Generation Games

By Jim Rossignol on March 18th, 2008 at 1:35 pm.


This wonderful 1958 video, in addition making me wish there was a game that used that art style, reminded me of the idea of “futures lost” within gaming. A few years ago I wrote an article for The Escapist that grazed that issue, without ever capturing it. Consequently I was inspired to update and modify the piece for RPS. Read on, and then perhaps share some of your own thoughts on the subjects of both the games that educated you, and the games that gave you hopes for the future.

MY EDUCATION

Ever since my dreamy childhood spent being raised by the family 8-bit in pixel-land, I’ve been consuming electronic entertainment. Once I did it just for the thrill, but now I have other motivations too. These days, I figure an educated games journalist is a better games journalist, and what better education than playing anything and everything, all day, every day for decades at a stretch?

Yet not all games carry equal weight. Some, like that influential lecturer or inspiring teacher, have had a disproportionate effect on the whole. There are a few games that stand out as bright psychic landmarks in my personal history, the high-water marks of my education. While there are too many to mention in an article as brief as this, there are three in particular which I want to talk about, because they have direct relevance to the opinions I have about games today, usually because they seemed to point a way forward, or map out the possibilities for our experience of games in the future. They’re not even the three games are necessarily the most important to me (because those would likely be Quake III, Eve Online and Speedball 2) but they’re an interesting three examples in terms of thinking about why I end up writing the things I write today. If you’re a developer whose game I am reviewing, then it likely that it will be these rudiments, these embryonic versions of our modern gaming archetypes, that I will, however unconsciously, end up comparing your game against.

Anyway, each of these games taught me something. Significantly, they usually taught me that looking forward is more important the looking back. Sure, I’m going to talk about how great and important these old games were, but what I want you to take from it is that old games have something to teach us about where the future may lie. I am not one of those navel-gazing retro-heads who pines for lost pleasures of yore. I do not think the golden age of gaming lies in the past. In fact, I pine for the future I was promised by that past. And here’s why.

First: Midwinter II on the Atari ST, as released in 1991. (I played the original after the sequel.) The 16-bit spy game blew apart my sense of what games could be and, at the same time, imbued me with a startling sense of where they might be going. Midwinter seemed to contain a fragment of future games, something that I recognized for the first time as a youth. Sure, Elite had been a stunning vision of open-ended play in previous years, but suddenly, right here, was a palpable world I could explore. I got hold of vehicles, interacted with people. I was inside something recognizable. It was my first taste of a kind of game in which the act of moving, through travel and exploration, was central to the experience. It pointed to magical possibilities of creating worlds I might escape to. Before then games had been flattened, conceptual, abstract: Defender, Smash TV, Gauntlet, Tempest. Now they were something else entirely.

Midwinter had taught me that one of the futures for games would be about freedom. That future wouldn’t just make toys for us to play with, instead it would deliver something more akin to places for us to visit, as well as challenges in those places for us to overcome. My personal love of games would grow because of the way these places captured my imagination. I went on to identify in my own mind the descendants of Midwinter – not the direct genealogies of what inspired who, but the games from which I personally can extrude this special kind of experience. Hardwar and Operation Flashpoint, Outcast and System Shock, Stalker and Thief 3, they all act as imperfect examples of what I’ve been looking for since Midwinter. None of these games have quite managed to create the future that they all promised. But perhaps we’re getting there. Perhaps not. I had sort of expected a mega-Midwinter generation of games to have delivered us dozens of wonderful open ended worlds, and instead I find myself with just a handful: a San Andreas here, a Boiling Point there.

Having gone back and played Midwinter, I realize that it’s tough, if not impossible, to take these significant games out of time. This is especially true of my second game. In the annals of gaming history Hired Guns is little more than a moderately pretentious footnote, but to me it represents the moment in which the future of multiplayer gaming became a cooperative, shared experience, rather than a head-on competitive exercise. It was the game that taught me that playing with somebody didn’t mean having to batter them into unconsciousness on the Speedball court, but could instead mean working with them to complete a grand quest and explore an intricate challenge.

Hired Guns, in case you missed it back in 1993, was a four-players-on-one-screen Dungeon Master clone with pseudo-3D single-frame-per-click movement. That alone marks it out as a developmental oddity that now seems impossibly crude, and it has little or no importance in any grand history of gaming that might one day be written.

Yet at the time few games approached its level of achievement. Hired Guns created a unique world that never felt the need to explain itself and kicked genre conventions in the face with a throbbing robo-boot and energy-clad killer squirrels. It had teeth-jarring machine gun blasts, magic killer monks, serpents, sharks, deployable automated sentry cannons, personal teleports, ED-209 clones and apropos of nothing, thirty-foot bone monsters. All this weird was wrapped up in a gloom-clad future world that was both spooky and intriguing. It embraced peculiarity in a way that games few to do today. But its greatest achievement was to place me and my best friend together in a game world. We played our way across the epic campaign map over the course of a several weeks. We overcame puzzles through joint thinking, and fought pitched battles together. Sure, we did the same in Alien Breed a couple of years earlier, but Hired Guns felt like an genuine accomplishment. It felt like /exploration/.

How many first-person perspective games now combine RPG elements, while dodging genre cliché, creating a memorable world, and allowing you to gun down the fleeing characters from other games? (In this case, Lemmings.) I’ll tell you how many: not many.

And how many did all this while offering co-op? Well, until 2007, almost none. The RPGFPS co-op future I detected in Hired Guns is still little more than a glimmer on the horizon. It might never come our way.

Let’s move on to my third game. That was 2000′s Ground Control. It’s only been in the last year, with Ground Control creators Massive return triumphantly returning to the scene with World In Conflict, in which we have come close to what Ground Control promised: a future of strategy games in which the action, the script, and your own ability to use a limited number of units. There have been flickers of this kind of thing with, as someone pointed out earlier this week, games like Sudden Strike. But Ground Control was so beautiful, so minimalistic and effortless in what it delivered that I have found myself routinely disappointed not to have seen its like again in eight years.

Because this, for a time at least, was the side of the 3D real-time strategy wars that seemed to lose. The future it described – one where the lie of the landscape and the scripting of events would, as in action games, define the scope of the tactics – has only been echoed ever so distantly by the real-time battle sections of the Total War series. For the most part, RTS games have taken on a pallid and over-familiar hue. While there are obvious highlights (Warcraft 3, Dawn of War, Homeworld) none of them took up the gauntlet thrown down by Ground Control. Nothing tried to improve upon the idea and reject resource management and based building. No one had thought to take it further. No one had taken the future that I, and presumably its developers, had seen in Ground Control, and tried to make something from it. Even its sequel, years on, lacked the stripped-down simplicity of the original and its quietly brilliant expansion pack.

When I came to review that sequel, there were some grumblings from my editor that I couldn’t leave the past alone and just “review the sequel on its own merits.” But how could I? The sequel had created what looked like a dead end. It brought resources back in, and overdid everything with layer upon layer of overwrought design. The elegance was gone. Even worse, the future I had been promised was being smeared out of the possibility space.

Games have to go forward. They have to believe in the future, and they cannot do so as a groundless generation X, divorced and alienated from the achievements of their parents. The past is littered with suggested futures, some still possible, others abandoned. Some really were dead ends and others still inspire us today. But whatever clues that past may hold, I don’t believe that we can go forward without them.

So readers: what future did past videogames teach you?

, , , , , .

36 Comments »

  1. The_B says:

    Gauntlet taught me that the future was in multiplayer, while Counter Strike later taught me the future needs to have a mute function.

    I think the Broken Sword series (or at least the first three) also taught me that storytelling in games can be a rich and powerful thing, and the future will include game storylines that are written and indeed portrayed in such a way that can rival movie and television storylines and do.

    Additional: Imagine a GTA game with the vehicles from that video. That Ambulance/Fire Engine/SUPER JET WITH LEGS thing was awesome.

  2. groovychainsaw says:

    Hired guns! I played through a large part four-player, then never got those 4 people back together again (and I think I had a crash bug in my (not entirely legit) copy of the game), but I remember thinking ‘This is the future, four player co-operation’. And nobody has come back to that 4-player (split-screen!) co-op idea since. I think they’re missing something, as it could be awesome.

  3. LongFred says:

    Every good RPG taught me that companies who develop good RPGs go bankrupt.

    Modern gaming taught me that I’m what is considered a ‘niche market’.

    Asian MMORPGs taught me that in the future, we will all buy cute hats for our avatar to deal double damage or something, instead of picking up overpriced unfinished retail DVDs at the release date.

  4. surprise says:

    natural selection from http://www.unknownworlds.com/ns/

    That game showed me how a crossover of 2 genres can work and DOES work, if done properly.
    I guess NS is not the first game of this kind, but probably one of the more succesful.

    Mixing RTS + FPS? YES PLEASE.
    Shooting aliens? Munching on Marines? YESSSS

    They are developing NS2 at the moment as a small indie studio at the moment, maybe they also deserve some mention on RPS ;-)

  5. Phil says:

    Hunter taught me open world 3D games can work sublimely and though don’t have a copy to hand to test this out, I imagine desperately peddling over hills and past churches atop a mountain bike, chased by a trooper in a landrover, running over ducks and avoiding the attention of helicopters buzzing around the horizen would still be insanely fun.

  6. Mman says:

    “and it has little or no importance in any grand history of gaming that might one day be written.”

    You say this, yet then go on to describe a bunch of things the game did that very few games ever made have done (I haven’t played it, so I don’t know how well the comments apply), so I’m curious about this comment; whether it holds up or not is irrelevant if it has done unique things like that, and it sounds like it fully deserves every mention it gets in the history of gaming (and, in fact, would be a crime if it wasn’t)

  7. dhex says:

    a lot of games taught me that the future will be run by multinational corporations who will pollute the planet and/or drain it of energy and/or set it on fire so that they can kill the only market they serve. then i stopped playing jrpgs.

    it also taught me that life is mostly fetch quests. this, sadly, is often true.

  8. Chaz says:

    When I first played Elite on my old BBC 32k Model B, I began to imagine a future with games where the graphics were so good that you could play as a gun toting bloke from the first person perspective. And then some years later Doom arrived and it was like all my computer gaming fantasises had been realised. Ever since then I don’t think I’ve been quite so amazed by anything as much as that.

    I’m still waiting for VR headsets to take off in popularity. “Tomorrows World” said we would all be playing games on them by now, and dammit I’m disappointed.

  9. Johnny Law says:

    Ground Control itself was fruit from the (rather barren so far) Myth:TFL family tree.

    It sounds like World in Conflict is a development of many of the same ideas, but I haven’t tried that out yet.

  10. Theory says:

    Midwinter, my god. I’d completely forgotten. I picked it up at a car boot sale and understood as I do now what it had to offer, but was just too young to play it. Time to rectify that. :)

  11. DuBBle says:

    Global Conflict: Palestine and Peacemaker taught me that games can foster constructive, peaceful attitudes, and remain fun!

  12. Brent says:

    Bionic Commando taught me that games should have a save feature

    Rainbox Six taught me how awesome co-op surgical attacks could be – it was the first time I actually had to work with my buddy in a co-op environment, rather than us both just blast baddies away

    Sacrifice was the first game to show me the future of where RTS games could go, and then didn’t.

    Counter-strike taught me an important lesson about the permanence of death, as opposed to a quake-style deathmatch, which I then learned again from Eve Online as opposed to WoW. Higher death consequence makes living that much better for me.

    Half-life taught me what it was like to care about the outcome of a game.

    There are many many more, but I had a much less localized version of what this author did. I seem to take one or two things from all my favorite games, rather than any one or two games standing out.

  13. RichPowers says:

    SimCity 2000 promised a future of games that would be simple yet amazingly complex.

    When I first played Will Wright’s opus back in 1994, I was a dumb 8-year-old. But I remember constructing and growing, rather effortlessly, these magnificent cities full of curiosities like Arcologies, Llama Domes, airports, and elevated freeways. Residential and commercial skyscrapers were plentiful in my metropolises. Sometimes an alien robot spider-thing, probably angry about being fired from a Johnny Quest episode, would visit and blow up police stations and schools just to spite me. All of this happened despite my lack of understanding of the game’s inner mechanics! SimCity 2000 is so intuitive that players don’t have to delve into the tax, demand, and ordinance systems unless they really want to.

    Today I am college educated and presumably more intelligent, but I can’t grow awesome cities in SimCity 4 unless I put in some serious effort. That game is too bloated, complex, and cryptic for those of us who want to build without actually being a mayor. SimCity Societies, the supposed remedy to those problems, treats gamers like idiots who are easily entertained by mindless building plopping.

    Even today, gamers debates about whether game X is “dumbed down” or too complex or whatever. Maybe I’ve huffed too much nostalgia, but if more games followed SimCity 2000’s design principles, such debates would be largely nonexistent.

    In other words, designers were unable to add new features to later SimCity titles without sacrificing the series’ trademark accessibility.

    It’s too bad that more games can’t achieve the complexity/accessibility zen established by some 1994 city builder.

  14. Nuyan says:

    Great article, that disney video from 1958 made me happy. I love that optimism and can actually see quite a few things in there happening one day.

    As for games. I think Eve Online shows how the future of MMO’s should look like, it might take a long-long time until we see it implemented it properly, but it eventually will. And there was CoD4 last year that showed how much more intense a game-experience even a rather cliche story can become with some good plot-changes (*spoiler* characters you control that suddenly die etc) and how a game like that could be used for a strong political message.

  15. Homunculus says:

    Gaming epiphany moments? For me, Planetside.

    Whilst I’d played one or two other mumorpergers preceding this, none of them realised the massed…really massed conflict that could spontaneously erupt in Auraxis. Forced co-operative play to jointly operate the mightiest of the factions’ death-dealing hardware segued neatly into voluntary co-operation on a wider scale, enabling such dizzying spectacles as multiple waves of dropshipped troops descending on heavily defended bases whilst armoured columns pressed this advantage to advance into the courtyards. That it was bound within the trappings of sci-fi militaristic technofetishism heavily reminiscent of Aliens’ Colonial Marines was the cream topping. Sometimes I’d equip a cloaking suit just to sneak out and stand around a pitched battlefield, observing everything, unseen, musing to myself, “Fucking hell, this is great. I’m so glad that I got to play this.”

    I really hope that Starcraft’s MMO offering is to Planetside what World of Warcraft was to Everquest.

  16. Jim Rossignol says:

    Yeah, the first few months of Planetside was fucking incredible. I fondly recall the post-5pm build ups on the Euro server as everyone got home from work and piled into 100-man frontline battles. Immense.

    Ideal MMO: Planetside combat/levelling, City Of Heroes character customisation, Eve-like territory/resource model.

  17. Cueball says:

    Nowhere near enough people reference Midwinter. It’s almsot never mentioned, for example, in articles about the evolution of first person 3D games, despite its incredible sophistication for the time.

    As for Ground Control, though, one game did steal its mechanics completely – that Star Wars RTS. Perhaps that’s why no-one else touched it for so long…

    I’d love to see a retrospective with the Planetside devs, though. Talk about why they pushed such an accessible a game down an ever more complex and incomprehensible-even-to-dedicated-players niche to try and keep the top end players involved, and whether they’d do the same thing again.

  18. Larington says:

    I’d have to say, if there is one project I’d simply have to be the designer for, it’d be a spiritual successor to Planetside. No other game has quite demonstrated to me how awesome co-operative player versus player combat can be, whilst also teaching me how important it is to design out dominant strategies (Personal Shield, BFRs & aircav, I’m looking at you).
    Of course my equivalent to PS would be quite different, for starters, training missions would not be there to merely teach you how to play the game, they’d also teach you how to be good at it. I could go on, but I’ll resist.

  19. Muzman says:

    That video is awesome. It’s so ludicrously optimistic and impractical and it looks great. Shame those sorts of things were basically propaganda for the motor industry and its intent to monopolise the landscape, crush every other kind of transportation and build gigantic, ugly destructive highways absolutely everywhere (to which they largely succeeded, in the US and to some extent Australia).
    What’s funny is I’m pretty sure The Jetsons wasn’t a Disney cartoon but it features just about everything in that clip, from concept to design. And the other thing was; I seem to recall hearing that Minority Report‘s world (the movie) and transportation was carefully thought through by pointy headed futurists. Although by the looks of it they just dug this video up, collected a pay cheque and went home.

    Anyway; off the top of my head, Thief 1 taught me that my opponents in a game could seem alive without being characters in the narrative or being scripted. Indeed that only increased the effect. It also meant that advancement in that area seems a little scary.

  20. Jim Rossignol says:

    Well The Jetsons was a few years later, and was a direct response to that kind of corporate futurism.

  21. Chris R says:

    Man, that video is something else… I bet we have quite a bit of the information and technology needed to accomplish much of the ideas in that video, but that cost is the limiting factor.

    For some reason I was reminded of the movie “Minority Report” while watching that video (with the self-driving cars, etc, etc).

  22. drbnwy says:

    Heh heh, that video was an eye opener. Reminded me of a short story by William Gibson called ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ in which visions such as those in the video become all too real for one guy.

    Imagine living in an era when you could be so optimistic about the future. I can’t see a film like that being made these days, even for children. The future just seems a lot more ominous and dystopian somehow.

    But, I still want a ‘sun-powered electro-suspension car’…

  23. luminosity says:

    Deus Ex taught me how well a game story could work (without even necessarily being a great story). Give the player a good amount of motivation in the main storyline, and then fill your world with extra detail that players can go out and discover as they explore, at their own pace. You don’t have to force your elaborate backstory on to people, and it seems to work better when you don’t.

  24. Bill says:

    RPGs taught me that I much prefer to run around and kill things.

  25. caramelcarrot says:

    Natural Selection taught me that after the attempts of games like Counter Strike and Frontline Force, true blissful teamplay based tactical squad combat was actually attainable – and it has never been really replicated since.

    The teamfortress 2 previews way back when made me dream of multiplayer games where you could drive anywhere in tanks or fly or walk, engaging in delicious tactical teamplay – Battlefield 1942 and BF2 brought those, though didn’t pull off teamplay anywhere near as well as NS. Teamplay shouldn’t be something that’s coerced with point systems, but something absolutely necessary to survive.

  26. Ging says:

    Planetside taught me that MMOs could be fun – nothing quite like having a squadron of Reavers arsing about across a continent. I think I’ll always remember the guy who accused me of cheating because I saw his cloak shimmer while he was hiding from us.

    He’d set up an AMS for himself so he kept popping back in the same area – I don’t think the thought of running away went through his mind, even with 6 Reavers floating around overhead.

    That video was awesome – even had a couple of things just about right (GPS, self driving vehicles (see DARPA Grand Challenge)).

  27. The Archetype says:

    Civilization II taught me that there was a future for games that take months to play, forgetting about them over time and then picking them up again later, just to ultimately come in second. Most games that force you to work on that kind of timescale are awful, which is why there haven’t been many, but there’s certainly a lot of design space in that style of gameplay that hasn’t been mined yet.

  28. Robin says:

    This was the kind of thing I was thinking about when writing about Stunt Island. There have been times when developers, usually working outside of the limelight of risk-averse, mega-bucks development, have tried ridiculously ambitious and innovative things. Midwinter, Another World, Syndicate and UFO were other good ones.

    Betrayal at Krondor was another one that had an impact. Not necessarily the way it chose to technically realise it’s world (it looks like a gouraud-shaded golf game with naff digitised actors pasted on top), but the completely unbound from convention, MacGuyveresque design ethos: exploration was a mix of Dungeon Master and Midwinter, combat was straight out of an early Ultima, cities were matte paintings with hotspots, and much of the plot recounted through plain old screens of text. It had word puzzles and grave robbing and overwrought descriptive prose for trying to use the wrong objects with each other.

    Bioware’s games were (by their own acknowledgment) massively indebted to the basic RPG mechanics (skills, inventory, etc) but went down the route of specialising their engines and trowelling on tons of ‘content’.

    More recent action games (starting with Mafia) have been a modern take on this ethos, not making a driving or a fighting engine, but making a great generalised engine that can support a wide range of activities as the plot demands.

    While I’m going off on one, I should probably mention Silent Storm as well. The turn based tactics paradigm with a simulation taken to extremes that haven’t been replicated, well, anywhere. I would buy a game that reimplemented it’s mechanics in a modern engine in a femtosecond. Give it a character-driven story and you’d have an episodic game that could run and run.

  29. Lachlan says:

    The X-COM games made me realise you could lose a battle and still win the war. To this day I grind my teeth at arbitrary MISSION FAILED screens.

    The Battlezone series taught me that RTS and FPS genres could merge seemlessly, each genre providing to the hybrid something neither knew it lacked. It also showed how fun sliding around in low gravity could be, and did some lovely alien environments (anyone remember the Venus chemical fog?). Alas, there never was an RTS/FPS hybrid that sold well.

    And System Shock 2 taught me a good design team could make any location believable, with a little effort and thought. For me half the fear in that game was generated by the way the environment /made sense/ – in most FPSes, corpses on the floor were just doodads. In Shock 2, you actually started to look around and try to work out what had killed this group of heavily-armed people…and was it still around?

  30. cannon fodder says:

    Deus Ex and Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines taught me that RPG + FPS = satisfying treat with immense replay value as I try to subvert my natural play-style.

    Counterstrike (1.3-6 + CS:S) and Call of Duty (1-4) taught me:

    - Aim for the back of the head in short bursts.
    - No-one likes snipers.
    - Having a scoped weapon does not make you a sniper.
    - Players called “Vasily Zaytsev” are not snipers.
    - Avoid standing about in open spaces.
    - Keep X-hairs at the head level of a crouching enemy.
    - Reloading going round corners/through doorways = pain.
    - Few people are cheating, but there are lots of bad losers.

  31. Nick says:

    System Shock showed me the best way to do difficulty settings. Sadly noone else paid heed.

  32. James T says:

    You say this, yet then go on to describe a bunch of things the game did that very few games ever made have done (I haven’t played it, so I don’t know how well the comments apply), so I’m curious about this comment; whether it holds up or not is irrelevant if it has done unique things like that, and it sounds like it fully deserves every mention it gets in the history of gaming (and, in fact, would be a crime if it wasn’t)

    Their innovations being unique implies that said innovations weren’t taken up by future creators — since they apparently got left behind by history, regardless of merit, there’d be no point including them as any more than a footnote in a ‘historical nar–

    Why are we talking about this?

    Anyway, I’d have been interested to see more game-makers try messing with goal/endgame conventions after Ultima IV. I can see why they didn’t — I’ve racked my brains trying to think of how I’d TOTALLY MESS WITH THE MINDS OF GAMING’S MONOSEXUAL PATRIARCHY (oops, went a bit ‘Torchwood’ there, *ostentatiously kisses gay man*) without just, y’know, ripping off Ultima IV myself, but I’m sure there are plenty of answers out there. U4 has a final dungeon, and a ‘network’ of quests to give you the impetus to travel, but largely you progress in its thoroughly open world by living in the accordance with the 8 Virtues, thereby becoming the Messiah (or just a Very Naughty Boy if you used the Skull of Mondain. Tisk tisk!)

    Heck, I’d have been pretty happy if the Ultima games thenceforth all became refinements of the U4 ‘plan’ — increasing the sophistication of ‘Virtue-tracking’; chucking in some neato side-quests containing extra armaments and moral quandaries that affect your Virtue standing; branching chains of consequence according to your particular moral leanings; fixing that horrible combat system…

  33. Optimaximal says:

    I can’t believe nobody else has mentioned it… I DEMAND A SOLAR-POWERED ELECTRO-SUSPENSION CAR DAMMIT!!!

    Seriously, someone needs to show that video to the Japanese or German car designers (although I suspect the latter are still enjoying their ‘Nazi Supermen are our Superiors’ video).

  34. Urael says:

    Midwinter II rocked my world. I must have played that game for months, never ever finishing the campaign but having massive fun playing freedom-fighter in a world laden with people and fun vehicles (I like the underwater vehicles best).

    My seminal games:
    The Sentinel: The first time I felt the presence of a geniune enemy – one who could destroy me and needed to be conquered. Avoiding him and his minions while traversing these odd little levels provided years or fun for me.

    Midwinter II. It felt like a world I could inhabit, even as crudely realised as it was back then.

    Thief: The first time I remember guile, patience and observation being valued and rewarded over the simple and nigh-on ubiquitous concept of perpetual combat.

    @Lachlan: The first Battlezone was an amazing game, largely because of the slidey feel of the craft you were driving, and the fabulous terrains you got to drive them in. I adored the very realistic looking moon terrain the most, and wished more of the game could have been set there. To my mind realistic non-terrestrial environments have never been bettered, sadly. Also, how about that whooshing roar sound from the engines as you flew off a cliff and landed again? What an immersive experience that was!

  35. Bobsy says:

    The “first” Battlezone? Think hard now.