Nintendo, Sony, and the makings of a good video game

I just couldn’t help myself. I watched last week’s teaser for The Last Of Us Part 2 from Paris Games Week. I told myself I wouldn’t, that I should avoid any glimpses of the game and savour the moment when I can appreciate it in its entirety, free of any prior knowledge or bias… But I caved. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a video game trailer. As it turns out, I needn’t really have worried. This particular trailer doesn’t give away much about the game at all and doesn’t feature Ellie or Joel; in fact, the only time you can tell this is in the same universe as The Last Of Us is in the very last seconds of the video, when a horde of Clickers bursts out of the darkness before we cut to black. The biggest talking point to come out of the trailer isn’t about a big plot leak – it’s that the game isn’t shy about showing some pretty graphic acts of violence. People get fucked up in this thing: someone narrowly avoids getting hanged, another person has their arm broken with a hammer, and some unlucky soul gets a faceful of hatchet (by which I mean, someone staved in their temple with an axe). It’s not an easy watch.

I have some thoughts on the trailer – not many of them positive – but I’m choosing not to dwell on them at the moment. This is a tiny slice of the whole game, completely free of context; and while I hope that TLOU Part 2 isn’t just a post-apocalyptic murder-fest, it’s not like its predecessor was all sunshine and rainbows. Besides, this is Naughty Dog, and if anyone gets the benefit of the doubt here, it’s them. What I wanted to talk about was how this game is indicative of the direction that Sony is taking in their quest to create new and challenging art in an evolving medium (for better or worse), and how this differs from the principles of another industry super power – Nintendo.

With the release of Super Mario Odyssey, the contrast between Nintendo and Sony seems all the more stark. For a start, the characters couldn’t be more different: Super Mario stars a short, cartoonish, moustachioed plumber, gleefully bounding through a dense, vibrant open world and lobbing his hat around like it’s going out of fashion; The Last Of Us’ protagonists are grim, beaten down by a cruel, savage existence, struggling to retain the last shreds of their humanity. I don’t need to ask you which of those two you’d rather go for a drink with on a Friday night. Kidding aside, there is obviously a place for both kinds of video game hero, and both have their merits – I will go to my grave believing Ellie and Joel are two of the finest characters in any art form, let alone video games – but I fear that Sony is leaning too heavily on the dour, gritty anti-hero. Just look at the big games in their pipeline: God Of War, Days Gone, even the newly-announced Sucker Punch title Ghost of Tsushima; all featuring gruff, flawed men with varying levels of facial hair who get angry and beat the shit out of people. That might be fun for a while, and there’s a way to make a character like that interesting, but too much of it is just boring.

In comparison, Mario feels like an explosion of pure joy, a return to a simpler time when heroes didn’t have to have tragic backstories to make them interesting. Aside from the natural polishing that comes from graduating through the console generations, Nintendo’s mascot is pretty much the same jolly plumber he’s always been. Mario shows us the key difference between the types of games Nintendo and Sony are trying to make: while Sony is putting all its eggs in the “deep, emotional storytelling” basket, Nintendo is channelling its efforts into creating fun, innovative gameplay. This mantra is borne out by its two biggest releases this year: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, whose revolutionary climbing mechanic opens the world to the player in a way no other game has; and Super Mario Odyssey, which gives us yet another clever reinvention of the classic platforming formula. Both Mario and Zelda are prime examples of what Nintendo does best: creating vivid, charming, endlessly interactive worlds, and constantly experimenting to give us new ways to play games.

When thinking about the creative divergence between Sony and Nintendo, I keep going back to the idea of fun. I mean, video games are supposed to be fun, right? Of course, the concept of what’s “fun” can differ wildly from person to person: some people enjoy sitting down with a cup of tea and a bumper book of sudoku; others like to throw themselves out of aeroplanes and hope that their parachutes don’t fail. Nonetheless, I think that most people would agree that this:

super-mario-odyssey-screencap_1280.0.0

…looks a bit more fun than this:

the-newest-trailer-for-the-last-of-us-2-will-make-your-stomach-turn-social

Ouch. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare two games that are so fundamentally dissimilar. I understand that games like The Last Of Us Part 2 are trying to tell raw, human stories, and I recognise that the medium is changing to allow more interesting ways for those stories to be told. I’m amazed and grateful that a game like The Last Of Us can even exist, and I’m excited to see how these interactive narratives continue to evolve. The problem comes when too many studios try to make the same kind of game. I’m sure that, in a vacuum, each of Sony’s upcoming titles has interesting characters, ideas and gameplay; but when it comes down to it, I find myself wondering if I really want to spend any more of my time on an overly serious, violent, gut-wrenching experience, when I could be happily jumping around as a fat little plumber instead.

I know it’s not really fair to crap on these games for not being like Super Mario, because a) no other game is like Super Mario, and b) Sony’s games are trying to deliver a completely different experience. It’d be like criticising Schindler’s List for not being light-hearted enough. One of the best things about being a gamer is having such incredible variety at your fingertips – one week you can immerse yourself in a gripping adventure, the next you can zoom around a city spraying your friends with ink. (I think that’s what Splatoon is about? I haven’t played it.) The difference between Sony and Nintendo is simply an example of that variety, and I’m thankful for it. For me, it really boils down to the fact that I’m burnt out on the dark, troubled heroes of this era of pop culture, and I just want to play something that feels more like a video game again. I missed out on Mario 64 as a kid, but Odyssey has come into my life at exactly the time when I need a bright, colourful platformer to get lost in. Now, if only I could afford to buy a Switch…

Are games getting too serious nowadays? Or should we be celebrating the fact that video games can tell such deep, moving stories? Are you looking forward to any of Sony’s upcoming titles, or are you too busy collecting moons and dressing Mario up as a chef? Let me know what you think in the comments.

5 thoughts on “Nintendo, Sony, and the makings of a good video game

  1. I think games have become very serious, similar to how movies and shows have become very serious. I think the world, too, has become serious, and so media is reflecting that. Having said that, in particular to games, I’m glad there is a variety of both “dark” and “light” games available, to suite the interests of a wide array of gamers.

    Still don’t have a Switch, but I did notice this trend during E3! Personally, I’m looking forward to Kingdom Come: Deliverance on the PS4, which does not look like a light, happy game (haha) but there are plenty of other great games that I have on my to-play list before that 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wasn’t impressed with the original game, though I intend to give The Last of Us: Part 2 a try if for no other reason than to take part in the conversation. If the path the Uncharted series took is any indication, I feel there’s no telling how good this upcoming game will be until it’s released. After the ho-hum original, I really enjoyed Uncharted 2, but the two installments following it were really inconsistent with the third game introducing an irrelevant subplot and the fourth taking a nosedive in quality in the last chapters. The Lost Legacy did a surprisingly adequate job addressing many of the issues I had with the latter and its lead preformed an act of altruism I never thought I’d see out of a post-Uncharted Naughty Dog protagonist.

    I haven’t tried Super Mario Odyssey yet, but I intend to very soon.

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  3. During the entire Sony E3 conference, I found myself thinking that all of the games looked too similar to each other. So I definitely identify with your thoughts here, and I personally will always prefer Nintendo because of its ability to deliver fun and innovative stories that are an escape to a fantastic world. But escape is why I play games, and as you said not everyone is the same. That’s why it’s awesome to have multiple huge developers that are actually competitive and appeal to the different types of gamer that are out there!

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  4. One thing many people seems to forget is also that the western and eastern media industries are radically different from each other. Though just so I don’t have to delve into too much, I’ll stay within games and film.

    The thing being about Sony showing more gritty, realistic experiences based within the human nature and psychology, telling emotional stories with omages to great works by other authors as well as directors. Since that is the way the western game media has been headed the past 10 years, mirroring and being sort of dictated by Hollywood as to what is “the best way” to tell a story for a wider but specific audience.
    Where as Nintendo does what it always has done, making the best use of what is has while trying to make it a fun experience. Still as it also touches on specific dilemmas in the society and industry.

    So I do agree they do different things but I will also point out and say that Sony isn’t afraid to try things out and see what sticks as it stays with the current, while I love Nintendo as much as the many other great companies within the video game industry. They still need to be critisized of not doing something new that hasn’t been done before.

    I would like to play Mario Odyssey, but I’m also tired of seeing him all the time with no sight of a complete new IP that has a chance to make a new mascot appear. While also through storytelling not challenge my philosophy, psychological thinking and catch me off-guard with its characters.

    Nevertheless, to go back to what I was saying. Sony and Nintendo are very different, not only because of the western vs eastern argument, but also because they generally have different viewpoints on what their audience is.

    I really liked this article, it made me sit down and think about the way to look at the two companies from a different perspective.
    Stay Cozy and have a nice weekend! 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t played Last of Us, although I plan to, but I think that it’s amazing both types of games can co-exist and do well. I mean it really depends what I’m in the mood for, and I can see myself playing Last of Us when I want the deep story driven experience.

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