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.