One Step Forward, One Step Back

When I think of the 2000s in terms of video games, I think of a decade that was focused heavily on artistry and aesthetics, sometimes to the exclusion of other kinds of possible and desirable evolutionary paths. The result is an industry that at once seems more mature and accepted, while at the same time suffering a kind of creativity recession from the perspective of mechanics. Ultimately the games we were playing in 2001 are exactly the same games we are playing now, often in a very real intellectual property sense.

2001 saw the release of games Bejewled, Halo, Final Fantasy X, Gran Turismo 3, Red Faction, Max Payne, Devil May Cry, Metal Gear Solid 2 and Grand Theft Auto III, all franchises that have seen a major sequel in the past couple of years or that have a major sequel in the works. More importantly, these are all games that on a very fundamental level play basically the same way they did 10 years ago.

Yes, graphical updates and gameplay improvements have visited each of these games, but you would be hard pressed to tell me that if you handed a copy of Halo: Reach to a proficient 2001 Halo player -- let’s call this hypothetical player Tim -- they would be anything but immediately comfortable. By extension, I would even argue that the same holds true if you handed our good friend Tim a copy of Call of Duty or any other current console shooter.

Could the same be said for a player from 1991, who was playing Street Fighter II in the arcades, F-Zero on the SNES or Road Rash on the Genesis if you handed them Tim’s copy of Halo?

It is, perhaps, then easy to be disappointed by the overall decade in gaming, but I wonder if maybe the past 10 years have instead taught us that we should redefine the way we think about advancement in video gaming. Because, although Tim might be immediately at home with his controller in hand playing a modern copy of Halo Reach, Red Dead Redemption or Gran Turismo 5, what would be inescapable for him to boggle at would be the level of sophistication in the presentation of these games.

For whatever evolutionary underachievement might be an arguable reality in the advancement of the mechanics of mainstream gaming, there can be no similar complaint delivered on the sophistication of games as an interactive narrative delivery system. You look at games like the latest Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption, Alan Wake, Heavy Rain or Call of Duty, and for whatever complaints you may or may not levy against these titles, their ability to describe a place and evoke strong responses from the average player is significantly more sophisticated than almost anything from 2001, save perhaps one game.

The one game from 2001 that was a portent of things to come, the first game that defined the decade, is Ico. Released late September of 2001, Ico was a relatively simple game from a mechanics perspective, but a highly evocative piece that conjured unexpected emotional connection to the place and the characters.

To my mind, a game like 2010’s Alan Wake is a direct descendant of Ico, a fight ultimately against darkness with a surreal, almost dreamlike aesthetic. Obviously the comparisons in the sense of plot are at best tenuous, but in the style, the presentation and the way the game attempts to manipulate the player’s emotional response to the game, there are meaningful similarities. And, though I have been vocal about my interpretation of Heavy Rain as an ultimately failed experiment, there is also no doubt that what it attempts to do is very much indicative of the model the decade has somehow laid out.

This has been the age when we begin not to simply think of games as a vehicle for a gameplay model or as some kind of hyper-sophisticated implementation of traditional games, but as a more mature part of a broader media and entertainment landscape. And, that is something I wholeheartedly support.

It was also, of course, the age of the DS, the Wii and now the Kinect and Move. Maybe these will be the things in 2021 that we point to as harbingers of the next coming age. Maybe if old-man-Tim handed me a copy of whatever he is playing 10 years from now, it would seem as strange to me as Halo might to our Street Fighter II arcade player. I admit that I hope this is the case, because for all the environmental and aesthetic evolution of the last few years, I can’t help but feel like we are stuck in something of a gameplay rut.

I realize there is a rich and vibrant independent gaming scene that exists far beyond the stale sphere of major releases, but even that platform too often seems enamored of its own self-satisfied sense of artistry and social commentary. Of course, there are always games doing things never before conceived, but I'm painting in broad strokes here describing what I see as the trends and tides a scope 10 years wide. In that context, I don't think indie gaming has dramatically diverged from the trap of too often giving the nod to style over substance.

Despite appearances to the contrary, I’m actually very positive about where gaming has the opportunity to go over the next few years, and I think that in the long run this decade will actually be seen as the first that cemented gaming as a mature media platform. I’m just ready to play something a little different.

Comments

I feel that there has been evolution in gameplay, but like real evolution, it has been so small in increments that it is difficult to see. Probably the biggest jump in the evolution of gameplay in the last decade would be physical interaction introduced by the Wii, but even then, they weren't the first to do it. Nintendo first had the Glove, the Pad, then light guns, Sega had that octagon thing (just looked it up: The Activator)-- The Wii as a console focused primarily on physical interaction was the logical next step for that subset of gaming.

But I can see how you would consider such small increments as detrimental to some degree, because, as you pointed out, the Halos of today aren't too far off the Halo of 10 years ago, so where's the innovation? But for all the Halos and Call of Duties, we have had great leaps in the play styles of fighting games/brawlers (Smash Brothers), racing (Gran Turismo 5, Forza series-- but really, how far can you take driving simulation as a gameplay device?), puzzle games (Little Big Planet, Ilomilo). Even strategy games (and some may want to kill me for this reference, but IMO Brutal Legend was a refreshing take on the RTS genre). Again, however, there have been great lead-ups to these games, that iterate the fresh gameplay to such a refined degree that it is nearly impossible to make such varied distinctions when simply looking back at the lot of them.

WipEout wrote:

Even strategy games (and some may want to kill me for this reference, but IMO Brutal Legend was a refreshing take on the RTS genre).

I love you. I mean this in the most inappropriate way possible.

Taking a 2001 Halo player and putting him in front of Halo 2010 is not really the same as taking a 1991 Street Fighter 2 player and putting him in front of Halo. It's more like taking that 2001 Street Fighter 2 player and putting him in front of Street Fighter 4.

Or, conversely, you could take the 2001 Halo player and put him in front of Boom Blox or Heavy Rain or Super Mario Galaxy 2 or Portal.

I don't know if I have a real point.

Ahnd Ah yoo.

Ico huh? Haven't played it. Looking forward to March 31 PS3 release.

My suspicion is that gaming has finished its version of the Industrial Revolution. Sure, there are still game-changing innovations out there (so to speak) that will take us by surprise, but like industry and technology in general, they're getting fewer and farther in-between, and most of the advancement is down to just improvement on existing ideas.

Yes, graphical updates and gameplay improvements have visited each of these games, but you would be hard pressed to tell me that if you handed a copy of Halo: Reach to a proficient 2001 Halo player -- let’s call this hypothetical player Tim -- they would be anything but immediately comfortable. By extension, I would even argue that the same holds true if you handed our good friend Tim a copy of Call of Duty or any other current console shooter.

Could the same be said for a player from 1991, who was playing Street Fighter II in the arcades, F-Zero on the SNES or Road Rash on the Genesis if you handed them Tim’s copy of Halo?

Okay, sure, but would the player from 1991 - let's call him Tim From 1991 - be immediately comfortable if you handed him Street Fighter IV? I bet he'd be okay. How about Pac Man Champioship Edition DX? Even Tim From 1985 could probably get down with that. 1991 and 2001 Tim would both get into the new Sam & Max, Monkey Island and Back to the Future games without any hesitation, too.

But Tim from Any of Those Years would probably flip the hell out if you handed them Heavy Rain, or anything motion controlled at all, or Portal, or Mass Effect.

The longer the video game format is around, the less likely it is that people will completely revolutionize it on a regular basis. Film - only a little older than games, on a generational timeline - is already at a point where the vast majority of new movies can be compared without too much trouble to previous, similar ones... every once in awhile we still get something that comes along and changes how we view something, or expands in a new direction, but it's usually more a matter of execution than a matter of creating something entirely new. The advent of CGI was a significant jump in film style, but even that's been almost two decades now and we just see incremental improvements, not (sorry) "game changers." And when's the last time somebody revolutionized books?

I have trouble seeing that as a serious problem, though. I still routinely read books and see movies that I love, that even if they're saying something I've already heard, they're saying it well enough or bringing my focus to it in a new way so that I find tremendous value in them. To look back at the history of movies, at silent film, then black and white, then technicolor, etc, and then wind up at a modern film era where most of the new resembles the old is probably the same experience our kids will have looking back at Atari, and C64, and NES, etc. We lived it, but for them it'll just be the history of a mature, standardized form. Technology-driven art by definition changes when the technology changes. As that levels out, so does the average amount of change.

Mytch wrote:

My suspicion is that gaming has finished its version of the Industrial Revolution. Sure, there are still game-changing innovations out there (so to speak) that will take us by surprise, but like industry and technology in general, they're getting fewer and farther in-between, and most of the advancement is down to just improvement on existing ideas.

Totally agree with this. Most innovation these days is proving to be too gimmicky and not solid enough to become a foundation towards the future.

I find it doubtful we get to witness many more paradigm shifts in the coming decade.

oMonarca wrote:
Mytch wrote:

My suspicion is that gaming has finished its version of the Industrial Revolution. Sure, there are still game-changing innovations out there (so to speak) that will take us by surprise, but like industry and technology in general, they're getting fewer and farther in-between, and most of the advancement is down to just improvement on existing ideas.

Totally agree with this. Most innovation these days is proving to be too gimmicky and not solid enough to become a foundation towards the future.

I find it doubtful we get to witness many more paradigm shifts in the coming decade.

Another agree. Really it's been a decade of refinement of the process, and there's still a way to go with the whole process of making a game.

I can't help thinking that I wish it was cheaper/simpler for companies to make games that would be the big titles. I probably don't know nothing about nothing within the games industry, but it does seem like the best stuff comes out when the stakes are either very low, and a developer can afford to let a few development houses screw around, or very high, and they have to compete to have their product be the best. That seems to be by the wayside at the moment, as marketing will make pretty much any game sell and no company seems to want to really pull ahead of the others instead settling for 'okay'. To continue the 'Industrial Revolution' type analogy, it's peacetime, not war.

One crucial item that has been a giant leap is multiplayer. The genres themselves may of not change much, but the way we play them has. Think of Halo vs Halo 3, Street Fighter II VS SFIV, and Super Mario Brothers vs LBP.

Slytin wrote:

One crucial item that has been a giant leap is multiplayer. The genres themselves may of not change much, but the way we play them has. Think of Halo vs Halo 3, Street Fighter II VS SFIV, and Super Mario Brothers vs LBP.

Ten years ago the idea of a broad appeal console being online, as a base feature, was just on the drawing board. Heck, ten years ago the first xbox wasn't out yet.

IMAGE(http://content.internetvideoarchive.com/content/photos/238/009999_75.jpg)

I would like to think that much of the progress has been in art direction and story telling, although a few games have made big hits in the mechanics dept ie: Portal.

Games in and of themselves need a lot of work on the story telling, such as in certain games the story is told for you vs other games where you make the story. Something like Bioshock vs Left4Dead.

I do have to agree however that the multiplayer side of games has gotten better, not just with the advent of better connections either. More has been done to do away with cheating (it may not seem like it but it is getting better). There are a huge multitude of ways for you to connect with friends or strangers and share a game togather. Even more, you don't even have to be playing the same game anymore to see what your friend is up to and talk some trash to 'em.

Elysium wrote:

Road Rash on the Genesis

I want a new version of this

Thin_J wrote:
Elysium wrote:

Road Rash on the Genesis

I want a new version of this :(

YOU'RE PART OF THE PROBLEM!!

Remember that Ultima Underworld was 1992, and even that wasn't the first game to use first-person perspective. Similar nits are available to be picked when looking at RTS as some sort of mid-'90s revelation.

WipEout wrote:
Thin_J wrote:
Elysium wrote:

Road Rash on the Genesis

I want a new version of this :(

YOU'RE PART OF THE PROBLEM!!

I want a new version of the Genesis Shadowrun.

Perhaps you're right about a game player from 1991 being bowled over by the first Halo as a new gaming experience.

But as a gamer from 1994, I'd say not so much. Why? Marathon

Many modern gamers know Bungie only in it's current, Microsoft-enslaved incarnation. Way back in the day, they made games for the Mac. Shortly after DOOM appeared, the pirated Marathon single-player demo started making the rounds, and every Mac gamer was an instant accolyte.

In many ways, Marathon went _further_ than Halo. Despite lack of cutscenes or voice acting, it had much more intricate plot elements. Despite using a limited color pallette and 2-d character animations, it spooked the living daylights out of people in the dark, claustrophobic corridors inside the asteroid, and wowed people with grandeur in the huge Pfhor ships.

Halo is a better game of course - going back to play the old shooters is a little like voluntarily hobbling yourself with chains and an eyepatch to play basketball - but the innovations it held were actually not that important, in my view.

But then I'm Old School enough not to use a 'k' in "school".

wordsmythe wrote:
WipEout wrote:
Thin_J wrote:
Elysium wrote:

Road Rash on the Genesis

I want a new version of this :(

YOU'RE PART OF THE PROBLEM!!

I want a new version of the Genesis Shadowrun. :(

[size=9]I do too.[/size]

Nathaniel wrote:

In many ways, Marathon went _further_ than Halo. Despite lack of cutscenes or voice acting, it had much more intricate plot elements. Despite using a limited color pallette and 2-d character animations, it spooked the living daylights out of people in the dark, claustrophobic corridors inside the asteroid, and wowed people with grandeur in the huge Pfhor ships.

Marathon is the first game I know of to have a rocket jump.

One of these days I will have to dig up a copy of Ico. For a game that is referenced so often in the gaming community, it's got to at least be worth a look.

burntham77 wrote:

One of these days I will have to dig up a copy of Ico. For a game that is referenced so often in the gaming community, it's got to at least be worth a look.

Did you skim? It's being released with the God of War/Sly/Prince of Persia update treatment on PS3 with 720p, trophies, etc, in March.

I didn't even read the article, I just had to comment on the image. Which is mainly teaching you how to Waltz. Does this insinuate that the GWJ crew might know how to dance to ballroom? Or is said thoughts wishful dreaming?

Scratched wrote:

Marathon is the first game I know of to have a rocket jump.

Grenade hop, baby.

Wolfen Victrocious wrote:

I didn't even read the article, I just had to comment on the image. Which is mainly teaching you how to Waltz. Does this insinuate that the GWJ crew might know how to dance to ballroom? Or is said thoughts wishful dreaming?

Some do. I'm only one of them if you're not paying very close attention.

I think a gamer from the mid or late '90s would be pretty surprised at the collapse of the platformer as a genre.

Back in the late '90s and early 2000s there were console gamers and PC gamers. PC gamers thought console gamers were illiterate mental defectives at best, parasites corrupting their sacred hobby at worst. Console gamers ignored PC gamers. Now, we all have Xboxes.

One of the things that happened through the early 2000s was that meaningful console horsepower caught up with baseline PCs and console controllers expanded their button counts, enable complex PC-like controls.

With consoles allowing more sophisticated gameplay, the rising development costs of AAA games, and the piracy-driven collapse of the PC game business model, the whole gaming industry switched over to developing for the consoles first.

One of the major effects of this is that we've been stuck in a gaming rut for nearly 10 years now. Capability-wise, the PS3 and 360 were only incremental improvements over the original Xbox and only about as powerful as a mid to low end PC at the time of their release. So, everyone is still developing for a platform that was underpowered five years ago. There's marginal incremental tech improvements in games each year and occasional experimentation with minor gameplay innovations, but fundamentally, developers are limited in what they can do.

Technology - in the form of raw processing horsepower, vast memory spaces, and new controllers - enables new types of gameplay experiences. And with this console generation covering seven whole years of technological progress, the next generation should deliver some spectacular new experiences.

At least, I hope it will. I hope we aren't having this same conversation ten years from now.

polq37 wrote:

Technology - in the form of raw processing horsepower, vast memory spaces, and new controllers - enables new types of gameplay experiences. And with this console generation covering seven whole years of technological progress, the next generation should deliver some spectacular new experiences.

Chris Heckler was saying something similar when he said "The Wii is a piece of s***", in that more processing power allows developers more options to create more complex systems.

polq37 wrote:

PC gamers thought console gamers were illiterate mental defectives at best, parasites corrupting their sacred hobby at worst. Console gamers ignored PC gamers. Now, we all have Xboxes.

Nice one!

polq37 wrote:

With consoles allowing more sophisticated gameplay, the rising development costs of AAA games, and the piracy-driven collapse of the PC game business model, the whole gaming industry switched over to developing for the consoles first.

The whole gaming industry, you say?

Anyway, I'll come back to this thread after I edit today's Fringe Busters.

wordsmythe wrote:

IMAGE(http://content.internetvideoarchive.com/content/photos/238/009999_75.jpg)

You're a monster.

No! I'm MC Skat Kat!