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Video games won’t get better unless we let them

I can’t stop thinking about Halo Infinite’s grappleshot. The wrist-mounted grappling hook is the best addition to the shooter, bringing a creative mobility option to the game that can counter vehicles and is sure to produce clip-worthy plays. My only disappointment is that it’s not always equipped. I have to find it during a match to use it, and I only get a few shots with it when I do. In my mind, Halo Infinite could have been a groundbreaking entry in a 20-year old series that reinvented shooters had it gone all-in on new ideas like the grappleshot.

But then I began to imagine the inevitable backlash. Had 343 Industries revealed such a fundamental change, Halo loyalists would have revolted (gaming satire site Hard Drive was already poking fun at the tool when it appeared in a campaign reveal trailer). Features like Halo Reach’s abilities and Halo 4’s loadouts have been a point of historical contention for the fan base over the past decade. Halo Infinite feels like a response to that — it plays it creatively conservative to avoid YouTube downvotes.

That’s led me to grapple with a hard truth: Our favorite video games won’t evolve unless we allow them to. Sometimes, that means letting developers experiment — and even fail.

Terrifying notion

That last part is a terrifying notion for industry executives. When it comes to AAA video games, failure isn’t an option. With budgets often exceeding $100 million, studios want to make sure they’re pleasing as many players as possible to max out sales. That means avoiding the kind of controversy that gets a game’s reputation dragged through the mud on Reddit before it comes out.

But discourse is almost unavoidable in gaming these days, especially when it comes to long-existing franchises like Halo. Fans can often be precious about series they’ve grown up with for decades. They want new games to be bigger and better, while simultaneously being the exact thing they already know and love. It’s a contradiction, and one that puts developers creating big-budget sequels in a tight spot. Take too big of a creative leap and you might upset your most loyal fans, but stick too close to previous games and risk stagnation.

A player fired a gun in Halo Infinite.

It’s a tension that’s especially present in the Pokémon series right now. For a long time, every Pokémon game was structurally the same. Players collected monsters, fought eight gym leaders, defeated a team of villains, and faced the elite four. Rinse and repeat. But once the series’ developers started experimenting, toxicity started bubbling up to the surface. Fans have been skeptical of everything from Sun and Moon ditching gym leaders to Sword and Shield’s open-world Wild Area. Sometimes, it feels like fans only want Red and Blue remakes every few years.

The latest entries in the series, Pokémon Shining Pearl and Brilliant Diamond, feel like a direct response to the outcry. Rather than trying something new, the remakes are overly faithful recreations of 2006’s Diamond and Pearl. The Chibi art style sticks as close as possible to the old sprite art, and the general structure is paint-by-numbers Pokémon. On some level, these are the exact games fans have been asking for, minus the lack of difficulty.

The player character stands next to a Drifloon at the Valley Windworks.

As crowd-pleasing as they are, they’re also a bit boring compared to controversial entries like Sword and Shield. Nothing in the remakes feels like a defining feature that’ll help the franchise grow. The experience isn’t much different from playing a Nintendo DS-era game, much like Halo Infinite feels about the same as Halo 3 despite fresh visuals and new guns. There’s no threat of catastrophic failure, but little potential for growth, either.

Stalemate looms

It feels like we’re slowly approaching a stalemate between fans and developers. Beloved franchises just aren’t pushing the envelope anymore as they cater too hard to those who can’t let go of the classics. Once-influential series like Call of Duty are literally stuck in the past — perhaps a direct response to the future-set Infinite Warfare’s campaign trailer’s record-breaking dislikes on YouTube prior to the game’s launch. Most groundbreaking innovation comes from the indie scene these days, with big studios aping ideas once they’re proven profitable (see Epic Games borrowing Among Us’ social deduction gameplay for its somewhat shameless Impostors mode).

Most of the industry’s problems ultimately lead back to corporations reducing art to a profitable formula, but players have the power to influence decisions. If we want to see the gaming industry grow, we need to be willing to be less protective of the games we hold dear. Developers need space to tear series’ apart and reverse engineer them into something new. You can’t make The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild without defying a few expectations.

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