We can go right back to Tennis for Two, Spacewar! and even further afield, if the historic curiosity takes you, but just what relation do these electronic experiments hold to today’s virtual playgrounds and landscapes? Perhaps the mind-set of the modern gamer was in fact born, as is often stated, with Miyamoto’s fertile concepts. Perhaps, instead, that mind-set is slowly dying and we should instead thank the advent of immersion for our current approach to video games. That and, of course, the competitive drive that leads us to turn pixels to e-sports.
Indeed, when did Street Fighter become less about Sheng Long and more about one’s online ranking? What happened to make Oddworld, one of the 90’s most challenging titles, into a well-meaning breeze? Is something happening within the industry that threatens to take things from its roots and into a more social and encompassing stratosphere? As games become more popular, are they losing something?
I’m no retro gamer advocate, although I grew up among the earlier Nintendos and in an age where Sega were yet to be a punchline. I think the modern climate is fascinating, positive and something filled with a creativity other mediums seem to be misplacing. That being said, is there any denying that, in the Age of the Gamertag and Minecraft elitism, video games are now a vastly different beast to what they were a mere ten years ago? I’m not just talking about better graphics or higher production values either. I’m talking about philosophy.
When Tomb Raider was released in a bygone year that’s far too depressing to label, did we care about her struggles with perceived gender roles or what kind of relationship she had with her surrogate uncle? No. We wanted to run, jump, strafe and shoot our way through digital worlds and test our own abilities to get through that one difficult platforming section without accidentally landing on Midas’ hand. The truth is that, back then, absolutely nobody expected a fantastic storyline from a videogame. After all, that’s partly why tears in response to Aeris’ death were so heartfelt at the time.
Now, we do very much expect that – and that’s exactly why Grand Theft Auto V was such a disappointment with its pseudo-Sopranos style and heavy-handed parody. This is also the very reason why our modern day Lara Croft is such a different force to the big-titted, paper-thin Indiana Jones archetype she used to be. The question is, is this a good thing?
Of course, the greater focus on reality in games comes with its pros and cons. To continue rolling on the Tomb Raider theme, anybody who tries to deny the superior nature of her modern characterisation is either a hidden chauvinist or nostalgic in the extreme. We wanted a more crafted Croft. We wanted more than pyramid mammaries and a god-awful accent. It’s fantastic that, even considering some of their ham-fisted failures, the team behind the game were at least trying.
But what of gameplay? Some of us play for the fun of it, others want to get to “the end” (brilliantly satirised unintentionally by the aforementioned Minecraft) while people like myself obsessively chase the seemingly arbitrary label of “100% Completion”. This is something that I feel has come about since the second iteration of the beloved PlayStation, rather than before. When I played Tomb Raider as a child in the 90s I wasn’t interested in a collection of pointless artefacts or a complete inventory. I wanted to shoot guns and make big jumps. Most importantly, when I died from those big jumps I’d often have hours of progress to replay, rather than being unfairly rewarded with the circling symbol of The Autosave.
After an entire decade of big jumps, and even bigger guns as the years progressed, it seems that the collective unconscious of the gamer is pining for more. No longer do we want to replay massive sections. No longer are characters simply avatars for our own fantasies. I believe we’re standing on the apex of an evolution within the industry, as it slowly becomes what it has the potential to be – the finest artistic statement of the human race to date. Or have those youthful gamers merely grown up with a stronger thirst for depth? In the 90s we were heavy on gameplay and thin on depth. Things, on the whole, seem to be making a paradigm shift. I, however, long for the day were the two axioms meet in grand symbiosis.
Until then, we probably have years of clumsy writing to endure along the way – and a lot more games that simply hand-hold us through a story that wouldn’t have made it into a bargain bin. The greatest video game ever made – Final Fantasy VII – remains unbeaten in its scope and creativity. With my hand on my heart, however, I can’t wait for a day where Final Fantasy VII is mentioned as fleetingly as Tennis for Two. We’ve come a long way from Spacewar! to No Man’s Sky. Just don’t be afraid to imagine how things may be ten or twenty years from now. You may just make as much difference as Miyamoto (Super Mario and Legend of Zelda), Lanning (Oddworld) or even Jonathan Blow (Braid and The Witness). In no other industry is supply and demand so apparent. We should all start looking a little deeper into exactly what we’re demanding, and maybe we can stop video games from becoming as irrelevant to society as movies are proving themselves to be. Indeed, is there an even more interesting medium just waiting to make our favourite pastime obsolete around the corner? At one time, cinema goers could never have imagined even the ZX Spectrum, let alone the Oculus Rift…