Video games then vs now
The best video games are coming out today.
That seems to be the attitude of the voices on the internet. No matter how much individuals attempt to wax nostalgic about the games of yesterday, they rag on history and say that the medium has reached an all-time high for some reason or another. I base this off of comments heard on The Indoor Kids podcast (even the most recent one, which I am indeed picking out because it mentions Mega Man) and 1Up’s Retronauts podcast, where Bob Mackey has literally said that old games have looked like garbage because they were 8-bits. (I’m also picking on these podcasts because they are, quite honestly, my favorite video game podcasts.)
The advancements in graphics and storytelling over the past twenty years are clear to even non-players. There is no denying that graphical output has seen a significant rise and story is of a greater focus today. Neither element actually makes games better in any significant way, similar to how the improvement in special effects and greater scope of stories these days means that movies today are any better than the ones from 20 years ago. It might even be said that these elements can actually detract from the actual focus and unbalance the overall presentation.
When it comes to video games, the focus should be on gameplay. “Why am I doing this?” is a question that should come second to “How am I supposed to do this?” Any game worth its price is ultimately a puzzle the player solves using the tools that are the character’s abilities and items. The earliest games asked the question of “How am I supposed to get the highest score?” Then the questions became about navigation. Then strategy. The goal was to overcome the odds presented by the game. Games were a minimalist experience that focused on gameplay first and foremost. Don’t ask why you’re saving the princess – just do it!
The improvement of storytelling over the years has certainly added an undeniable layer of experience to some games. The original Metal Gear wouldn’t have been such a big deal back in the day if not for the fact that your boss, Big Boss, turned out to be the big bad. Wing Commanders III & IV would be little more than banal retreads if not for Hobbes’ betrayal, the potential to woo ladies, and the fact that you ultimately have to go rogue to take down a cancer in the military system.
But let’s never assume that the presence of story makes a game. StarFox 64 is a game that still holds up today despite having the bare minimum shmup story of defeat the bad guys for the good of the universe and to avenge your father. Meanwhile, a game like Metal Gear Solid 4 is so overburdened with story that it is downright impossible to play through again. The player spends so much time “engrossed” by the story that less than 50% of game time is actual play time. Is this what we want?
Not to mention how poorly written most of the stories are. Being a good game designer does not necessarily equate with being a good writer. Suda 51 is one of the more intriguing writers and designers, but not everyone will be him. Some, instead, will write hack-fests like the Devil May Cry series. DMC is so strong gameplay-wise, especially in the first and third games, that the story can be rightly shrugged off.
I purposely didn’t mention the more story-driven games, like RPGs. I’m intrigued by titles like Final Fantasy VIII and XII because they strike me as having stories that may be a little more than the usual tween fodder the series has seen since the cinematics introduced in VII. But the truth is most of them do write to a tween level, and I’ve long passed that phase of my life.
While I haven’t played them, I hear that games like Bioshock and Arkham Asylum have strong stories and gameplay. I have to admit that I am not that interested in Bioshock‘s Ayn Rand-inspired story, though. And having a character tell me that he was the reason I did everything while not giving me the option of doing otherwise on my second play through is not fair. But I bet it comes off well, otherwise people wouldn’t be lauding the game so much.
Then there’s the improved graphics. To use a rough analogy, there’s only so far you’re going to go with a pretty girl who has no personality. That’s not what you want. A pretty girl with no personality will never be able to make up for her lack of personality. A less conventional looking girl might not make your friends do catcalls, but you won’t notice if her personality is big enough. No one will. You’ll be floored by who she is and realized that the beauty is there, not the superficial crap. I want to say it helps, but in the long run it all just flows together. You can’t separate her personality, her looks, and ultimately how you feel about her. I know that’s a romanticized way to look at video games, but it’s true.
It shocks me when an avid player like 1Up’s Bob Mackey can call any old game ugly. By today’s standards, yes the games look rough. In understanding the technologies of yesteryear, those statements should never be made. If someone creates a huge, gorgeous Lego structure, you don’t turn and say, “It looks kind of blocky.” You just don’t. You appreciate the craftsmanship that went into making it look great.
Then there’s ignorance of the importance of gameplay. Kumail Nanjiani of The Indoor Kids, as well as Franklin and Bash, took a swipe at the simplicity of the Mega Man series of games. Yes, there’s very little story beyond your needing to stop Dr. Wily. Yes, your primary abilities are jumping and shooting. Those are all the tools you need in navigating the worlds of the Mega Man series. It’s minimalist in comparison to today’s games that need all sorts of bells and whistles to move you forward. Mega Man offers challenge, and while you don’t see a grand ending cinematic or aversion of a worldwide threat, you get a feeling for having accomplished something so grueling with your two button gameplay.
I always thought that games were about the game playing experience and a sense of accomplishment, not getting to the next story point. If that were the case, I’d rather read a book or watch a movie. Games should offer me something that I can’t get elsewhere and make that the best thing ever. That would be the interactivity. That would be the gameplay. It amazes me how easily game players today lose sight of that.
Anyway, if graphics and cinematics were all that important, then Tetris should be promptly discarded. You can have your high tech games that you will no doubt discard in a couple of years when the new systems come out. I’ll be re-enjoying the games with strong gameplay and lasting value.