LA Noire Screen

People ask me why I think backwards compatibility is so important, in response I point to games like Murdered: Soul Suspect and LA Noire. Because these are triple-A games that are, at heart, adventure games. Or whatever label you want to give to the genre of game that’s less about combat and more about exploring a small area, finding a collection of objects or clues, and figuring out how to combine those elements to proceed. They are adventure games, but they do the same thing triple-A adventure games always do nowadays: display no memory of previous adventure games whatsoever.

We’ve done the adventure game thing. We did them for years. We had comedy ones and serious ones and sci-fi and horror and detective ones. Some just had you collect and use inventory items, some did the same thing with more abstract elements, like clues or magic spells you cast from a staff. They were refined through many years of trial and error. The stories got better and better and more creative. And we realized after tortuous experimentation that arcade and combat elements were pretty much always bollocks.

All of that has been forgotten. So when triple-A does adventure games now, they walk in, sling their big fat balls on the table, and go “Look at how innovative we’re being! Sure, the plot isn’t creative and the unnecessary arcade-combat sequences are shitty, but those are just the kinds of teething troubles you get when you’re on the cutting edge of a completely new idea. And hey, at least it’s not just another shooter, right?”

This, readers, this is why backwards compatibility is important. This is why I object when publishers and console makers attempt to force upon us the attitude that anything more than ten years old doesn’t matter and we can’t possibly want to play it. Because the end result is an amnesiac industry with no past, just this eternal, ever-stretching moment of ‘now’. And this is not how you build a healthy foundation.

This is also why franchises are constantly being rebooted, almost invariably with exactly the same title as the original. Which is a very cunning little cop-out, because it absolves the new game of any obligation to acknowledge the past. A plain-old sequel often carries the weight of the need to be bigger and better than anything that has come before, and while I don’t think that’s always strictly necessary (sometimes a smaller-scale, more focused sequel is better; look at Silent Hill 2 versus Silent Hill 1), it does have to be continually building upon something.

Resident Evil 4 screen

The reboot doesn’t have to have any connection to its predecessors but a tangentially similar theme. It doesn’t have to make sure the plot is consistent with the plot already established, or put new and bigger things at stake so the characters can be tested like never before. It doesn’t have to build upon existing game mechanics by finding new tweaks, streamlines and applications. All it has to do is slice the number off the end of the title with a massive meat cleaver and then do whatever the fuck it likes. Yeah, on the one hand, it doesn’t have as much baggage, but it also willfully refuses to benefit from years, possibly decades, of patient refinement and built-up investment on the part of the audience. An industry without long-term memory is an industry without legacies.

Oh, I’m not advocating that the games become nothing but a forest of ever-growing franchises, continually adding more and more garbled continuity so that new IP becomes even more impossible to get off the ground and newcomers to the medium are immediately dissuaded (you know, like how the comic book industry works). Believe it or not, there is an ideal middle ground between the two scenarios. It is possible to create a game that can be part of an existing continuity, even using existing characters, that can also be enjoyed as a standalone by a complete newcomer to the property. Resident Evil 4 leaps to mind.

Now, I suppose one reason why this industry keeps hitting the reset button like a monkey with a banana dispenser, more so than any other, is because few other industries have gone through as many technology shifts. Movies were about as advanced as they needed to be once they had sound and color down, but video game graphics tech updates on a constant basis. It’s not a great idea to cling to gameplay mechanics best suited to 2D pixel art in an age of 3D. And stories from a simpler, carefree time don’t extend so well into a more cynical, HD graphics era. So there is that, I suppose. But hey: Metal Gear Solid manages to get by, eternally clinging to an age when dumb storytelling was forgiven. With white-knuckled hands and foam at the mouth.

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