Whoooaaaaaaa?

It’s another day of little boys (or little boy, my sweetheart’s grandson is here again). Somehow, this turned from a tiny nitpick into a full draft.

Steam Awards of 2016

Some games melt your face. Maybe it was a crazy plot twist. Maybe you just got your wisdom teeth removed. Either way, this game BLOWS YOUR MIND. –description of the Whoooaaaaaaa, dude! 2016 Steam Award.

The first time I’d heard of the Steam Awards, it was the beginning of the 2016 Christmas season Steam sale, and the finalists were already chosen. I’m not sure how the finalists were chosen, but I certainly object to the ones that ended up chooseable options — finalists — for the Whoooaaaaaaa, dude! award. To be fair, I may have taken this award more literally than others have, or am more jaded when it comes to what blows my mind. There are plenty of games out there that have great production values, that tell good stories, that are fun as Hell (the really-super fun parts of Hell) but are not necessarily mind blowing. Some games have that have rich worlds and others might sport an uncanny degree of simulation, but these don’t necessarily blow my mind.

So it is very likely that I am less impressed by the latest and greatest than others might be, and wouldn’t so readily consider them for candidacy for this award.

Wizards of Whoooaaaaaaa

So with that, the finalists for the 2016 Steam Award for the category of Whoooaaaaaaa, dude! were (along with my speculation as to what was so Whoooaaaaaaa about it):

BioShock Infinite: A pretty amazing air city of Columbia, and Elizabeth, who continuously interacts with Booker (the player) and the environment. We’ve not seen people in games who are so integrated into the world around them until BSInfinite showed us how it’s done.

Doom: No one talks about the Whoooaaaaaaa factor of Doom 2016 aside from it being a pretty great modernization of the 1993 original. I haven’t played it and look forward to doing so. Still, Wolfenstein: The New Order was not only pretty, but also presented a well-considered Nazis-won-WWII alternate reality and made visceral in the story some of the real consequences and inevitable abuses of Nazism (-slash-fascism-slash-power-consolidation.) So I’d expect there was a lot more Whoooaaaaaaa to go around in Wolfenstein than Doom. But I haven’t played either, so I can’t say for sure.

Grand Theft Auto 5 (Winner): The only thing that I can imagine might deserve a Whoooaaaaaaa in GTA5 is the fully realized city that is simulated down to considerable detail, including wildlife for which some players have made a hobby watching and cataloging. On the other hand, the illusion of this simulation breaks down with the street-corner test. (Stand at a street corner for ten minutes and see what happens.) And, I wouldn’t imagine that an extreme level of simulation detail would get popular Whoooaaaaaaa appeal anyway, robust ecology or otherwise.

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain I haven’t played any of the MG titles. It just never really grew on me. That said, I don’t know what gives MGS5 its Whoooaaaaaaa. The Phantom Pain is regarded as a paragon of the series, but I’ve not heard about what in it blows minds.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt I’ve been wanting to try the Witcher series for a while, always finding other games slightly more compelling. Much like The Phantom Pain, above, Witcher 3 is regarded as an excellent title for the franchise. But again, there are no factors that make it Whoooaaaaaaa. On the other hand, there is an in-diegesis collectable card game that Geralt (the player) can trade, build decks and play, and if the rest of the world is as thoroughly developed as this, that might be impressive. But again, like Pain I’ve not heard of anything specific that is mind-blowing.

Why Not Portal?

When I first thought about this, the question rose: Why the heck isn’t Portal on this list? Yes. The first one. The underlying portal gun mechanic is pretty darned mind-blowing. Early on, Chell (the player) gets the ability to define two holes in surfaces in the environment. What goes in one comes out the other and vice versa. All mechanical factors are conserved.

Think of all the implied crazy physics stuff you can do with this. The rest of the game is about doing those things. Including infinite recursions and aren’t you glad Chell wears boots that prevent her from taking impact damage, because you’ll be going splat against things so many times.

That was mind-blowing to me when I first got the Portal Gun. And then I discovered that I get to do this for the rest of the game, without limitations.

Seriously! Whoooaaaaaaa! Dude!

The Fading Luster of Technology

So, what happened? Well, now we did that.

I remember watching for the first time a packet of stew go from a block of ice to boiling hot in under a minute in the microwave. On a stovetop it would have taken fifteen minutes, but in this magic box, bam! One minute! Done! Inside a year, every house had a microwave, and inside two years no one really cared. We’ve seen the same thing since with personal computers, with Compact Discs, dialup internet, network gaming, cell phones, WiFi, broadband, smartphones and so on: The first time we see it, it’s amazing!

Then we get it for ourselves.

And then it’s the norm.

And portal guns are not in every game (many fewer than there are gravity guns). When we think about the Portal franchise, we sooner think about GlaDOS’ acerbic wit or the Companion Cube bit than we do the titular Portal Gun.

That doesn’t make the Portal Gun any less mind-blowing. It’s still a pretty amazing game concept. But we’ve all done our thinking with portals. So now it seems as ordinary as a microwave oven.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Guns used to spin in mid air like powerups. We didn’t have clips we had to reload. We didn’t look down our iron sights or scopes, until we did.

We didn’t look down at all, actually. Until we did.

There was no such thing as an ally. Everything around that moved was an enemy and it shot at you. Until we had allies. And then they just hung out and shot at the badguys, until we could direct them.

And anything that wasn’t nailed down was important. Until we made physics engines and the the fields were full of junk and (still) explodey barrels.

And we welcome these new bits every time they come back. Especially when old devices are repurposed in new environments or to new effect. But unless the new environment lends new Whoooaaaaaaa to the old device, the old Whoooaaaaaaa is lost. Even when we come to expect it in every new release.

The mind is blown but once.

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