I remember when games were all just blocky pixels. Before the polygons took over, in the years before high-definition graphics, ragdoll physics and rim lighting, videogames were little more than a collection of garish dots, a handful of kilobytes crammed onto floppy discs and audio cassettes.
In the early 1980s England of my youth, the advent of cheap computers such as the ZX Spectrum gave rise to the bedroom coder; a lone enthusiast whose midnight programming efforts were sold in small advertisements in the back of magazines or picked up by tiny publishing houses. Most of the games from that era were clones of popular arcade machines of the day, usually clumsily wrought versions of Breakout or Space Invaders, but some were startling in their scope and innovation. Programmer Sandy White wrote one of the earliest graphics engines to create an entire isometric 3D city in Ant Attack, while Ian Bell and David Braben crammed a galaxy of planets into a mere 14kb for their seminal sandbox epic Elite.
In fact, my rainswept country has long been a haven for its brand of creative eccentrics. In the 18th century, it became strangely fashionable for the wealthy upper classes to build things called follies which were flamboyant edifices that stood as symbols of their creators’ wealth and taste. One of England’s most well-known and influential follies was built by Horace Walpole, the foppish son of the country’s first prime minister. Walpole took an initially modest west London villa and, over the space of thirty years, transformed it into Strawberry Hill: A grand mock castle steeped in its creator’s obsession with the medieval. Strawberry Hill’s turrets, wooden battlements and stained-glass windows ushered in a new era of Gothic revival architecture. Over the course of his lifetime, Walpole stuffed Strawberry Hill with around four thousand pieces of art, curiosities and antique knick-knacks, from the hats of long-dead cardinals to a lock of Mary Queen of Scots’ hair.
There are more similarities between the activities of an 18th century aristocrat and videogames than you might at first think. The developers of the 21st century have, like Walpole, a dandy’s eye for disparate bits of pop culture. Magpie-like, the shiniest moments and flashiest camera angles have been plundered from the archives of cinema, literature and comic books; MadWorld‘s monochrome visuals were freely borrowed from Sin City, while Heavy Rain‘s themes and murky style bear more than a passing resemblance to David Fincher’s Se7en.
Modern games are bigger, louder and more expensively produced than ever before, and just as the folly was a public symbol of a Georgian gentleman’s excess of wealth, so videogame developers have begun to invest their productions with an excess of noise, color and detail, where each title attempts to outdo the last in terms of graphics, sound and the sheer extravagance of its action.
As undeniably spectacular as Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is, and it surely ranks among the greatest action games of this generation, everything in it is borrowed from somewhere else. Its storyline owes a clear debt to the Indiana Jones films (themselves indebted to the matinee serials of the 40s and 50s), while its game mechanisms are a refined mash-up of Gears of War‘s cover-based shooting and Tomb Raider‘s platform-puzzle solving.
It’s all a far cry from the 80s, when computers were slow and bytes scarce. Programming games required cunning, and cramming ideas into the meager technology available required both imagination and guile. One only has to compare Nathan Drake’s frenetic train-top battle in Uncharted 2 with the mechanically similar but graphically quaint platformer Stop the Express to see how far games have come.
Yet while 80s-era technology couldn’t have come close to rendering the dazzlingly cinematic visuals of the current generation of consoles, the decade’s best games managed to tell captivating stories with the leanest of resources. Largely forgotten now, the 8-bit adventure game Lords of Midnight somehow managed to cram over 4000 locations, dozens of characters and an epic storyline worthy of Tolkien into a positively miniscule amount of computer memory. Remarkably, this feat was achieved by just one programmer.
When early developers couldn’t hope for realism, they opted instead for abstraction. In games like Rolling Thunder, bullets moved slowly enough to jump over – coins meant extra points and hearts represented energy. It was a visual language borne out of the quick-fix gaming of the arcade where, in the hubbub, smoke, and bustle of these raucous rooms, it was vital that a game’s rules and controls could be quickly understood. Even in the heart-pounding hail of bullets that culminated in the show- stopping boss in 1985’s Gradius, the objectives of this first end-of-level encounter could be understood in an instant: shoot the core.
Though the 80s could be regarded as the era of the shallow and the simplistic, there was an explosion of new ideas on consoles, home computers and in arcades. It was a time where entire genres were established within the space of a few short years. Tetris revolutionized the puzzle game. Populous kicked off the god simulator. It’s incredible just how rapidly the fighter genre evolved from the two-move simplicity of 1984’s Kung Fu Master to the complex, six-button brawls of Street Fighter II only eight years later – in fact, it was Konami’s 1985 arcade classic, Yie Ar Kung Fu that established many of the elements that still define the genre even today.
By contrast, consider how little the first-person shooter has changed since Wolfenstein 3D appeared in 1992. The shooter has been continuously polished, honed and tinkered with, yet for all the spectacular graphics, physics and mature plot developments, the genre has stayed at a relative standstill for years. The otherwise visually striking shooter Metro 2033 has players skulking around the same kind of darkened tunnels and chambers they’ve been frequenting since Doom and Quake laid the genre’s conventions nearly fifteen years ago, while Modern Warfare 2 added little more to the genre than suspect politics.
The problem, of course, is one of scale. Where the average videogame in 1982 had a production team that could fit in a tool shed, you’d struggle to squeeze the number of people involved in creating a 2010 mainstream game in an aircraft hangar. God of War III, for example, had a vast team of programmers, designers, artists and QA testers, with at least 18 staff members dedicated to marketing alone. It’s therefore unsurprising that, as costs have soared, videogames have become more about adaptation and refinement than innovation. It’s safer to offer up a more gorgeous iteration of a past game than try something new. And what’s the point in taking creative risks when gems as beautifully made and critically acclaimed as Okami or Scribblenauts are regularly overlooked by consumers in favor of another shooter or EA sports game?
Like the builders of 18th century follies, such as Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, modern studios are capable of creating works of undeniable beauty. If today’s games are like ornate Gothic towers, full of arabesques and exquisite detail, then by comparison the games of the 80s were mere mud huts. But as pioneering games such as Elite, Lords of Midnight and Ant Attack have faded from memory, only whispered about in the gloom of British pubs by geeks of a certain age, the games industry appears to be moving inexorably in the decadent direction of Hollywood, with its huge budgets and expensive premieres.
The funny joysticks, bad graphics and arcane storage systems of the 80s may be long gone, but in the intervening years something else has also been mislaid as well. Innovation, perhaps, but also a unique sense of eccentricity, too. It’s unlikely we’ll see games like Hover Bovver anymore, where you trimmed the grass using your neighbour’s stolen lawnmower, or Terrormolinos, where play switched between various members of a working class family on holiday in Spain. At no other time could you play an adventure game like How to be a Complete Bastard, where your objective was to drunkenly wreak havoc at a yuppie soirée.
Except perhaps in the modern indie games scene, for it’s here we still see evidence of the pioneering spirit that pervaded the medium in the 80s. Freed from the constraints of investors and publishers, and hastened by the advent of digital distribution, this fresh wave of bedroom coders and tiny studios has the freedom to invent. It’s no coincidence that games like Braid and World of Goo, which stood among the best games of 2008, were the products of one or two guys with ingenuity and a hunger for recognition.
As mainstream developers, the aristocratic folly builders of modern gaming, attempt to outdo one another with ever more ingenious demonstrations of technical prowess, it’s the independent studios and lone programmers, fashioning their little huts from mud, who are pushing at genre boundaries and striving to innovate. Mainstream developers may punctuate the industry’s skyline with their expensive, grandiose follies, but it’s the bedroom coders, working away on their brilliant mud huts, who provide the new games which will truly stand the test of time.
Ryan Lambie hails from the soggy recesses of England. His blog can be found at www.ryanlambie.co.uk.