Old is New and New is Old

4 01 2010

I play a lot of video-games and I try to come up with answers to my questions. I don’t always succeed. Some of my questions are so basic that they flirt with uselessness. Some are probably so basic they’ve gone past flirting and onto a passionate, wet, and messy romance. I ask silly questions. For instance: Why do we play video-games? For instance: What kind of a narrative do they mean to tell? Most frequently: Where can the narrative be found?

My answer to the last question will not explode any brains: the narrative in a video-game is found in the environment. This can be true of film, but the player’s interaction with the environment in a video-game has to be of a different ilk. Otherwise, overused cinematic environments would not be so compelling in their video-game forms. I’m now going through System Shock II. Its abandoned space station is not exactly the last great literary discovery of the twentieth century. A forgettable film like Event Horizon had already done it. Even down to the audio/video logs! And we can’t forget Alien, which itself was playing with old haunted house archetypes. Why is System Shock II so compelling, then? And it’s not just a retread of the abandoned space station which is already a retread of the abandoned haunted house or abandoned ghost ship: we also have the ‘Artificial Intelligence gone bonkers’ motif from countless science-fiction stories. But it works better, or differently, or more interestingly in a video-game.

As far as the Artificial Intelligence is concerned, I already discussed the reasons why its video-game iteration is particularly compelling in my Portal essay. To summarize it — and many readers would have reportedly loved a summary — having an in-game Artificial Intelligence order you around the game-world is a reminder that all video-games basically do the same thing, albeit not as transparently: they order you around, tell you to do this and that, make you into little more than a willful slave. Portal is honest about the fact that the video-game player doesn’t have much in the way of choice or freedom. The player always operates inside a preconceived architecture, even in open-ended games.

Now, when I wrote my Portal essay, I was under the impression that Portal was doing something rather novel. And, well, it still is, but an awful lot of what I wrote in the above essay can be just as easily applied to the iconic 1999 computer game. Back-tracking through the medium’s history is so difficult and spotty, so dependent on the whims of availability, that the burgeoning art-form and its devotees suffer from severe amnesia. Finding a ten-year-old video-game is about as challenging as finding an avant-garde silent film. Hell, it’s more challenging. Menilmontant is on Netflix. So is Man Ray… on the same DVD! Video-games are more elusive. And I’m not referring to obscure independent products released in the very depths of non-commercial distribution. I’m referring to the most famous games, the cream of the mainstream crop of computer gaming during the nineties: Planescape: Torment, Day of the Tentacle, System Shock I and II, Grim Fandango (for fuck’s sake, Grim Fandango!), Baldur’s Gate II, Alpha Centauri, etc. We can thank the spirits for Good Old Games and Steam offering the likes of Fallout 1 and 2, X-Com: UFO Defense, Freespace 1 and 2, Monkey Island, and Beneath a Steel Sky. It’s a start. No medium can survive without a good view of its past.

The problem with a medium plagued by amnesia is that it’s doomed to repeat itself, dumb itself down, move up and down like a sine wave, weaving from brilliance to mediocrity to worse and then back to brilliance, and on and on to infinity. So old games end up being more ‘advanced’ than newer games, because the newer games forgot that older games ever existed. Half-Life 2 is hailed as revolutionary even though it’s simpler than Deus Ex and System Shock II. Exploration games are applauded for being free and airy, but A Mind Forever Voyaging was already doing that in the eighties. But nobody remembers the eighties. And you can’t blame them. I can’t even claim to be removed from this forgetful group. The only reason I’m even playing A Mind Forever Voyaging is because, many years ago, an eccentric Australian couple in Bakersfield decided to bestow upon my family their dilapidated and deliriously outdated computer, including, along with their bargain package, two games: the very first Flight Simulator and A Mind Forever Voyaging. I didn’t get very far into the latter. The box didn’t include the map and the little number wheel thingy, which are absolutely essential. I bet that the box had once included both items, but the eccentric Australian couple had evidently lost half of the game materials. Anyhow, almost a decade later, I decided to give the text adventure a new whirl. The lost items are now viewable online. That’s nice. But where is the critical or canonical discourse to promote these lost gems? Do we all require eccentric Australian couples in order to discover these video-games? And how many of those are there around the world? In Bakersfield, of all places?

There is a growing critical consciousness out there that is beginning to focus on the works of days past. But is it enough? Or more crucially, is it the right kind of attention? The argument would be that no attention is the wrong kind of attention, and admittedly, retrospectives of old classics are typically loving and sweet. But does every retrospective require the words “the graphics look dated, but…” before the description and/or analysis of the game proper? The graphics in Beneath a Steel Sky look dated? You don’t say. A point-and-click adventure game from 1994 doesn’t look like a game from 2009? Astonishing. Why mention this? “The graphics are ugly nowadays, but the gameplay is great!” How are they ugly? Nobody says anything interesting about graphics. Color, composition, tone, general aesthetic, detail, perspective, etc. This is more interesting. What do the graphics actually do? If you simply mention that they’re dated, what are you really saying? It was made in 1994, of course it looks dated. We don’t need to be told this. We already know, and anyone seriously considering playing a game from 1994 is likely not expecting Crysis.

So, amnesia. Portal explores thematic territory previously trodden by System Shock II. Each game still does unique things, of course. And their moods are not compatible. Portal is not scary. It’s ominous, mysterious, enigmatic, etc. But not scary. System Shock II is famously terrifying. Different goals. Different storytelling. System Shock II is using the ‘uncovering reading material’ technique employed later by Deus Ex and Metroid Prime. You walk around and find newspapers, audio/video logs, computer readings, writings on ruins, etc. You read the storytelling waiting for you in textual scraps found throughout the game-world. Portal functions more along the lines of Half-Life 2. The storytelling happens around your character. You don’t stop to read. Things happen around you or are directly told to you. The most you might halt your pace during Half-Life 2 is to listen to a video-speech on one of those over-sized monitors overlooking the city streets. Portal has scribblings on the wall and a PowerPoint presentation. You might stop for a while to peruse them, but it’s not comparable to the pillars of e-mails and logs you find in System Shock II or the bountiful newspapers and datapads from Deus Ex. So, again, they’re different games. But my forgetfulness is impossible to ignore. System Shock II would have fit perfectly into the essay I linked to above, more perfectly even than Metal Gear Solid 2. How could I have included it, though? I hadn’t played it. And I hadn’t played it because it’s under-publicized, even with its historic status, and it’s scarcely available. You might ask: But how can it be forgetfulness on my part if I hadn’t played it? You can’t forget what you haven’t lived through. Alright, but I contributed to the medium’s forgetfulness, in my small, small role as a blogging commentator. And that’s why a medium’s amnesia is troublesome. Forgetfulness breeds more forgetfulness from those who can’t even hope to remember what they haven’t begun to experience. The problem feeds itself.

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3 responses

23 09 2010
Tyler

Wow, great to see you writing about video games, Beau!

I wonder about video games’ forgetfulness as well and your comparison of video games to film. One thing I would say is, do you think that the medium of video games has changed so more between its advent and now than film has over the course of its history? As film is a more mechanical process involving a camera, cameras have gotten better, but not significantly better the way that game engines and design tools have evolved (although I’m not a gaming programmer, perhaps they would say differently). How to quantify this, I’m not sure.

I also wonder whether people’s criticism of older video game graphics has to do with a lack of awareness about the artistic decisions that the game designers had to make about what to do with what they had. The assumption is probably, oh they did the best they could and wound up with those shitty graphics, yuck. Disguised in these different graphics, in this different “thing” altogether I would argue, are designers who chose to use these particular color schemes and to develop this particular engine and this specific player point-of-view, etc.

One interesting case study for our ideas here is the Special Editions of Monkey Island 1 and 2. I’ve only played the latter. It strikes me as I play the game, and switch between the retro graphics/music and the updated graphics/music that there is something oddly artificial about the updated version. The form and content are not married together in the way the original was. I still very much enjoy the new version, but more for the nostalgia of memories and the gimmick of the new. These new graphics warrant a new story, a new set of decisions to be made. Rather, the special edition is a new shiny coat of paint on the old form (and story), even though the original coat still had its own charm (which is probably why they include it, essentially). Of course, people who have never played the original will I’m sure find an authenticity in the new version, and experience it in that way. Am I odd to feel slightly uneasy playing the new glossy version?

24 09 2010
beaucine

Great reply. I personally don’t know what “better” or “improved” actually means. Or rather, I do know what it means, or what people mean to say when they use these words, but if you think about it, it doesn’t necessarily make sense. We could say certain graphics are more technologically advanced, we could say certain graphical flaws can be improved by better technology, but at the end of the day what is on the screen is what is on the screen. The graphics simply are what they are, and we react to them based on what they are, and if someone changes them due to technological advancements, they’re changing what the graphics are, so they’re changing what we feel when we see them. I can’t imagine, say, Final Fantasy VI with improved graphics. The datedness of the graphics are what we see and what we react to. The “flaws” are incorporated into the aesthetic because it’s simply what is there for us to see. When I recall the game, I can’t divorce the graphics from the recollection. If the game had different graphics, surely my response would have been different, because what I would have seen would have been different, and this different feeling might not necessarily have been better.

For instance, I haven’t responded to graphics in a Metal Gear Solid game as strongly as I did to the graphics on the PSX. When the series moved to the PS2, the graphics certainly became more advanced, but they also became plastic, smooth, sterile. I missed the technically inferior PSX graphics, with the rampant pixelation, the blocky character models, and the crude facial features. I thought those graphics were more evocative. They were harsher, dirtier, a better fit to the mood the game was trying to create. Granted, the later games weren’t necessarily trying to recreate the mood of Shadow Moses, not even Sons of Liberty, where you play through an elaborate Shadow Moses simulation. But I think the smooth graphics took away more than they added, even with all the new visual details.

And what about Fallout 1 and 2? If you take away the dated aspects of those games, you’re taking away what they are. When you play these games, they make you feel a certain way, and if you change certain aspects, you change what you feel, because what you feel depends on what the game is, and Fallout 2 is a certain way because it was released at a certain time and its designers did certain things that are no longer in vogue, but which, if removed, would alter the Fallout experience so thoroughly that you’d be left with another game entirely. It might still be as good. It might even remind you of Fallout 2. But it’d be a different game. Not improved in the usual sense we think of improvement. Because those things that made Fallout 2 what it was would not be improved but changed altogether. Maybe you would end up preferring one experience over the other. That’s different. It’s not improvement. It’s one experience being more enjoyable than another. Within the logic of Fallout 2, Fallout 2 is almost perfect. It has an isometric perspective. The animations are kind of odd, like claymation, but also like claymation, the not-quite-right animation is exactly what’s appealing about it. If you make it more fluid, it loses the appeal, because it is now something else. And if you change the isometric perspective or do away with the pre-rendered backgrounds, well, again, you have a completely different game. You’re not really improving the old stuff. You’re replacing the old stuff. There’s a difference. Because you don’t take what the game was and make it better. You introduce a new thing and make the game into that. Think of the Resident Evil games. Change the fixed camera angles. Change the pre-rendered backgrounds. Change the controls. Yeah, it’s more modern, more up-to-date. Is it an improvement? It’s a completely different game. If you can control the camera, if the environment is fully 3D, if the controls don’t suck, that makes it a different experience: no battling with camera angles, no sense of being trapped, and that is really it, you lose that feeling of having little control over your fate, of being swamped by an ornate background that consumes you, that you can’t look away from, because you can only see the room from one direction, from there, from that corner, and your pixelated character is a speck on the screen, and this character is somehow disconnected from the environment, because it’s pixelated, because it’s not as sharp, because it’s uglier than the photorealistic background, and that adds something, it underscores the idea that the environment is out to kill your character, that the environment is this entirely ‘other’ thing that will always refuse your character, that will always refuse you and try to send you straight to the Game Over screen.

So I agree with you. When we talk about dated graphics, we should really ask if the graphics contribute to or detract from the experience. We know the graphics from old games are not sophisticated. That’s not the point. The point is if the graphics work. The muddy graphics from Goldeneye work in some levels and don’t work in others. They’re obviously ugly, but for some locations, especially the nighttime locations, or those with musty interiors, well, the muddy graphics fit. And then there’s dated graphics where the datedness doesn’t seem to contribute anything. I can’t say the dated graphics of Deus Ex contribute that much. But, then again, I don’t know. Deus Ex’s dated graphics give me that spacious emptiness, that straightness, where you can see the straight lines everywhere, delineating roads, and trash cans, and blocky utensils, everything is blocky, yes, but that does sort of add to the mood, because you end up with very austere surroundings, even when the game wants to be dirty, like in New York or in Shanghai, even then, you get so many straight lines, and everything is so blocky, and people and objects are often so spaced apart, that it looks like the final bedroom in 2001, but dirtier: lots of squarish or rectangular things, very austere, oddly spacious. This affects how I feel about the game. And what I felt was wonderful.

25 10 2010
Tyler

Hey Beau, thought you might be interested in this lecture on video games I ran across by Braid designer Jonathan Blow.

http://edtech.rice.edu/cms/?option=com_iwebcast&task=webcast&action=details&event=2349

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