What’s the most important in-game innovation this generation? A strong case could be made for persistent multiplayer. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare introduced us to the joys of progression in online combat, and these days if you have a multiplayer component that doesn’t feature a leveling and reward system, you are simply doing it wrong. Or maybe it’s the draw of achievements, something that we gamers have latched onto with alarming enthusiasm. An argument could even be made for online co-op, something that has exploded in popularity this generation. However, I would submit that these are all secondary to an idea that the Mass Effect series introduced us to: importable data.
The first time I booted up Mass Effect 2 and imported my Shepard from a few years before, I was blown away by the concept. Decisions I made three years ago were having a drastic influence on the brand new game I was playing. Ummm, mind blown? You better believe it. That’s crazy. Imagine if, whoever you beat the first Mortal Kombat with; the entire story was then changed to incorporate that victory. Or if your actions from BioShock left a lasting impression on the city that carried over to the sequel. It definitely would have made for a better game. There is literally any number of examples I could use, but I think you get the point. Importable data is an ingenious concept, and could very well be the single most important idea of this console generation.
While there are few game series that wouldn’t benefit from this, I think one example may serve for all. Dragon Age II, another game from Mass Effect developer BioWare, featured a large amount of moral quandaries that the game tasked you with resolving. For example, you could help a man that had been displaced from his house during a riot, or you could accept a bribe from the squatter and leave it be. If I knew there was a chance I would be swinging back this way in a couple years, I would be more likely to take this decision to heart. The more lasting the consequences, the more we think over the decision. As it was, I knew none of my choices truly mattered, so I just took the easy reward and went on my way. Considering BioWare perfected the concept of importable data, that seemed like a big missed opportunity.
Skyrim was another big offender. I found it hard to care about all the people I was robbing and generally ignoring when I knew there would be no lasting repercussions. Who cares if your dog is missing? I can get by without the 300 gold your likely going to reward me with. If I could import my Skyrim character into the next Elder Scrolls, it would be a whole different ballgame. I would probably still be completing sidequests, desperate to complete any important plotlines that could potentially carry over into a sequel. Instead, I gave up on Skyrim months ago. I just don’t care.
A game that is getting it right is Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. Delivered via episodic installments, The Walking Dead is a story-based adventure that follows convict Lee Everett and a ragtag band of survivors as they make their way through a zombie infested Georgia. While the gameplay isn’t exactly pushing any boundaries, the game stands out because of the intense decisions the player is forced to make throughout the series, and the way those choices affect the series. What would I care who dies if I’m never going to see these characters again? Knowing that I am going to have to deal with the results of my actions when the next episode releases gives everything an aura of importance. With the ever-present dialogue timer urging you on, every choice you make in The Walking Dead feels like it carries actual significance. I feel like that is more important that perhaps we would like to admit.
I could be overstating here, but I feel almost ruined on game series that don’t have an importable element. Now that I know how awesome it is, how can I ever care about a standalone sequel again? Maybe I won’t have too. Like multiplayer progression, maybe this will become the new norm. Or maybe I’ll just have to keep playing awesome games independently of each other. I guess I’m okay with that, but if there is one concept that needs to be mined and mimicked, that is surely it. The interactivity of video games makes this possible, and is something that simply couldn’t happen with books or television. If we want our medium to be artistically recognized as legitimate, perhaps it’s time we start pandering to our strengths.