Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Midweek Music Box: Lost Luster Part 1: Do Cinematic Sequences in Video Games No Longer Impress?

Get ready for some frog-saving excitement!

When my cousin John popped Blaster Master in his NES, I wasn't impressed.  The stuff about chasing your pet frog seemed slow and boring.  He seemed enthused though and I gave my cousin, who usually knew his stuff when it came to games, the benefit of the doubt even though I was more than a bit dubious.  He pressed start and then this happened, this glorious moment right here:

Get ready to rock you subterranean monsters.

This doesn't quite say it all, does it?  Check this out, the still shot is wrong, but those first 7 seconds of game footage still get me pumped years later:

Just the first 20 seconds and you feel like you are literally in the game.

Music swells as the tank revs up, getting ready to go.  Beyond the cave walls where you found this beast of a vehicle lie terrible mutated creatures bent on your destruction.  Why was Sophia the 3rd, a specialized battle tank, down that hole in the first place?  Why are there radioactive mutants underground?  Why are you risking life and limb for a stupid frog?  None of that matters, what does matter is how incredible those first few seconds of the game are.

Years have passed since the last time I saw the first few moments of Blaster Master by Sunsoft.  The scenes with the boy chasing his pet frog and stumbling down a hole, not breaking his neck, and subsequently finding the most butt-kicking vehicle this side of a Transformer were nice and all, but they didn't exactly sell the game as the adventure it was.  There were plenty of carts in the proverbial video game sea, and if you didn't have a kid hooked in the first few seconds, they would lose interest and never play the game.  When I heard that music and watched the tank take off, I was hooked by what I saw.

Cut scenes, cinematic sequences, and even still shots with dialogue have a long tradition in video games.  From as far back as Pac-Man we've enjoyed short segments that told us a little bit of the game's story, developed a character, or introduced a plot twist.  But have they gotten a little too stale?  Sure, we can render muscles and sweat, bone and sinew, blood and guts, landscapes and skyboxes with such glorious textures and vibrant colors that our eyeballs drink it in, thirsty for more--but do we still have that same level of wonderment?  Or are we merely looking around with mild sense of being impressed?

I highlight Blaster Master not only because the music was something I considered for the Midweek Musicbox articles, but because it marked the first time I was totally blown away by how enthralling a cut scene from a video game could be.  Don't get me wrong, there were other things out there that were pretty cool.  I still think the cut scenes from Ninja Gaiden are impressive and they certainly deliver the cinematic experience, but Blaster Master was my first time experiencing that feeling of amazement. 

Yeah, I was a kid, and yeah, it's easy to write it off as me being easy to wow; but really, when was the last time you remember feeling a deep sense within you that you were seeing something impressive from a video game--and weren't expecting it?  I'm not trying to knock the incredible achievements made since the 8-bit era, I think that Assassins' Cry: Call of Halo Scrolls Part VII is very pretty.  But that's just it, games like that look great, but can you keep getting "blown away" by how far graphics have come?  Does newer stuff even have a chance to grip you and engage you with the way they stop to tell their story?  Or have we already gotten past the point where we are "wowed" so-to-speak?

Press "x" to show excitement and surprise.

Even when searching for articles about upcoming games with the best graphics you see the same comments over and over again.  Things like "Look, they aren't blocky hands anymore, we've come a long way from Virtua Fighter" or "Wow!  They look (almost) just like a movie," or "How come Kevin Spacey looks less wooden in the game than he does in real life" are common place.  Heck, I admit I was impressed with the images I saw for Skyrim, but I wasn't genuinely surprised by them.  Again, that's not meant as a knock, but rather that they are every bit as impressive as they were promised to be.  They met all expectations that they claimed they would have.  

And therein lies the problem.  

If a game a promises the moon and delivers said sphere, that's great, that's fantastic.  You've done a far better job than E.A. has in the past decade and you deserve a bit of a clap for that.  Perhaps it's just me though, but sometimes I feel like the days when I was promised the moon and found a solar system of wonderment awaiting instead are rapidly disappearing, if not already gone (at least temporarily).  I was expecting Blaster Master to be somewhat decent and ended up getting sucked in the moment it started.  Do other games still capture wonderment?

Do I think there's hope to recapture that same sense of wonder?  

Yes, of course this is a shameless plug for you to stop by next week and read part two where I talk about some things I think can be done to recapture wonderment.  I hope you stop back by then and I hope you enjoy the article to come.

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