What do you get if you multiply Destiny 2 by The Division 2? An industry obsessed with numbers.
Not just the sales figures of these games, but also the numbers that appear in their worlds. They are visible everywhere in modern shooters, filling weapons selection screens and popping out of the heads of our enemies as if the numbers were passing through their veins. If you stick to the current trajectory, Vampire's villain – The Masquerade: Bloodlines 2 will probably be Count von Count of Sesame Street.
You can tell there are maths in the water, because Borderlands is back with a new revealed sequel. Borderlands was at zero for the heavyweight shooters, with Gearbox being the first developer to pull Diablo's insatiable booty loop in the first person and make it huge before Bungie. There is clearly an appetite for more, too – after the announcement of Borderlands 3, Borderlands 2 has become one of the five most played Steam games.
There is a lot of good in this approach. By highlighting their numbers, Borderlands and Destiny make us realize exactly the pain we are causing, encouraging us to optimize our damage, finding synergies in our equipment and taking advantage of the weaknesses of the enemy. The numbers push us to really understand the mechanics we play – to open the hood and tinker with the pieces found there.
But there is also the impression that this approach is quickly becoming an unthinking defect on the part of the industry. Kotaku's investigation into the making of Anthem revealed that the game had become a loot only very late in its development. Better served Jetpack's exploration booming in the heart of Anthem. Unfortunately, this costume has never been one size fits all. It's time to recognize that by wearing action-RPG armor, shooters can lose something important.
For starters, it's the value of a clean user interface. In the mid-2000s, joint action to eliminate reluctance, objective text and the number of ammunition on our screens led the gaming industry to new heights in this regard. In Dead Space, your health was displayed along the spine of your spacesuit. In Michel Ancel's King Kong, your ammo count was shouted out loud by Adrien Brody's Jack Driscoll. Meanwhile, open the map in Far Cry 2 and you will hear the rustling of the paper as it appears in your character's hands.
At the time, the trend was towards diegetic design, which meant that the elements of the user interface had a natural place in the game world. The style was pursued so harshly during this period that it is now seen as old-fashioned in some gaming designers' circles – but there is a reason why the three games mentioned above have been praised for their palpable atmosphere. They eliminated obstacles that could have prevented players from falling into their world.
On the other hand, the players of The Division 2 emphasize only the most playful aspects. Despite all the benefits that this decision brings, there is no doubt that it will deter you from what you do. The health bar located above the head of each enemy makes it an additional group, contributing to the dehumanization of which the series has sometimes been accused.
It's not just the numbers in the UI that are problematic, but what they represent – a complication. Hiding the values involved in the battles forces designers to stick to clear and simple rules, which can be extremely beneficial. For example: it is immediate to think that Mario can always get rid of a goomba by jumping on it, and a koopa by jumping on it twice.
This year, Far Cry compromised his own rules with New Dawn by focusing on the precise damage caused by your weapons, as well as on the leveling of equipment, benefits and buildings. Although the change brought a satisfying sense of progression, it also diluted the chaotic elegance for which the series is known.
It's frustrating to accidentally hit a guard in the back, rather than kill him silently, as he turns out to be a second-rate villain and therefore immune from withdrawal attempts. This information can be transmitted to the screen through figures and voluminous armor, but forcing players to slow down and take into account these statistics has slowed down the pace of an extraordinarily frantic shooter.
When Doom 2016 showed numbers falling on enemies, the fans started. Maybe they just thought it was too contemporary an influence of id Software's nostalgic reboot. But they were right – Doom never needed his figures to be explicit.
There is a dietary immersion which consists in seeing the damage of your shotgun recorded on a model of character, not on a health bar; a tactical satisfaction of holding the number of shots you fired in an imp in the head; a sense of control knowing that it will take only one more shot to kill the beast. In the end, these fans would not need to worry – they logically limited these numbers to multiplayer, thus preserving the delightful dance of the Doom fight in the wonderful campaign. It is clear that the studio has achieved what others have not done yet: not all shooters need to be an RPG, and that should not be either.