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Simulated Wood-Grain Gaming

Susan Arendt | 29 Apr 2010 21:00
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This week's issue of The Escapist asks whether the best days of gaming are behind us, something anyone comparing the graphics for River Raid or the story of Pitfall will probably find fairly easy to answer. It seems pretty obvious that gaming has improved in countless ways over the past thirty-odd years, evolving from the simplest of arcade contests to deeply immersive experiences. But I can't help wondering if we've permanently lost something incredibly precious along the way: our sense of awe.

My parents gave my brother and me an Atari 2600 for Christmas one year when I was about 7 or 8 years old. Actually, it was a Sears VCS, because licensing back then was a huge, sloppy mess, but it looked and worked exactly like an Atari, right down to the simulated wood-grain finish wrapping around its middle. In retrospect, it seems ridiculous to try and make something as technologically advanced as a videogame console look like it came from nature - just see at how sleek and futuristic today's consoles are - but the 70s were big on wood paneling. Between the station wagon, the living room, and the TV, my family was probably personally responsible for the deforestation of Belize.

I'd had some small exposure to videogames already, but this was treasure beyond imagining. The box was practically as big as I was and covered in shots of all sorts of games. One had cowboys! Another had racecars! It was all so colorful and so exciting. Figuring out which game to try first was a no-brainer: The box for Combat had tanks on the cover, but Space Invaders had spaceships. This was the time of Star Wars, when every small child - or at least every small child in the Arendt household - dreamed of flying in an X-wing or meeting aliens. Space Invaders it was. I carefully read the instructions as my dad hooked up the Atari to our enormous console TV in the living room so that I might be well prepared for the onslaught when I finally got the chance.

My dad flipped the switch and suddenly, there, on my TV, was row upon row of bizarre aliens, marching inexorably down the screen. Between them and terra firma were just three blocks and my small cannon. I picked up the controller, its single red button shining like candy, hit Start and began to play. And then the true realization of what I was doing crystallized: I was controlling what was happening on my television screen.

Now, many of you are probably wondering why that's a big deal, and understandably so. You are, after all, sitting at a computer right now, moving a cursor around, bringing up web sites and video and whatever else you like at will. You may have a DVR chock full of stored digital entertainment somewhere in your house and if not, then probably at least own a DVD or Blu-ray player. Determing what comes on a monitor and when stopped being remarkable a very long time ago, but in the late 70s, it was a marvel on par with space travel. At that time, if you wanted to change the channel, you got off the couch, walked a few feet, and turned the dial. If you wanted to see a movie more than once you had to hope that it was rereleased in the theater or broadcast on TV, because VCRs were still a few years away. Entertainment didn't happen on your schedule, you built your schedule to fit with entertainment.

And now here I was, creating it myself in my very own living room. I couldn't have felt more powerful if I'd been handed a lightsabre and told to use the Force. Some thirty years later, I still remember that day with near perfect clarity.

Since then, I've had a few other gaming experiences that inspired similar, though not nearly as potent, moments of awe. Two of them, interestingly, involve Sonic the Hedgehog. The first was when I saw Sonic the Hedgehog on the Genesis. We kind of take the blue guy's speed for granted now, but the first time I saw him, it was positively astounding how fast he shot across the screen. The second time was when I saw him being chased by a killer whale in Sonic Adventure. Say what you will about the game itself, but the stunning beauty of that one sequence alone sold countless Dreamcasts.

Games still produce moments of amazement for me, but those moments are rare and far smaller than they used to be. That's not because advances are any less remarkable - quite the reverse, really. Motion control, voice acting, storylines, graphics, online play ... these are all truly incredible advances in videogames, and I've marveled at them every step of the way. It's hard to deny the ironic truth, however: The more gaming improves, the more used to those improvements we become and the less impressive they seem.

Part of it is simply that I've gotten older, and little in this world is capable of flooring an adult the way it would a child. Part of it is that these huge leaps in technology and development, which used to come sparingly, now come so rapid-fire that it seems you've barely had time to appreciate one before a better version is knocking on your door. Part of it is that the changes are becoming more subtle and delicate, a nuance of character movement or sound, as opposed to huge sweeping sea changes like the ability to save your game. (Yes, that was a big deal once.)

I'm not one of these people who has nostalgia glasses permanently affixed to their heads, refusing to accept that anything modern could possibly compare to the glorious days of yore. I'm thrilled at how far gaming has come, and excited to see where it's going. But I can't help but wonder if the eight year olds of today or tomorrow are ever going to have that same kind moment that I did: A moment when their world changed from ordinary to remarkable with the single press of a button.

Susan Arendt busts out her Atari Flashback every now and again for a few games of Adventure.

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