You walk around in spooky office buildings or run-down city streets or underground sewers. There is debris all over, lending credibility to the disaster described in the backstory. It all looks intensely realistic, meaning that you can imagine that if something like that ever happened, that's what it would look like. It's Half-Life, or Half-Life 2, some of the best games ever released, according to pretty much everyone who's played them (the first one is the better one in my book.)
But it could as easily be other games. Think about it: a feeling of dread around every corner. The realism of improbable situations – a zombie outbreak, a city underwater, an alien invasion –, represented through a lot of Show Don't Tell (broken buildings, abandoned facilities, cryptic graffiti.) A story that takes itself wholly seriously, with Hollywood genes. We can apply this to any number of recent games, from Resistance to Gears of War, to Bioshock to The Last of Us. This is what modern, mature games are all about.
You could probably argue that Half-Life wasn't the first or even the most important of its kind, that we had, I don't know, Doom before it. And sure, this isn't a history piece, so I'm not claiming that Half-Life originated modern gaming or anything. But I am saying that Half-Life is symbolic of a lot of what was to come. I choose Half-Life for its high place among fans and critics, and because I consider that to be an especially important factor in determining legacy.
Then, of course, some of the games that take cues from Half-Life and its sequel can hardly be blamed. Given how high we think of Half-Life and, really, how well it holds up, it's not hard to go to it for inspiration. From a business standpoint, it makes particularly good sense: given them what they like. And we like gritty realism, brown forlorn cities and blood on the walls.
And some of those games are classics in their own right. Some have become fan favorites of their own. But some of them leave a bad taste in my mouth, like they're more fluff than substance, and only now I've managed to figure out why: they're imperfect copies of Half-Life.
See, Half-Life was this near-perfect blend of story and gameplay. Gordon Freeman didn't say anything and yet we were thrust forward by the story, dying to know how we'd escape the facility, then, the city and then, how to free the world (still waiting on that one.) And the story in, say, the Last of Us is equally compelling, and I biasedly dislike zombie scenarios. I want to know how they're going to get there, who they will meet on the way there and who they will lose. The cutscenes are some of the best I've ever seen, and you can't really compete in terms of graphic fidelity. But the reason I will never put TLOS in the same category as Half-Life is the other half of its equation: the gameplay doesn't reach the same level as its story-telling, and the reason for that is that they sacrifice it in the name of story-telling.
I know this angers you, TLOS-fan. (If you're pissed now, you should hear some of my thoughts on Uncharted!) But I'm not claiming TLOS is a bad game. This isn't even about TLOS, though I'm using it as a stand-in for most modern games since I'm right in the middle of it. But this is about games aping the wrong parts of Half-Life, or at least some parts more than others. Most game are like it, in that sense. They spend a lot of time crafting a realistic-looking world, and adding gorgeous particle and lighting effects that they forget to make that world equally beautiful to play in.
TLOS does some things that I love. The interface is really smart (though I have problems with the saving), the buttons are sensible, reloading is genius (use the weapon without aiming! Brilliant) and swimming (incredibly) makes sense.
And then you're stuck in a room without any idea how to get out. I'm a huge fan of the third-person perspective (consider it vastly superior to first-person in every regard), but even the expanded line of sight can't help you distinguish between what items you can use and what items you can't. You end up (as in Uncharted) running around, looking for that white circle on the thing that will get you through to the next area. Getting supplies is equally un-fun. Just approach every bookcase and cabinet and spam the triangle button until you've gotten everything. If you take long enough to find the cart you're supposed to use as a platform to climb to the balcony, this weird prompt will come up, either a big L3 with the word "HINT" on top of it, showing you where to go at the press of a button, or this text message perfectly describing what to do: "Pull the platform for Ellie to climb." And Nintendo gets the flak for having an option to show you how to pass a level.
Whatever happened to Show Don't Tell? How come Half-Life not once needed these prompts? I was around 14 when I played it and the difficulty was in the combat (fuck the Blast Pit), never in finding my way out. I'm 24 now and I often can't find where to go in a simple room. The critics talk a lot about games being linear but that's beside the point. Half-Life was linear, but it let you experiment in a room. You could move every crate you see, and it's always clear from the design of the room which places you can reach and which you can't. Nearly every waist-high object in The Last of Us is impossible to climb – except the ones you have to climb. Never mind the fact that you often climb things your own height in cutscenes.
Games are harder to make these days. We expect photorealism but also realism in our storytelling. Joel's face needs to be perfectly crafted and it must also speak perfectly-written words. That wall must be perfectly textured and also broken, aged in a perfectly real way. In creating these worlds according to these specifications, somehow it must have gotten harder to tell us which parts of the environment are interactive and which are not. That's why every item in every game now glistens and sparkles until we get it. That's why there's a text prompt saying "Follow that character." In telling better stories, we're making worlds less gracious to traverse and solutions less fun to find.