Video game developers love jumping on trends. When one company devises a radical way of changing design paradigms, you can bet that, barring a lack of exposure, the rest of the industry often follows suit in short order.
Gears of War pioneered cover shooting. Uncharted brought a larger focus on storytelling and characterization that was integrated into a linear design. Resident Evil 4 basically invented how we think of modern third-person action games (and drastically changed the direction of horror games). Indie games brought more cerebral genres built on the foundation of old school concepts like point-and-click adventures from the ‘90s. The list goes on.
When Sony introduced the first footage of the newly re-imagined God of War, it was quite a surprise to see that Sony Santa Monica had gone back to the drawing board entirely. Rather than the old games’ quasi-isometric perspective and pull-in set piece moments – based around a westernized Devil May Cry-style combo based brawler – it’s now a proper third-person, open-feeling adventure game.
The immediately noticable change here is the over-the-shoulder camera (that’s RE4’s influence again, 12 years on). And from the bit of GoW footage shown, the game appears to have both a much greater emphasis on traversal and exploration as well as a more more character-driven narrative.
It’s a great change to see, given how formulaic and dated the old games now feel, given that the series started more than ten years ago. The formerly cartoonish Kratos acts like a real person (albeit one with super powers) and from what I can tell, the universe is grounded – well, as grounded as a Norse fantasy with dragons and trolls can ever really be. Regardless, storytelling and a “real” world are necessary elements to sell an expansive environment that in turn you’ll feel motivated and excited to navigate and eventually conquer.
Sony’s other new IP, the previously-announced Cloud Atlas-ish sci-fi Horizon: Zero Dawn and Sony Bend’s just-debuted zombie horde title Days Gone (which is not The Last Of Us, despite the very familiar similarities), had a similar feel. Shoulder cam, sweeping vistas, a feeling of open-world freedom, if not necessarily one that strays too far from linearity.
Across the way, Microsoft’s ReCore appears to have all these qualities too. At the start of this console generation, open-world typically meant the Ubisoft model of endless distractions dotted around a massive map (and there have already been a lot of them since the PS4 kicked off this console generation in late 2013). So when did proper adventure, as interested in “slower” tasks like problem solving and stopping to poke around environments, suddenly become a new trend?
Maybe the most direct bloodline comes from Tomb Raider’s reboot in 2013, which re-fashioned Lara Croft’s campy globetrotting adventures, lately influenced by Uncharted’s pulp yarns, into a self-serious survival action mode. Despite a comic level of violent encounters, Tomb Raider 2013 didn’t forget to also be an adventure game, dropping Lara on a huge, hostile island full of places to clamber over and traverse through.
2009’s Arkham Asylum, itself a trendsetter for Rocksteady’s simplified-if-chaotic combat, deserves some credit too, because it’s essentially a 3D metroidvania experience, replete with paths and areas inaccessible until you find the right equipment to access these hidden areas; it was common practice in old-school Metroids and Castlevanias, encourage players to return to previously-explored areas to find new secrets. (The ownership of discoveries like this is highly rewarding).
Given the amount of turn around time to develop huge triple-A games, it usually takes a few years for the slow-moving ship of design trends to turn in any one direction. Genres continue to blend, as well – most major games are shooters or action games with RPG elements, or adventure games with a heavy emphasis on combat of one form or another, often with a dash of crafting or open-world freedom, if not just the illusion the of it. We’ll undoubtedly see more weird permutations and combinations of previously committed ideas.
With the popularity of Tomb Raider’s reboot – which theoretically was made to represent an ideal of what players expect in a post-Uncharted adventure game – it’s probably the best explanation as to why new games like God Of War are veering into such unexpected territory.
But if this indeed the start of a new trend that brings the prototypical adventure back into vogue (perhaps inevitable given the supposed end of Uncharted), it’s about as good news as one could hope for in a triple-A space primarily concerned with shooting – at least until the next big thing takes its place.