I’m a curmudgeon. I find solace in being a curmudgeon. The broad panorama of film, television, and video games exemplifies my curmudgeonry better than most other things. Particularly with games, I find myself unable or unwilling to progress past the sixth generation of consoles (PS2, Gamecube, Xbox, and Dreamcast) in any sort of impactful way. Sure, I’ve dabbled in some of the larger achievements of modern titles, but these are the exceptions to the rule; my rule being that with each passing year, game design and development continues to be dumbed down in effort to cater to an increasingly massive audience. Thus, I cling to my old NES, SNES, N64, PS1, PS2, and Genesis titles the way your grandfather clings to his, “Now, I’m not racist BUT…” prompts at family gatherings. On to a few of my old man points to clarify my racism, der, my aversion to modern games:
1) On Screen Tutorials
Somewhere around the turn of the century, game developers began to rely less on teaching players how to play their games and more on telling players how to play their games. There’s perhaps no better example of this approach than on screen tutorials. Let’s take a look at something like Arkham Knight, a game that I admit has some fun segments and is wildly well received, but makes very little effort in letting players discover things for themselves.
Jesus fucking Christ almighty, just look at this shit! This is just one of MANY built in tutorials that explain, in detail, all of Batman’s abilities in the game. You see all those green hexagons circled around that blue hexagon? Well, there’s FOUR of those blue hexagons (each one representing one of the four main modes of gameplay) and each of them has a bunch of green hexagons (each one representing a specific ability or action that Batman can execute) for you to perform. It’s a literal block of instructional text accompanied by a goddamn video.
One of the most rewarding things for me, as a gamer, is that moment when I’m able to understand and use the game’s mechanics and design to progress forward. It’s that moment when I put the game’s pieces together using my own volition that makes me want to keep playing. Take a look at perhaps the most iconic first level of any video game ever:
The respect I have for this design can not be overstated. Shigeru Miyamoto, and you know, some other Japanese guys, knew what the fuck they were doing when they created this. First, look at where Mario is placed on the screen. He’s all the way to the left, indicating that he needs to move right to progress. That’s teaching me. Next, look at those blinking blocks, they sure stand out! Maybe I can do something to them that will affect my gameplay…oh! Let me try one of the two buttons I have and WOWZA I can get items from them by jumping! That’s teaching me.
Now you can of course argue that modern games are way more complex and as such, are deserving of in depth instructions via on screen tutorials. And I would say that’s a half truth. Yes, games are more complex now in that worlds are bigger, graphics are light years ahead of where they were even a decade ago, and they are largely cinematic in approach. But that doesn’t mean that clever mechanics need to be replaced and streamlined with tutorials. Heaven forbid if developers actually need to think more creatively about teaching players to unravel shit on their own!
2) Sequences That Trick you into Thinking you Have Control
What is it with these parts in games that look like they belong in a movie and you’re asked to press a button repeatedly to get to the next screen? You know exactly what I’m talking about:
Um…is this fun? No really, is this inventive and enjoyable? I’m literally being told what to do and when to do it. Just because the camera angle changes and my character is caught in a compromised position, doesn’t mean that I feel the same way. This feels like a step in a formula to get to the next step in a formula. It’s going through the motions masked in impressive graphics. I can applaud the idea of breaking up the monotony of the dominant story, but this is a lazy way of doing that. Every time I get to one of these moments in games I eye roll accordingly. Then I need to catch the early bird special and take a bath in epsom salt because those kids STILL won’t get off my lawn!
What’s more frustrating is that this method of interrupting the main course of gameplay can be really cool when executed well. And fuck it, I’ll use a somewhat modern game to help illustrate my point, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.
You see that? That’s a questionnaire you need to answer in your therapist’s office. While most of the game revolves around you searching for your lost daughter in nightmarish world (literally) there are intermittent sessions with your therapist in which he administers various psychological tests. Your responses to these tests determine one of many directions the game can take you, how characters look, how the plot is impacted, etc. That’s fucking cool! And creative! That’s worth interrupting the game because it has an actual impact ON the game. Take my money Konami! Can’t wait for that next Silent Hill game! Oh…I forgot. Fuck Konami.
3) Replacing Difficulty with Time Played
If you grew up playing games from the 8-64 bit era, you remember some insanely unforgiving titles: Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, Ghosts n’ Goblins, Mega Man, Battletoads, etc. Even the most accessible titles like Mario, Zelda, and Final Fantasy had their rage inducing rough patches. This was the norm in gaming. When I go back and beat most good retro games, I feel a sense of accomplishment not so much because of the time invested in it (some of those NES titles can be beaten in under an hour!) but because of the difficulty I overcame. I find that with most modern games, even the good ones, the opposite rings true.
Studios today seem hellbent on releasing titles that require 30, 50, even 100 hours of overall gameplay. That’s…excessive. And because it’s such an excessive amount of invested time, bullshit implementations are made in the forms of side quests, collectibles, achievements gathered, etc., to delay you from feeling wholly accomplished. They’re distractions to keep you playing and yes, sometimes they can be fun, but I don’t exactly feel proud of myself for finding all 50 spaceship pieces in GTA V. That’s not to say that elongated gameplay is synonymous with bad gameplay, but the longer you stretch a game’s timeline, the more likely it is that you’ll fuck up and/or bore the player.
Video games are many things for people. For some, the modern day approach of ‘experiencing’ a game is a more worthwhile experience than being challenged by one. So long as the game engrosses you, who’s to say that retro games are by large better than modern ones?
Me. I say. Now pull up your pants before closing the door!