When I’m watching recent trailers for games like Deus Ex 3 or Dead Space 2 I am both impressed by the visuals and the cinematics, yet somewhat put off by one simple thing: these trailers don’t make me think of a video game. They could be trailers for a movie or TV show–they utilize the same tricks of the trade, the same juxtaposition of brooding monologues or music against a rapidly changing series of scenes, edited together. They often don’t show gameplay. They often use non-game music, or maybe a particularly grandiose track from the game’s score. But they don’t make me think of a video game–as I imagine video games to be.
Gaming has become much more cinematic as technology has evolved, and more power to it. Games look better now, certainly, and there are many truly amazing spectacle moments, such as the Stage Fight in Alan Wake or scaling the destroyed train in Uncharted 2, and these are examples of a great blending of beautiful graphics and Hollywood-esque dramatic flair with engrossing and hard-hitting gameplay. It lets you feel as though you really are doing whatever it is you are doing on screen. But a part of me is victim to that crippling industry curse of nostalgia, and so I wonder at times if games have lost a bit of their identity.
Look at Anamanaguchi.
THAT is the sound of games. Something you could never imagine seeing in a movie or any other medium. An artistic blend of primitive sounds for primitive visuals, yet stellar gameplay. When I hear bands like Crystal Castles, I think of games–when I listen to the soundtrack for Alan Wake, I don’t. Music in games has always been important, but there’s more to a game soundtrack than it just sounding good. When games were stuck in the 16-bit era, games had an identity–every pixel and animation was unique, imitating nothing but previous games, while at the same time invoking unique art styles or cartoons or even attempting to replicate real life. Pixels were a paint all of their own, and talented artists who had no histories to draw upon instead had to craft something truly different, using tools untested and unproven, and the result was a collection of some of the most, if not THE most memorable games of all time.
Look at Megaman. Megaman is one of the oldest and most enduring (if maybe the most overplayed and oversold) franchises in gaming history. Anamanaguchi takes great inspiration from the stage themes for these games, the strange, off-kilter, synthesized Midi tracks that were all they could fit into the cartridges. You take one look at Megaman, any old Megaman, and you know it is a game. You immediately recognize everything a game has: a life bar, side-scrolling, pixel art, Midi music, enemies and power-ups. It’s the absolute quintessential game experience–a test of a gamer’s skill and reflexes as he or she must win against insurmountable odds and forge the adventure forward. The plot relies on the gamer completing the levels–whether the story ends happily is entirely in the hands of the player, and all that transpires on-screen is because of your actions.
Modern games are not bad, and I don’t want you to think that this is a criticism of modern games in anything more than maybe aesthetics. This is really just me being nostalgic for a time when games had their own identity–when the medium was unique and vibrant, more than just a simulator or pastiche.
The above screenshot might as well be an actual gameplay shot. Or how about this:
Games have only gotten better over the years. Yes, there’s tons of derivative games on the market and, yes, many would say that the market stifles innovation, but games play better, look better, and generally have better stories and writing. But I can’t help but wonder if the term “video game” really means much nowadays. I wonder if games have an identity anymore. 3-D models are now the norm, but 3-D models don’t invoke the same degree of…I want to say charm, but perhaps the better term is “uniqueness”. Old 3-D graphics, like Silent Hill 1, look horrible in today’s day and age, whereas old NES graphics, like Megaman up above, still hold up, despite their age and the jutting pixels. 2-D has aged incredibly well, all things considered, and it’s nice to see it isn’t completely dead and that pixel art can still be seen even in modern games like Call of Duty: Black Ops. Back in the day, games simply had a look that was wholly and completely their own. Now, that’s less the case.
There are many games that have a distinctive appearance, of course. Many modern Nintendo franchises retain something of their 8 and 16-bit sensibilities even in their more modern offerings–probably because the Wii might as well be a 16-bit console (no no, I kid, Wii games look very nice for 5 years ago). Sonic as well, though god forbid they’ve done everything they can to make Sonic as anime as possible. For a realistic-looking game, Assassin’s Creed also has a rather distinct visual style, integrated into the story as well by the Animus and the means through which you are actually viewing the past. It’s actually a sterling example of explaining gameplay mechanics in a way that furthers the story and immersion, rather than requiring gamers to ignore it in favor thereof. But the traditional trappings of games are falling by the wayside. Scores are gone from everything but arcade titles or those trying to BE arcade styles, health bars are being replaced by red screens and blood spatters, and music is becoming traditional, utilizing orchestras or heavy guitars and all that business. And it is good, yes.
But a part of me can’t help but sigh a little, as nostalgia creeps into my cynical mind, when I listen to the Scott Pilgrim Videogame soundtrack and I remember how games looked, and how games sounded. I still think it’s good. I still think these older titles hold up in aesthetics and sound, and while I’m not one who goes on about how older games are much better than current ones (They aren’t, for the most part) I do feel that older games were more…game-like. They had a feel,a voice, a look all of their own, and of all the casualties of innovation that we’ve shed a tear for, this may be the only one that really strikes me. I don’t want a return to health bars and three lives, score counters or anything like that. I don’t feel the trappings are as necessary to a game’s identity moreso than the feel of the experience is.
Gaming is going through a tough adolescence. It was a prodigal child, ambitious and impressive, full of attitude and vigor, and underneath the corporate manufacturing process, the demographic-fueled imitation industry that grips game development like an infant with a rattle, I feel that there remains a potent lust to make games their own again. Give gaming back its identity, its sense of self. How can we do this without sacrificing variety or innovation? That I don’t know. How can we do this while still pushing graphics engines as far as they can go? I don’t know. What I do know is, there must be a way. Maybe someone can tell me. Maybe someone will make a game that shows me.
For now, I’ll toast my nostalgia and listen to my midi soundtracks and let out a single wistful sigh. Then I’ll plug in Bioshock 2 and see how many Splicers I can get in one Electro-bolt chain.