I recently did a bit of foraging for information on the upcoming return of dormant series Zoo Tycoon; its 9-year slumber finally being broken with a reboot coming to the Xbox One on launch day. As a young’un, the first Zoo Tycoon was an absolute time sink, and I remember afternoons disappearing in a blur of keeping my absurdly fussy animals happy, my guests fed, and my cash flow steady. The possibilities, then, of that world coming back with a more modern finish was an exciting prospect; so much so that I grabbed the first link I saw when Googling ‘zoo tycoon preview’. It was on xbox.com, so I expected a fair bit of marketing jibber-jabber, but one pattern hit a nerve – the nauseatingly repeated use of ‘experience’.
It’s a healthy sized interview piece, but doing a quick Ctrl+F of ‘experience’ granted 18 results, the word often being used so close together it was impossible to ignore it being battered into the reader’s skull. They’ve been doing it in a great deal of their presentation of late, since the Xbox One’s announcement, and possibly before if memory serves. The promise, the mantra, is to provide ‘unique experiences’ above all. These games are not ‘clever’ (0 results), not ‘interesting’ (0 results), not ‘fun’ (1 result), they are only an ‘experience’.
I think the first reason it grinds my gears is how vague this entire prospect of an ‘experience’ is. What is an experience? Is it good? I once broke my toe, that was definitely an experience. I did work experience once, it was awful. Hell, playing Duke Nukem Forever was an experience – a unique one, at that – I can’t scrape out of my mind. We get the idea that Microsoft does not want us to sit down with our Xbox and have a good time for a couple of hours, popping some heads online or whatever, they want us to sit down, lock in, and be absorbed by some magical experience which only their platform can provide. It’s nonsense, obviously, but slightly more insolent nonsense than the usual PR talk, as if our own standard for enjoying games isn’t allowed anymore, and the future of games has to be this David Cage-esque fantasy where painfully forced ‘emotional experiences’ are all that’s left.
Where Microsoft have gone wrong is a gross misinterpretation of the trend towards art games, and emotional games on the whole, that has spiked in the last two years or so. Dear Esther, Journey, Gone Home – they drew us in and did indeed give us an ‘experience’ over a ‘game’, but it wasn’t through next-gen graphics and motion control. They had superb writing, soundtracks, art styles et cetera, but Microsoft think they can achieve this result by showing us your zoo’s animals’ faces and letting you pet them by hand. Since the new Zoo Tycoon is being made by the folks who developed Kinectimals (Roger Ebert’s quote ‘decorative interest on the level of a greeting card’ seems apt to describe it), we can expect more of the same; cutesy, friendly stuff without any poignancy behind it, and video previews seem to sadly prove this as the player descends from birds-eye view to play with the animals up close. Zoo management with any real depth has yet to be shown.
And you know what? These emotional experiences that Microsoft’s brand craves don’t only happen when showing emotions on-screen. Spending hours working a zoo from the ground up using expert resource management was emotional, just as it was to pull my XCOM squad through a tough mission without any casualties, or crack Just Cause 2’s completion percentage over the 99% mark. I don’t automatically care about every character or animal I see, but I care about mechanics, and things worth putting time into. Just as Chris Shilling said in his excellent piece on Gone Home, art games can be great at what they do, but they’re not all there is. If we play games regularly, we are finding a unique experience in them, but in loving them for what they are. Microsoft’s vision is shallow, tepid and naive, the culture of cutscenes run amok.