My brother's friend lives with us and downloads a lot of demos that take up a lot of space on our hard drive... it's annoying. I came into our game room one day to see him playing Just Cause 2 right as his trial time was ending. "Hey dude," he said. "Look at this." He pointed at the screen while it showed the map of the area he was in. It zoomed out and showed that the whole map was much larger than the island he was on. "This game is HUGE!" he said excitedly.
I wasn't quite as mesmerized. Actually, I was taken aback quite a bit. I remember the good old days when looking at a game's map wasn't the game's main selling point. To be fair, the demo is a lot of fun and I've been meaning to get the full game for awhile now but really--I'm one of those guys who enjoys the first few worlds of the Spyro games where the levels are short with a few secrets more than later levels (I shudder at the thought of Treetops). It's not about how much space you make in a game it's about how you utilize that space.
Going back to Spyro, who remembers the Mystic Marsh level from Spyro 2? It's a pretty small level when you think about it, but it's got a lot packed into it. It can be split into 3 segments: the lower level, the upper level, and the rooftops. All these regions are packed in very closely together but they flow into each other so smoothly. If you don't believe me, play through the thief mission. The thieves take you all around the level. Another thing this realm does extraordinarily well is the trading mission. While, yes, it is cleverly crafted, I believe this is the only level of a Spyro game that truly shows off a living ecosystem in action. A whole ecosystem in this small space!
And then you look at an open-world sandbox game and they reuse the same character designs over and over again for people walking along the street. It makes sense for badguys to look the same cause they're typically in a uniform, but it kind of makes me care less about an innocent bystander I watched die since I can rest assured that I'm going to see hundreds more of them along the way. Funny, isn't it, how the bigger and more realistic game worlds get, the more removed from humanity and reality they actually become?
To be fair, there are big games that I believe make good use of all their space. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, in addition to being a beautiful game, is also fucking massive. I've spent more time playing that game than I've ever put into an MMO (of course I've never liked MMO's). Almost everyone has a quest for you. And while yes, 90% of those quests involve you looking for someone in a cave just to find their rotting corpse at the end, it still manages to be a different experience every time.
Scale is a growing issue (no pun intended) in the gaming world. Not only is it present in game maps, but as you all know, characters themselves. It used to just be bosses but then characters became intimidatingly large--often because of ridiculously massive armor with absolutely no purpose other than making them look fucking badass because they're bigger than everyone else. Yes, they can be rather ridiculous looking, but I'll let them slide. But sometimes boss sizes just get too ridiculous.
I'll just come out and say it... I wasn't a huge fan of Shadow of the Colossus. I respect the game, and I respect people who like the game. Undeniably, it is an important part of gaming history, but it just didn't do it for me. There were clever battles but the moment of that game that lives in infamy in my mind is the fight where the colossus has to punch down on the platform for you to reach the next level. Sure, it's clever... but what if that platform wasn't there? How would Wander reach the top of the Colossus? Did they construct their dens specifically for an occasion in which some small person would need to reach their soft spot? Bit them in the ass didn't it?
In most games, the typical cronies are completely helpless against you. God of War and Batman: Arkham Asylum come to mind. It doesn't matter how many baddies they send at you in those games, by the time you're done with them, they are fucked up beyond recognition. Then you get to the boss... and they are fucked up beyond recognition. It's not just Kratos though, think about Mario and Link. Just about all the bosses they go up against explode, melt, burn, or disintegrate. And it doesn't even take that much. Is Mario really so fat he can destroy the Whomp King with only his weight? Is he strong enough to swing big old Bowser around and around and feel so comfortable in his own victory to mock the bastard by saying "so long gay Bowser!" after a toss? And I don't care how courageous you are Link. Nobody can take down monsters that big as a fucking child!
You would think for their size that these bosses would be more of a threat and not limited to just a few attacks. If God came to you and said he was going to transform you into either a fire-breathing dragon with spikes on his back or a short, fat, Italian plumber. What would you pick? Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Now what if he told you that as the dragon you can only breathe fire, charge, pull some fire down from the sky, and send out shockwaves? Still sound like a good deal? Okay but what if he said you could only do all that after you've been fucked over by the plumber twice already?
I frequently hear people refute my argument by saying "well small bosses just aren't threatening enough". They say that you know for sure when you're facing a boss when you see the big guy come out. Don't give me that. Mega Man's bosses are (normally) the same size as him. They're just as iconic as any other boss and they're just as threatening. So why does this work so well? With the right weapon equipped, some of the bosses are as easy as any normal bad guy! Well yes, but by showing you who you're fighting before the level it builds the suspense, the personal vendetta against the bastard who put this level together to torment you. People refer to the dungeons in LoZ games as Fire Temple, Water Temple, Shadow Temple, but since the levels in Mega Man don't have a name of their own, gamers refer to them by the boss (i.e. Elec Man's level, Metal Man's level).
As I conclude, I remember that many of the great villains are pretty decent matches for the hero of the game. Ganondorf, Wily, Eggman, and Zeus to name a few are all very human (well, except Zeus who is technically a god). They have understandable limitations and that is their downfall.
So why does "Make it bigger" appear to be the motto of game developers everywhere? Well, if you just ask my brother's friend he'll probably tell you it's because bigger is better. He's playing God of War 3 right now. I'll go play some Mega Man.