Born-Again Gaming

The home video games market has seen continuous growth since its inception in the late 1970s. There was a bit of a stumble in 1983 due to the North American video game crash but recovery was swift and it has all been uphill since then. Of course, over the years there have been numerous individual casualties but as a whole the industry has not stopped growing, evolving and maturing.

I grew up with a Sinclair Spectrum in my early childhood, moving onto the world of the NES, Master System, SNES and MegaDrive in the first half of the nineties and the Sony PlayStation and N64 in the second half of that decade. I remember gaming when it was driven by British home-brewers who were coding tiny programs from their bedrooms on the same machine that their users would end up playing the games on. I remember the enraptured joy I felt at making a carpenter jump over barrels thrown by a kidnapping ape.

I never really noticed at the time but the move from British home-coders to Japanese console games was quite a shift. I loved my ZX 81 but when my pastime was distilled by the Japanese down to a few simple mechanics, a D-Pad and two buttons it was like opening a window and letting a rush of fresh air into a stuffy room. I didn’t have to spend five minutes listening to wailing screeches before I could play a game (or watch it crash at the title screen and have to start all over again). I could press in a softly-sprung switch and be playing Alex Kidd in less than a minute.

Those early days of console gaming were necessarily simple. There wasn’t a lot of space for extraneous code and even if you could put it there you only had eight-directions and two action buttons with which to do everything you needed. So, bereft of the space needed to make games complicated, narrative-driven affairs, developers concentrated on the game-play.

The way a game controlled and the underlying mechanics became key to the whole experience. Simple components which had been born in the arcades like Pac-Man’s stealth, Mario’s platforming and Galaga’s bonus stages were finding a new home on consoles and in the process they were ingraining themselves on a generation of gamers and future developers.

So we saw the birth of that stock of video game mechanics which, by the mid nineties, we all took for granted. Timed jumps, progressive improvements in characters, boss-battles, enemy weak-spots, stealth, health-points, experience-points and in-game shops all became second nature to us. By the mid-nineties we knew what we were doing in a video game, whether it featured an Italian plumber, a blue hedgehog or a elfin archer.

And then something changed. Following Sony’s entrance into the market, developers found themselves with plenty of processing power and a whole CD of space to fill will code. They quite obviously looked to the movies for inspiration and they added an overt narrative to their games. It was no longer enough that we had to save a princess or drive back an enemy invasion. Now we had to have scripted, voiced and animated interactions with extra characters. There was no immediate need to fill out game-time with repeating tricks like falling or moving platforms.

Underneath the graphical improvements and the extra space on the media though, games were still about the core mechanics. We still had timing, jumping, weak-spots and numbers. They were just hidden a little deeper behind a layer of complex textures and cinematic narrative. As time progressed, the games industry’s spiritual centre metaphorically migrated further from the cultural escapism of Japan and the free-spirited socialism of Europe towards the commercialistic USA. A new market was identified and video games could be sold to the mainstream US college crowd if they were pitched properly. The games industry had found its pot of gold.

After the turn of the millennium (and Microsoft’s subsequent entrance to the console-platform market) games gradually got more and more narrative-driven. Often we describe this as “Westernising” or becoming more like movies but in truth the gaming world may have been looking to movies for inspiration but they were still incapable of implementing great storytelling with emotive scripting into an interactive medium. There were successes, of course, but they were in extreme minorities.

Over the past couple of years we have seen gaming reach a point where it is now inspiring the movie industry. We saw franchises move further away from their core mechanics to become as close as they could to “playable movies”. For me the pinnacle of this movement was Metal Gear Solid 4. A game so full of complicated plot twists and narrative cut scenes that there was little room left for what had made the series phenomenally popular in the first place. The stealth mechanic had been put on a low light in favour of moving the storyline along with a bit more urgency. That’s not to say that Metal Gear Solid 4 wasn’t a great game – it truly was – there was just a lot more movie than game under the hood.

I believe that in the past few years the games industry finally unlocked the door to what it had always thought to be the Promised Land. And then something very strange happened. The industry started looking for ways to make our new “interactive movies” more like games.

2009 has become the year when games finally and genuinely matured. Gaming has been reborn without shame as a legitimate competitor to other forms of artistically-driven entertainment. They stopped wanting to be movies and decided that, actually, being video games is just as good and in many cases much better than trying to be a movie. Some games even managed to maintain a large-scale and intelligent narrative whilst returning to some of the game mechanics that make the pastime so compelling.

The first time I noticed this new trend was in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Here we had a beautiful game which had some of the best cut-scene work yet seen and a fantastic cast of established voice actors. It was covering a world which was most recently featured in two fantastic films using subject matter which has existed for decades in written and animated narratives. At the heart of the game though, it was still very much a video game. Your character progressively improved with tech and skill upgrades, there were rigid timing mechanics and the boss battles were classic weakest-point, learned attack-patterns affairs. Strip away the voicing and the fancy graphics and Batman: Arkham Asylum could have been released in the late eighties.

There are numerous other examples of games which found excellence in just being a good game. In recent months we’ve seen many established franchises take a step back to gaming’s roots. From the smaller steps like Halo’s FPS world reverting to a single-wield mechanic to larger ones like Sega’s assumed announcement of a new 2D Sonic.

New franchises have embraced the old values of gaming with Borderlands using a “Westernised” FPS layer of graphical paint as a thinly-veiled disguise to its classic RPG core. We’ve even seen a return to the traditional RPG style in Dragon Age: Origins and Demon’s Souls which you may point out as being evergreen in Japan but these games are getting rave reviews and sales in the West too. Shadow Complex and Trine spring immediately to mind as recent examples of how the digitally distributed route is becoming a way to show that mechanics are key to an enjoyable experience but the effect is becoming clear throughout the whole industry.

Of course there are still the massive games releases that aren’t shy in their pursuit of Hollywood’s approval. Uncharted 2 has been compared to movies more than it has been compared to other games and Modern Warfare 2 has been very keen to tell the world that it is having the biggest entertainment launch in history, not just the biggest gaming launch. Both games carry few recognisable signs of returning to those old game-play values and yet both games are very well thought of.

Perhaps, in an unexpected way, the games industry is moving closer to the movie industry in the sense that we can now seemingly support the massive, often shallow, but spectacular blockbuster releases and still make successes of the smaller, more independently-spirited games which celebrate the heritage of gaming in much the same way that many independent movies use old-fashioned directorial tricks to substitute for not having a huge budget for computer graphics.

I believe that 2009 saw a rebirth for video games, breathing new life into a medium which I and many others of my generation were becoming jaded to. 2009 has taken us back to the core mechanics which made us fall in love with the medium in the first place and I hope that the trend continues long into the future.