Games

Video Games Promise the Future, but They Never Deliver It

'Ravenfield' is a lot like an independently created Battlefield game, with the promise of early 'Minecraft.' But that's a lot to live up to.
May 26, 2017, 8:39pm
All images courtesy of SteelRaven7

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

A lot of my time as a video game player is spent hoping. I see a trailer for something, and I hope that it might live up to the crashing, smashing action that's displayed onscreen. I see a promotional image for a game, and I hope that it delivers on the ideas that it is so clearly trying to invoke. I have a profound experience, and I hope I feel something like it again. It's a strange thing: I read lots of novels, watch lots of films, and generally dig around in many kinds of media formats, and none of them have the same kind of relationship pure, speculative desire that games do.

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Ravenfield, a game that has recently rocketed up the Steam charts (following about a year of development on itch.io), is fundamentally a distillation of all the different forms of hope that appear around games, and because of that it might be the most video game of video games. Its success, and the excitement around it, relies completely around its players wanting it to be more than it is. It is a game, and it is a wish for a future game. It's really fucking weird.

On face, Ravenfield is an independently created Battlefield game. It has large, sweeping levels populated by as many AI companions and enemies that your computer can handle. Those levels have tanks, helicopters, planes and a variety of other vehicles that spawn for your play experience. Crucially, Ravenfield is not a multiplayer game (or at least it isn't out of the box). This is a Battlefield experience for you, alone, to play. Blue team and red team fight it out for map locations, each with fairly robust AI that shoot waves of appropriately colored blood out of their opponents, and you just try to help out whichever team you've allied yourself with.

It's simple. There's honestly not much there, and that's incredibly apparent in the discourse around the game. A short piece about the game in PC Gamer from last summer was able to summon up that it's "a complete hoot" as an evaluation.

In a longer piece with a similar appraisal, Kotaku's Nathan Grayson recently wrote that "Ravenfield is like a stick of bubble gum: good for a brief burst of flavor, but insubstantial and prone to blowing up in your face." He finishes up the article by saying that he "hope[s] it'll live up to people's hopes," and that seems to be the general understanding of the game in the world of people who care about it. One day, sometime, it'll be a thing that is interesting, and the only thing to do between now and that moment is to play it.

The idea that one day the games we have will become the games we want is what drives the entire industry. Whether it is the promise of the holodeck in the still-unproven and bleak-looking VR market or the full, immersive, "the game changes with every decision you make" notion of complete player agency, video games are always gesturing at some kind of experience that just happens to be right over the horizon.

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I can remember the very early days of Minecraft. It was selling tons of copies, new game-changing mods were being released every day, and every conversation about the game was about what it was going to be when it was finally finished. Would we get new kinds of world generation with deep dungeons and giant Moria-style caverns?

Or would it be mechanical: better farming, snow that actually reappeared, and more mechanical complexity for red stone that didn't require a degree in computer engineering? While some of those things appeared, and others were created by mods, the actual future of Minecraft that actualized was so much more dull than even the most idle conversation I had had about the game. We got a dragon, some vague plot, and animal husbandry.

Ravenfield has the feeling of those early days of Minecraft about it. It seems like it can be the supporting base for so many ideas that fans of first-person shooters have had over the years. Ravenfield makes you feel like every statement you have ever uttered that started with "wouldn't it be great if in Battlefield you could…" will be fulfilled. It feels like an open future where anything could happen has stumbled into our collective gaming laps.

That's also the same feeling that has people screaming at the top of their lungs at video game press events. It's the feeling that drives forum speculation about beloved franchises, and it's what makes us excited about a game when all we have is some piece of vague and gestural art. As I said, video games run on hope, and certain games cause that hope to pool together. They touch our collective desire in such a perfect way from just the right angle, and we invest our desires into it.

The real kicker here is that it's almost impossible not to do it. I want to be caught up in the potential for the future. The gun physics in Ravenfield feel as good as a baseline as the jumping, whacking, and digging of Minecraft did. It's the kind of game that you play and think "yeah, hell yeah, someone's gonna do something with this thing!"

It's another moment when the future of gaming is right around the corner. This moment just passed, and it's coming down the pipe again in five minutes. It seems like video games always feel like they're on the way to somewhen, and things will be the best they can be there, and all of the promises will finally be made good on. And then another game, with more promises, pulls up in front of me.