If games are art, then surely they are the most self-destructive and frustrating form of it. No other medium actively erases its past and makes classic works so inaccessible. Technological advancement, the relative youth of the games industry and standard market forces all play a part in relegating prior works to the sidelines of public discourse; but whatever the reason, this phenomenon is bad for gaming and disastrous for gamers. For games to be considered a worthwhile craft, classic works need to be kept alive as reference points for developers and audiences. Currently, classic games are the ones you are least likely to be able to play. Such is veneration in gaming.
With few exceptions, gamers receive little help or encouragement if they want to revisit their gaming past. The situation might be worst for PC gamers, who face an iffy proposition if they want to play anything that predates Windows 98. Getting a DOS game to run properly on a modern system is a joyless endeavor on par with kidney stones or bus travel. All is not well for console gamers, either – systems break down and old games are frequently damaged or lost. There are emulators, but they’re often plagued by performance issues – not to mention the legal and moral gray areas of downloading copyrighted material. The result is that old games can be tough to revisit even if you caught them the first time around, and nearly impossible to play if you missed them.
Gamers are used to this problem by now, but that doesn’t make it any more tolerable. Imagine if nobody could listen to a Duke Ellington record, or watch a Hitchcock movie, or read a Yeats poem. Not only would that rob us of our cultural inheritance, it would eliminate the influence that these artists have on contemporary culture. The same principles should apply to games. As gamers, we need to recognize that some games are more than disposable diversions, and that their relevance endures even as the technology that created and supported them falls into obsolescence.
Preserving and promoting classic games is vital to the health of the entire industry. In gaming, as much as any art form, “merit” is not always self-evident. Anyone with a passionate interest in game development should have a sense of what has already been achieved, and that cannot be developed if gamers are only playing “the latest and greatest” titles.
Advising an aspiring game developer on Gamasutra, Game Developer editor Jill Duffy wrote, “Play more games in more genres. Play bad video games from the bargain bin. Play old school games. … Play all the games that have received a lot of press in the last few years, like Portal, Halo, Half-Life, World of Warcraft, and Grand Theft Auto, and any other big name video game you haven’t yet played. And even if you have played them, play them several times over. … Games are meant to be repeated. We can only see the abstract ideas behind a game after it has been played in many different contexts by many different people.” Although this advice is targeted at future developers – especially the exhortation to play bad games (is life really long enough to justify playing Daikatana?) – it’s relevant to anyone who wants to get at how games work and what goes into them.
The greatest games did not spring from nothing, but were inspired and influenced by their predecessors. Wolfenstein 3D led to Doom, which cast a long shadow across games like Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, Jedi Knight, Unreal, Half-Life and Halo. These games also influenced or responded to one another, and current-generation games are still reacting to them. All creators and audiences are influenced by their prior experiences, and the greater exposure we have to these influences, the more we can bring to each new work. Conversely, an audience that can’t make informed comparisons and judgments is liable to believe that what is clichéd is original, and what is derivative, revolutionary.
The danger is that catering to an uninformed audience will encourage publishers and developers to fall back on “safe” decisions, embracing repetition and repackaging only what is popular. That can push the entire medium toward homogenization, a trend that we’re arguably already seeing. This is not to say that great games aren’t being made, or that originality is dead, but to point out that several genres have mostly fallen by the wayside. When I got into gaming, there were plenty of flight sims, wargames, racing sims, adventure games, strategy games and space sims. Those genres produced a lot of great games, and they made being a gamer more interesting because of the variety of experiences they offered.
Nowadays, most AAA productions are focused on a handful of genres that have proved they can produce blockbuster titles: genres like shooters, RPGs and platformers. In comments to Gamasutra regarding the Activision/Blizzard merger, Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter predicted that, “Activision and EA will only make games they expect to sell over 2 million units every year, while the others will still try clever Wii and DS games that make plenty of money at 500,000 units.” These are fairly high thresholds for success, and they will drive the major publishers away from games that seem risky or difficult to market.
That might be a responsible business decision, but it sells gamers short. When the games industry was smaller and there was less pressure on publishers and developers to create blockbuster franchises, mainstream appeal was not always an overriding concern. In his review of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., 1UP.com Editor Shawn Elliott wondered if this wasn’t the kind of game “made before ‘everyone’ became a target audience.” That observation neatly identifies the trap into which much of the industry has fallen. Since the “mainstream” has been defined as everyone with a gamepad and a pulse, “mainstream tastes” are impossibly confining: Almost no game can be all things to all people.
However, classics from earlier eras demonstrate that the best “niche” games can transcend genre barriers. Games like Red Baron and Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe may have been flight sims, but they were so polished and welcoming to less-experienced gamers that even someone like myself – who would rather die in a plane crash than learn how to pilot in Flight Simulator – fell in love with them. Likewise, you don’t have to be a hardcore wargamer to get caught up in the intensity and drama of Close Combat or X-COM.
Despite larger development teams, bigger budgets and vastly superior hardware, gamers seem to be getting less variety and fewer new experiences out of their games. Developers often opt to make small refinements at the periphery of a genre rather than deviate from its major conventions. Consider the glut of games using the “cover” dynamic that was popularized in Gears of War: What was a novel and original twist on the conventional shooter is now a core gameplay element in a slew of titles. 2K Marin’s Steve Gaynor explained the problem with such copycatting in an interview with Michael Abbot of The Brainy Gamer:
“Games that follow that sort of commercial release, instead of expressing a personal experience that one of the designers had, they’re expressing the experience of playing Gears of War. … It does the medium injustice if you put all this work and time, instead of attempting to express something unique and personal to yourself through interactivity, you’re expressing the experience of playing another video game that you like, or was profitable.”
Such derivation reflects a frustrating tendency among publishers and developers to treat a game’s constituent parts as if they were upgrade options for a minivan. If one game has cover and another has downloadable content, the reasoning goes, a game with both should be superior. It’s fallacious logic, since great games are more than the sum of their parts; but it’s the kind of reasoning that can take hold of an industry that spends too much time and energy trying to recreate its most recent successes. Gaming’s entire history should be helpful and inspiring, not just the last fiscal year.
Unfortunately, it’s not at all clear how a “classics revival” movement would best be accomplished. As much as I love some of those brilliant 320×200 pixel masterpieces, they’re a bit rough around the edges by today’s standards. On a lot of fixed-resolution LCD monitors, they look like a Rothko washed in concrete. There are many reasons to doubt that more than a handful of diehard fans would pay to play a 13-year-old game in its original state. To share classic games with people who have never seen or played them before, the games would benefit from a little more graphical polish and, more importantly, supplementary content aimed at the passionate gamer.
Most serious gamers would probably appreciate a “collector’s edition” approaches to re-releases and remakes. Limited edition releases of Blizzard titles include books of design notes and concept art. And with The Orange Box Valve has proved that in-game commentary tracks are not only possible, but also enjoyable and informative. The importance of these extras is not that most people use them, but that they give the few who become creators, critics and enthusiasts the opportunity to explore the medium on a deeper level. We’re the ones who will shape gaming’s future – it’s only fair that we’re granted access to the lessons and achievements of its past.
Rob Zacny is a freelance writer. When not focused on gaming, he pursues his interests in Classics, the World Wars, cooking and film. He can be reached at zacnyr[at]gmail[dot]com.