Tuesday, March 9, 2010

With An Eye Toward History

Playing old video games is not very enjoyable.

I starting thinking about this after listening to Jorge and Scott's podcast this week (itself inspired by this post from Evan Stubbs). Even classics familiar to all are often quite difficult to enjoy today. Not just for those that haven't even played them before; for many of us, it seems the thick fog of nostalgia colours our perceptions significantly. There are exceptions, of course. Some games are still enjoyable despite their age, but for most people, it's not that many.

This is aside from the issue of game preservation. That's an issue that I believe is quite important, but orthogonal to this (and often conflated with the idea of creating a game "canon," which is an absurd notion). Here I'm really just discussing engaging with older games, for whatever your value of "older" is.

Like many, I imagine, when I first acquired my Wii, I downloaded a handful of old NES and SNES titles that I loved. Playing most of them was ... distressing, to be honest. Issues with presentation aside, most of them were brutally difficult. Not in the way, say, Mirror's Edge demands mastering environmental navigation and complex input. They're difficult because they're merciless, unforgiving and to be frank, unfair. A great many games of that era can be completed in a very short amount of time. They only seem long because you're going to be repeating levels over and over again. I can't help but think we enjoyed some of them simply because they were the only game in town (alright, pun intended).

It was akin to revisiting a favourite childhood park, only to find it small, grimy and poorly maintained. And then realizing it had always been that way, only you hadn't noticed until now.

The break-neck pace at which games have developed definitely factors into this accelerated aging. But the graphics (and especially the audio) has a charm that many still emulate today. What has really aged or rather, what we have improved upon dramatically in the interspersing years, is game design. Especially with regard to pacing, it took a while for games to cast off their quarter-munching arcade heritage. On balance, games are far more enjoyable now than they have ever been. The mediocre titles of today are leaps and bounds above the mediocre titles of yesteryear.

Why care about any of this, then? There are more games coming out now that anyone can feasibly play, so why care about relics from two decades ago? Because there is much to learn. There is still a lot we can take from older games. I think it's vital for developers (and even more serious hobbyists) to understand our lineage. There are experiences and moments from older games we are still unable to consistently harness. How to approach older games, then?

My recommendation is to appreciate with purpose. Don't just dive into older games expecting them to be immediately enjoyable and enlightening. Chances are they won't be. Going in tabula rasa will as likely as not simply sour you to older titles. Instead, treat them academically. Converse with others and read what you can about older titles. Find out what made them special, their salient contributions, how future games incorporated some of their decisions and built upon them and (I think this is quite important) what members of the team went on to develop afterward.

Basically, get in, play, get out. Lingering can be hazardous.

The actual method for doing so is your prerogative. Cheats are a difficult question, as the difficulty of some older games make them virtually a necessity (especially if you're playing a twitchy console platformer emulated via keyborad). But the experience won't be the same and what's important may be obscured. Save files from certain key moments in the game are relatively easy to come by, especially for more popular titles, and this help eliminate otherwise intolerable slogs all too common in older games. And while emulation can't recreate the experience exactly, their ability to save and restore game states at any moment makes them very compelling.

In closing, I'm going to throw a couple plugs in for some great readings and conversations about older games (and not just because I'm seeing these guys at GDC this week). Ben Abraham et al.'s Critical Distance does compilations of writings about various games. They haven't done a lot of older ones yet, but I could easily see that happening. Plus, recent games will be old before you know it.

For conversation, Michael Abbott's Vintage Game Club is fantastic. Basically, folks vote on the vintage game they want to play, start playing at the same time and discuss as they go. I'm sure other sites do something similar, but the community at VGC is fantastic and uncharacteristically free of Internet sociopaths. Thus far they've played: Grim Fandango, Deus Ex, Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, Beyond Good & Evil, Chrono Trigger, Alpha Centauri, Thief, Majora's Mask and a double-header of Bioshock leading up to the release of Bioshock 2. If you're at all interested, I highly recommend jumping aboard their next vintage voyage. My only disappointment is that I don't have more free time to get actively involved.

So, if someone says gasps when you say you've never played Final Fantasy VI (I know I would), there's almost certainly a reason for that. Try to unearth what the reason is, find some more reasons why people have a place in their hearts for FFVI and then good looking for them with Terra and crew. But do so with emulator, it makes those battles so much faster.

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Blogger David Carlton said...

Yeah, one of the things I was surprised by with the VGC was how annoying I found old games at times. Don't get me wrong, I basically enjoyed most of them; then again, the VGC (despite the name) plays relatively recent games, I'm a bit scared to go further back now. :-(

Funny you should mention FFVI. I gave up on that game when I got to the top of a tower without any save points, and ran into a boss at the top with insta-kill attacks. Whee, that's just what I wanted. (Though I gave up on FFX for somewhat similar reasons; maybe it's just that series...)

March 9, 2010 at 8:21 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@David It's torturous, eh? I want people to play something like Grim Fandango and love it. But wow, coming back to it, I had a hard time with it and I remembered how to solve probably 1/2 of the puzzles. Someone coming into that fresh? Yikes. I can barely imagine.

March 9, 2010 at 10:30 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I love Infocom games #1 but can you imagine trying to explain to ANYONE why they were ever awesome? Also, as you say, they are HARD and required cognitive leaps that no sane person would make. That said, they formed the backbone for a critical piece of my adolescence and so I will <3 them forever.

April 14, 2010 at 11:42 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Chris And that kind of makes me sad too. There's still some great bits to the old Infocom, etc. games, but getting someone to appreciate them is basically impossible. Even the most optimistic would have a hard time Douglas Adams fan to play the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy game.

Anyone can watch old films, but playing old games only becomes increasingly impossible, and not just because of the tech. We can archive games, but we can't archive the experience of playing them.

April 17, 2010 at 9:13 AM  

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