Classics

"I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled" I say, bending over to pick up one more toy off the living room floor.

"What?" Jessica looks at me with a smile, clearly not getting the reference. I stand up straight.

"Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?"

"Umm ..."

I'm shocked. I'm actually shocked. How is it that this woman who is the core of my daily existence, my anchor, my rock, and my salvation, has never read the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. But then it hit me.

We no longer care about the classics. Not just poetry, but music, film, and yes, games.

"But, it's T.S. Eliot!"

"Yeah?"

I scramble to the computer and pull up a copy online. I read her the first bit.

"Let us go then you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky. Like a patient etherized upon a table. Let us go through certain half deserted streets, the muttering retreats of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells ..."

I read it the way I read it in college -– as prose, without forced meter. My skin goes cold and my legs twitch as the pores tense and the small hairs stand on end. I haven't read Prufrock in 20 years, and the re-acquaintance fills me with excitement, malaise, and longing.

"The language is beautiful. But etherized?"

"That's the whole point. He took the free-verse of the modernists, stuck in the romantics language, and wrote this layered piece about growing old and longing. It's ..."

I'm truly speechless.

"The Wasteland?"

"What?" She's growing disinterested. She has work to do.

"I will show you fear in a handful of dust?"

"Find it for me, and I'll read it. Or you can read it to me."

I give my wife credit for this. Whenever I, in my arrogance, have decided that she has missed some piece of literature I deem a classic, she will patiently expose herself to it, process it, comment on it, and move on.

But who am I to be the arbiter of what is a classic? As a word geek, I have mountains of academic feldercarb to back up my own assertions of primacy on Melville, Eliot, Thoreau, or Kerouac. The canon of literature, even in geek space, is well understood. Love or hate, there are few that would deny that Tolkien, Asimov, Heinlein, Card or Bradbury are important and influential. And because their form remains unchanged – words on a page – they are all as impactful or self important, brilliant or trite as they were on the day they were written.

Whither games? If the world no longer cares about such an established list of brilliance, what conversation can I possibly have with my wife about her vacant gaming education? I have my own lists, but what is the accepted canon?

I still hold out Tank Pong as a "root game" in multiplayer videogames. But this game is all but inaccessible and should I even find an Atari 2600, what is expected, culturally, from a video game has moved so far beyond Tank Pong that I doubt it would hold her interest. It would a barely hold mine.

And therein lies the core problem. "Old" videogames, despite being dredged up over and over again, remain that: old. Their appointment as "classic" is a function of marketing, not cultural consensus. There is no Bandai behind my belief that "Bartleby the Scrivener" is a brilliant work of absurdist surrealism. But Bandai will foist Pac-Man on my grandchildren simply because it has become iconic.

Delving into the gaming back-catalog is fundamentally an act of nostalgia, not reverence. Most "classic" games simply don't hold up, unless they rely on abstraction. Puzzle games fit this bill, and to some extent, the simplest first generation games (like Pac-Man) can as well. Their required simplicity of design forced abstraction. But games that pushed the envelop of their technological timestamp simply don't work.

Myst was a brilliant game. So was Doom. But beyond the nostalgia, they simple do not stand as "classics" in the same sense that Prufrock does, because they must necessarily be judged against a modern sensibility. To much of the Myst experience, or the Doom experience, is delivered to eyes and ears which have now been accustomed to higher-fidelity. It is for this reason I can't call Beowulf a "classic." It's a work of historic significance to be sure, but most people will only approach it through layers of translation, and still find it interesting for it's place in the canon, not for itself. Few delve back into the 78RPM recordings of Enrico Caruso but to learn of a curious foundation -- to iPod ears, the recordings are grating, belying the brilliance his voice clearly held. Similarly, comparing video games to literature is difficult because the standard the measuring stick we use for electronic entertainment is fluid, changing in both length and metric.

Does this limitation on the form, this difficulty in establishing true classics, mean that it's doomed to remain nothing more than "entertainment?" Perhaps not. Perhaps there is a cusp that can be crossed, where the fidelity of the experience is "good enough" that a generations-old game can survive. More to the point, as the technology and perhaps more importantly the structural genres of games stabilize, maintaining a title as a classic becomes more possible. The game-version of the source-tape can be remastered for digital ears. And so Half-Life: Source brought the original Half-Life into the Source engine, and did so extremely well, making Half-Life one of the only games to bridge the gap successfully.

This requires dedication and foresight. It implies that game developers see value in maintaining the roots of franchises, so that what-has-gone-before can be true prologue – classics that help define the genres in which the live. In this way, whether a modern culture loves a classic game as much as I love Eliot, at least it will be accessible.

I hope this is true. I hope that in 10 years, my 4 year old son will discover Half-Life and see it as a classic, and want to play Gordon Freeman's first journey through to the end for it's own sake. Not just to silence the pleadings of an old man.

Comments

It is sad to see old favorites fall by the wayside, or fail to stand the test of time. I've always considered myself a purist, in that if there is a chronology I will suck it up and work through the earlier titles. Unfortunately as the years progress I've found my patience and desire for such pedantry slowly being chipped away. Just yesterday I finished the original Fallout for the umpteenth time, and to me it is one of the few gems that has held up well. But then I am one of those that can upon occasion overlook graphics, take a step through and turn my clock wayback and play the oldies like they were new.

What I think it really comes down to is time and the way our culture perceives it and the use of it. While knowing the classics (in any field) seems to have fallen by the wayside, I've noticed a greater number of people 'Know of' the classics, and can get by with the knowledge garnered from a five minute tour of Wikipedia. It's sad, but not something I see ever turning around.

Great article Rabbit. The well written gaming articles are nice to read because maybe they will introduce someone to a game they have never heard of before or never tried. But its articles like this one that truly make this site unique. It allows gamers young and old to be exposed to poetry which is something that they may never have cared about before. I myself will be delving more into T.S.Elliot now so thanks for the exposure.

And who knows, those few lines of poetry may help the single reader on the site find someone to game with until they are "etherized upon a table."

Is it not the self-perpetuated immaturity of the games industry that's at fault here? Tiny incrementations on a bankable formula, spat out to coincide with the rotation of annual profit forecasting?

The adage "nothing is sacred" is so frustratingly appropriate when it comes to video games. And it's this constant pawing through the remains of last year's "blockbusters", dusting them off and gluing them back together in a slightly different configuration that destroys the idea - or even possibility - of true classics in gaming.

Still, you do get the odd gem here and there; games which do, in fact, still mean something to the player - freshman or veteran - years after they've been released.

They're f*cking rare though.

Nice article, and in its core message it may be true, however, there is one thing we must not take out of the equation. "Back then" there were a limited amount of "classics" (some were not yet, at that point). It was relatively easy to keep up with development and releases. Same goes for reading, there was plenty of reading material available but there was also more time spent on reading literature.

Now jump to today. Vast amounts of new game releases are coming out, be they good or not. This all adds to the archive of potential games to be played, thus making it simply impossible to play them all. I for example finally got around to play The longest journey and yes it is fantastic. But there are so many other fantastic games as well to play...

Then for reading. Back then at home I had a choice: read a book, watch TV (on 5 stations) or surf the internet...with 28.8k. There was not much to do there really. Nothing on TV. You read a book. Today however: 200 TV channels, 20mbit internet with all kinds of things to do and read, work and the speed of development demand to read up on work-related literature constantly. And you know those 800 page software books. There just plain and simply is not as much time left for the classics. It's a fact of life and I envy anybody who has the time to properly enjoy them, but he will either work in that particular area or live of social services.

Soooome daaay I'll wear... Pajamas in the daytime!

Great article, Rabbit. I agree with most of your points. However, i don't really think HalfLife source counts as being updated in it's visuals with the exception of water. AFAIK all's it uses from the source engine are the water and lighting systems. The textures and models are all from the "hi-def" pack that was released years before source was made and came with Blue Shift (i think).... which doesn't really bring the game forward as much as you imply.
A better example would be the Black Mesa mod that's still in development :/

I can't think of a single game that "bridges the gap" so to speak. Obviously some games don't deteriorate visually as quickly as others (Myst and 2D RPG's for example) but their control styles and interfaces quite often lag behind current thinking and concepts.

Ultimately it is games greatest assets - the varied interfaces and graphical scalability - that makes them fail as an "artform" such as the classics you mention. We all have eyes and so can all have the chance to read a bit of prose or see a film and do so until we evolve into blind weavels but games are inherrently "broken" by their manufacturers, forever bound to a piece of hardware that is outdated within months, not centuries.

I hope this is true. I hope that in 10 years, my 4 year old son will discover Half-Life and see it as a classic, and want to play Gordon Freeman's first journey through to the end for it's own sake. Not just to silence the pleadings of an old man.

To hell with Half-Life, man! What you do need to make sure is that in 10 years your son reads and appreciates Elliot.

The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock.. where's my gun?

Soooome daaay I'll wear... Pajamas in the daytime!

Indeed, Lobster. Indeed. Now where did I put my coffeespoon?

Great companion/counter article to Elysium's offering last week, Rabbit. I am currently trying to nag a buddy into trudging through Planescape: Torment long enough that it grabs him. It's a losing battle. While we all agree that it SHOULD be a classic, my buddy doesn't understand that, and all he sees is a pixellated isometric view with an interface that's not as easy to use as BG2 or Neverwinter. It's kind of frustrating.

buzzvang wrote:
Soooome daaay I'll wear... Pajamas in the daytime!

Indeed, Lobster. Indeed. Now where did I put my coffeespoon?

Great companion/counter article to Elysium's offering last week, Rabbit. I am currently trying to nag a buddy into trudging through Planescape: Torment long enough that it grabs him. It's a losing battle. While we all agree that it SHOULD be a classic, my buddy doesn't understand that, and all he sees is a pixellated isometric view with an interface that's not as easy to use as BG2 or Neverwinter. It's kind of frustrating.

It probably because he doesn't trust the skull.

One of the funny things about classics is the idea of categorization. In books and movies, there usually is a story to tell, and the particular book or movie is the telling. We tend to focus on the storytelling as the critical piece, instead of the underlying story. In games, the underlying force is the gameplay. It is what makes a game a game. We tend to see these as genres, but it is not entirely accurate. We have the "Shooter" genre, which includes Unreal Tournament, Battlefield and System Shock. Saying these all have the same gameplay is as inaccurate as saying that Moby Dick is the same story as Mutiny on the Bounty. I think, when talking about classic games, the specific instance of a type of gameplay is the key to determining quality. Half-Life has the same basic gameplay as System Shock - immersion, puzzle solving, reflexes and survival adrenaline. I would argue that both of these games are classics, the same way both "Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars" are both classics in the small-town-guy-saves-the-day story field.

Your example of Half-Life to Half-Life Source is flawed because the new technology does not change the gameplay or the specific gaming associated with it. Is the Errol Flynn "Adventures of Robin Hood" a lesser movie because we now have televisions that can display 1080 lines of colors instead of 320 lines of various shades of grey?

MaxShrek wrote:
The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock.. where's my gun?

Sigged.

Does this limitation on the form, this difficulty in establishing true classics, mean that it's doomed to remain nothing more than "entertainment?" Perhaps not. Perhaps there is a cusp that can be crossed, where the fidelity of the experience is "good enough" that a generations-old game can survive.

Maybe, but it's looong way off. Since stylistic/creative decisions are being made solely based on the available technology, the medium retains a technological element (be it resolution, polygons, facial animation, etc) that will keep on advancing. An older game will either need a refresh or future-proofing to keep up and future-proofing is awfully tough to do.

More to the point, as the technology and perhaps more importantly the structural genres of games stabilize, maintaining a title as a classic becomes more possible. The game-version of the source-tape can be remastered for digital ears. And so Half-Life: Source brought the original Half-Life into the Source engine, and did so extremely well, making Half-Life one of the only games to bridge the gap successfully.

Now that Half-Life has done it, hopefully more developers will see a refresh as a viable commerical option. This may amount to a market-tested self-selection of classics, or it could be a cynical excuse for developers to reduce the amount of new content they provide "because look - you've got the original classic in there too".

Good one, rabbit. And at Lobster.

Most classic games don't hold up. But then again most current games don't either.

The Japanese seem to see more value in maintaining the roots of their franchises than western developers.

Yeah and I definitely agree that games that really rely on the technology of the day to sell themselves are the ones that get the oldest the fastest.

Bah, the truly great stuff should survive on its own, no? No need to defend it so overzealously.

Wrestlevania wrote:

The adage "nothing is sacred" is so frustratingly appropriate when it comes to video games. And it's this constant pawing through the remains of last year's "blockbusters", dusting them off and gluing them back together in a slightly different configuration that destroys the idea - or even possibility - of true classics in gaming.

Still, you do get the odd gem here and there; games which do, in fact, still mean something to the player - freshman or veteran - years after they've been released.

Bingo. Literary classics exist because taking a good book, editing and republishing it on glossy paper doesn't sell books. Taking a great gameplay mechanic, improving upon it and throwing a couple million more pixels on the screen, however, is the stuff the industry is made of.

I play Alpha Centauri still because no one's redone or improved upon what it does, and as such I can easily recommend it as a classic - something worthy of being played today, because there's nothing else that betters AC.

I play Alpha Centauri still because no one's redone or improved upon what it does, and as such I can easily recommend it as a classic - something worthy of being played today, because there's nothing else that betters AC.

There is no sufficient way to get across how completely true this is. I feel ashamed for not thinking of it, myself.

buzzvang wrote:
I am currently trying to nag a buddy into trudging through Planescape: Torment long enough that it grabs him. It's a losing battle. While we all agree that it SHOULD be a classic, my buddy doesn't understand that, and all he sees is a pixellated isometric view with an interface that's not as easy to use as BG2 or Neverwinter.

And on top of that, annoying frequent respawning of opponents which discourages taking the time to explore.

Hell yes, there has been no better Sim game than Alpha Centauri. Classy, deep, with a sense of humor, and with almost limitless possibilities.

I never played AC... i feel less of a man, nay, gamer for it...

If you like Civ type games (especially combat in them), I highly recommend it.

Wrestlevania and Staats have both touched on it, but literary classics are such because at the height of the medium it wasn't about how many letters fit on a page, how well you illuminated the text, or how fancy the binding was (tin with a cloth map inside the cover?) When games are about thinking instead of about ogling, they have the potential to be classics. That's why, as Rabbit touched on, puzzle games hold up. They were never intended to be dazzling flashes in the pan.

Great literature is about crafting and manipulating thoughts and feelings and not hammering together words like 2x4s. When games choose to escape the mean concerns of gloss, stain, and the grain of their sandpaper, they too can have the power to shape minds and move souls.

LobsterMobster wrote:
Soooome daaay I'll wear... Pajamas in the daytime!

Sometimes, when a game is like a play by Sartre,
When it seems a bookburning's in perfect order.

I now have the sudden urge to compare the lyrics of "I Think I'll Disappear Now" to playing Gears and Beers.

Awesome article. And it made me realize something about what we mean when we use the word "classic."

This is some percentage of that word's connotation that's really more "nostalgia" than "it's all good, all the time (and can be discovered again and again)"

For lit, whether it's The Hobbit, Prufrock, Howl, Ender's Game or what have you, helping someone discover these things for the first time fills you as helper with nostalgia, but for the person discovering, it's the "all good, all the time."

I can see this not working with video games. You can help your friends with the nostalgia part (Gauntlet on the C64, man. Those were my first, truly immersive multiplayer good frickin' times). But....and this part makes you want to cry a bit, if I load that up 8 years from now on some emulator for my daughter and think, "wow, this will be great"...well, you can guess the likely result.

That said, I just bought Starcraft for my 12 year old nephew, because of two things: I know it'll run on his dad's semi-crappy laptop, and because despite what any nostalgia might tell me, that game is truly "all good, all the time." There may be 1000 prettier RTS games, but for my money it's the only classic RTS where I care what race I'm playing. It's not just the blue guys versus the red guys. (and i know Warcraft III and Rise of Legends have no hope of running on that laptop when I say this.)

Now I'm off to print Prufrock, cause I'm not sure my wife's read Elliot, either. I've already read probably half my collected Whitman to her cause, you know, dude, it's WALT FREAKIN' WHITMAN.

Staats wrote:
I play Alpha Centauri still because no one's redone or improved upon what it does, and as such I can easily recommend it as a classic - something worthy of being played today, because there's nothing else that betters AC.

He speaks the truth. The expansion is great, too.

ee cummings wtfpwns Walt Whitman.

Fedaykin98 wrote:
ee cummings wtfpwns Walt Whitman. :wink:

William Carlos Williams omghaxorz ee cummings.

TSE FTW

rabbit wrote:
TSE FTW

I only agree if by TSE you mean "testicular self-examination."

It's important!

Elliot definitely pwns Whitman and cummings, and absolutely decimates William Carlos Williams, whose work I hold in the lowest regard.

Formal poetry FTW!

Speaking of cummings, I had a song with my old band called "Dooms of Love", which pretty much makes me an awesome duder. Not that the song was awesome or anything.