How Video Games Grew Up When I Wasn’t Looking

There was a time when I loved video games.  I subscribed to EGM and EGM2.  I trolled the nascent World Wide Web looking for video game news.  I read IGN religiously.  The most powerful systems out there were the Nintendo 64 and the Playstation.  Then I discovered girls and dropped the subscriptions.  Most of the video games of that time period were still very arcade-y in nature.  Or they were platformers like Mario or Tomb Raider that had the flimsiest excuse for a plot.  Yo, the princess got kidnapped again.  Run through a bunch of levels to get to her.  No exposition or reason for anything going on.  You just needed to complete these tasks to unlock the final boss fight.  Of course, games were starting to have cut scenes between levels to keep the narrative going.  And I remember the great FMV flame wars that caused.  Were you just working to unlock expository videos?  This was better than the Mario case, but there was still just a small correlation between what you were doing to get through the level and what was going on in the story.  The biggest exception was the movie tie-in game, but those tended to have gameplay elements that were full of suck.

I knew that real time strategy games, simulation games, and turn-based strategy games were fun, so I kept up with those, which were primarily played on the computer.  And I never got into the first person shooter genre, so I was living in a bubble.  When we got to college, I convinced the girlfriend (who became the wife) to get a gamecube so we could play Mario Kart Double Dash (after she’d gotten hooked on the N64 version via emulators).  And I tried out Mario Sunshine and hated it.  Then we got into what would eventually be called casual games – Mario Party, Harvest Moon, etc.  And, as far as I knew, Square’s Final Fantasy series was still the place to go for deep video games.  I bought a Playstation used and then got a Playstation 2 from my future brother-in-law.  And I bought all of the Final Fantasy games, although school kept me from playing most of them until graduation.

And even after graduation I continued to stick to the Civilization and Age of Empire series.  I bought a Wii when it came out and it appeared that video games still had not evolved.  Mario was still Mario.  And most games seemed to be casual games.  I didn’t see the point in having an Xbox or Playstation 3 unless I wanted to play Rock Band or Guitar Hero.  Then, something changed.

First, Dan gifted me Portal on this new thing called Steam. This game was a strange mashup of the puzzle games I enjoyed (I never tire of Tetris) and an FPS.  And it had a story, an incredible story.  Then, somehow – I can’t remember anymore, Dan got me to listen to the podcast.  For the first month or so of listening to it, I was wondering why I was doing this.  Just like when I used to subscribe to EGM, I couldn’t afford to buy all the games they mentioned nor did I care about them most of the time.  But one of the hosts was determined to make sure Little Big Planet was a hit game.  And so I bought a Playstation 3 simply to play Little Big Planet and Fat Princess, which I’d heard about from one of Danielle’s coworkers.  Little Big Planet is very innovative in bringing realistic physics to platformers, but it’s fundamentally not too different from the original Mario.  And Fat Princess only has a story as an excuse as to why you’re force-feeding some princesses and trying to kidnap them from each other.  But I bought my Playstation at Costco, so it came with another game: Uncharted.

On a whim (actually a LOT of “encouragement” from Dan), I decided to check out Uncharted.  The first thing I noticed was that video games had finally advanced to the point where FMVs were no longer needed.  Cut scenes used the game assets and often moved seamlessly in and out of gameplay.  This helped me not get pulled out of the game when it was time for exposition.  And the game actually had a story that evolved as the game went on.  And the levels didn’t feel like pointless platforming.  In other words, the world was real and consistent.  Bad guys didn’t just walk back and forth waiting randomly and every place I could jump to made sense.  There weren’t just floating sections of floor for me to walk on.  And the playing the game feels like it’s walking right on the line between movies and games.  Then I borrowed Arkham Assylum, which was perfect at doing one of the things video games are supposed to do (at least certain genres): make me feel that I was Batman.  And it wasn’t contrived like the games of the Super Nintendo age.  I swear our kids will think we were on crack when they see the types of games we played back them.

Then came the Assassin’s Creed series.  Again, I only checked this game out because a podcast kept talking it up.  This game is the pinnacle of current game evolution.  While there will always be a place for “gamey” games like Tetris, Mario, etc, sometimes I want a more complex experience.  Assassin’s Creed essentially does away with all the gamey elements of games.  In the old days, you have a series of bad guys to fight or step on as you make your way to the level “boss”.  In Assassin’s Creed, the world is, well, The World.  So most of the inhabitants don’t give a crap about you unless you mess around with them.  In fact, I often made it to the target without killing any guards or interacting with anyone else.  And, not only does it have great gameplay, but it also has a compelling story.  I want to know what happens to Mr Miles and what happened to his ancestors.

And I recently started Mass Effect.  It’s too early for me to assess exactly how well this game performs, but I can already tell there’s a rich fiction for the universe the game inhabits.  The Codex is full of “historical” data that fills in in the background and it’s clear this universe is as real as the Star Wars or Star Trek Extended Universes.  And I suddenly found myself overwhelmed by just how far games had come.  They’d gone from mindless entertainment where you didn’t care about the characters to works of fiction just as engaging as any novel or movie; where I cared about characters and felt happiness, sadness, and anger over how they were treated in the game.  At this point it’s clear to me that anyone who doesn’t see individual video games as capable of being art on the same level as other works of fiction is either: a) trolling or b) An old guy who wants this newfangled art off his lawn.  (In the same way that artists of the time refused to acknowledge photography as art when it was first introduced)