I’ve been watching Game Grumps a bit lately, specifically the Banjo Kazooie series. Banjo Kazooie was one of my favorite games when I was a kid (I was 11 when it came out), and in watching Jon and Ego play through it, I remembered why I liked it so much.
Banjo Kazooie is one of the first games I remember playing that made me think about a game as a world rather than a series of levels. I was 11, so there’s no way I was actually thinking this as I played, but each new environment I explored felt like a small part of a larger whole. Thinking back, most of the levels are relatively small, but the way that they were enclosed hinted at something outside of the explorable area, places where life carried on regardless of whether or not my N64 was turned on. I always felt like I was invading on some natural area that wasn’t built for me, but arose naturally out of some system.
This idea is fully realized in one of the final levels, Click Clock Wood. I was able to see a forest during four different seasons and witness a myriad of changes, small and large, that the wildlife there had to deal with. Of course, this was probably a decision based on the various gameplay elements that each season brought, but the effect was still impressive.
Many of the games that I love thrive on this mentality of possibility: Pikmin, Donkey Kong 64, Mario 3, Earthbound. It is one of the key reasons that I love video games the way that I do.
When the sequel Banjo Tooie was released, I was as excited as could be. A bigger, better, cooler version of the first game? Heck yes!
Bigger is the key word for the sequel: every level is freaking huge. The unfortunate consequence of this is that every level is also barren, lifeless, and artificial. Whereas I felt like an explorer in the original game, I felt like a player in the sequel, as if every level had been constructed specifically for my entertainment. The result is a decent but soulless sequel to an amazing game.
Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts is the total realization of the ideas brought by Banjo Tooie. Each stage is explicitly artificial. The first stage, which appears at first to be a volcano and a farm on an island, is actually constructed out of sheet metal and wood. Trees fall over when you hit them too hard. The clouds are hung from the ceiling and rotated by a big gear at the top of the world. Reaching the horizon is totally possible because you bump into a big blue wall.
Each level continues the theme of being constructed for your benefit. I’m not sure if this was intentional commentary or not, but it certainly feels like they’re trying to say something about the artificiality of video game worlds.
This really mirrors the path of mainstream video games in general. Modern games thrust you into a world where every scenario is created for your pleasure, where every system is explicit and transparent and there to be deconstructed rather than explored. That sense of wonder is all but gone.
Of course, I’m not really touching on the indie side of games, where this mentality lives on. Still, Minecraft is the most successful indie game of all time, and it feels extremely artificial and constructed. Exploration is nice and all, but it doesn’t feel like a stand-alone world.
Is this really a bad thing, though? I used to think that games were the future of entertainment, that someday everybody would be exploring some amazing fantastical world that stimulated their imaginations and intellects. But maybe games aren’t the future of entertainment, maybe they’re the past. I would bet that kids are pretty cynical about games any more, as well they should be. They are, after all, a very artificial construct.
Maybe the future is in injecting that sense of wonder back into the real world. Smart phones have already done this to some extent, allowing everyone to explore the world around them in great detail, turning every object into a hyperlink leading to more hyperlinks. The whole world is a game waiting to be explored and deconstructed and painted on for everyone to see. Perhaps video games are things that old people make and play, limited to the inside of a computer where the only company is a world populated by poor approximations of life.