The games industry is a wonderful place that constantly pushes boundaries, delivers fresh new ideas and innovates wildly on a yearly basis. So it's always confused me to see a clutch of gamers mouthing off about the hobby, constantly, as if it were some burnt-out car by the side of a forgotten road—a wreck beyond repair, of little use to anyone, and quickly losing relevance. I don't get it.
Sure, in today's industry we're susceptible to broken game launches like Batman: Arkham Knight on PC, DDoS attacks by dickhead kids who mistakenly think they're heroes, annual franchises dictated by focus group, and a glut of DLC rammed daily down the throats of consumers from day one.
It could be better, sure, but it's not exactly the Third World, is it? "Oh no, Bloodborne load times are slightly longer than the norm—quick friends, make haste to the forums and social networks to complain about how Sony owes us something more!" Give me a break. Now, I know what some of you must be thinking, so no: I'm not saying all gamers are like this. Repeat: Not. All. Gamers. Are. Like. This.
But let's rewind and put things into perspective a little here. On one hand you have players who love putting this industry to the sword for no justifiable reason, and on the other you have the retro fanatics who harp on about how modern games are terrible when compared to what they played as kids. Opinions are personal of course, but if you really want to make a case for how damn good you all have it today, you only need to go back to the 1980s and early 90s.
Back in the 1990s we would have literally emptied our bowels into our Umbros if you told us that, one day, games were going to look as good as Bloodborne and only take a minute or two to load for the privilege. It was common in the 80s to whack a game cassette into your ZX Spectrum (or Commodore 64, if your parents loved you) and wait a full half-hour for the bastard to load.
Yes, half an hour. I'm dead serious. You'd press play and mute the television to avoid the hideous sound of the data processing—it sounded like someone scrubbing a cheese grater over an already irritable cat's nutsack—and then you'd go off and do something to fritter away the time.
I have fond, yet hazy memories of loading games on Sunday nights after my homework was done, and filling that time by watching TV over dinner. I'd wolf down some meat and veg and shotgun my Sunny D while watching a weeknight gameshow—all in the time it took Fantasy Land Dizzy to load up.
Or did it load? Sometimes you'd return to the computer to find that the hardware had mangled up your tape, or it had failed at around the 29-minute mark just to really fuck with you. It was enough to bring your piss to a boil, and all you could do was either try again or admit defeat. Waiting two minutes for more Bloodborne is nothing when you've danced with cassette games. Trust me on this one.
But at least games weren't online, so that meant there was no chance of your network of choice getting hacked or being hit by server failures. That's definitely a good thing. I mean, can you imagine playing the 1983 Spectrum hit Chuckie Egg online with other people? The chat box would be all like, "U COLLECT EGGS LIKE SH1T M8. UR LADDER GAME IS W4NK LOL." Kill them. With fire.
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Take a second to think about how revolutionary online gaming is: you have millions of gamers all connected who are able to play together, regardless of proximity, at any time they choose. We'd have burned you at the stake for suggesting this just a few decades ago, and thanks to that shell suit you were rocking in 1988 you'd roast up nicely.
Fine, online gaming goes wrong sometimes, and yes you may feel cheated out of your subscription fee, but it's all too easy—especially if you're a digital native—to overlook just how wondrous today's technology is. Some of you reading this won't know the misery of loading up a match of Command & Conquer or ChuChu Rocket! on a 56k line, and that wasn't even that long ago, relatively speaking.
It was awe-inspiring enough that we overlooked the tedium of it all, but today, when a game runs at 30 frames per second instead of 60, it's enough to make some gamers lose their minds and come out with foamy-mouthed tirades against the developers. I remember the time when games used to suffer crippling slow-down because there were four characters on the screen instead of three.
But those old games—as cumbersome and trying as they could be—had a simplistic magic about them. Did you feel betrayed by the original Mass Effect 3 ending, the one that asked you to use your imagination for once and make up your own mind about what happened? The one that cleverly left it open so that you could put your own, personal spin on the finale?
Try playing a retro game with no story or narrative at all, where the only additional depth given is that which you make up in your own head. Did Alex Kidd have reams of exposition and cutscenes explaining every single insufferable detail of his world and backstory? No, but it was insane fun creating those stories for yourself as a kid.
Now we have tome-worthy games that display sheer narrative mastery and penmanship that heightens the play experience into the stratosphere. The Last of Us and The Walking Dead are two examples of games by studios that hired real writers to sculpt actual worlds, believable characters, and emotion-grabbing turns. In the 1980s some developers gave the writing job to coders who cobbled together a story in a spare five minutes on their lunch break in exchange for a few cigarettes.
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The craft of making games has improved dramatically in such a short space of time, but something is still often missing from the soul of today's industry—call it heart, call it a lost sense of wonder or magic. Whatever it was, it's gone now in extremis, given way to short tempers and even shorter attention spans—where games look stunning, yet the masses pick up on every minor flaw and demand their money back with real hatred in their voices.
I was a gamer in the late-80s and, while those fond memories will follow me to the grave, I feel lucky to have witnessed the passing of time to get to this point, to see just how truly incredible things have become. When I was ten years old, reading the latest issue of Sega Power before school, with the Super Mario Bros. Super Show on the TV, I used to wonder how amazing games would be when I was a grown-up.
I used to draw my own Super Mario Bros. 3 levels on graph paper stolen from school, and wished that I could play them in real life. Super Mario Maker comes out soon, which will let me do just that, and that's an incredible thing indeed. As dumb as it may sound, that makes me feel like a kid again. Equally, anyone can download creation tools like Unity, GameMaker or Garry's Mod today, right now, and make whatever sort of game they want assuming they've got enough time, patience, and practice.
The present we live in now was hard to predict back then. I simply couldn't comprehend the photo-real worlds, slick gameplay, and immersing narratives we have in 2015—it felt space age when Mario was still rendered in 8bit pixels, something I would never see before I died of old age. But most importantly, I imagined just how happy and blown away I, and all the other gamers I knew (and the many millions more that I didn't), would be by those experiences.
I'm older and wiser now, and it's disappointing to see that many gamers aren't happy at all. This industry gives its audience the chance to go anywhere, be anyone, and achieve the impossible, if only for a few hours a day, and it still isn't enough.
Oh, what I wouldn't give to let you see through that ten year old's eyes and show you what I used to think this point in time would look like. Then you'd realize just how good you really have it.
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