Thursday, March 3, 2011

Random Thoughts - Older Gaming vs. Newer Gaming

So, I picked up and started playing a rather older game a few days ago (I think I'll try to keep it anonymous for now in an attempt to make more conversation for the Weekly Wrap-Up) and managed to finish it off today and it left me fairly conflicted, really.  I like it, but goddamn, do I hate playing it.  And it really got me thinking of a lot of older games that I'd have problems playing today, not because they wouldn't be as good, theme-wise and such (what you're more apt to remember in a game as time goes by) and why that's sort of a thing.  And while I won't really touch on all the issues involved, I do want to touch on a few points that I thought through earlier.

I think the biggest difference between the Newer caste of games and older caste is that, while both attempt to be entertaining above all else (though not necessarily 'fun' in some cases), their approaches to this end vary greatly.  In my opinion, older games tried to sell you their entertainment value through their concept, outside lore (manuals) and charm foremost, which honestly worked for a lot of them.  The more notable example that comes to mind being Mario in Super Mario Bros.  About all there is to it is concept; a plumber (which you wouldn't be able to tell on looks alone) in this weird, trippy world who runs from left to right, eating mushrooms, stomping things and saving a princess.  In the gameplay front, you have running, jumping and shooting fireballs sometimes.  It is, nearly by definition, barebones.

This is by no means me saying that old games are bad because they were often as shallow as a puddle; far from it.  Just that there's no subtle nuances in gameplay, little evolving mechanics and the like in general, leaving your game to sink or swim on whether it's charming and/or entertaining in concept and delivery.  Obviously much of this is from technical limitations, but that's not an excuse, just a general fact of it all.

Of course the problem with issuing broad statements like the one above (aside from generally coming off as a know-it-all which is obviously not my intent) is that there's always ways that the statement is just not true.  The first few Legend of Zelda games being notable exceptions to the "Few evolving mechanics" statement, in that they're -mostly- about evolving mechanics.  Getting new items, new weapons, stronger versions of what you've got already is the name of the game, while also retaining somewhat of the "go for charm and concept" theory I'm placing to Mario and most of the other games from my youth. 

Whereas most older games seem to put concept at the forefront, Newer games tend to focus more on something of a more cinematic feel, trying to ensure that you're entertained constantly.  The setpiece-to-setpiece design of some games is evidence of this, and what some will complain about as games nowaday being "too easy" is further showing of this.  Which, I won't say games are 'too easy' nowadays, just that they are easier for all the right reasons.

Older games, as technically constrained as they were, had to take short-cuts here and there to pad up the difficulty and, at times, the length of the game.  Things that were acceptable back then in terms of methods and amounts of damage the character is able to take, ways the character could die or otherwise fail, and the consequences of death/failure are far different now, again in my opinion for the better.  But that just speaks more to my theory on newer games focusing more on the presentation; being able to take more damage, nearly no OHKs, and ways to make the consequences for death a little less oppressive to progress.

I think it's also shown off in general design in newer games, the concern for presentation, I mean, through gameplay design and the faith developers put in what they create.  This, of course, refers mostly to Open-world games where you're left with the option to make your own Point A and Point B in most circumstances, as there's enough variance and nuance to the existing gameplay to make it possible to do what the developers want you to do without putting the path directly before you.  After playing something of an older platformer and comparing it in my head to newer games with platforming elements (inFamous, Assassin's Creed) the difference is really clear, yet hard to place, to piece out, really.

In the older game I played, every level/area was set up directly as a "go here to go there to go there" type of thing, which clearly beat into my head that yes, I was indeed playing a platformer game where you platformed because it was a platformer.  Point A was clearly defined and the path was as well, so eventually Point B was where you got, the challenge was just ensuring you got to Point B.  Whereas in newer games that have platforming elements, the challenge usually lies in picking your course to get to wherever your Point B is. 

Taking inFamous for an example, say I were to need to get up to the top of a building while being on a shorter building.  If we say that I've got my movement abilities maxed, that gives me quite a few options.  The most linear being, of course, jumping down to street level, running towards the building I need to get up and straight up jumping/climbing it.  Or, depending on the scenery, I could jump up a few other things, grind a neighboring rail/wire towards the building and jump/glide to it.  Or I could just get to a similarly high rooftop and jump from rooftop to rooftop to get there.  Just as long as there is a Point B, there are various ways to get to it.  It's because the gameplay mechanics are so much more advanced that there doesn't need to be a defined route for most of what you need.

Of course, the downside in preferring presentation to crafting this sort of vague, yet charming world/concept is that sometimes you simply can't express what you want, and/or you can't make it entertaining enough.  Most modern shooters that some people would refer to as "Cut-and-paste shooters" or "Bald Space Marine Shooter #1412" suffer from this in that they're so focused on trying (and oftentimes failing) to make this gameplay that has been widely accepted without thinking out the concept well or executing it well enough.  What you end up with is something very shallow and bland, with the dissociation from one element to the other showing as plain as day.  Final Fantasy as a series (more notably the later installments) could definitely be accused of this (not saying one way or another if it's true or not, as that's for another time, of course and I still haven't played XIII) since it's basically the poster-child for my "Presentation is key" theory, focusing rather intensely on graphics and the like, while some would argue the game aspect of it suffers for it.

Overall, I'm not praising one school of thought or damning the other, even if it seems like I might be, as obviously there's a place for both ways of thinking, considering that some older games still are great, while some newer games are as well, for their own reasons.  I was merely considering the differences (in what I've observed/inferred) between old and new game design earlier and thought it might be an interesting article to write up.  Hopefully I don't come off as too preachy or condescending or the like, and presented my views on the pros and cons of what I think both schools of thought were in a clear way even if I'm not right on either count. 

Since, I mean, it's just, like, my opinion maaan.


  1. One of the interesting points you touched upon was the impact of technical limitations on how a game evolves.

    There's a bit of a theory that states that a creative work with a good deal of restrictions requires more work to produce a certain effect- with the extra effort actually improving the product by encouraging innovation or cleverness.

    Take poetry for example. If we're given the rules "The last word has to rhyme", we'd be able to whip up a fairly easy, if unremarkable poem. If we're told to write a -sonnet- however, we have to take into account rhyme (several times in different ways), metre, a particular flow, etc. The sonnet is a lot harder than the poem, but there's a greater chance that the sonnet is gonna be the better work.

    Of course, part of this relies on you -turning your restrictions into an advantage-. Take Hideaki Anno for example when he was worning on Neon Genesis Evangelion. Thanks to his constrained budget, he took one of his restrictions (having to recycle shots to conserve money) and turned it on its head, using mirror shots to establish symbolism or meaning, or just to get a particular point across.

    Now, I'm not the kind of guy who claims old games > new games or whatever. Just by general progress new games will, for me at least, win out (although old games can still occasionally compete). Like Mogs, I think presentation -is- important for a whole plethora of reasons.

    I just think it's possible to present really, really well without having to use ludicrous cash.

  2. Sure, just look at Limbo - absolutely striking, with such constraints placed on itself. Didn't Jack White say that's why The White Stripes only ever used like, three instruments? Because limiting your tools forces you to be more creative?

    And you're right, Mogs, about old games being more "concept" than current ones. The original Ninja Gaiden, for example, would be just another combat-platformer if not for its cover art. Even moreso - look at Metal Gear Solid! The cover art was so informative of the mindset the gamer took into their experience - perhaps because there was so little else, at the time, to inform it.

    I'll be first in line to champion the value of great graphics on the current gen, but often some of the most special games are ones that have this delicious nugget of inspiration at their center.

    Good-but-not-great games like The Saboteur, for example - where their greatest strength is a style, an idea, a romantic vision the game hopes to share with the player.

    That's one of the reasons Red Dead Redemption was such a huge success, I have to think - it was both. It was a Romantic Idea Game and a Polished Triple-A Infinite Budget Game.