It's nice to believe that video games have matured over the past 20 years, and if you look at the kinds of graphics produced on the PlayStation 4, or the stories that come out of Telltale, and squint your eyes, you can manufacture proof for that belief. But games today, in regards to mechanics, sensibilities and representation, are almost identical to one of the first I ever played, Tekken 2, which just turned 20 years old.
When at friends' houses or at parties I've put on Namco's 3D fighter expecting a strictly old-fashioned experience, but I'm always amazed at how fresh it still feels. And that isn't testament to the progressiveness of the game – it simply shows how little this medium has progressed since 1995.
Nina Williams' lingerie and teenage sex appeal ought to be outmoded and embarrassing, but women in video games are still fashioned in exactly the same way, like posters. Only the barest efforts are made now to give them complexity or humanity, or at least disguise the fact that game-makers couldn't care less about women, and most of these fail anyway.
The opening shot of Nina in a cocktail bar, crossing stockinged legs and throwing back fetishistically rendered blonde hair, despite being 20 years old, is the most limpid summing up of modern games' ideas about women that I can think of. We've now got conciliatory bullshit like Tomb Raider and Mirror's Edge, but women as far as games are concerned are still an oddity, non-men and therefore non-human, to be treated not as people but either objects for sex or precious, unspoiled virgins.
Like the man watching Nina in that bar, trying to remember the chat up line that will successfully overcome and ply her strange female brain, game-makers are simply unable to see women as equal to themselves. The games industry will attempt to trick, assuage and seduce its female audience, anything to avoid actually talking to women – and representing them – as if they're people, and you could see it in Tekken 2 and can sure as hell see it now.
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Each character in Tekken 2 has an insipid and base story, all orbiting the same dull theme of revenge, but it's not a problem because it's a game expressly and honestly disinterested in writing. It's today's ostensible "narrative" games, equally anodyne and steeped in fantasy, but carrying the flag of a new era in video game writing, that are the headache.
With the exception of a few placatory, flawed in different ways efforts, and Actual Sunlight, Depression Quest and Choice: Texas, three truly brilliantly written experiences, video game writing today is as empty and irrelevant as it was in Tekken 2. But the now is that nobody will admit it, for fear of betraying the ideal we've come to believe in, that video games are a wonderful artistic frontier.
In Tekken 2 I see action movie cops, exaggerated fighting men, barely dressed fantastical women, robots, demons and monsters. I see violence without context. And in today's games I see the exact same things, presented without irony and extending to genres beyond the excusable, allowed to be narratively laissez-faire beat 'em up. I see daydreams instead of insights, simplicity instead of complexity and a wilful avoidance of book learning, lest it intercede on overestimated childish whimsy. In regards to stories, I feel I may as well have stopped bothering with video games after Tekken 2, one of the first I ever played, which is to say that although it's aged and mechanics heavy, it remains a narrative opponent to plenty of games today.
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It's a good game, and none of the problems discussed so far are inherent to Tekken 2, which is more a reflection of how small an amount of artistic ground games have covered in the last two decades. But I wish I'd played something else first. If I had children, or was otherwise introducing someone to gaming for the first time, I wouldn't start with one that was about fighting, and so entirely about fighting. I wouldn't start with a game where reflexes, pressing buttons and understanding mechanics were important – I wouldn't set the bar that low. With Tekken 2 and other PlayStation games like it as my earliest touchstones, it's taken years to unteach myself a false doctrine: that video games and video game makers should concentrate on mechanics.
I'd have liked to have played Actual Sunlight when I was five, or even Kentucky Route Zero. I'd have liked my first mouthful of solid food, the one on which I'd base and judge all subsequent mouthfuls, to have been better tasting and more nutritious, since it would have given me a better palette at a younger age. But I played Tekken 2, a good game in the derogatory sense, first, and as a result – and like far too many game-makers – I subsequently spent a lot of my life looking at games through a very narrow window, not considering whether they were more than toys and getting enthusiastic for the wrong things.
In the 20 years since Tekken 2 was released video games look as if they've changed a lot, but they haven't. Narratively they continue to circle the drain of cheap fantasy, mechanics are considered still more important than the other game-making disciplines, and gender representations haven't budged an inch. We speak optimistically about them, and praise them in our own defence, but they've progressed either timidly and recklessly or not progressed at all. The Devil character in Tekken 2 is evil, while the Angel character is good, and looks pure and pretty. But they're just a palette swap of each other, and have the exact same moves and abilities – and in video games in general, I quite often feel that only appearances change.
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