Ever since my dreamy childhood spent being raised by Pong machines in pixel-land, I’ve been consuming electronic entertainment. These days, I figure an educated games journalist is a better games journalist, and what better education than playing anything and everything, all day, every day for decades at a stretch? It’s a dirty job, but hey…
Yet not all games carry equal weight. Some, like that influential lecturer or inspiring teacher, have had a disproportionate effect on the whole. There are a few games that stand out as bright psychic landmarks in my personal history, the high-water marks of my education. While there are too many to mention in an article as brief as this, there are three in particular which I want to talk about, because they have direct relevance to the opinions I have about games today. If you’re a developer whose game I am reviewing, then it is these rudiments, these embryonic versions of our modern gaming archetypes, that I will, however unconsciously, end up comparing your game against.
Each of these games taught me something. Significantly, they taught me that looking forward is more important the looking back. Sure, I’m going to talk about how great and important these old games were, but what I want you to take from it is that old games have something to teach us about where the future may lie. I am not one of those navel-gazing retro-heads who pines for lost pleasures of yore. No, I pine for the future I was promised by the past. Here’s why.
First: Midwinter on the Atari ST. The 16-bit spy game blew apart my sense of what games could be and, at the same time, imbued me with a startling sense of where they might be going. Midwinter seemed to contain a fragment of future games, something that I recognized for the first time as a youth. Sure, Elite had been a stunning vision of open-ended play in previous years, but suddenly, right here, was a palpable world I could explore. I got hold of vehicles, interacted with people. I was inside something recognizable. It was my first taste of a kind of game in which the act of moving, through travel and exploration, was central to the experience. It pointed to magical possibilities of creating worlds I might escape to. Before then games had been Defender, Smash TV, Gauntlet, Tempest. Now they were something else.
Midwinter had taught me that one of the futures for games would be about freedom. That future wouldn’t just make toys for us to play with. Instead it would deliver something more akin to places for us to visit, as well as challenges in those places for us to overcome. My personal love of games would grow because of the way these places captured my imagination. I went on to identify in my own mind the descendents of Midwinter – not the direct genealogies of what inspired who, but the games from which I personally can extrude this special kind of experience. Hardwar and Operation Flashpoint, Outcast and System Shock all act as imperfect examples of what I’ve been looking for since Midwinter. Most recently, possibilities seem to be opening up again with appearance of GTA3, the MMOGs and, I hope and pray, with the forthcoming Chernobyl wasteland game and spiritual inheritor of the Midwinter mantle, Stalker. None of these games have quite managed to create the future that they all promised. But we’re getting there.
Going back and playing Midwinter, I realized that it’s tough, if not impossible, to take these significant games out of time. This is especially true of my second game. In the annals of gaming history Hired Guns is little more than a footnote, but to me it represents the moment in which the future of multiplayer gaming became a cooperative, shared experience, rather than a head-on competitive exercise. It was the game that taught me that playing with somebody didn’t mean having to batter them into unconsciousness on the speedball court, but could instead mean working with them to complete a grand quest and explore an intricate challenge. Hired Guns was a lost game that no one (other than my best friend circa 1993) seems to have played. It was a four-players-on-one-screen Dungeon Master clone with pseudo-3D single-frame-per-click movement. That alone marks it out as a developmental oddity that now seems impossibly crude, and it has little or no importance in any grand history of gaming that might one day be written.
Yet few games approach its level of achievement. Hired Guns created a unique world that never felt the need to explain itself and kicked genre conventions in the face with a throbbing robo-boot. It had teeth-jarring machine gun blasts, magic killer monks, serpents, sharks, deployable automated sentry cannons, personal teleports, ED-209 clones and apropos of nothing, thirty-foot bone monsters. All this weird was wrapped up in a gloom-clad future world that was both spooky and intriguing. It embraced peculiarity in a way that games fear to do today. But its greatest achievement was to place me and my best friend together in a game world. We played our way across the epic map over the course of three weeks. We overcame puzzles through joint thinking, and fought pitched battles together.
How many first-person perspective games now combine RPG elements, while dodging genre clich
But it was the side of the 3D real-time strategy wars that seemed to lose. The future it described – one where the lie of the landscape and the scripting of events would, as in action games, define the scope of the tactics – has only been echoed ever so distantly by the Total War series. For the most part, RTS games have taken on a pallid and over-familiar hue. While there are obvious highlights (Warcraft 3, Dawn of War, Homeworld) none of them took up the gauntlet thrown down by Ground Control. Nothing tried to improve upon the idea and reject resource management and based building. No one had thought to take it further. No one had taken the future that I, and presumably its developers, had seen in Ground Control and tried to make something from it. Even its sequel, years on, lacked the stripped-down simplicity of the original and its quietly brilliant expansion pack.
When I came to review that sequel, there were some grumblings from my editor that I couldn’t leave the past alone and just “review the sequel on its own merits.” But how could I? The sequel had created what looked like a dead end. It brought resources back in, and overdid everything with layer upon layer of overwrought design. The elegance was gone. Even worse, the future I had been promised was gone.
Games have to go forward. They have to believe in the future, and they cannot do so as a groundless generation X, divorced and alienated from the achievements of their parents. The past is littered with suggested futures, some still possible, others abandoned. Some really were dead ends and others still inspire us today. But whatever clues that past may hold, I don’t believe that we can go forward without them.
Jim Rossignol is a writer and editor based in the South West of England. He writes about videogames, fiction and science.