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Starburst Magazine Issue 406 - Out Now
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Complex Games from a Simpler Time

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Retro-Bytes

Just a few days ago, I had the opportunity to play the original DOOM for the first time in years, and it made a few trends in modern-day gaming alarmingly clear, particularly in first-person shooters. We haven’t streamlined the gameplay in current-generation games; we’ve simplified it. We’ve simplified it to the point of stupidity. The FPS landscape today is plagued by little more than simple A-to-B levels, interrupted by cutscenes. In a classic FPS like DOOM, you actually had to explore the levels. Find the key, check your map, and navigate to the exit. There was no handholding. There was no exposition. Games simply were.

I, for one, miss the explorative elements of games. In a modern day title like Call of Duty: Black Ops, you are mindlessly led from one objective to the next by the NPCs (non-player characters). The beautifully detailed environments let you see for miles in each direction (provided you’re not in the middle of a perfectly rendered yet wholly oppressive jungle), but you can’t actually get to the places you see in the distance. There will occasionally be branching paths – say, two doors to get into a particular house – but that’s about the extent of it. Your hand is held by your accompanying superior officer, and, even if you find a new door, the chance that you’ll actually be able to open it for yourself is about zero. It’s almost insulting.

Role-playing games have suffered a similar fate. Compare, for example, the original Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior in the U.S.) with a modern RPG like Final Fantasy XIII. In Dragon Quest, you start your epic journey in the castle at level 1. You could barely defeat a single slime before hobbling back to the inn, licking your wounds, barely earning enough gold to pay the innkeeper to refill your hit points.

But you got stronger. Your earned experience points leveled you up, enabling you to defeat a full handful of slimes between inn visits instead of one at a time. You stockpile the excess gold and buy a stronger sword, and maybe some armor. You can venture farther into the wilderness. You travel too far outside your safety net. You die. You lose half of your gold. You try again. You stretch your curious fingers outwards from your home base, getting a little farther each time.

Suddenly you notice that you haven’t had to return to the castle recently. Your grip on your sword is calloused, but strong. Your HP is full. The trees shy away as you approach, opening a path for you, knowing how easily they could fall to one swing of your mighty broadsword if you deemed them worth the effort. Dragons tremble before you. This is the moment you’ve been building toward. You are a warrior. No one told you how to do this. You figured it out. You adapted. You grew.

Each moment you play is an investment in the rest of the game. Your future self is evolved from your weak starting avatar; it’s not merely given to you. The fact that the only save point in this incredibly unforgiving game is in the starting castle is merely icing on the hardcore cake. This is what games used to be.

Fast forward 25 years to the latest Square-Enix blockbuster, Final Fantasy XIII. You’ll find a new save point around every corner. There is a heavy reliance on narrative in a title where the story is actually… pretty convoluted, at best. There are a lot of characters, but you will care about few of them, and they reinforce lazy character stereotypes. The peppy young girl. The serious soldier. The jive-talking black guy. They all have their own spoken voices, special moves, and motivations. Nothing is left to the gamer’s imagination anymore. And dying? You won’t die. And, in the rare instance you do, there is no real consequence besides perhaps five minutes of backtracking.

I know that a lot more people today can finish Final Fantasy XIII than would ever have the patience for the slow-burning Dragon Quest, but there’s no exploration anymore, no sense of wonder or discovery. If you’ve ever seen a map of a FFXIII environment, you might notice that there are a lot of long, narrow corridors punctuated by random battles. That’s it. Perhaps one map would feature an obvious branch off to a secret treasure chest, or a “hidden” boss battle. But you’ll never get lost. There is always a definite entrance and exit to each area, and your party will be funneled down corridor after corridor, with the only reward being more story. What if you don’t care about the narrative, full of place names and character races with far too many apostrophes contained within? Fal’Cie? L’Cie? Cie’th? If you don’t grasp the differences – if you don’t appreciate that FFXIII is trying to tell a story more than be a game – you will, like me, long for the good old days… the good old days when games were meant to be played instead of merely watched.

I don’t want to be force-fed a new environment because the developers have decided that I’ve had enough of the first. I want to stumble into the hornets’ nest unawares. I want the thrill of feeling like I might be in over my head a little bit, and be forced to fight my way out with a self-confidence honed by hours of preparation out in the field. I want to actually be in control of the characters I’m controlling.

Whenever there is a "breakthrough in what games can really be," I am wary of the optimism. Why can’t games just be themselves? And are we really doing something – anything – new with games that hasn’t been done before, or are they like fashion, with cyclical styles that resurrect themselves once a generation? Heavy Rain is one such example. “It’s just like a movie!” “Innovative!” “Breathtaking!

No. No. No. No. NO!

Heavy Rain is an eight-hour quick-time event. Something happens on the screen, and you just react by pushing a particular button, or moving the stick in a certain manner. Countless titles in this “interactive movie” genre appeared on the doomed Sega CD, and I seem to remember a little title by the name of Dragon’s Lair doing something along the same lines… Well, more like exactly along the same lines. The key difference? Heavy Rain tells us which button to press, while Dragon’s Lair forces us to discover it for ourselves. It takes trial and error and split-second timing, things that gamers today seem to have in short supply. It’s not as hand-holdingly dumbed down as the leap from DOOM to Black Ops, but it’s still a simpler game for… who? Simpler gamers? Have we really regressed so far? In this world of instant gratification, are we really so impatient with our entertainment?

A recent interview with one of the Black Ops developers from Treyarch comes to mind. I don’t remember the specifics, but he was basically asked, “Why is it so linear?” His response: “That’s what gamers want.

… I blame Michael Bay and YouTube.

Is that really what gamers today want? To be lead helplessly through a game, having no real impact on the world around them, even their virtual world, which should be creatable and destroyable at our whim? That’s not what I want. But what do I know? I like Sim City. Perhaps I’m not Treyarch’s target market.

The big problem is this: Call of Duty sells more than 20 million copies annually. Reviews for the series are now largely superfluous; gamers buy it just for the brand, and to play it with their friends that live two states away. Call of Duty has evolved into what PlayStation Home never managed to become: a meeting place for online friends. It doesn’t really matter how it plays, whether there are exploration elements, or how deep the customization options are. Gamers today… we don’t seem to care.

Let’s go back in time to the good old days, once again, to the days of text adventures. Zork. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Colossal Cave. Games that made you think. Games that frustrated you when you realized you’re not very good at spelling, and made you realize that grammar is a lost art, forgotten to the annals of history.

Look. Get lamp. Use key. Open door. Walk south.

How many people in the real world even know what direction south is? I mean, I do, but I have this weird relationship with maps; you wouldn’t understand. Half of the game in a text adventure was just getting the program to do what you wanted it to do, like taming a wild beast, one stilted sentence at a time. But once you mastered the basics and learned to look – really look – at your surroundings, you trained yourself to play the game like you live your life: logically, thoughtfully, considering all options before you make a decision that might lead to you getting devoured by a dragon.

Ok, so most people don’t consider every decision they make before making it. But that’s part of the beauty of video games: we don’t have to be ourselves. Maybe in real life we’re obsessive compulsive, always entering each new room three separate times before we can be comfortable in our own skin. Maybe in real life we’re kind of squishy, and games let us fly through mythical worlds while shirtless, strong, and self confident.

Or maybe our reality isn’t all we hoped it would be. Our personal lives collapse around us. We lose our jobs. Our girlfriends or boyfriends leave us. Our childhood dreams, once so pure and obtainable, have fallen by the wayside because we have to pay the rent. Maybe we can’t even do that.

But games – even old text games that have no graphics besides what our imaginations ascribe – have a structure. They have goals. They can be explored. Beaten. Conquered. And all within specific guidelines built by a faceless programmer in a cubicle. He isn’t there to hold our hand; he just leaves the keys to the labyrinth on the kitchen table as he heads off to work. That’s what has changed in the thirty-plus years since games really came into their own: we’ve moved from a “doing” medium into a “showing” medium. I don’t appreciate that.

Classic titles like… let’s go with Asteroids for this example. In Asteroids, there’s no background, just black. It’s space; what do you expect? Also, I’m pretty sure that the entire computer that Asteroids was running on is less powerful than a current-day wristwatch. Anyway, besides the wireframe ship and rocks, there is nothing really on the screen. You have to fill the blank space with your imagination. Are you in deep space, or just in orbit around the Earth? Have we finally discovered intelligent life? Is that where we are traveling in our ship, to meet it? To greet it? To kill it? Are we simply floating around in our solar system’s asteroid belt (the one between Mars and Jupiter) for target practice? Maybe this is part of our space-prison sentence? The possibilities are limitless.

Or how about Pac-Man, when he goes off-screen into one of his tunnels? He doesn’t immediately appear on the other side. There’s a pause of about six dots’ time where he is invisible to the player. Where does he go?

Where does he go?


Personally, that’s been one of my favorite game mysteries of all time. What exactly does Pac-Man do in those scant few moments he’s off-screen? Does he maybe stop moving for a moment and take a quick breather? Perhaps he throws on a silk robe, reclines in front of his roaring fireplace, and takes a few puffs of his Pac-Hookah? Does Pac-Man even smoke? I know he’s kind of a pill junkie, at the very least…

My guess: we’ll never know. He always hides his possibly bad habits from the children. Yet – somehow – that makes him even more relatable to us average folk. Pac-Man has addictions, and secrets, and a 24/7 case of the munchies, but he’s in essence just a hungry representation of typical human greed. In the words of Lucky Wander Boy author D.B. Weiss, “Pac-Man is just a mouth. I have a mouth. You have a mouth. We all have a mouth.” Unlike some beefcake modern-day protagonists like Marcus Fenix, Altair, or Cole MacGrath, Pac-Man is just us, with all of our glorious imperfections. He eats. He feels pain. He runs from his fears. Sometimes he finds courage in an unlikely place then can turn around and conquer those very fears that once pursued him relentlessly. Instead of the game laying everything out for us – with flawed, broken environments that are too close to real life – the simplicity of the style helps us relate to the characters on a deeper level.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just talking out of my butt and reading way more into games than was ever written into the programming code. There’s that classic standby, “They’re just games!” You know the excuse – used only when it’s convenient, and debunked harshly and repeatedly by “games are art” pundits. But the game industry makes more money annually than the movie industry now, for better or worse. They are important. The level of actual artistic worth of games is not the issue here; there’s no fighting numbers.

Maybe when Iwatani first saw that missing slice in his pizza and conceived of Pac-Man’s character design, he was really just doing his job: making games that he’d want to play. Fun fact: he didn’t get any extra bonuses at Namco for the success of Pac-Man. That’s just not how things were done in Japan. Imagine the outcry today if someone made one of the most successful games of all time and didn’t even get a holiday bonus check. There’d be riots in the streets! But, like the games, the work ethic has changed over time, as well.

Can’t help but think of the first man to forcibly insert his name into a game: Warren Robinett. You may remember him as the creator of the first Easter egg in a game, when he hid the text “Created by Warren Robinett” in a secret room in the Atari 2600 game Adventure. Back then, you see, Atari forced their programmers to remain anonymous, to avoid any potential conflicts with developers that got too big and popular, possibly giving them negotiation powers and letting them ask for higher salaries based on their clout alone. That’s a good example of American versus Japanese culture, as well – Iwatani was just doing his job by creating Pac-Man, while Robinett wanted to make sure that people knew he was doing his…

So what have we learned today, readers? Games have widened in budget but narrowed in scope. There’s a lot more going on behind the curtain than what is easily perceived at first glance, even if sometimes we have to use our imagination a little bit. And games, like all forms of creative expression, are created with many, many purposes: to teach, to entertain, and sometimes just to make the creator money.

I know that the gaming landscape has changed drastically over the past 30 years or so, but I hope we don’t forget the lessons of older games that didn’t have the power to wow us with high-definition graphics. Games still have the power to make us feel like a small child in a universe full of possibilities. That is, if they try.



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