The Iconoclasts

The Iconoclasts
Sign of the Crab

Susan Arendt | 19 Aug 2008 12:00
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Meretzky went on to write several more Infocom games that would live on to become classics, including The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (babel fish puzzle be damned), A Mind Forever Voyaging, Sorcerer and Planetfall's sequel, Stationfall. Primitive by modern gaming standards, they are nonetheless still exciting players some two decades later. Videogame sites and blogs exploded in paroxysms of nerd glee earlier this year when Waxy.org's Andy Baio announced that he was in possession of not one, but two playable prototypes of Milliways: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the unreleased sequel to Hitchhiker's Guide.

It's not hard to see how a Meretzky game like Sorcerer, which weaves puzzles that are just the right amount of frustrating into a story awash in smart humor, might have laid the groundwork for a modern game like Portal. Yet many current game designers weren't even born when he first sat down at that Apple II in the kitchen. "It's really easy to slip into the 'back in the days when one person wrote a game, you young ones today don't know what it was like,' and therefore I slip into that way of thinking constantly," Meretzky observes of his 25 years in the gaming industry. "But mostly it really is sort of an amazing thing to think back on how long it's been and how quickly the years go by."

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Which is not to say that Meretzky necessarily thinks that the industry has improved with age. He misses the days when development teams and budgets were smaller. "It used to be one man with a vision, and now that's so rarely the case. For the most part, it's just so hard for one person to come up with a vision and shepherd it through this huge, long development process," he laments. He's not the only one who feels that way, either; Meretzky was planning on giving a speech about the vanishing role of the auteur in game design at Project Horseshoe this November, but was told that one of the other three scheduled speakers was already planning on discussing that very topic. "Two out of the four of the guys speaking wanted to cover the same thing," says Meretzky. "What does that tell you?"

Still, he admits, the supersizing of game design teams isn't entirely a bad thing. "There's a lot of things to be said about being part of a team and having more brains to generate stuff. [Larger teams make] certain types of games possible that would not at all have been conceivable with smaller teams."

In truth, it's not really the size or scope of development teams that really bugs Meretzky, it's how videogames have turned into such a business. "Twenty years ago, people would have said, 'Computer games, what are they?'" but gaming has since become a bona fide force in the marketplace, and guaranteeing sales is all too frequently considered more important than innovation or creativity. "I'm actually kind of depressed at how little thought goes into games as art as opposed to games as a money-making product." As Meretzky sees it, "it comes down to what people who have control over the levers of power and the levers of money care about, and they don't care about art, they care about making money."

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