super exciting. However, I’m gonna go with CD Projekt Red for this one. The Witcher series started out as a niche RPG on the PC and went on to become one of the biggest and most acclaimed franchises in modern gaming. This was due pretty much entirely to CD Projekt Red’s tireless dedication. After a split with publisher Atari, the studio became independent, releasing the Witcher 2 and the Witcher 3 themselves, the latter of these developed with a self-funded budget of $81 million. That’s incredible, especially because The Witcher series has the kind of attention to detail you’d expect from an indie team working on a small game, not a 250+ person studio working on a massive game world. CD Projekt Red is a model for what you’d want any developer to be: talented, independent, and absolutely dedicated to their fans.
If you’d asked me this a year ago I would have emphatically told you my favorite developer was Blizzard. Overwatch consumed my life at the time and I loved how Blizzard consistently supported their games and their fans. This year, however, I have once again been swept off my feet by Nintendo. The Switch is my new favorite toy and the vast majority of games I’m most excited for are first party Nintendo titles. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was our March Game of the Month, ARMS inspired me to go to an in-person tournament to compete, and Splatoon 2’s community makes me feel like I’m a part of something larger than myself. As I enjoy Mario + Rabbids (I know this was developed by Ubisoft Paris), I also look forward to Super Mario Odyssey and Metroid: Samus Returns. Nintendo managed to recapture my heart after they lost my trust with the disappointing Wii U.
I’m not one to shy away from controversial topics. I believe that discussing these sorts of disputed subjects can create a dialogue where opinions, especially unpopular ones, can be tested against one another without fear of digital retribution. I want to foster that sense of argument and debate, so that we don’t just accept everything we’re told. So let me come out and make it absolutely clear: I do not, nor have I ever, liked Valve. And with Mike Laidlaw releasing his plot for Half-Life 3, grimly hinting that the series will never be returned to, Valve has shown their true colors. Valve might be an innovative company to some, but to me, they are a talented developer that wastes their gift it in the pursuit of profit. While they may have once been the industry pioneers most gamers view them as, Valve has stagnated in its own self-aggrandizing marketplace, suffocating its developers’ creativity, history, and soul.
“But Lee, Valve has made so many amazing games!” untold masses cry out. While Valve does have a history of well-received games under its belt, I have never been a fan of their style. The games themselves have solid controls and the engine most of their titles run on, Source, has lead to some incredible animations, mods, and more. But I always felt like there was something missing, some immersive factor that was supposed to pull me into the game. It was like I was looking through a dense fog; something was obscuring my view. Maybe it was the writing in their games, which is a little too “on the nose”, or maybe it was the first-person platforming. Regardless, I just couldn’t understand why many of my friends, and indeed a large portion of the gaming community, held them up as a paragon of the industry.
The only title I felt particularly worthwhile was Left 4 Dead, an IP that was only published by Valve and actually developed by Turtle Rock Studios. Where L4D’s frantic cooperative play and grindhouse film-inspired aesthetic fully drew me in, Half-Life, Counter Strike, and Team Fortress never really felt inspired and failed to invigorate me. Don’t even get me started on Portal. Between its slipshod story and overzealous fanbase, I shudder to even think about it. The games themselves might have critical acclaim, but Valve has clearly decided it’s a better idea to abandon the adventures that made them famous in pursuit of man’s greatest weakness: avarice.
It started with the advent of Steam, the moment when Valve shifted its priorities from making games to selling games. They created a huge marketplace where thousands upon thousands of games can be sold, in addition to mods and Early Access titles. In exchange, they take a percentage of every sale. They became the middleman, allowing us to purchase games from the comfort of our own homes and almost instantly play them. With a steady source of income, Valve no longer had to rely on producing its own content. It became more about the business and less about creating experiences.
Digital download services in general bother me because you never actually own any of the games you buy; you instead purchase a license to use the game, which can be revoked at any time. Posted something mean on a discussion board? Cheated one time in a multiplayer game? Even if you’ve never cheated, stole, or posted mean comments, the fact that you don’t actually own the games that you paid for is disconcerting. When you signed the Terms and Conditions in order to use Steam, you gave Valve permission to hold hostage every single purchase you make.
That was just the start. As with many other gaming companies, Valve fell prey to the “freemium” trend. Dota 2 and Team Fortress, while free to play, allow anyone to purchase upgrades, unlock characters, or wear amusing hats with a meager donation. This can heavily upset the careful balance of an online multiplayer community. Those who spend more have a distinct advantage over those who just want to play the game. With Counter Strike, Valve’s Source Engine was one of the origin points of competitive online gaming, yet the delicate balance and focus on player skill that made that game the juggernaut it is has been thrown out the window.
Valve went off-brand, into an area where they are not strong as content creators. Blizzard also utilizes microtransaction services, but there’s a satisfying consistency across their titles that Valve’s services are lacking. Regardless of whether you like their products, Blizzard is pretty clear about what they create and release; their overarching style and attitude are present in everything they do. They are a known quantity and have been for decades now. So when you throw down your hard-earned cash on a loot box in Overwatch, a card pack in Hearthstone, or the Necromancer class in Diablo, you pretty much know what you’re getting into even if you don’t know what you’re going to get. This isn’t the case with Valve. Microtransaction services in general are obtrusive and, in some ways, antithetical to the ideals of the industry, but when Valve utilizes them, it feels somehow even more inauthentic, an attempt to jump on a global gaming trend rather than solidify its cult-like niche status.
As a final slap in the face, after years of not releasing any news on any of their flagship franchises, Valve announced a brand new game at the International Dota 2 Championships: a digital trading card game. Rather than appease the people who made Valve the powerhouse it became, rather than placating their fans after years of silence, rather than returning to the games they began and concluding their stories, Valve prioritized profit over product. They are now more concerned with wringing money from our pockets than being the fan-service developers they made their name on. It’s official: they have turned their backs on their fans, their history, and themselves.