Many reviews I’ve read recently have used the word “risk”. I’m not quite sure what we mean by that in games anymore. Like visceral, it just seems to mean “I like this”. We’ve seen God of War Ragnarok, Sonic Frontiers and Pokemon Scarlet & Violet all described as risky, to varying degrees, and for a medium that always plays things impossibly safe, I’m always amazed at how liberally we apply whatever definition we hold the term. While I can see the logic (although I strongly disagree in almost all cases) of calling these games risk, we are only highlighting how risky gambling is. No one has taken as big a turn as Nier: Automata, and gaming needs to be a little braver.
Let’s look at the last three releases in turn. God of War Ragnarok is just a bit more of God of War (2018). It is okay. People loved the original reboot, and in turn, people love Ragnarok. They love it because it gives them exactly what they want – the opposite of a risk. In 2018, you could have called it a risk. It was a risk to take Kratos away from the hyper-violent hack ‘n’ slash carnage to a more mature and measured action RPG where Kratos contemplated his own violence. Not too big of a one, considering that mature and measured storytelling was already Sony’s “thing” back then, and despite violent interrogations, Kratos still tears his enemies apart. However, it was still a risk. Ragnarok is not.
Ragnarok’s story is relatively straightforward and never confronts the player with difficult choices or does anything so unexpected. Playing as Atreus is the biggest “risk” and is hardly a misguided genius. It’s a very common sequel trope. Ragnarok is doing well. Good, even. But a risk? Hardly. It safely relies on the formula and characters of the first game, while primarily improving the most highly criticized flaws of the 2018 version. It’s good, but it’s safe.
Then there’s Sonic Frontiers. This brings more risk, as shown by the frenetic reviews. God of War netted almost all nines and tens – that’s not a sign of a risk. Sonic had a greater range, which is often a sign that it was trying new things and that some players went with it while others didn’t. Frontiers was Sonic’s first foray into modern open-world gaming, combined with a Breath of the Wild-style freedom to explore. Of course, copying one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time is no risk, nor is trying out the most popular casual genre. In fact, progression is even tied to completing straight platforming sections, because Sonic can’t quite let go of his roots. A risk, but a small one.
Pokemon Scarlet & Violet are similar. While Legends: Arceus set the table, Paldea is the first fully open world we’ve had to explore, and changing the formula is a risk. But for the reasons outlined with Frontiers, neither is it. It’s what the fans have been clamoring for. With Sonic, there was nothing to lose after a decade in the wilderness. Pokemon is extremely popular and even if some fans wanted it changed, we all would have bought it anyway. I therefore believe that Pokemon presents a slightly greater risk, but the bar for praise should be slightly higher than “finally updating an old formula after 25 years”.
Nier: Automata didn’t slightly change its gameplay to fit the world’s most popular genre, nor did it do what God of War Ragnarok did, which seems to be the risk of being a good sequel that spent millions of dollars to be just like original but bigger’. Nier: Automata is a game you have to play multiple times to fully understand, each time seeing it from a new perspective, as well as a story that defies understanding at first. All this and you can die if you eat the wrong fish. Not just a typical video game death either, but as one of the many non-canon endings you’ll collect on your way to the canon ending. The game’s entire existence is built on the secret ending of a PS2 game that came out decades ago that none of us played. By all accounts, it’s a risk that shouldn’t exist, but one that paid off.
A video game that takes a risk means trying something new that is prepared to lose people in the goal of making things more special for those who stay. It’s being prepared to leave players with questions, it’s the bravery to be disliked in the pursuit of creating something creatively rewarding. Very few video games take risks. The next time you consider a game risky, consider Nier: Automata. Then cross out the word “risky” and write “I liked this”.
Next: The pleasure economy has made the confusing choice of quantity over quality