Adventure on the Atari 2600 has a single large pixel for a hero. That's rubbish. I'm not going to argue that old games were better, because they weren't. But the simplicity of the premise? Well that's different. Ridge Racer (a legendary racer that inspired most of the best racing games) is literally a game about racing on a single track with a ridge in the middle. After such simplicity, why is more so often less?
To be clear, I'm not just saying games should have literal titles again (though that would be ace – I'm looking forward to the new Dragon Shouter, Criminal Man, and Donald Duck Healing Me Unnecessarily), I'm saying you can immediately picture some games because the gameplay experience is so clear-cut that it's left an indelible image in your memory. I say 'Crash Bandicoot' and you can see it, right? Moving forward through trees, smashing boxes.
The '80s and '90s were the Wild West of the technological era, but those formative titles seem somehow more self-confident than modern games. Single concepts packaged and made desirable, addictive, and timeless. By comparison, in the PS5 era budgets and game prices are so high, the idea of focusing on just one thing is preposterous. But can you imagine big-budget games doing one thing exquisitely, obsessively well? Why is it left to indie games?
Unpacking a punch
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Take Unpacking. Each object makes a context- appropriate sound according to the material you place it on. It doesn't need to do that, but because it does, it's amazing audio design. Literally BAFTA-winning amazing. You unpack things brilliantly. Why isn't this one-concept excellence commonplace in bigger-budget games?
Massive, multifaceted, triple-A games can be amazing, of course they can. But unless you've got the budget and massive pool of talent to make GTA 6, I'd much rather see developmental vision narrowed to ensure that just one thing is done immaculately. We're talking about PlayStation 5, the most powerful computational device this side of Deep Thought. Is it too much to ask that the core experience of every PS5 game should be a freakin' work of art?
The movement of the character should be beautiful both to watch and to control. The level design should reward skilful and experimental play. The reasons to persevere should keep coming, like hidden depths to the control system, or ways to keep combos alive, keeping the game fresh while still being gratifying for newcomers. That's what game design was like in the early days of PlayStation, before games began to sacrifice quality in favor of quantity. It might even solve the problem of games being too long for many people.
Finally, when too much variety is offered, the gameplay experience can't be curated by the developer – there are too many unknowns and it simply can't be as good as one thing done well. And that's the reason I still get out my PS1 disc to race over that ridge for the thousandth time. It's perfect. I don't think it's any coincidence that the biggest game of the year so far – Elden Ring – could easily have had a simpler name: 'Adventure'.
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