We're in the New Golden Age of Video Games
Forget the retro-mania of <i>Tomb Raider</i> and <i>GoldenEye 007</i>; the "classics" could never compare to what we're capable of today.
Much like many a man of my (rapidly nearing middle) age, I'm partial to nostalgia. And as someone whose childhood was coloured by video games, I'm rarely so content as when leafing through the pages of retrospective-focused publications, poring over pixels and remembering the tinny music as it fizzed from my bedroom's shitty 14" telly.
But something troubles me as I revel in my memories – the suggestion that anything that has been in gaming culture, which is no more, represents a distinct, established "golden age". It's there on the back of the most recent Retro Gamer annual: "discover the golden age of gaming".
This packaging of a particular period as representing something never to be bettered can make a sort of sense in other disciplines – for example, as Nas's Illmatic album marked its 20th anniversary in 2014, pages online and off bulged with praise for hip-hop's golden age of the mid-1990s. I spoke to rap duo Shabazz Palaces about it, whose Tendai Maraire spoke of the same time being "the blackest era of drugs and death and murder", while also adding:
"Someone from New York was never going to sound like someone from Florida, or Atlanta. That distinctiveness is kinda gone now. Today, there is more uniformity, and a more pronounced homogenisation. So it was a 'golden era' – but there was a lot of bad shit going on that nobody would want to happen again."
Of course, there was great creativity at play among those programming for systems like the Spectrum, the Commodore 64, the NES and more – otherwise we'd never have had Elite, Back to Skool or Football Manager (which began in 1982). But from what I recall, many a hit followed in familiar footsteps, echoing archetypes already established as commercially successful.
So: Wolfenstein 3D begat Doom before the first-person shooter genre exploded into a cacophony of clones; an abundance of side-scrolling platformers followed the format laid down by the mascot-level likes of Mario, Dizzy and Alex Kidd (alas, poor Zool, nobody knew you well); and several role-play adventures stuck close to the fantasy of the Zelda series. Columns mightn't have been Tetris, quite, but the influence of Alexey Pajitnov's Soviet puzzler is undeniable.
Homogenisation was rife in the 1980s and 1990s, outside of the arcades – and to think of this period as a golden age is to be blinkered to the absolute dross that filled shelves beside the fraction of bona-fide originals that have carried through as "classics" to this day. And with games development tied so tightly to technological progress – from the increased processing power of the home platforms to the controllers employed to best experience these digital distractions – it's a practice aside from music, from film and theatre, novel writing and oil painting. Which is why those same "classics" just don't cut it in the 21st century – the technical limitations of the period tear a game like the N64's GoldenEye 007 apart, its seams split wide, its appeal compromised compared to today's biggest shooters: Destiny, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Far Cry 4 and so on.
I'd argue that, right now, video games are at the cusp of a new transition, another positive shift in public perception. And that's entirely down to the wonderful variety that the industry can offer to its audience – through myriad devices both games-exclusive and multipurpose, a fantastic array of game types and challenge levels to suit all. Gaming today is the healthiest it's ever been, and if we're going to assign the banner of "golden age" to any era in gaming history, now might be a good time to pin up the bunting and get a cake baked: 2015 could be amazing.
We're past, for the most part, any idea that video games can be damaging – studies have time and again concluded that violent on-screen action is not responsible for children going postal. If you spend eight hours a day in front of your favourite MMO, chances are that it will affect your health – but the same could be said of anyone binging on HBO box sets or locking themselves away from the rest of the world to read Cyrus the Great in its original 17th century French.
Games are becoming a prominent part of contemporary culture – if they're not already an important influence on other parts of the media, and how we all live our lives. (Which they are.) Celebrated TV shows like Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror are drawing on gaming for inspiration, likewise the Tom Cruise movie of 2014, Edge of Tomorrow. Gamification infects the everyday on a global scale, a phenomenon alluded to by Pennsylvania punks Pissed Jeans in the 2009 song "Pleasure Race", with frontman Matt Korvette shrieking:
"Doesn't matter what my age / I've always run a pleasure race / Walking, riding, driving home / it's all the same, my thoughts don't change / Make my plans around the race / priorities have to be made / Got no time for other things / so leave a message, I'm afraid / And I won't let anything in my way."
I may have got a word or two wrong there, but the point is that here's a man whose daily existence is broken into challenges – or, rather, defined by a single one that takes precedent over all other responsibilities. The lines might be more metaphorical than not, but they nevertheless illustrate how we all race ourselves through life: by cutting time from a journey, making incremental improvements to dinner, finding a better lover, counting calories after a Christmas full of chocolate slobbery.
All of these little tests feature in the innumerable free-to-play mobile games choking the App Store – the kind where you can pay your way through, or wait for new options to unlock over time, or simply grind on through as best you can without submitting to any sneaky microtransactions. The daily challenge: today, I will take that tower, I will storm that beach, I will beat that score; I will make it to work in time for coffee and five minutes of Facebooking before the boss comes in from the gym. Gaming culture has become commonplace, mainstream – "in the White House", as Volume and Thomas Was Alone developer Mike Bithell remarked to me recently – and now the games makers are perfectly positioned to respond to that with titles that defy conventions and exceed expectations.
Music and movies have evolved beside technology, sure enough, but not in the same way that games have – and you might even say that, as time's passed, so restrictions have actually been imposed on the making of albums, as CD capacity and, after that, compressed digital qualities compromised the ultimate vision of the artists behind the audio. Not so games, which have grown in scale as the raw muscle of the machines they run on has increased.
The sheer, unprecedented power of today's home consoles (by which I mean the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One – sorry, Wii U fans, but Ninty's wonderful little box isn't quite the same beast) is allowing developers to create virtual worlds like they've never done before – whole universes, in some cases – and 2015 will see the release or more games in the vein of 2014's highly rated Dragon Age: Inquisition: deeply detailed adventures where any and all distant horizons can be reached, one way or another.
One only has to look at CD Projekt RED's forthcoming third entry in its Witcher series, Wild Hunt, and to the procedurally generated exploration of Hello Games' No Man's Sky to see how the open worlds/galaxies of 2015 are going to be the greatest ever realised. Even titles presenting a more linear passage from beginning to end are going to occupy spaces that previous generation hardware couldn't come close to building: Rocksteady's concluding chapter of its Batman trilogy, Arkham Knight, will be set in a Gotham of a scale unlike any previously seen in a video game, five times the size of 2011's Arkham City; while the Victoriana grime of From Software's Dark Souls follow-up Bloodborne looks good enough to stick to the underside of your boot.
Nintendo seems set for a great 2015, with new Zelda and Star Fox titles due alongside interesting twists on the familiar Yoshi and Kirby franchises, and a diminutive winner already out in the wild in the form of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, a gentle but addictive puzzler which slipped out just before Christmas.
Nintendo is guilty of leaning on nostalgia – on this industry idea of a "golden age" – to populate several of its new titles with characters we recognise from our childhoods. But the company's also got a few fresh creations up its sleeve for 2015: Splatoon is a family-friendly multiplayer shooter that I fell for in a big way at 2014's EGX in London, while rare third-party exclusive Devil's Third, designed by Dead Or Alive creator Tomonobu Itagki, moves the system away from all-ages appeal, following Platinum Games' sensational Bayonetta 2 as a strictly adults-only experience.
There are too many potentially incredible games scheduled for 2015 to highlight in detail, but for the sake of simply throwing a few titles out there, I can't wait to wrap these thumbs and fingers around: Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain; Square Enix's new-gen-only Final Fantasy XV; the pixel-art beauty of Hyper Light Drifter; the Xbox One-exclusive 1930s cartoon throwback Cuphead; the bucolic apocalypse of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture; and French studio Dontnod's new multi-part time-travel mystery Life Is Strange.
Emotions will be piqued in 2015, with Life Is Strange and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture likely to be among the releases most successfully tugging on the heartstrings. Gaming has come far enough from simple score chases and princess rescuing to comprise a necessary catharsis for makers, evidenced by the narratives of the OCD-addressing Neverending Nightmares and 2012's Papo & Yo, which articulated through interactivity the suffering experienced by designer Vander Caballero at the hands of his alcoholic father.
This year, That Dragon, Cancer will allow strangers into the life of developers Ryan and Amy Green, who lost their son Joel in March of 2014 to cancer. The player will have to care for the fading child at the centre of the game. I don't know exactly how it'll be received; I half expect to read a spread of "it's not really a game" comments from those idiotic enough to perceive video games as mere toys rather than potential vessels for something substantially more (they can be toys, too, but let's no longer kid ourselves that they're just playthings). I do know that I want to play it – but perhaps "play" is the wrong term. I want to travel through it, to see its sights and hear its sounds and reflect on all that I'm lucky to have, and what my family means to me.
I feel that 2015 is the year that games can ascend to the next level of recognition among those who don't persistently play them – and if that was to happen, then we can move away from the idea that gamers are consumers (so there goes your "movement", GamerGate), and that we're all part of an audience, albeit of a decidedly more interactive form of entertainment than anything else.
I think of consumers as people buying white goods, or domain names, or a bag of spuds. I don't think of cinemagoers as consumers – I address them as audience members. And that's the way gaming now needs to go in order to find itself beside these other escapes: into film, fiction, fantastical canvases and tantalising stage productions. We are watching, and more, making our own stories within provided parameters and often reshaping them. Whether something is a "real game" or not shouldn't be a factor, or even a debate: if I can use my hands, mouth, feet, eyes and/or ears to become a part of this experience before me, I am playing a video game.
This is something I've been thinking about since reading Cara Ellison's recent column for Eurogamer, " The Poetics of Space". In it, she refers to her mother commenting on designer Ed Key's colourful walkabout of 2013, Proteus: "it's not a game".
Ellison was dismayed: " Proteus was different to her. It meant something else other than a game to her. She loved it so it was not a game." Which, actually, is cause for celebration – here we are, edging towards a state where the games of today are wholly alien to people who last picked up a pad years ago, maybe during this supposed "golden age" of gaming. Games can be whatever we want them to be. Games is not Mario or Sonic or a half-tuck or a raided tomb. Games is not the BFG in the face of a Baron of Hell, or the fastest lap around Daytona USA's International Speedway. Okay, it is those things – but so much more, too.
Games, in 2015, can and will mean many different things. Perhaps by the end of the year we'll all be playing in blissful isolation, virtual reality headsets supplying all our sensory needs. Or we'll be down the pub, playing Mario Kart between pints, a big screen showing competitive gaming after the football matches. But however we play this year, we should do so with eyes on the future. Mindless celebrations of dead technology will always hamstring the pursuit of new heights of artistry in an industry that, with the huge possibilities afforded by current hardware, is only limited by a lack of imagination. Dream golden dreams, and let's leave the yellowing systems of our past where they belong: in the loft, beneath the guest bedding.