How Games Have Changed Part One: The Magic Wishing Crystal

Games have changed. Since the early 80’s, which is when my own personal recollection of the industry really starts to kick in, the medium has gone from bedroom developers and simple budgets to become this charging, multi-billion dollar wave of AAA monsters.

And over the next few weeks I’ll explore exactly how it’s all changed by way of specific titles that illustrate key aspects of the shift. First up, Damocles, a 16-bit space adventure that still embarrasses modern, so-called open world titles.


damocles, amiga

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Paul Woakes’ Mercenary series, a lineage of games that’ll no doubt be well out of the reach of the more youthful portion of thesixthaxis’ readership, helped to form my current fascination and appreciation of the medium. If the name is unfamiliar, think of an interstellar Skyrim (for want of a better reference) with multiple planets to explore in fully polygonal 3D, multiple vehicles, a deeply witty script with bubbling, topical political undertones and a free-roaming, non-linear story. It was massively ambitious, ridiculously endearing and – ultimately – fired up the imagination. And it started in the 80’s.

Not that the flat, angular buildings and spaceships made up of twenty or so polygons weren’t technically impressive back then, even given their limited construction governed by machines that struggled drawing much more than a handful of 2D sprites. To a child with a fondness of the unknown and an easy on-disk method of almost total escapasim, this was awe inspiring and nigh on perfection. We (my brother and I) would often just take time out and drive around the planets of Eris or Dion, stealing chairs and TV sets from other houses to populate our own boxy, cuboid-filled little habitat with no goal other than to decide whether interior design was our strong point.

And those were the days when framerate wasn’t an issue – our fully stocked two story home was so busy the engine often ran at about 1 frame a second.

[drop]Damocles, the second in the series, was probably our most played of the three. The plot was simple – prevent the titular comet from destroying one of the game’s main planets. The execution, however, is a constant reminder of how linear, directed and channeled games have become since – there were five ways to save Eris from destruction (including the one that the title of this blog refers to). It was almost entirely open with regards to how you tackled the impending doom, with clues and hints dotted around the game’s seemingly vast solar system but without ever pushing the player beyond an initial nudge.

Some were rather esoteric, some were obvious (a bomb would be enough to divert the space-bound missle, right?) but they were all available to the player from the start and crucially – entirely optional. Should you not save Eris in time, the game continues as was, with the obvious exception of the game being one planet down. There’s no end, the game doesn’t force any restarts, and you can still get (almost) as much out of it. That, to me, is something we simply don’t see enough of.

And it’s worth noting that the series, at least for me and my mates back then, were the sort of games that wrote their own stories and were the cause of much discussion. “Did you ever find the pyramid?”, “Did you try to fly the Author’s Chair?”,

The third game (not counting the expansion packs) introduced other characters. It was a startling revelation that despite countless hours, days and weeks spent with Damocles it had never really occured to us that the game hadn’t rendered a single other being across every planet we’d explored. Mercenary III featured taxis, other spacecraft and people you could interact with. And whilst they were hardly realistic in their intelligence levels, the game suddenly felt alive – although the emphasis on preventing a political candidate from achieving his goal wasn’t nearly as compelling as the focus on Damocles in the prior game.

mercenary iii, amiga

The point remains though that, whether by tales of those secret pyramids and hints of pure mystery conveyed only by short lines of scrolling text, the Mercenary series connected with me (and plenty of other gamers) in a way that modern titles continue to struggle to do. With no lengthy character creation process and extended tutorials that spoil the immersion before the player has even begun, this trio of yesteryear games put the player at the very centre of everything that was going on and left them to find everything out themselves.

It’s always important to make the player feel like they’re making their own progression, and that they’re the most important part of the story.

We don’t see this quite so much anymore. As game budgets go higher, the handholding becomes tighter, the characters are the focus (and the key art) rather than the player and the signposting ever more visible and obvious. There are still wide open adventures, of course, normally when Bethesda’s involved, but even the likes of Oblivion and Skyrim ensure there’s never any doubt over what to do next. You’re being led, even if you’re not aware of it, and that means that it’s only ever the player’s fault for not listening when things go wrong.

[drop2]This is, of course, the way the industry is heading – it’s an easier sale for the publisher because a big brand now has its own big hero for the box-art, and as consumers we’ve begun to just accept that there’s not really going to be much of an alternative unless we really look off the beaten path (and those games are almost certainly going to be labelled as ‘indie’).

Can games ever stop trying to echo a movie blockbuster experience and look back on what was possible twenty years or more ago in terms of structure and direction? Probably not, but continuing down these routes will mean that the next generation of gamers will think that funnelled shooters and adventure titles with more cut-scenes than action will be forever the norm.

And that’s why, in-between reviewing whichever costly, hyped to hell and hugely anticipated as a result AAA game is making the headlines, I’m always flicking back to games that defined my youth, often wondering when all this started to change.

Games like Mercenary respected the player and credited them with intelligence and the ability to make their own decisions. And it wasn’t just Woakes that managed to craft (almost single-handedly) such epic, open games – there were plenty of games that simply let the player think for themselves. To me, those games meant so much more because they feel like your adventure, your story, and you’re the one responsible for the outcome.

The difference isn’t subtle, but it does feel like we’ve all forgotten just how emotive games can be when they put the player at the centre and just let them loose.

In 1990, I was presented with a crashed spaceship and a solar system, pointed towards an airport terminal in the middle distance and then left to figure everything else out. In 2013, I’m expecting to be told (and shown, via a big ugly arrow) where to go, who to follow, who to shoot and when to jump, for the entire length of the game.

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16 Comments

  1. Just wait till I start making games and you will have your endless open ended games again where every choice you make does make a difference even when you are not aware of it.

    • this means how you treat your characters during the gameplay, like wheather you brother bringing them out during battles to who you favour the most (e.g. heal/defend the most) and how you respond to various sitiuations/ conversations.

      All of this will determine the outcome the game depending your choices on a sub concuous (I know it’s spelt wrong) level where there game refelcts what the players are like, while making the game more unique to your playthrough.

  2. This makes me remember Elite (as many things do). It’s amazing to think what those developers could wring out of such limited hardware. I think they must have been masters of the power of suggestion!

    • I do think in a retrospective like this you have to be careful not to confuse what the game could do and what your youthful imagination could conjure up to fill in the blanks.

      I have many fond memories of the wild adventures I had playing games on the Amstrad, but when I fire up those games now it’s surprising how limited they are in my cynical adult mind!

      • Absolutely spot on. We can still have those wonderful games where people can sit by, idly creating whatever they fancy in a particular world. Hell, even Elite is making a comeback, no?

        The very real limitations on the hardware meant that we had to fill a lot of it in with our imaginations. Some people liked this, some people didn’t. However, the visuals are finally starting to plateau and I really do think that graphics will not be the main focus (or at least not such a heavy priority) as we enter 2014 and beyond. We know that worlds can be built and have a fairly believable look to it. The differentiators are going to be everything else. Sound design, animation, interaction of objects (soft to the touch for human flesh (think when a character grabs the arm of another character)), empathy, feeling, good quality AI for everyone – not just key NPCs.

        We have spent decades trying to achieve the pinnacle of gaming visuals but we’re also reaching that believability with quite some speed and it’ll be the turn of other ingredients to tempt us with when everything starts to look fantastic no matter the title. That, and great art direction/decisions at the concept stage.

      • or the companies will just continue on as they do already and focus on great graphics over gameplay which will become harder to ignore in the 9th gemeration of gaming consoles.

    • No they just got lazy and greedy unlike various companies who can stand on their own merits and innovate the hell out of their own games excluding cough cough Activision cough and erm cough Microsoft cough, erm can’t think of any oh hi mr I got loads of do$h erm I’ll just shut up now.

    • Never played Elite but I know where you are coming from Peter, old hardware was very limiting for developers and because of that the games had a bigger impact on us but today all we tend to get are killing games that have to outdo each other with how bland and boring they can be.

      What we need is a new console and platform holder to compete with Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft and show the whole world how games should be done.

      • Competition is good but never underestimate what the lowest common denominator will gravitate towards. It’s the very reason why half of those scummy tabloid newspapers sell better than everything else.

        The hulking great big franchises in the games industry will pull people in no matter the platform. They just need to know it exists.

  3. Also I hate all this handholding in games today, no one told me how get started in The Legend of Zela: Oricles of Seasons and that includes the annoying Lost Woods puzzle. also games like Skyrim give you an intro parialy explain what you have to do and let you bugger off and explore the world at your own pace. and besides I think at players should have a choice at the start off the game if they want tutorils or not.

  4. In my childhood I thought that Paper Boy was amazing till I got the Master System and then the Playstation and after that preception on how game should be was set in stone untill I started thinking about what video games are about and how I can compete with the big boys and make gaming fun again.

  5. Appologies for my rant last week, this is a truly lovely read and brings back some wonderful nostalgia. Thanks Alex :)

  6. Hope to see the likes of:

    Midwinter 2, Hunter, Starglider 2 and Captive for starters mentioned in future features.

    • Ah, now those are three great mentions. I recently listened to the Starglider music on YouTube (which came on a cassette tape). It’s still superb. Also, forgot about Midwinter but remember thinking it was excellent. I can’t help think we have some old blood that needs rekindling. New stories, new graphics but great old gameplay. Yep. Definitely.

  7. PS3RULEZ890 deserves an award for the most comments on a single feature ;)

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