Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines contemporary pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!
It is incredibly difficult to create digital animation — time-consuming, soul-destroying carpal-tunnel work, ideally requiring an engineer with the soul of a poet — but it’s also incredibly easy for an overgrown idiot manchild with studio funding to hire lots of digital animators. The story of blockbuster cinema in the last decade is the story of mediocre directors working with whole armies of digital animators to create terrible movies made passable by incredible special effects. This is also, more or less, the story behind the new generation of videogame consoles, an epochal shift whose beginning ended today with the arrival of Xbox One in stores.
Much internet ink has been spilled over the differences between the consoles. The Playstation 4 is a hundred dollars cheaper; the Xbox One has that camera that never stops looking at you; at this point, all other differences are largely theoretical. Microsoft and Sony are the two biggest videogame companies of the modern age. (Nintendo is playing a whole different game: Nobody really likes the Wii U, but the 3DS appears to be slowly conquering the world.) It has been eight years and seven years since Microsoft and Sony last released a system, respectively.
You would have thought they would have come out with guns blazing. You would have thought they would have seen how much the whole notion of videogames has shifted dangerously away from consoles. Angry Birds was a phenomenon that is currently in the process of colonizing the brains of an entire childhood generation. Candy Crush might actually be a drug. Between console generations there was an entire Zynga rise-and-fall era. Instead, both Microsoft and Sony are selling their consoles on vague future promises and on second-tier franchises that look oh-so-shiny. Sony has a new Killzone game. It’s the fourth or sixth Killzone game and the title Killzone still sounds like a joke title written for a sitcom punchline, right next to Deathkill and Murderblood and Extinctioncide 2: Blood Vengeance.
What the Playstation 4 has going for it is the promise of interesting games in the future. The Xbox One is, in some ways, even more ambitious. It is promising you the future. It is the device that will combine all of your entertainment in one place; it will transform your living room into Back to the Future Part 2 or Minority Report or whatever your cultural buzzword for “the future” is. It is watching you and listening to you. I’ve had the Xbox One for over a week now, and I find it simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. Sometimes the Kinect works and sometimes it doesn’t; when it does work it feels amazing, and when it doesn’t work it feels like a remarkably expensive paperweight that I don’t need because I don’t use paper anymore. The Xbox One only really makes sense if you take Microsoft seriously and pretend that you didn’t just buy the Xbox One to play videogames. Imagine that it is the final device, the Ultimate Nullifier, that it can do everything: Imagine that if you cracked open the Xbox One, it would look like the engine room of the TARDIS, or like Guernica with more lasers.
But let’s pretend for a second that the Xbox One is a device you buy because you want to play videogames. And let’s pretend for a second that the launch titles of the Xbox One are actual videogames that you can actually compare to other videogames. So what I’m saying is, let’s pretend that we have to actually take Dead Rising 3 and Ryse: Son of Rome seriously.
Got it? Pretending? Good. Dead Rising 3 and Ryse: Son of Rome are two of the stupidest things to ever cost millions of dollars. They are graphically beautiful and intellectually barren;they look like a three-way orgy between an Arnold Schwarzenegger ’80s action movie, a social network trying really hard to be the next Facebook, and an ant farm. In Ryse, you play as a Roman soldier who kills millions of awesomely animated people, usually by awesomely cutting off their head after awesomely cutting off their arms. This happens, no bull, twelve times in the first five minutes.
In Dead Rising 3, you play as a boring idiot who builds lots of weapons that are cool for about a minute to kill zombies dead. There are so many zombies in Dead Rising 3, so many many many zombies. The technological evolution of the videogame medium has resulted in a game where there are often hundreds of zombies onscreen and you can kill every single one of them. The game keeps a counter of all the zombies you have killed. Dead Rising 3 could be the first videogame you’ve ever played, and your zombie kill list will total over four digits within the first couple hours. It’s that easy. It’s that stupid.
Most videogames start you off powerless and let you steadily power up — it’s essentially a coming-of-age story arc, embedded in the medium’s mechanics. You can power up in Dead Rising 3, but you don’t really have to. You can build lots of cool weapons and go everywhere almost immediately. You start off as a god of death and then you build your way up to becoming a mega-god of death. Dead Rising 3 is what happens when you take Resident Evil 2 and add in fifty million zombies and a hundred billion bullets and you remove all the atmosphere and all the originality.
Dead Rising 3 is still better than Ryse: Son of Rome, insofar as you can play Dead Rising 3 for at least three hours before getting totally bored and depressed. Ryse is a game about running past beautiful environments to kill people who all basically look the same. So many beautiful environments. You’ve never seen Ancient Rome look so beautiful. Ryse is definitely the coolest screensaver ever. Incredibly talented artists and engineers worked hard on making Ryse look totally cool, and nobody seems to have thought for a second about how to make it into a videogame.
The simple fact is that both Dead Rising 3 and Ryse: Son of Rome aren’t videogames the way we used to think of them. They are social experiences. Dead Rising 3 let’s you customize your character and customize how your character kills zombies, and you can share that video online, because how wonderful to live in a world where people can express themselves through ludicrously expensive emotionally adolescent digital homicide. Every time you execute someone in Ryse the camera swoops in and gives you a beautifully choreographed always-identical shot of you killing the guy. You could theoretically compare playing a videogame ten years ago to playing a sport, like football; playing Ryse is like producing the TV presentation of Sunday Night Football.
I’m worried this sounds like a screed against videogame violence. It’s not. Videogames have lots of violence for the same reason movies have lots of guns and hookers: It’s a shortcut to drama. Nothing wrong with shortcuts. The problem is that, at a certain point, the violence in Dead Rising 3 and Ryse feels far removed from any gameplay. By comparison, one of the most shockingly fun games I played this year was Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. I have attacked a couple hundred ships in Black Flag. Every attack is basically the same: You chase a ship, you shoot it with your cannon, you board, you kill the crew. The graphics are good, but not great: As in Ryse, pretty much all the bad guys look the same. But the gameplay is perfectly tuned. It is something that you can get better at. It is something you want to do again.
Ryse and Dead Rising 3 look a million times better than Black Flag, and they get boring a million times faster. You don’t play them. You let the games play you. You pretend that you care about how awesome it looks to decapitate your thousandth zombie. You pretend that it’s totally okay for Ryse to spend probably millions of dollars filming actors doing performance capture, even though the writing is boring and the characters are dull and let’s face it the actors ain’t exactly Nolan North. You pretend that of course, when we thought of the future of videogames, we dreamed of staring into a screen that was literally half-interface: Death-counters and mission objectives and button directions and upgrade announcements, plus a new achievement every ten minutes to remind you how cool you are.
If this is what it looks like when a major videogame company tries to argue for its ongoing existence, it’s a shameful and decadent argument; it’s like the Wall Street banker who complains that government restrictions are really cutting into his salary. I hope the Xbox One gets better: Hope that Titanfall really is the dream of a new era in shooters, hope that Project Spark is the godmachine they want it to be. But maybe we’re seeing the truth of this new videogame generation: Infinite zombies, yearning for death.