OK, so I’ve been slacking a lot lately. Life has been… interesting. Anyway.
The thing I’ve been putting my mind to a lot lately is innovation in gaming. Or, more precisely, the lack of it. There is an astonishing lack of innovation in gaming at present, and even the stuff I’ve been playing with has been largely stillborn in my mind because none of it is experimental or innovative, it’s simply getting to grips with a toolkit by cloning what’s been done before. (Which, by the way, sucks. Not the toolkit, the fact that the best way to use a toolkit is to implement something you already saw, so that you have fewer unknowns in mind)
I spent the festive season reading up on game literature a lot, reading weighty tomes on game design theory and that sort of thing, and as I declared late one night in a chat room, I came away enlightened.
Rules and mechanics and assets and controls, these are all things a game needs, but they’re not what a game is. (It’s like a keel and a hull and a sail and a crew are things a ship needs, but they’re not what a ship is.)
And I think in pushing the technical envelope, we’ve gotten this a great, great deal. I’ve been playing computer games for over 20 years, and I have lots of memories of playing them that far back – and more importantly, even then I was doing some kind of analysis on them in my head, about what makes great games, about what makes them memorable.
Nostalgia’s a big part of it, that people who are old enough (like me) to have played games from at least a generation (not a technical generation, but a cultural generation) ago, we remember the games being more fun than they actually were. And for a lot of games from back then, that seems to hold true, that people come back to them 20+ years on and find them fun because they remember the fun they had growing up playing them, but not because they’re intrinsically fun in themselves.
In fact, most games that far back are hellish reflex testing devices, bent on inducing psychological breakdown. (There are a few like that today, incidentally. BIT.TRIP RUNNER, I’m looking at you.) And most of them are simply forgotten except for nostalgia value, not because they were a positive experience.
The exception which comes to mind is the first Zelda game, The Legend of Zelda. I, unlike my friends, did not own a NES or in fact any console until I finally bought a Wii last year. Which meant that I didn’t have much in the way of nostalgia when approaching LoZ for the first time, which I did recently. And the result was intriguing.
Of course, I’ve read around LoZ over the years and have a vague understanding of the world, the chronology and so on, as well as some of the design influences, but the most important lesson didn’t occur until I’d started playing.
And this is what games have forgotten to do largely. It’s what the moment of shining enlightenment taught me. Why so many games are uninspiring, insipid and even boring. And it’s this one lesson…
Games that we enjoy and come back to a generation later and still enjoy, without the benefit of nostalgia, are games that reach us on a deeper level than looking good or being responsive to our intentions. No, that alone would render many more games ‘classic’ status than they have.
The games we enjoy and continue to enjoy, we do so because they’re doing something primal, something emotional: they’re not games, they’re experiences. They grow us as a person. Some designers explain it as building a game that is an educational experience, but really it’s more than that. The games we come back to, they do teach us something, but very often it’s not really a lesson, but a skill, or an idea or something that reaches us beyond the surface, and leaves us something behind.
That’s really it: we’re not just interacting with the game, we’re not just motoring through the rules of the environment, but it’s reaching into us and making us one with the game. The better a game can bring us into the experience, the stronger it is and the more we will enjoy it, and that others will enjoy it.
I’ve had occasion to see a great many games lately, in varying stages of development, but most of the people who work on them, and who play them, entirely miss the point. I’ve lost count of the ‘Zelda clones’ I’ve seen while playing with the aforementioned toolkit, but not one of them does what Miyamoto did in Zelda: conveying the experience of going outside and exploring. They all imitate it, never conveying it, and certainly not innovating with it.